The Rockford IceHogs finished their 2008-09 season with a 40-34-6 record, good for fourth in the AHL‘s crowded eight-team West Division. The IceHogs were dismissed in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Admirals after clawing their way into the 2009 Calder Cup Playoffs.
This year’s IceHogs will have some familiar faces but will be without many of last year’s leading scorers. A handful of Blackhawk prospects will be making their pro debuts this season and will attempt to fill the void.
All three of Rockford’s top three scorers from a year ago will begin this season with new teams. Playmaking center Petri Kontiola was traded to Anaheim, but will play in the KHL with Magnitogorsk Metallurg this season. Veteran forwards Tim Brent and Pascal Pelletier will also be joining the Toronto and Columbus organizations, respectively.
Prospects Jack Skille and Evan Brophey will be the leading returning scorers. Skille, the seventh overall pick in 2005, played 58 games last season with 20 goals and 25 assists. Though Chicago entered training camp with a crowded group of forwards, many gave Skille good odds to stick with the parent club. Long-term injuries to Marian Hossa and Adam Burish left openings up front, but Skille was still unable to secure a role out of camp. He will likely be the primary option on offense for Rockford. Also looking to build on his best pro season offensively, Brophey should provide some offense for Rockford as well. He finished last year with 16 goals, including four on the power play, to go along with 23 assists and a plus-14 rating, which tied for second on the team.
Peter MacArthur and Rob Klinkhammer will also return to the ‘Hogs this year after each earned a contract with the Blackhawks thanks to solid years in Rockford last season. MacArthur finished with 14 goals and 11 assists in 64 games. Klinkhammer appeared in 76 games, finishing the year with 15 goals, 18 assists, and a plus-14 rating. Klinkhammer had a strong training camp, appearing in several of Chicago’s exhibition matches including the final two preseason games in Zurich, Switzerland.
Also returning to the team this year will be Blackhawk prospects Dan Bertram, Bryan Bickell, Nathan Davis, Jake Dowell, and Adam Hobson. Bickell looks to rebound after being limited by injury to 42 games last season while Bertram and Davis look to build on their pro debuts last year. Though Dowell and Hobson are known as grinders, they are both entering their third pro season and have plenty of experience in Rockford. Look for increased roles from these experienced AHLers.
Of the newcomers to Rockford, the biggest name is Akim Aliu. A second-round pick in 2007, Aliu makes his pro debut following a tumultuous four-year OHL career. Aliu showed flashes last season with two goals in five games with Rockford and looks to make an immediate impact on Rockford’s forward corps. Aliu will not only contribute offensively but will also be depended on for his physical play and as an agitator.
Another intriguing newcomer to the ‘Hogs is Maxime Tanguay, the younger brother Tampa Bay’s Alex Tanguay. Maxime was a third round pick by the Blackhawks in the 2007 draft out of the QMJHL but his rights were relinquished over the summer when he was not signed to an entry-level deal. His contract with Rockford will keep him close to the organization as he makes the pro jump after a fairly productive junior career.
Danny Bois, Mark Cullen, Bryan Ewing, Ryan Flinn, Bracken Kearns, Matt Keith, and Derek Nesbitt round out Rockford’s group of forwards.
The Rockford blue line will undergo vast changes this season. Last year’s leading scorers Danny Groulx and Tim Hambly are both out of the picture. In fact, Mike Brennan will be the only defenseman returning who played significant time for the IceHogs last season. Brennan played in 64 games with six assists and 77 PIMs last year in his first pro season out of Boston College.
Brennan will be joined by a few experienced defensemen. Aaron Johnson skated in 38 games with the Blackhawks last season while appearing in two games for the ‘Hogs. Limited by injury for a stretch, Johnson was the seventh defenseman for Chicago last year. He will be supplanted in that role by Jordan Hendry to start the 2009-10 season and is expected to play a big role in Rockford. Richard Petiot and Daryl Boyle both join the squad from the Tampa Bay organization.
The Rockford defensive group will also lean on four players making their pro debut. Brian Connelly and Simon Danis-Pepin will each begin their first full professional season coming out of the collegiate ranks. Connelly joins the team out of Colorado College and had a solid training camp, lasting until the second-to-last round of roster cuts. A power-play specialist, expect Connelly to be one of the main sources of offense from the back end. Danis-Pepin will try his hand at the pro ranks following a four-year career with the Maine Black Bears. A giant defenseman at 6’7, Danis-Pepin will need to show he can use that size effectively against men in the pro ranks.
Jonathan Carlsson and Dave Phillips will not only be playing their first pro season but also their first season on North American ice. Carlsson, a sixth-round pick in 2008, brings a well-rounded defensive game from the Swedish Elite League where he spent a full season with Brynas. Dave Phillips turned a prospect camp invite and a solid showing into a contract with Rockford. A native of England, Phillips skated with the Hull Stingrays the past two years in the Elite Ice Hockey League in England.
With Corey Crawford clearing waivers prior to the start of the regular season, the battle to back up Cristobal Huet seems to have gone to the Finnish import Antti Niemi. Crawford should be firmly entrenched as the starter in Rockford. He appeared in 47 games last season and earned a 22-20-3 record with a 2.59 goals against average and .917 save percentage. Crawford has shouldered the load before, but another failed attempt to make the jump to Chicago could weigh heavily on the young goaltender.
Also in the mix are Joe Fallon and Alec Richards. Fallon spent the bulk of his pro debut in the ECHL, finishing with a 18-14-2 record and appearing in 35 games. He also appeared in two games for Rockford. A four-year starter for the Vermont Catamounts, Fallon likely still sits behind Crawford now on the organizational depth chart. Richards is making his pro debut out of Yale University. The 6’4 goalie was added to the organization as an undrafted free agent. While Richards could also see time in Rockford, there may be more opportunity for ice time with Toledo.
Joe Palmer opted out of his senior year at Ohio State in favor of a contract with Rockford. He was loaned to the Texas Brahmas of the Central Hockey League prior to the start of the season.
Prospects Training Camp Summary
Forwards Kyle Beach, Byron Froese, and David Gilbert along with defensemen Shawn Lalonde and Teigan Zahn attended the Blackhawks training camp. Froese, Gilbert, and Zahn took part in the scrimmage portion early in camp but were among the first group of roster cuts. Beach and Lalonde both stuck with the team through most of camp and each saw the ice in exhibition play for the Blackhawks. They were both returned to their junior teams along with one of the final wave of cuts on Sept. 22. Beach joined the Spokane Chiefs in the WHL after being traded from Lethbridge prior to the season. Lalonde returned to the Belleville Bulls in the OHL where he will be depended on as a veteran leader on the blue line.