Offense major problem for Chicago Blackhawks AHL affiliate

By Brad Gardner
Photo: Dylan Olsen split the 2010-11 season between the NCAA and AHL. In 42 AHL games he posted four points and a minus-18. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The IceHogs finished the season in last place of the AHL’s competitive West Division with a 38-33-4-5 record. The team struggled to score goals for much of the season, ranking 25th in the AHL in goals scored and averaging 2.7 goals per game over the course of the year. Despite spending much of the season in the Western Conference basement, the young squad was excellent down the stretch and ended up just six points back of eighth-seeded Oklahoma City. The IceHogs finished 17-5-1-1 in their last 24 games, averaging three goals per game in that span.

The influx of prospects in Rockford made the ‘Hogs one of the league’s youngest teams, but they were still led by several veterans. Jeff Taffe was the team’s most consistent performer throughout the year and led the squad with 30 goals and 67 points in 74 games. Veteran defensemen Garnet Exelby, Rockford’s captain, and Jassen Cullimore were regulars on the blue line, providing stability to the young group of rearguards.

Like Rockford, the organization’s ECHL affiliate Toledo Walleye also finished out of the postseason, earning a 33-33-4-2 record on the year. Chicago only had two prospects skate for Toledo, an affiliate shared with the Red Wings organization, but the IceHogs were given a lift from some call-ups from Toledo, most notably former Chicago draft pick Peter Leblanc. The center stuck with the ‘Hogs after a quick start, finishing with 12 goals and 30 points in 57 games as a rookie in Rockford.


Forwards

Jeremy Morin, LW, 20

The top prospect acquired from Atlanta in the Dustin Byfuglien trade, Jeremy Morin‘s debut with the Blackhawks’ organization was abbreviated by injuries. Still, the 20-year-old sniper had a solid rookie debut with Rockford and flashed his immense offensive potential in his first handful of NHL games with the Blackhawks.

Morin played on the top line and power play in his 22 games with Rockford, registering eight goals and 12 points in that span. He notched a pair of goals and an assist in his nine game stint with Chicago, where he was committed to providing some physical presence with 12 hits. The winger also dropped the gloves three times between both levels.

Known primarily as a goal scorer when he was acquired, Morin arrived in Chicago with noticeable improvements in skating and a willingness to play any role that might keep him in the lineup. Although he was expected to be a major contributor for the U.S. at the World Juniors Championship, a shoulder injury limited his effectiveness for much of that tournament. In his third game back with Rockford, Morin flipped over the top of a hip check and landed awkwardly, resulting in a neck injury that would keep him out of the lineup for the remainder of the season.

He will be an early favorite to stick with the Blackhawks if healthy next year, where he could potentially step into a top six role. With less than half a pro season under his belt, though, more seasoning in Rockford is not out of the question.

Kyle Beach, LW, 21

Another winger making a much-anticipated debut for Rockford, Kyle Beach‘s rookie season was a bit of an uneven performance. He ranked second among the team’s rookies with 16 goals on the season, but also ranked dead last on the team with an abysmal minus-24 rating.

Beach was used in more of a checking role throughout the year, often on the third line, but did not always look interested in the defensive zone. Offensively, he finished fourth on the team with 164 shots on net and 36 points in 71 games. Despite the high number of chances, he tended to stay to the outside and took more distant shots than might be expected of a tough forward with Beach’s 6’3 frame. He was willing to mix it up, ranking second on the team with 163 PIMs and fighting 11 times, but the handful of penalties that negated power plays tend to overshadow some of his better moments.

His first round draft status might make his production seem somewhat disappointing, but Beach is similar to a number of power forwards that have worked their way up the Chicago depth chart for several minor league seasons, such as Troy Brouwer and Bryan Bickell. If he can continue improving his decision making and adjust to the pace at the pro level, the 21-year-old Beach could be getting his chance in Chicago within the next couple seasons.

Rob Klinkhammer, LW, 24

Like Beach, Rob Klinkhammer is another big body with a good shot. The 6’3 and 206 pound winger was one of Rockford’s top performers in his third season with the club and ranked third on the team with 46 points on the year.

The 24-year-old Klinkhammer scored 17 goals along with 29 assists in 76 games, finishing with a team best plus-14 rating. A constant threat to score as one of two ‘Hogs to register over 200 shots on the season, he might have scored twice as many goals this year if not for a slew of unconverted breakaways. He was depended upon in a checking role for much of the season and was one of the team’s top penalty killers, emerging late in the season on the IceHogs’ top line alongside Brandon Pirri and Jeff Taffe during Rockford’s strong finish.

Klinkhammer is an aggressive winger, willing to throw his weight around and bringing great energy to the lineup. A restricted free agent this summer, he would be an ideal fit on the Blackhawks’ bottom six if re-signed, where he would be dependable in his own zone and still create some offensive chances.

Brandon Bollig, LW, 24

Making his pro debut after two seasons at the college level with St. Lawrence, Brandon Bollig played as a bottom six grinder in his 55 games with Rockford. A strong, physical winger who skates well, the 24-year-old Bollig scored only four goals on the season but still amassed 115 PIMs in limited time.

The IceHogs often dressed seven defenseman, especially after Dylan Olsen‘s arrival in the second half, and Bollig was one of the forwards who was forced out of the lineup with veteran blueliner Wade Brookbank often lining up on the fourth line. With lead enforcer Kyle Hagel headed to the St. Louis Blues organization after an excellent season for the ‘Hogs, the 6’3 215-pound Bollig is currently in line to pick up more of those fourth line minutes next year. He dropped the gloves 13 times this season for Rockford and will be depended upon in a similar capacity in his second year with the club.

Brandon Pirri, C, 20

Brandon Pirri’s rookie season closely mirrors the year of the IceHogs in general, as he struggled for much of the first few months but came on strong at the end of the season. He made his NHL debut October 9th, playing just under nine minutes, but was clearly overmatched and struggled to make an impact.

He ended his rookie year with 12 goals and 43 points in 70 games for Rockford, finishing fourth overall on the team in scoring. A regular on the power play and a top six center for much of the season, Pirri showed his excellent playmaking ability by notching 31 assists, which ranked second among forwards. His solid point production led all of Rockford’s rookies, despite struggling at times with the transition from ECAC hockey to the pro level.

After Ryan Potulny was traded to Ottawa in the Chris Campoli deal, Pirri slid into the first line center spot between Klinkhammer and Taffe. It is no coincidence that Pirri’s best hockey was played late in the season with a veteran like Taffe on his wing. Still, the 20-year-old pivot made noticeable strides in adjusting to the offensive pace at the pro level and was able to assert himself more in the offensive zone as the season went along. Pirri will likely continue to play big minutes at center in Rockford next season.

Evan Brophey, C, 24

In his fourth season with Rockford, Evan Brophey was again the team’s primary checking center and penalty killer. His season was cut short when he was suspended the final seven games of the year for his hit to the head of Hamilton’s Hunter Bishop.

Brophey scored 10 goals and nine assists in 67 games, which tied the lowest point output of his professional career. A solid two-way center, he finished the year with an even rating despite being featured in a largely defensive role for the ‘Hogs.

The 24-year-old center also made his NHL debut this season, getting about seven minutes of ice time on October 23rd against Columbus. With at least two centers expected to join the pro ranks from junior hockey in Byron Froese and David Gilbert, Brophey’s future with Chicago is unknown at this point. He is a restricted free agent this summer and could again have checking duties in Rockford next season if his services are retained.

Chris DiDomenico, C, 22

DiDomenico split time between the AHL and ECHL in his first pro season. He played mostly on the IceHogs’ fourth line when he was with the club and was able to get a bigger offensive role in his time with the Toledo Walleye.

In 25 AHL games, DiDomenico scored four assists and earned a minus-10 rating. Three of those assists came in his final five-game stint with Rockford at the end of the season. His struggles to keep a regular spot in the lineup, let alone his inability to make an impact at the AHL level, led to his demotion to Toledo, where he found more success. In 37 ECHL games, DiDomenico scored nine goals and 25 points for the Walleye. His point total and 0.68 points-per-game average both ranked fourth among Toledo’s rookie skaters.

Signed already for next season, DiDomenico will likely be in the mix for center minutes in Rockford. The organization will only be deeper with center prospects next season, so his work will be cut out for him.

Ben Smith, RW, 22

Ben Smith followed last year’s Frozen Four MVP award with another decorated season as the winner of Rockford’s Rookie of the Year award. More impressive was the his performance in Chicago’s first round battle against the Vancouver Canucks in which the 22-year-old winger notched three goals in seven games, including the overtime winner in game six.

In 63 AHL games, Smith led the IceHogs’ rookies with 19 goals along with 31 points. He skated with both special teams units in Rockford, scoring five goals on the power play and leading Rockford with a pair of shorthanded tallies. A hard-working winger with excellent hockey sense, Smith earned a pair of call-ups during the season for Chicago and stuck with the squad late in the year. His overtime goal against Roberto Luongo in game six extended the series to seven games and quickly made him a hero in Chicago.

Smith’s versatility likely means he will find a spot somewhere in Chicago’s lineup next season. More time in Rockford is not out of the question, but his excellent rookie year, both in Rockford and in the Stanley Cup playoffs, positioned him as the best bet to make the jump to the NHL next season.

Igor Makarov, RW, 23

A professional player in Russia for four years, Igor Makarov made his North American pro debut this season with the IceHogs. A good skater with decent skill, the winger skated in the bottom six for most of the season and brought energy to the Rockford lineup.

Makarov skated in 68 AHL games, scoring 11 goals and 24 points. He earned some time on both special teams, but had a bigger role on the penalty kill. He did not shy away from the physical game, despite not having the most imposing frame at 6’1 and 195 pounds, and seemed to make an easy adjustment to the North American style of hockey. His inconsistency, evidenced even as early as training camp, likely kept him from getting a chance with Chicago in his first season.

Signed for one more season, Makarov is likely penciled into the Rockford lineup again next season, but a strong showing early on could move him into the bottom six conversation in Chicago. Returning to Russia is not out of the question, though, if he is unhappy continuing to work his way up through the ranks.


Defense

Nick Leddy, D, 20

An impressive showing at prospect camp led Chicago to sign Leddy to his pro contract after just one season at the University of Minnesota. He was rushed into the Blackhawks lineup at the start of this season when an injury kept Brian Campbell out of the lineup.

Leddy held his own at the NHL level early on thanks to his excellent skating ability. He showed great maturity for a blueliner who was 19 years old much of the season, but he was still prone to mistakes and was easily muscled off the puck by bigger forwards. Following the early season debut, Leddy was sent to Rockford where he appeared in 22 AHL games, scoring two goals and 10 points with a minus-seven rating.

He suited up for the U.S. at the WJC, notching three assists, and returned to Chicago for the remainder of the season. In 46 NHL games, Leddy registered four goals and seven points with a minus-3 rating. His poise was apparent throughout his debut with Chicago, during which he was whistled for only two minor penalties.

Skating mostly on the third pairing, though he did play a stretch alongside the reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Leddy’s rookie season has to be seen as a success for Chicago. He is probably penciled into the Chicago lineup, but could face some competition heading into next season, especially if the team wants to diversify on the blue line where Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, and restricted free agent Chris Campoli all play a fairly similar style to Leddy.

Dylan Olsen, D, 20

Olsen’s season began at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he was a top pairing defenseman, scoring 13 points in 17 games. He was selected to Canada’s WJC team and again played a big role on the top pairing, but looked out of sorts for much of the tournament and managed just two assists and a team-worst minus-two rating. Facing academic ineligibility in the second half of the season at Duluth, the 20-year-old Olsen was signed to a pro contract and joined a crowded blue line in Rockford.

The defenseman skated in 42 games for Rockford with four assists and a minus-18 rating, the second worst on the team. The ‘Hogs dressed seven defensemen initially, so his playing time was sparse. He played on the third pairing for the most part, often paired with one of the veterans like Cullimore and Exelby, and emerged as a dependable penalty killer towards the end of the season.

Olsen has the size and nastiness that Chicago lacks on the blue line, but the team likely sees more of a rounded two-way defenseman down the road. He skates well once he gets going, but his lack of short area speed hurt him in the defensive zone as a rookie. Another year in Rockford is in order for one of the organization’s most coveted defensive prospects, who will likely have a bigger role and play on both special teams units next season for the IceHogs.

Shawn Lalonde, D, 21

Though he was overshadowed by Leddy’s emergence early on and Olsen’s arrival in the second half, Shawn Lalonde put together a strong rookie season for Rockford. An excellent skater who is aggressive with the puck on his stick, he finished second among the team’s blueliners with 32 points.

The 21-year-old defenseman scored five goals, all at even strength despite a big power play role, with 27 assists in 73 games as a rookie. His minus-16 rating does not exactly inspire confidence in his defensive game at this point, but he is willing to mix it up and throw his weight around, evidenced by his 76 PIMs and four fights on the year.

The Blackhawks’ deepest position is on the blue line, especially with offensive-minded defensemen like Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell, Nick Leddy, and RFA Chris Campoli ahead of him, so Lalonde will have plenty of time to continue working on his defensive play in Rockford over the next couple seasons. The right-shooting blueliner projects as an offensive producer and power play quarterback, where he could bring more balance to Chicago’s collection of lefties on the man advantage.

Brian Connelly, D, 24

Again one of Rockford’s top defensemen in his second pro season, Brian Connelly skated in all 80 games for the IceHogs. Another quick skater with a big shot and great vision, Connelly was the cornerstone for the ‘Hogs power play and played on the top pairing alongside Ryan Stanton.

The 24-year-old blueliner scored 11 goals and 41 assists, both of which led the team’s defensemen, and finished the year with a plus-three rating. His 52 points on the season ranked second overall on the IceHogs and helped Connelly earn his first AHL All-Star game selection. A major cog in Rockford’s excellent finish, he scored all four of his game-winning goals during the last 24 games and was a plus-16 during that stretch.

Some expected Connelly to get a shot in Chicago during the season before the ‘Hawks solidified the bottom of their defensive unit, but he was likely held back by his smaller stature at 5’10 and 167 pounds. After two excellent AHL seasons, he will be looking for an opportunity at the next level in the near future. A restricted free agent this summer, Connelly could have a shot to compete for a spot in Chicago next year if re-signed or else will be a leader in Rockford again.

Ivan Vishnevskiy, D, 23

Entering the year as one of the more seasoned blueliners in Rockford, Vishnevskiy struggled to find consistency in his first year with the Blackhawks organization. Chicago acquired the smooth-skating offensive defenseman from Atlanta in the Andrew Ladd trade.

The Russian-born blueliner was a healthy scratch at times during the season for Rockford and was kept out of the lineup due to injury late in the year, resulting in only 46 games on the season. In that time, Vishnevskiy racked up five goals, tied for second among defensemen, and 15 points. He played on both special teams units and maintained an even plus/minus rating through the year, though undoubtedly his strength is in the offensive zone and in assisting the breakout.

Scheduled to be a restricted free agent this summer, Vishnevskiy will instead return to Russia and play for Atlant Mytishchi in the KHL. While Chicago will hold onto his NHL rights at this point, his future in North America appears to be in doubt.

Ryan Stanton, D, 21

One of the biggest surprises during the IceHogs season was the solid play of Ryan Stanton, who was one of the more consistent defensemen to play for Rockford during the year. His efforts on the top pairing and penalty kill earned him the team’s Most-Improved Player award.

In 73 AHL games, Stanton scored three goals and added 14 assists for 17 points. His plus-nine rating on the year was the best among the team’s defensemen and he tied Shawn Lalonde for second among blueliners with 76 PIMs. The Alberta-native has solid size at 6’2 and 205 pounds and his presence was especially felt in clearing the net front for the ‘Hogs and providing physical play. Though not generally offensively-inclined, Stanton proved to be a capable puck mover and picked his spots well when he did pinch.

Signed as a free agent from the WHL‘s Moose Jaw Warriors over the summer, Stanton’s rookie efforts could put him into the conversation for Chicago’s third pairing next season, largely because he brings the size and physicality that few other blueliners in the organization are able to supply. It is more likely that he will again be a defensive presence again next year in Rockford.

Simon Danis-Pepin, D, 23

Danis-Pepin was again relegated to the ECHL for a majority of his second pro season after struggling to crack the lineup through much of the first half of the season. When Dylan Olsen joined Rockford after the WJC, the 6’6 229 pound Danis-Pepin was the odd man out and assigned to Toledo.

After scoring a goal and three assists in 23 AHL games and watching several games from the press box early on, the defenseman appeared in 33 ECHL games with Toledo. His production improved to three goals and 12 points in that stretch thanks to a larger role at even strength and some power play time. His plus/minus rating took a dip with the increased ice time, ending up at minus-12 at the ECHL level after managing to stay even with Rockford.

Danis-Pepin is not known for his physical game, despite his size, and does not skate all that well. He was solid, if unspectacular, in some early showings with Rockford, but his inability to find a place in the lineup ultimately lead to another lackluster season for the second round pick. Though he is signed for next season, Rockford’s blue line will again be crowded with more coveted prospects so a spot with the ‘Hogs is far from guaranteed.

Goalies

Alec Richards, G, 23

In his first full year of pro hockey out of Yale University, Alec Richards split starts with veteran netminder Hannu Toivonen. Both goalies struggled with consistency for much of the season, but it was Toivonen who emerged as the primary starter during the IceHogs’ strong finish.

The 23-year-old Richards appeared in 44 games for Rockford, finishing the year with a 17-21-1 record. The native of Robbinsdale, Minnesota registered two shutouts with a 2.89 goals against average and .899 save percentage for numbers comparable to those of Toivonen. The Finn emerged in February with a .931 save percentage on the month and Richards was limited to only eight starts, six of them wins, over the last 24 games of the season.

Richards has excellent size at 6’4 and can use it to cover a lot of the net. He has solid positioning, but struggled to control his rebounds throughout his rookie season. A restricted free agent this summer, he will likely handle a portion of the goaltending duties in Rockford again next season if he remains within the Chicago organization.

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