Chicago's reloaded prospect system will again lead the way for the Rockford IceHogs in the 2011-12 season. Rockford is an even younger team than last season and will have fewer veterans suiting up each night. Much of the team's young core is another year older though and out to prove that their strong play down the stretch last season was no fluke.
Rockford will play the upcoming season in the AHL's new Midwest Division. The league changed from four larger division into six five-team divisions for the 2011-12 season and Rockford will compete against the Charlotte Checkers, Chicago Wolves, Milwaukee Admirals, and Peoria Rivermen as they try to get back into the playoffs.
One of the more fascinating battles at Blackhawks training camp turned out to be Marcus Kruger and Brandon Pirri, two of the organization's top center prospects. Kruger was assumed to have the advantage heading into camp having had full pro seasons in the Swedish Elite League under his belt. Instead, it was Pirri who turned heads and made the final roster spot decisions much more difficult. The 20-year-old center showed improvement in his first season in Rockford and his size and strength have come a long way from his 160-pound draft weight. Either center could stick with the 'Hawks to start the season, with the odd man out lining up as Rockford's top line center.
Other contributors from last year's roster who could see time in Rockford are Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin, Rob Klinkhammer, Kyle Beach, and Peter Leblanc. Smith is perhaps the most likely to see a number of NHL games in Chicago, but he could be squeezed out by the numbers game if the Blackhawks' forward group is healthy. Morin has yet to get cleared for contact and thus has not yet seen any game time this season as he works back from a concussion that ended his 2010-11 season in January. Klinkhammer, Beach, and Leblanc will all likely be leaned on to provide offense for the 'Hogs, especially if other top forwards are spending time in Chicago.
Two veteran newcomers in the Rockford lineup will be Brandon Segal and Brett McLean. Segal split time between the AHL (30 games) and NHL (46 games) within the Dallas Stars organization in 2010-11. A solid point-producer at the AHL level, Segal would likely be considered for a call-up if Chicago is in need of a fourth-line grinder. McLean spent the last two seasons in Switzerland's top-tier NLA league with Bern. The 33-year-old center played two seasons in the Chicago organization before the lockout.
One of the most anticipated new additions in Rockford this year will be right winger Jimmy Hayes, making his pro debut out of Boston College. Hayes impressed at training camp with his combination of size (6'6, 221lbs) and hands, earning a call-up late in the preseason to skate in the Blackhawks' final exhibition game. Rockford will also see an influx of rookies from the junior level, with Byron Froese turning pro from the WHL while Philippe Paradis and David Gilbert are making the jump from the QMJHL. All three prospects are signed to pro deals with Chicago. Though the group projects more as checking line players in the NHL, they also scored some points at the junior level and could get some offensive opportunities in Rockford.
Rounding out the bottom six will be the returning Brandon Bollig and new additions Rob Flick, Andrew Shaw, and Paul Zanette. Bollig, the only player out of this group signed to an NHL contract, appeared in 55 games with Rockford last season.
Brian Connelly and Ryan Stanton will return for Rockford after finishing last season as the team's top defensive pairing. Connelly is Rockford's returning leading scorer from a season ago in which he ranked second on the team with 52 points in 80 games. He will shoulder a lot of power play work as well as some leadership on the blue line as he enters his third season in Rockford. Stanton was a bit of a surprise in his rookie year, earning the team's Most Improved Player award as he climbed the ranks to the top pairing.
Two of Chicago's top defensive prospects, Dylan Olsen and Shawn Lalonde, will also be returning. There will be more expectations for Olsen entering his first full pro season and he should see plenty of ice time and get a shot on both special teams units. Lalonde will likely work with Connelly on the power play but still has room for improvement when it comes to his defensive responsibilities. Third year prospect Simon Danis-Pepin will also be in the mix, with a chance to see more time in Toledo for his third straight year.
Rockford will replace the veteran presence lost by the departures of Garnet Exelby, Jassen Cullimore, and Wade Brookbank with defenseman Brian Fahey. A veteran with eight pro seasons on his resume, Fahey played last season in the Washington organization with 60 games in Hershey and seven games with the Capitals. Joe Lavin will also be a new addition in his first season out of Notre Dame. Lavin can play reliable hockey at both ends of the rink and should provide a steady presence on the young blue line.
Carter Hutton is also signed to an AHL contract and could pick up some games in Rockford if Salak earns the backup job. Hutton spent his rookie pro season in the San Jose organization, appearing in 22 games for Worcester and suiting up as San Jose's back-up goalie for several games without seeing any ice time.
Ted Dent will make his head coaching debut at the pro level with Rockford this season. The long-time Rockford assistant was chosen to replace Bill Peters, who joined Mike Babcock's crew in Detroit. He is joined behind the bench by returning assistant Steve Poapst and new hire Ben Simon, who was a player/coach last season in the UK's Elite Ice Hockey League with the Sheffield Steele. The organization also hired a new development goaltending coach who will be working closely with Rockford's netminders. Andrew Allen was brought in to replace Wade Flaherty, who took over the goaltending coach position for the Winnipeg Jets.
Undoubtedly the most impressive training camp performance from the junior ranks was recent second round pick Brandon Saad. He is expected to stick with the team to start the season as the forward group heals up. He can play in nine games in the NHL before his entry-level contract kicks in.