The effects of the cap purge following the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory created a ripple big enough to affect Chicago’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. Rockford returns just eight players who played significant roles last season and will have to gel on the fly with a group of rookies and players new to the organization.
Veteran AHLers like Mark Cullen, Bracken Kearns, and Kyle Greentree are gone from last year’s squad and the team will instead rely on the influx of young talent to replace their offense. With Jack Skille‘s full-time promotion to the Blackhawks, the IceHogs will open the season without their top seven scorers from a year ago.
Several of the prospects acquired from the salary dumps will be joining the ‘Hogs this season, including Jeremy Morin, Chris DiDomenico, and Ivan Vishnevskiy. They will be joined by a group of Chicago draft picks making their pro debuts, including top prospects Kyle Beach and Shawn Lalonde, as part of the new wave in Rockford.
Most of the reinforcements this season will come in the form of young prospects, including several highly-touted forwards. Morin will open the season in Rockford after an impressive training camp in Chicago. The 19-year-old will benefit from the ice time available in Rockford’s top six and is a likely candidate to get the call from the big club at some point this season. Beach will also join the pro ranks after leading the WHL with 52 goals last season. The 20-year-old will be asked to help the ‘Hogs out in many different situations as he works on rounding out his game.
Brandon Pirri and Ben Smith will also join the organization from the college ranks, though they are at very different points in their careers. The 19-year-old Pirri is a sublime puck-handler coming off a stellar freshman season for RPI in the ECAC. Smith, 22, is a two-way forward who finished his senior season at Boston College with a NCAA Championship and Frozen Four MVP honors. Both will likely be asked to chip in offensively and help on special teams.
Other new players include Russian winger Igor Makarov ready to make his North American debut. The 22-year-old had a blazing start to camp but was inconsistent and will have to work his way up through the AHL. DiDomenico and Brandon Bollig, 23, will also be rookie pros this season and have the two-way ability to contribute at both ends.
There will be a few new veteran faces in the mix as well. Chicago traded Marty Reasoner to Florida for 29-year-old Jeff Taffe, a center who has produced at nearly a point-per-game pace over his last two AHL seasons. Ryan Potulny, a free agent signing by the ‘Hawks, also has a few years of solid AHL production under his belt. Former first round pick Hugh Jessiman brings versatility and several years of pro experience as well. Norwegian free agent signing Mathis Olimb, 24, will also be in the mix for Rockford when he returns from a shoulder injury.
Rockford will return just three forwards from last season in Evan Brophey, Rob Klinkhammer, and Nathan Davis. The 23-year-old Brophey will likely continue in his defensive role from a year ago, but could provide some experience on the top lines if they youngsters stumble. Klinkhammer is a versatile winger who will skate in all situations for the ‘Hogs. Davis was re-signed over the summer but has yet to take the ice.
Rookie Peter Leblanc, a 2006 draft pick of Chicago, will stick with Rockford to start the season. Leblanc signed an AHL deal after finishing his four-year college career at the University of New Hampshire. Kyle Hagel and Wade Brookbank will provide some physical presence in the bottom six. Center Zach Torquato, coming off a 93-point season as an over-ager for Erie in the OHL, and winger Andy Bohmbach, an excellent penalty killer from the University of Wisconsin, also have contracts with Rockford but were assigned to Toledo in the ECHL to open the year.
Rockford’s defense will also be young, but at least returns several players from last season. Jassen Cullimore will be the returning veteran presence for Rockford after being among the final cuts from Chicago. Brian Connelly, 24, is the team’s top returning scorer and can contribute on the power play as well as in his own end. Simon Danis-Pepin and Jonathan Carlsson, both 22 years old, will also look to build off their rookie pro seasons after both spent time in the ECHL last year.
Three newcomers will join the ‘Hogs blue line corps. 22-year-old Ivan Vishnevskiy will be playing for his third AHL team in two years when he suits up for Rockford. Shawn Lalonde, 20, will also be in the mix after a great career for the OHL‘s Belleville Bulls. Both Vishnevskiy and Lalonde are premiere offensive-minded defensemen who will likely contribute right away on the man advantage while looking to round out their defensive game. Free agent blueliner Ryan Stanton will also make his pro debut out of the WHL and could contribute in all situations.
Heavyweight Scott Fletcher is signed to an AHL deal and could provide some protection for the younger ‘Hogs at some point during the season. He will open the year with Toledo.
Hannu Toivonen, 26, is pegged as the starting goalie to begin the season. The former first round pick split time last season with current Blackhawks backup Corey Crawford. He will be joined by former Yale netminder Alec Richards, 23, who spent most of his rookie pro season in the ECHL with Toledo. Former Chicago pick Joe Palmer is also in the mix but has already been assigned to Toledo to start the year.
Bill Peters returns for his third season as the bench boss in Rockford. He has accumulated an 84-64-12 record in his two seasons while making the playoffs each year. He and his staff will be looking to reverse the club’s playoff fortunes, however, having been swept the past two seasons and losing the team’s last 10 playoff games.
Peters is flanked by assistant coaches Ted Dent, in his fourth season with Rockford, and new hire Steve Poapst, a former Blackhawks defenseman making his pro coaching debut after several years as coach and GM of the USHL‘s Chicago Steel.
The Blackhawks had a handful of junior prospects at training camp. Goaltender Kent Simpson and forwards Rob Flick, Byron Froese, Mirko Hoefflin and Philippe Paradis were all among the first group of roster cuts. Simpson struggled mightily in his first taste of pro hockey, but has landed on his feet just fine in the WHL having lead Everett to a 4-1 start. Hoefflin created some opportunities offensively in scrimmages with his speed and playmaking ability, but will need to get stronger. Flick, Froese, and Paradis all showed some promise as potential bottom six forwards.
The most impressive junior prospect was undoubtedly David Gilbert. The 19-year-old lasted three days longer than the rest of his CHL peers, showing good awareness and a solid set of offensive skills. Gilbert was rewarded with an appearance in the ‘Hawks first preseason game before being assigned to Acadie-Bathurst in the QMJHL.