Following a hot start to the season for the Rockford IceHogs, the AHL affiliate for the Chicago Blackhawks, the squad has settled into a familiar spot in the standings. The 'Hogs hold the eighth spot in the West with an 18-18-4-2 record but have played three to four more games than many other teams.
Top players at the minor league level like Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Joakim Nordstrom, and Antti Raanta have spent time in the NHL this season, leaving the IceHogs to depend on less-experienced players at times this season. If the squad can put together another strong finish as they have done in the past, the IceHogs are finally poised to crack the streak of three straight seasons without seeing the postseason.
Antti Raanta, G, 24
Injuries to Nikolai Khabibulin (out for the season) and Corey Crawford afforded Antti Raanta an early opportunity to backstop the Blackhawks. The Finnish goaltender responded with a strong performance, particularly during a string of 10 consecutive starts with Crawford on the shelf. Raanta is an adventurous goalie capable of making highlight reel saves with his athleticism and quickness in the crease. Chicago's signing of Jason LaBarbera was not enough to force Raanta back to the AHL yet, as he has remained Crawford's back-up with the NHL squad. In the NHL, Raanta has earned a 12-1-3 record behind the Blackhawks with a .911 save percentage and 2.25 goals against average. While Crawford's workload may eventually prompt the 'Hawks to send the Finn back to Rockford for more playing time, for now the team can be confident that they have a dependable back-up.
Kent Simpson, G, 21
Kent Simpson stuck in Rockford out of training camp, where he backed up Raanta to start the 2013-14 season. Now that Raanta is with the big club, Simpson's 20 appearances lead the IceHogs, and he has earned a 7-11 record so far with a .897 save percentage and 3.39 goals against average. The Blackhawks called him up to dress on the bench for a few games, but he only played 20 minutes in relief of Raanta during a rout at the hands of the Maple Leafs. Although Simpson is at the top of the pecking order at this point as far as the younger goalie prospects go, he is not likely to see the NHL anytime soon after the signing of Jason LaBarbera further bolstered the organizational depth in Rockford.
Brandon Pirri, C, 22
The AHL's leading scorer in 2012-13, Brandon Pirri had an opportunity to transition to the NHL in the early part of the 2013-14 season. That he was eventually reassigned to Rockford is not necessarily an indictment on Pirri's play, although it was unsurprisingly inconsistent for much of the season, but also an indication of how well players like Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger have solidified the bottom-six center positions. He has been given more ice time in Rockford than he would have been afforded as the understudy to Michal Handzus in Chicago, and has responded with the team's best point-per-game average with 10 points through 13 games. A lower-body injury has kept Pirri out of the lineup of late, but he remains a candidate to fill a scoring line role in Chicago when healthy.
Joakim Nordstrom, C, 21
Playing in his first season of hockey in North America, Joakim Nordstrom also earned playing time in Chicago after standing out in training camp and showing chemistry with fellow Swede Marcus Kruger. Like Kruger, Nordstrom is a player with excellent awareness and understanding of his role at both ends of the ice. He skated in a fourth-line, penalty-kill capacity in Chicago. In Rockford, he has been an all-situations player. He is tied for team lead in Rockford with 12 goals and ranks third with 23 points in 32 games. Despite his lanky frame, Nordstrom can use his 6'1 frame to shield the puck and his hockey sense to make smart plays with the puck. Ultimately a more versatile player than Pirri, Nordstrom is likely next in line for a call-up should the Blackhawks have an opening in the bottom-six forwards.
Mark McNeill, C/RW, 20
Chicago's 18th overall pick in 2011, McNeill is playing in his rookie pro season out of the WHL. Rockford's rookie forwards have all made an impact, with Mark McNeill showing his ability to dominate the puck and help his team in a variety of ways. Skating on the right wing, he has found success using his size and instincts around the net. He is tied for the team lead with 11 goals on the season despite slowing down considerably from his pace during the first month of the season, totaling 21 points through his first 42 games this year. He has stuck in Rockford's top six forwards this season and should continue to see plenty of ice time in the AHL through the 2013-14 season.
Phillip Danault, C, 20
Phillip Danault is also skating in his first full professional season. Danault's offensive contributions may trail slightly behind his fellow rookies, but the Rockford lineup has benefited from his versatility and attention to detail. The center has two goals and 13 points through 38 games. He has settled into a third-line/penalty-kill role for the 'Hogs, but his ability to play any type of game makes him a versatile piece for IceHogs head coach Ted Dent. Compared to more offensive centers like Pirri and Drew LeBlanc, Danault is easily the Blackhawks most reliable center prospect at the dot or in the defensive zone.
Alex Broadhurst, C, 20
Center Alex Broadhurst has continued his development in the first half of his rookie pro season. Since being drafted, the 20-year-old forward found success in the USHL and OHL. He has had his share of ups and downs in his transition to the AHL, if less consistent than his previous seasons. He ranks ninth overall on the team with 20 points in 41 games, but has one of the team's lowest plus/minus ratings at minus-11. He was called up for a day to the Blackhawks but did not play. He is a dangerous forward with the puck on his stick, and although his defensive game and strength are two areas that require further development, he has not let any of the other more high-profile rookie forwards put him in the rearview.
Drew LeBlanc, C, 24
A decent two-game debut in Chicago late last season may have raised the expectations for Drew LeBlanc coming into his rookie year in 2013-14. A look at the Rockford point leaders might lead one to believe he has struggled to acclimate to the pro level, but LeBlanc has been a reliable player for Rockford and has created his share of chances. He was especially snake bitten during a 12-game point drought, but he has still managed 14 points in 42 games this season. LeBlanc has not gotten as big of an opportunity as some other first-year forwards, but he skates on the power play and is a forward that can earn shifts with the scoring lines regardless of where he starts in the lineup.
Byron Froese, C, 22
Froese's role in Rockford has been fairly consistent over his career, skating mostly in a checking line role and on the penalty kill. The 2013-14 season has not changed much, as Froese remains one of the IceHogs better defensive forwards and a versatile player that can line up at center or on the wing. He has scored five assists in 26 games this season for Rockford.
Jeremy Morin, LW, 22
Morin has five points in 15 NHL games so far in 2013-14, but the winger has most recently skated in Rockford. He did not especially standout in the NHL but proved a capable winger with Bryan Bickell out of the Blackhawks lineup. His play in Rockford has been on par with last season; Morin is one of the IceHogs' leading shooters despite spending time in Chicago, and he has contributed on the score sheet with nine goals, 11 assists in 26 games. He has yet to develop into the score-at-will winger that some envisioned earlier in his career, but he remains a dangerous option and a player that never shies from getting the puck on net. It will take more injuries in Chicago for Morin to be recalled, but he remains the first in line should a spot open on the wing.
Garret Ross, LW, 21
A hard-nosed OHL forward drafted in his third year of eligibility, Garret Ross' narrative has often been aligned with Andrew Shaw’s. The similarities have continued with Ross making his pro debut in 2013-14, but where the IceHogs fans did not get to watch Shaw for too long, the 21-year-old Ross will not be rushed into NHL action. He has worked his way up the IceHogs lineup, contributing 11 goals and nine assists through 40 games. He works hard on the forecheck and around the net, a style of play that has helped him make a strong impact on the 'Hogs top line of late with Nordstrom and Morin. His well-rounded game and willingness to play in the tough areas of the ice will make Ross a candidate for a bottom-six role in Chicago within the next couple seasons.
Terry Broadhurst, LW, 25
Terry Broadhurst has developed into a top-six forward for the IceHogs thanks to his skating and puck skills. A well-rounded forward, the older of the Broadhurst brothers at 25 years old has proven to be the type of winger that can help any line. He is not shy about pushing the pace offensively, and through 39 games this season, he leads Rockford's forwards with 24 points. Three of his eight goals have come on the power play.
Philippe Lefebvre, LW, 22
Part of the return from Florida in the Kris Versteeg trade, Lefebvre has skated a depth role in Rockford this season. Part of group of wingers, which also includes Brandon Mashinter (acquired from the Rangers in exchange for Kyle Beach) and Pat Mullane, who has filled in the gaps around the more high-profile prospects. Lefebvre has skated a total of 10 ECHL games between the Cincinnati Cyclones and the Toledo Walleye, but he has most recently skated in Rockford for 19 games with three goals.
Adam Clendening, D, 21
One of the AHL's top defensive scorers for the second consecutive season, Adam Clendening is a prospect that might have seen some NHL time by now for a lot of clubs. The depth and health of the Blackhawks top seven pro players has left Clendening playing on Rockford's top pairing and first power play unit. The defenseman has excellent vision and passing ability, helping him both key the breakout and run the IceHogs power play from the point. His shot is also getting through with more frequency this season, as the IceHogs have done a strong job of creating traffic in front of the net, particularly on their 11th-ranked power-play unit. Clendening leads Rockford with 27 assists and 32 points in 42 games. With the Blackhawks having no shortage of skilled, puck-moving defenseman in the NHL, the team is not in a place where they need to rush their top offensive-defenseman into NHL action.
Klas Dahlbeck, D, 22
Perhaps the player that has most exceeded expectations for Rockford in 2013-14 has been Klas Dahlbeck, a Swedish defenseman playing in his second season with the IceHogs. He proved to be a reliable defensive player and smart puck-mover in his rookie season and that has converted to production on the score sheet and an 'A' on his jersey this year. The loss of Ryan Statnton (VAN) to waivers was made more palatable by the emergence of Dahlbeck’s steady, well-rounded game. He has not shied away from pushing the rush and chipping in offensively, ranking second on the team amongst defensemen with 23 points in 41 games. His eight-goal total includes a few empty-net goals, but even those tallies are signs of the increased confidence with the puck the blueliner has brought this season.
Viktor Svedberg, D, 22
Rounding out the professional defensive prospects, Viktor Svedberg made a strong enough impression at Blackhawks prospect camp and then at the main training camp that he was signed to an entry-level contract in October. Svedberg's 6'9 frame stands out first and foremost, and he uses his size and reach effectively in the defensive zone. His shot is also good and he chipped in a pair of goals and six points in his first 25 AHL games. He has missed time due to injury twice already in 2013-14, leaving the IceHogs to depend on AHL veterans Jared Nightingale, Theo Peckham, and Brett Skinner, along with Bowling Green grad Bobby Shea, to fill in the blue line around Clendening and Dahlbeck.
Mac Carruth, G, 21
Behind Raanta and Simpson on the Rockford depth chart to open the season, Carruth got off to a stellar start in the ECHL. For a player that could have easily been mired in the ECHL all season long, the goaltending injuries trickled down far enough for Carruth to get some opportunities in the AHL this season as well. He appeared in seven AHL games with a .880 save percentage and 3.36 goals against average. Carruth was off to a hot start for Toledo, but January brought him back down to earth. The goalie is currently 4-7-0 in 12 games with Toledo with a .904 save percentage and 3.24 goals against average.
Maxim Shalunov, RW, 20
A healthy scratch at times for Rockford this season, Shalunov appeared in 19 AHL games and scored four assists before his reassignment to Toledo this month. The winger had been able to generate some chances for the IceHogs but did not get a lot of opportunity. He has benefited from the ice time in Toledo, averaging over three shots per game and scoring four goals, one assist through seven contests.
David Gilbert, C, 22
The lone Blackhawks skater to play his entire year in the ECHL this season has been David Gilbert. He ranks top five on the Walleye in goals (nine) and points (19) through 23 games with the club. A call-up to Rockford is not out of the question if the team suffers injuries up front.