Perhaps somewhat overshadowed by the excitement generated in Chicago by Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Dustin Byfuglien, is the outstanding performance of the Blackhawks’ top farm club at Rockford. The Ice Hogs occupy first place in the AHL West Division with a 20-6-3-5 record.
One of the youngest teams in the AHL, the Ice Hogs boast a nice balance of skill and physicality. They boast top point producers, in addition to a willingness to mix it up when necessary, as happened in a recent game-ending brawl versus the Rochester Americans.
St. Pierre is currently third in overall points in the AHL with 13 goals and 26 assists. The 24-year-old center has energized the Ice Hogs power play, forming a deadly combination with Finnish import Petri Kontiola and second-year pro Troy Brouwer. Brouwer is currently tied for eighth in the league in goals with 14, and has been on nearly a goal per game pace recently. He also has 11 assists. Kontiola has 28 points in 28 games (7 goals, 21 assists), earning his second call-up of the season to the Blackhawks on Dec. 17.
Left wing Kris Versteeg, obtained from the Boston organization last season in return for Brandon Bochenski, has also had a good start with 28 points (9 goals, 19 assists) in 29 games.
Right wing Mike Blunden is making a solid contribution with 9 goals and 15 assists. Bryan Bickell is also chipping in with eight goals and 11 assists.
The latest member of "The Killer B’s", center Evan Brophey has one goal and 11 assists, but the worst plus/minus among prospects with -4. Right wing Jack Skille, a 2005 first-round selection, is also having a solid season, with eight goals and eight assists.
Center Colin Fraser‘s has nine goals and six assists, but he has provided leadership and a valuable contribution on the penalty kill. He also has the best plus/minus on the club, with an impressive +16. He’s second in penalty minutes on the team with 93.
An interesting side note is 2004 draftee Adam Berti beginning to develop a bit of a reputation as a fighter. He thoroughly demolished opponents in a couple of battles this year, the most recent being the marquee matchup with Patrick Kaleta during the brawl with Rochester. While some maintain fighting has lost its importance in the NHL game, it clearly still has its place, and coupled with NHL-caliber skating, could be the rugged Berti’s eventual ticket to the big leagues.
The question of the fall season has been: "what’s going on with Cam Barker?" During a recent interview with Hockey’s Future, Ice Hogs head coach Mike Haviland emphasized that Barker seems to have finally made the mental transition to the pro game by elevating his intensity and the speed at which he plays the game. Barker has an excellent eight goals and 11 assists in 29 games. Apparently, the recent trade of Jim Vandermeer was meant to open a roster spot for Barker, as he was immediately called up to the parent club on Dec. 20.
Not surprisingly, tough-as-nails Danny Richmond played a significant role in the Rochester brawl and clearly possesses more than enough skill to be a top AHL defenseman. Through 23 games, Richmond has one goal, eight assists and 85 penalty minutes.
Though he has been hurt recently, Swedish rookie Niklas Hjalmarsson has turned heads with his combination of skill and bruising hits. Hjalmarsson is a bit of an anomaly among Swedish defense prospects. While he possesses the skating and hands to jump into the play and make the first pass out of the defensive zone that many of his countrymen do, his lanky stature and sheer competitiveness might actually remind some of former Hawk Steve Smith. He has one assist in 12 games.
Corey Crawford has been solid as the Ice Hogs’ No. 1 netminder with a record 15-6-5, a .913 save percentage and a 2.62 GAA. He is 16th in the league in save percentage. Veteran Wade Flaherty backs him up.
ECHL Pensacola Ice Pilots
In stark contrast to the success of the Ice Hogs, the Pensacola Ice Pilots (ECHL) occupy last place in the South Division, with a record of 6-19-1-2. Forward Adam Hobson has appeared in two games with the Ice Pilots, but has spent the rest of the season with Rockford.
Jean-Claude Sawyer, signed as a free-agent this year, has 2 goals and 12 assists in 24 games with the Ice Pilots and is -10. Originally drafted by Minnesota in 2004, the 6’3 Sawyer is an offensive defenseman who put up some big numbers with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the QMJHL.