Rockford IceHogs 2008-09 season preview

By Brad Gardner

The Rockford IceHogs will enter their second season as the AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks hoping to build on their success in the 2008 Calder Cup Playoffs, where they were eliminated in the second round by the eventual champion Chicago Wolves. The IceHogs will do this, however, without last year’s leading scorer.  Martin St. Pierre scored 88 points in 69 games last season, but was traded to the Boston Bruins in exchange for center Pascal Pelletier.  Additionally, former head coach Mike Haviland was recently promoted to assistant coach under Denis Savard with the parent club.  New bench boss Bill Peters will make his AHL coaching debut following three seasons as the head coach of the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, where he accumulated 111 wins in 216 games.  Peters also coached Canada’s U-18 squad to a 4-0 record en route to their gold medal in the 2008 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka competition in Slovakia and the Czech Republic

The IceHogs roster will feature many familiar faces from the Blackhawks rich prospect pool, a handful of decorated rookies graduating from the collegiate ranks, and several newly-acquired veterans.

Forwards

The IceHogs will rely heavily on a group of returning prospects up front.  Finnish playmaker Petri Kontiola will likely center the IceHogs top line after failing to take hold of the empty center spot with the Blackhawks in training camp.  Kontiola was Rockford’s second leading scorer last year with 18 goals and 50 assists in 66 regular season games. 

While Troy Brouwer, Jack Skille, and Kris Versteeg continue to compete for what is likely the final roster spot with the parent club, the odd men out should be given top line minutes with the IceHogs.  Brouwer, a power forward, netted 35 goals last season for Rockford in 75 games while earning 154 penalty minutes.  The speedy Skille, the Blackhawks’ seventh overall pick in the 2005 draft, contributed 34 points last year in his first full professional season.  Versteeg, an offensively sound grinder, posted 49 points in 56 games and was second on the IceHogs with 11 points in 12 playoff contests. 

The IceHogs will also be returning several other prospects, such as 2005 second-round draft pick Mike Blunden, center Evan Brophey, grinder Adam Berti, and power forward Bryan Bickell, who scored 19 goals and 20 assists for 39 points – all career highs.  Joining these veterans are two players new to the organization.  Pelletier, acquired in the St. Pierre deal, contributed 75 points in 73 games last year for Providence.  Tim Brent, entering his fifth pro season, was acquired from the Penguins in the deal that sent defenseman Danny Richmond to Pittsburgh.  Brent had career highs in goals (18), assists (43), and points (61) last season for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Several rookies will also be making the jump from the NCAA to the pros.  Nathan Davis was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award in his junior season at the Miami University (Ohio) when he amassed 50 points in 42 games.  Winger Dan Bertram was a teammate of defenseman Mike Brennan on Boston College’s national championship team last season.  Mike Radja (University of New Hampshire) and Pete MacArthur (Boston University) will begin the season with the organization’s ECHL affiliate Fresno Falcons, but could step in with the IceHogs if needed.   

Defense

Rockford’s blue line will feature a mix of top prospects and veteran defensemen.  Thanks to a crowded group with the Blackhawks, top prospects Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jordan Hendry could see significant time with the IceHogs.  Both players proved they were capable of keeping up with NHL-caliber talent last season in their debuts with the Blackhawks, where Hjalmarsson brought powerful hits to 13 games and Hendry offered responsible defensive play in 40 games.  Hjalmarsson also played a role in Rockford’s playoff run last season, notching four assists in 12 games.  Given the experience gained last season, it is possible that one or both of these prospects could see time on the third pair with the Blackhawks.  Until then, they should be given significant minutes in Rockford. 

Another prospect to keep an eye on is Mike Brennan.  A four-year player at Boston College, Brennan captained the Eagles to a national championship in his senior season.  While he is small for a defenseman by NHL standards at 6’0 and 190 lbs, Brennan’s combination of hockey IQ and reliability in the defensive zone could lead to an important role with the IceHogs.  

Joining the prospects will be veterans Danny Groulx and recent acquisition Andrew Archer, who were paired together with the Hamilton Bulldogs during their 2007 Calder Cup Championship season.  Fourth-year player Tim Hambly and second-year player Jean-Cluade Sawyer could also see time on Rockford’s blue line. 

Goaltending

With the emergence of Finnish goalie Antti Niemi as the apparent backup to first-year Blackhawk Cristobal Huet, the IceHogs will again lean heavily on prospect Corey Crawford between the pipes.  Crawford earned a record of 29-19-5 in 55 games as the main man last year.  His 2.83 goals against average and .907 save percentage were near identical to his previous season, when he notched 38 wins in 60 contests with the Norfolk Admirals, the Blackhawks’ former AHL affiliate.  Playing in all 12 of Rockford’s playoff games last year, Crawford stepped up with a 2.19 goals against average and a .924 save percentage while winning seven contests.  His three regular season shutouts for Rockford were a career high at the professional level.  The most memorable shutout of the season came March 5 during a call-up to the Blackhawks when he blanked the defending Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks, earning his first NHL victory in the process.  This could be a make or break year for the Blackhawks’ second-round pick in the 2003 draft as his contract is set to expire at season’s end.

The backup job in Rockford appears to have fallen to rookie keeper Joe Fallon.  A four-year starter at the University of Vermont, Fallon left the school perched atop the record books alongside fellow Vermont product Tim Thomas, now with the Boston Bruins.  Fallon holds school records with a 2.06 goals against average and .916 save percentage over his career.  His astounding 20 career shutouts are also a school record.  Fallon should see some action in his first pro season spelling Crawford.