Does the AHL hold the key to a Chicago Blackhawks title defense?

By Anthony Lyen
Ville Pokka - Chicago Blackhawks

Photo: After trading away much of its defensive depth, Chicago Blackhawks prospect Ville Pokka represents the top of the team’s minor league depth chart (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The Rockford IceHogs had a stellar 2014-15 season, making the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. Despite being eliminated by the Grand Rapids Griffins, the IceHogs made tremendous strides, which have carried over to this season. At the time of this writing, the IceHogs sit atop the Central Division with a 27-10-3-4 record.


What makes the IceHogs’ record even more impressive is the amount of bodies they keep losing. The Blackhawks have spent some time tinkering their roster, which has led to several skaters getting their shot in the NHL, with names like Phillip Danault and Dennis Rasmussen currently staying put with the club (for now).

AHL

Phillip Danault, C, 22

When it was announced on December 18th that center Marcus Kruger would be out of the Blackhawks line-up for the next four months, it seemed like a no-brainer to give Danault the promotion. After all, Danault was being compared and conditioned to be a similar player to Kruger, an agile, defensive-minded forward. The 22-year-old center, however, had just returned from hip surgery, only seeing six games with the IceHogs this season. His brief return, however, was enough for the Blackhawks brass, and Danault has impressed. With five points in 21 games, Danault has been consistent at both ends of the ice, earning the trust of head coach Joel Quenneville.

Marko Dano, LW/RW, 21

There may have been some lofty expectations on Dano’s shoulders entering the 2015-16 season. As a crucial piece in the Brandon Saad trade, Dano’s mix of skill, skating, and two-way play make him a valuable commodity – and possible replacement for Saad – going forward. Although he did have a 13-game stint with the Blackhawks, Dano has spent the majority of the 2015-16 season in the AHL. Regardless, Dano has been developing into a reliable player for the IceHogs, notching 18 points and a +14 plus/minus rating in 28 games. Dano could see himself with the Blackhawks again this season, but it’s more likely he’ll be a fixture on Chicago’s top-nine next year.

Vincent Hinostroza, C, 21

When Hinostroza cut his college career short with Notre Dame in order to turn pro, the Blackhawks were happy to oblige, signing the 21-year-old center to a three-year entry level contract in March 2015. Nobody thought Hinostroza, however, would get such a quick opportunity to make his NHL debut, which he did on October 17th. He only saw four games with the Blackhawks, though, and was sent down to Rockford shortly after.

It was quite apparent Hinostroza had some work to do in refining his game, and thus far, he’s heading in the right direction. His 26 points in 38 games are good for first on the team in scoring. While his size (5’9) may be an area of concern, Hinostroza certainly has the speed, skill and versatility to be a solid bottom-six forward for the Blackhawks next season. Don’t be surprised to see him get another opportunity this season.

Dennis Rasmussen, C, 25

While he may not be a highlight reel-type of player, Dennis Rasmussen tends to do the little things right. After a solid 2014-15 season that saw him earn 27 points and a +9 in 73 games, Rasmussen continued his dependable ways into the 2015-16 season. His seven goals and seven assists in 22 games gave the IceHogs some depth down the middle. Eventually, Rasmussen was recalled by the Blackhawks and made his NHL debut on December 8th against the Nashville Predators, where he notched his first NHL goal. With Marcus Kruger out for a prolonged period of time and Rasmussen adjusting well in the NHL, expect the 25-year-old center to stay with the Blackhawks for the time being.

Tanner Kero, C, 23


Another prospect who got a shot with the big club during the 2015-16 season is Kero. After signing with the Blackhawks in April 2015, the former Michigan Tech standout was expected to spend the year with the IceHogs before possibly earning time with the Blackhawks. The 23-year-old center, however, tallied seven points in the first seven games of the AHL season, with six of those points being goals. Kero would see 17 games with the Blackhawks (scoring three points in that time) before returning to the IceHogs, where he has been looking to find the offensive consistency he had at the beginning of the season.

Mark McNeill, RW, 22

While fellow first-round selection Phillip Danault is currently making an impact with the Blackhawks, it took Mark McNeill a little longer to get to the pros. McNeill was one of Rockford’s best forwards during the 2014-15 season, tallying 44 points and a +16 plus/minus rating in 63 games. The 22-year-old forward had a mediocre start to the 2015-16 season, but his scoring ways have apparently returned. With points in all but two January games, McNeill is once again a consistent performer for the IceHogs. McNeill earned a one game call-up on January 25th but was returned just two days later.

Ryan Hartman, RW, 21

Although he’s a first-round selection like McNeill, Hartman has seen some time with the Blackhawks. After making his NHL debut last year, Hartman dressed for three games for the Blackhawks during the 2015-16 season, notching an assist. He was sent back to Rockford shortly after, where he continues to be a tour de force for the IceHogs. Hartman is tied for third on the team in points with 22 and ranks first in shots with 102. A two-way forward with some snarl in his game, Hartman could prove to be an optimal checking forward with a scoring punch for the Blackhawks. At just 21 years old, though, there’s time for Hartman to continue developing his game.

Ryan Haggerty, RW, 22

Coming over in the trade that sent Antti Raanta to the New York Rangers, Haggerty had a solid prospect camp during the summer of 2015. The 22-year-old winger has provided Rockford with scoring depth, notching five goals and two helpers in 19 games. Continuing to get shuffled throughout the lineup, however, hasn’t given Haggerty consistent ice time. Since Bryan Bickell’s demotion to the IceHogs, Haggerty has begun skating in a fourth-line role.

Kyle Baun, RW, 23

The Blackhawks front office was quite high on Baun at the start of the season, speaking highly of him prior to the start of the season. Baun’s strong preseason even earned him a spot on the opening night roster for the Blackhawks, but his stint in Chicago would not last long. After two games, Baun returned to the IceHogs. The AHL has not been kind to Baun this season, though, as Baun has been held off the scoresheet in the 12 games he dressed for. The former forward for Colgate University is currently out with an injury.

Garret Ross, LW, 23

The Blackhawks and IceHogs alike were hoping Ross could capitalize on a strong 2014-15 season that saw him score 43 points and earn a +20 in 69 games for the ‘Hogs. While he hasn’t been able to replicate his frequent production from last year, Ross is still a reliable part of Rockford’s top-nine. A pest with some skill, Ross has an Andrew Shaw-like quality to his game. If Ross can take his game to the next level, he may get the opportunity to bring that element to a bottom-six role for the Blackhawks.

Ville Pokka, D, 21

The top defensive prospect in the system, Pokka continues to be a leading force in Rockford’s dominance in the AHL. The 21-year-old Finnish blueliner is top-five on the IceHogs in points (23), plus/minus (+10), and power play goals (3). Pokka’s ability to lead the offense – especially with his booming shot – make him a threat every time he’s on the ice. His two-way game is still improving, so a full year with Rockford will be important in his development. The odds are in Pokka’s favor to join the Blackhawks full-time next season, but he will have to earn it.

Viktor Svedberg, D, 24

While some thought Pokka could earn a shot with the Blackhawks come opening night, it was Viktor Svedberg who cemented a role with the team to start the season. The massive blueliner – he measures at 6’9 – had a solid performance with the Blackhawks during his 16 game stint, earning an average of 17:13 of ice time. Svedberg, however, showed some issues with skating and awareness. Svedberg eventually returned with the IceHogs, where he has seen more ice time and opportunity. There’s still hope the towering Swede could be an effective blueliner in the foreseeable future.

Nolan Valleau, D, 23

Valleau had quite an exciting 2015. An invite to the Blackhawks prospect camp in the summer, Valleau impressed enough to earn himself a two year deal with Chicago on August 18th. Valleau took some time to adjust at the professional level, but he has turned into a solid defenseman for the IceHogs. Valleau has dressed for all but one game for Rockford, tallying 11 points and earning a +8. How Valleau continues to develop in the AHL will be worth keeping an eye on.

Dennis Robertson, D, 24

One of Rockford’s more reliable blueliners has been Robertson, who was acquired in the Kris Versteeg trade on September 11th. Despite not being as highly touted as Pokka or Svedberg, Robertson has shown great poise during the 2015-16 season. The 24-year-old defenseman has a goal and two helpers for the IceHogs, leading all defenseman in plus/minus with a +12. With a hard shot and solid instincts, Robertson, like Valleau, is worth noticing for the rest of the season.
    
ECHL

Dillon Fournier, D, 21

After being drafted 48th overall in 2012, there was hope Fournier could be an offensive-minded defenseman who could be trusted in his own zone. While his skills were on full display in the QMJHL for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, Fournier has struggled to adjust in the pros. Fournier has seen his pro career juggle time between the AHL and ECHL. The 21-year-old defenseman has been the victim on a crowded blueline in Rockford, dressing more for the Indy Fuel, the IceHog’s ECHL affiliate. Fournier has, though, been efficient in limited action, notching an assist and a +2 in seven games for Indy. While he has the tools and time to grow, the 2016-17 season may be Fournier’s last to impress the Blackhawks organization (he’ll be an RFA after the 2016-17 season).

Mathieu Brisebois, D, 23

When the Blackhawks traded a 2nd round pick to the Arizona Coyotes in 2014 for David Rundblad and Mathieu Brisebois, two offensive-minded defenseman with untapped potential, it seemed like a decent trade. With Rundblad loaned overseas, Brisebois floating around the ECHL, and that second-round selection becoming Christian Dvorak, however, many are left scratching their heads.

Brisebois has played for five different teams in the ECHL over the past two seasons, including three (Norfolk Admirals, Evansville IceMen, and Tulsa Oilers) this year. Brisebois has struggled to find consistency to his game during the 2015-16 campaign, amassing 8 points and a –11 in 34 games. Part of that is the lack of stability in where he plays, of course, but as time goes on, Brisebois is falling further down the Blackhawks depth chart.

Other Notable Prospects

Gustav Forsling continues to be an effective part of Linköping’s blueline. Forsling is third among team defenseman in points (16) and leads the team in plus/minus (+19).

Luc Snuggerud, a defenseman for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, continues to be a critical part of the team’s success. Snuggerud, selected by the Blackhawks in the 5th round of 2014, is on a four-game point streak, with four assists in that span.

Prospect of the Month

Tyler Motte - Chicago BlackhawksWinger Tyler Motte is having a Hobey Baker-caliber season. Drafted in the 4th round, 121st overall in 2013, Motte has been an absolute force for the University of Michigan. It certainly helps to play with JT Compher (COL) and Kyle Connor (WPG), but Motte has been holding his own on what might be college hockey’s best line. With 35 points in 23 games on the season, the 20-year-old winger uses his swift skating and lethal instincts to help drive the play. Motte ranks third on the Wolverines in points, but leads in goals (22) and shots on goal (102). He has already surpassed his NCAA career-high points total but will look for some greater team accomplishments this season.