Blackhawks minor-league affiliate undergoing giant youth movement

By Brad Gardner
Photo: Drafted as an overager, Andrew Shaw has proved to be an effective forward at the professional level. So much in fact the Blackhawks recently signed him to an entry-level deal. (Photo ocourtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

The Chicago Blackhawks' AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs are again icing one of the youngest teams in the AHL in the 2011-12 season. The 'Hogs have four more rookies playing regular roles already this year and four others who have found part-time work in the AHL lineup.

The team has been led by a new coach behind the bench in Ted Dent, a longtime assistant in Rockford. He has the young club playing a similar up-tempo, puck-possession style as what is played in Chicago, but they have suffered in their own zone. Rockford has allowed 130 goals through 35 games, more than any other team in the AHL, in part because of the struggling penalty kill, which ranks in the bottom third.

Rockford has managed just 28 points in the first few months of their season with an 12-19-1-3 record. They currently last in the newly-minted Midwest Division and, like last year, are in danger of falling out of playoff contention rather early.

Jeremy Morin, LW, 20

Jeremy Morin returned to game action on October 14th after missing nine months with post-concussion symptoms. The injury ocurred on January 15th, 2011 when he flipped over the top of a hip check from the Chicago Wolves' Andrey Zubarev.

The hit cut short what was shaping up to be a promising rookie season for Morin, but the winger has been able to rediscover his old form. Through 29 AHL games with Rockford, Morin scored six goals and 15 assists. Morin has gotten a look on Chicago's top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in his first NHL games of the year.

Morin will likely spend the rest of the season bouncing between the AHL and NHL.

Kyle Beach, LW, 21

Rockford has yet another top prospect missing significant time to injury in Kyle Beach. The rugged winger was playing well in the opening weeks of the season with three goals and six points through his first eight AHL games with the 'Hogs before suffering a significant shoulder injury.

The injury was suffered during a fight against Peoria's Stefan Della Rovere on October 28th. Beach has yet to return to the line-up and his status for the rest of the 2011-12 season is uncertain. Regardless of whether he is able to return to Rockford later in the season, the former first round pick has already lost valuable developmental time against a throng of prospects vying for NHL spots.

Philippe Paradis, LW, 20

The former first round pick of Carolina is now with his third NHL organization, but he is just now making his rookie debut at the pro level. He has acquitted himself well to the AHL and provided some of the most consistent physical play for the IceHogs so far this season.

Paradis has mostly played in the bottom six forwards but did play a stretch with the team's top line of veterans Brett McLean and Brandon Segal. Paradis' forechecking ability and skill with the puck have allowed him to play in a variety of roles and throughout the lineup. Through 27 games with Rockford, the winger has notched one goal and seven points.

The expectations of a first round pick may not be realistic, but the strong 6'2 frame and versatility that he brings to the lineup will certainly help him find a place in the NHL. Until then, Paradis will continue rattling the boards in Rockford.

Andrew Shaw, C/RW, 20

Andrew Shaw opened the season on an AHL contract with Rockford. He was one of the IceHogs' more consistent players through the first few months of the season with 12 goals and 21 points in 33 games, earning an NHL contract with Chicago on January 3rd.

He was called up to the Blackhawks soon after, making his NHL debut on January 5th against the Flyers. Shaw dropped the gloves against former-OHL combatant Zac Rinaldo in his second shift of the game, which he opened on the 'Hawks top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. Later in the game, Shaw notched his first career NHL goal by working around the net of Ilya Bryzgalov. He was a factor throughout the game with four hits and four shots on goal.

Brandon Bollig, LW, 24

Brandon Bollig has been Rockford's leading pugilist so far in the 2011-12 season. He has dropped the mitts 12 times already through 32 games, adding two goals and six points along with his 112 penalty minutes.

The winger has a heavy shot but does not use it too often from the fourth line. Instead, his physical play and fighting ability have helped him carve out a consistent spot in the Rockford lineup. He will continue to put his boxing training to good use on the ice and maybe look to put a few more pucks in the net going forward.

Marcus Kruger, C, 21

Marcus Kruger may not have taken the Blackhawks by storm in the early-going of his North American debut, but he has been able to provide at the very least a steady defensive presence and penalty-killing ability. The center was beat out in camp by Brandon Pirri for an opening night roster spot, but he has since shown steady improvement in Chicago and earned an increase in responsibility.

Though he began the season on the fourth line, Kruger has most recently lined up between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa on the Blackhawks' second line. If there was ever a line for him to increase his production a bit from the three goals and 10 points through 34 games that he has accumulated so far, this is that line. He has scored three of his points in his last six games skating in the top six, a sign that he could be on the upswing.

Kruger's value to the Blackhawks' lineup has not always been on the scoresheet, but he plays a smart game and is rarely out of position. His lack of strength has limited his effectiveness in front of the net and along the boards as well as at the faceoff dot. It has not, however, deterred him from fighting for positioning around the crease and competing for pucks.

The Swedish centerman can help solidify Chicago's depth down the middle if he is able to keep up with the second line.

Brandon Pirri, C, 20

A stellar training camp and preseason performance pushed Brandon Pirri into the opening night lineup in Chicago. After the one-game reward for his efforts, Pirri was assigned back to Rockford in favor of Kruger.

Since his assignment, Pirri has gone on to lead the Rockford IceHogs in many categories, including goals, points, plus/minus, and shots. His 33 points (14 goals and 19 assists) through 33 games rank 10th in the league. He couples that with a team best plus-six rating and 106 shots on net.

While the McLean and Segal unit has been a constant for much of the year on the top line, the combination of Pirri and Andrew Shaw has solidified the 'Hogs second line. Pirri has the vision to create for his linemates and the hockey sense to get to the scoring areas himself, both skills which help him on Rockford's top power play unit.

With Kruger out with a concussion, Pirri got the call from Chicago and was inserted right into Kruger's spot on the second line.

Byron Froese, C, 20

The rookie Froese has spent most of his year in Rockford with the bottom six forwards. He has scored two goals and an assist in 24 AHL games to date this year, struggling to a minus-7 rating. Though limited to lower lines at even strength, Froese was one of a couple forwards to get a crack at the point on the power play early in the year.

He spent three games in the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye, where he registered one goal, one assist in three games in late November to early December. He has since lined up as Rockford's fourth line center and seen rather limited ice time. Another stint in Toledo is not out of the question if the organization wants him to get more minutes. With Peter Leblanc ahead of him on the depth chart and other options like David Gilbert or Rob Flick on an AHL contract, Froese may struggle to get consistent ice time.

David Gilbert, C, 20

David Gilbet, also in his rookie season, began the year in the ECHL with Toledo but has had a couple stints in Rockford. Through 10 ECHL games, the former Quebec league player scored one goal and seven points.

In the AHL, Gilbert has skated at both wing and center on the fourth line. He has scored a goal and three points through 19 AHL games with Rockford, limited by his role and lack of minutes. Like Froese, Gilbert is in the thick of a crowded bottom six for the IceHogs and he could very well see more time in Toledo as the year progresses.

Chris DiDomenico, C, 22

Another prospect who has seen ample time in the ECHL is Chris DiDomenico, who ranks third on the Toledo Walleye with 17 points through his 17 games with the team. The center skated with the Walleye in his rookie season 2010-11 as well before a strong finish to his season in Rockford.

That did not carry over into this season, as DiDomenico registered just one goal and three points in his nine AHL games with Rockford. Another prospect limited by playing bottom six minutes, he has been the odd man out of late having not played in the AHL since October 29th.

Ben Smith, RW, 23

A numbers game forced Ben Smith to open the season in Rockford despite his revelatory performance in last year's NHL playoffs. The demotion of Rostislav Olesz to the AHL opened up a roster spot in Chicago in mid-November, allowing Smith to get the first crack at the Blackhawks' line-up.

Smith skated in seven NHL games with Chicago filling in for an injured Michael Frolik as well as Bryan Bickell during a string of healthy scratches. He notched just one goal in that stint, but was used mostly in the bottom six.

In Rockford, Smith has been a consistent point producer with nine goals and seven assists in 18 AHL games. He is tied for the team lead with four power play goals, helping that inconsistent unit when he has been with the 'Hogs.

The winger may not have made as big an impact in Chicago this season as he did in last year's playoffs, but he will remain a candidate for call-ups as they become available. Smith's work ethic and ability to skate in either a checking or a more offensive role will keep him in the mix in Chicago if injuries hit.

Jimmy Hayes, RW, 22

It is hard not to notice the 6'6 Jimmy Hayes on the ice and the former Toronto second round pick made a quick impression in his first training camp with the Blackhawks. His start after being assigned to Rockford was not quite as strong, but he has nonetheless emerged as a reliable scorer for Rockford in recent weeks.

Hayes has settled into a third line role alongside Peter Leblanc and has registered a total of five goals and 18 points in 28 games. He scored 10 of those points within a 10-game span from late November into December.

He may not use his size to throw as many hits as some other wingers on Rockford, but he can use his frame to protect the puck and utilize his long reach. He combines that with a skilled set of hands to create space and opportunities for his linemates.

Hayes has recently been promoted to the NHL and has two goals through four games.

Dylan Olsen, D, 20

The Blackhawks' top defensive prospect playing in the minor leagues, Dylan Olsen is in his second season with Rockford after appearing in 42 AHL games last season. Through 31 games in 2011-12, the defenseman has notched just one goal and three assists but has still proven to be a reliable defender for the 'Hogs.

Olsen has skated on the second or third pairing for much of the season with ample time on the penalty kill. The tougher minutes that he has played have contributed to his low point totals, as has the lack of opportunity on the power play. Olsen has still played responsibly while still supplying a physical presence in his own zone.

With his 6'2 and 214-pound frame and skating ability, Olsen projects as a two-way defenseman. So far this season, that has seen him developing more in his own zone. The blueliner makes good decisions with the puck and has a heavy enough shot that the points should start coming with a little more opportunity.

The Chicago roster already has eight defensemen, but Olsen might be the next in line if the team had to dip into the coffers in Rockford.

Olsen was recalled to Chicago and made his NHL debut January 5th in Philadelphia in place of the injured Steve Montador. He skated on the third pairing in two NHL games, paired with Sean O'Donnell in his first game and John Scott in the second, before returning to Rockford.

Shawn Lalonde, D, 21

Shawn Lalonde entered the 2011-12 season with the goal of improving in his own end while still providing an aggressive offensive presence. Neither of those things have gone as well as planned, as the blueliner has struggled with just two goals and seven points through 29 AHL games so far this season.

The smooth-skating defenseman has had trouble picking his spots and been prone to turnovers so far this season, finding him in head coach Ted Dent's doghouse for back-to-back scratches in late November. Lalonde's feistiness showed through upon his return, as he dropped the gloves twice in his next game against Lake Erie.

Lalonde has come on strong of late and has been one of the IceHogs steadier defenders.

Brian Connelly, D, 25

Rockford's defense is again being led by Brian Connelly, who sees top-pairing minutes and often gets double-shifted on the power play. He is serving as one of Rockford's alternate captains in his third full season with the club.

In 28 games, Connelly ranks second on Rockford with 30 points. His 26 assists are the most of any IceHogs player while his four goals leads the team's defensemen. His aggressiveness in getting the puck to the net (he has 103 shots this season, third on the team) and his vision on the man advantage have him ranked second in points among all AHL defensemen.

His chance at the NHL level has not yet come in part because of his 5'10 frame, but Connelly has done nothing but produce since transitioning to the pro game. He will continue to be a leader at both ends for the 'Hogs until that chance comes.

Ryan Stanton, D, 22

Ryan Stanton has also continued to play a major role on the Rockford blue line as one of the team's better defensive defensemen. Stanton has still managed to chip in seven assists in his 35 games along with 62 penalty minutes and a minus-seven rating.

Stanton is not afraid to take the body in the defensive end and is one of Rockford's top shot-blockers. Considering the wealth of offensive-minded blueliners on the 'Hogs, such as Lalonde, Connelly, Ben Youds (on an AHL deal) and even veteran Brian Fahey, Stanton's ability to solidify any pairing has allowed that unit plenty of versatility.

Joe Lavin, D, 22

Rockford's top rookie blueliner has been Joe Lavin, although Youds, in his first year out of Minnesota State, is his only competition for that distinction. Still, Lavin has shown that he can play at the pro level in the early-going of his first pro season out of Notre Dame.

Lavin has scored a goal and seven points in 32 games. Though not afraid to finish his checks and play the body, Lavin has been disciplined as well in his first taste of pro hockey, having been whistled for only three minor penalties all season.

Largely limited to the third pairing with some special teams work mixed in, Lavin has been a reliable defender and found a steady role in the Rockford lineup.

Simon Danis-Pepin, D, 23

Simon Danis-Pepin was again the odd man out of a crowded blue line in Rockford and has played all of his games this season in the ECHL with Toledo. He scored three goals and six assists in those 16 games. He has missed December to injury.

Danis-Pepin was recalled to Rockford when Olsen missed a couple games in late October, but he did not dress. The former second round pick is in the final year of his entry-level contract and is unlikely to be in the organization's future.

Alexander Salak, G, 24

Czech netminder Alexander Salak came into Chicago's training camp with a legitimate shot of opening the year as Corey Crawford's backup at the NHL level. He outplayed veteran camp invite Ray Emery in limited preseason action, but Emery was ultimately signed and has been an integral part of the Blackhawks' success of late.

Salak, on the other hand, has seen limited time between the pipes in Rockford. In 12 appearances, the netminder has a 3-6-0 record with a 3.06 goals against average and .893 save percentage. His season has been interrupted, however, by a leg sprain suffered in a game against Lake Erie.

Assigned to Rockford so that he could get plenty of starts, Salak should assume the starting role for the IceHogs as soon as he is healthy. He is not expected to return until after the new year.

Alec Richards, G, 24

Alec Richards had an opportunity to start some games early in the year before Salak took the reigns, but his season has gotten off to a rough start. He has earned a solid 6-10-2 record so far but has a dismal 3.62 goals against average and .894 save percentage.

After Salak's injury, Richards had the job snatched away by the surprisingly strong play of Carter Hutton, who was signed to an AHL deal by Rockford after playing last year in the San Jose organization. Only one will stick with the team when Salak returns to full health, so Richards will have to rebound and find his confidence with the limited opportunities he has coming up.

 

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