Expected by many to be among the top teams in the AHL this season, the Rockford IceHogs have put together another up-and-down start to a season. Even with several players on the roster who are expected to be full-time NHL players when the season begins, the team has managed a 17-16-1-1 record so far in 2012-13. There have been good stretches – four separate stretches have seen the 'Hogs rattle off at least three consecutive wins – but they are always accompanied by times when the team has struggled to come away with any points in the standings.
A recent three game losing skid put Rockford in third place in the Midwest Division, seven points back of Grand Rapids (two games in hand) and two points behind Milwaukee (one game in hand). The club leads the division in goals scored, in large part because of the AHL's fifth best power play unit, but it has been feast or famine in the win column.
The Chicago Blackhawks also had three prospects spend most of their time in the ECHL this season with the Toledo Walleye, an affiliate they share with the Detroit Red Wings. The Walleye are off to a 19-13-0-3 start, ranking one point behind the first place Cincinnati Cyclones in the league's North Division.
Brandon Saad, LW, 20
Expectations are high for Brandon Saad in his first pro season as the speedy winger was expected to push for a spot on the Blackhawks' opening night roster. He has had his moments in Rockford, even if it has been a little more of a rocky season than he experienced in his dominant final OHL season in 2011-12. Saad has scored six goals and 14 points through 28 games this season. A four goal, eight point month of October gave way to a slow December, and he has managed just two goals and six points in his last 15 games.
Saad creates a lot of chances for the Rockford offense because of his quick thinking and a burst of speed that he can use to blow past defenders. He uses his strength to get to the net, control the puck in traffic, and win battles on the forecheck. While he has not yet proven to be a player that can carry a scoring line every night at the AHL level, the rookie pro will likely get a chance to skate with some of the top talent in the Blackhawks lineup.
Jeremy Morin, LW, 21
After missing a lot of hockey in 2011 with a concussion, Jeremy Morin was looking to put in a full season of strong play in 2012-13. He has been producing at a fairly consistent pace compared to previous seasons and is tied for third on the team with 10 goals in 30 games. He has been a big part of Rockford's power play unit, which is one of only six units in the league operating above 20-percent, and is tied for the team lead with five tallies on the man advantage.
Morin's major strike against him this season has been consistency. Never one to shy away from getting the puck on net, Morin is second on the team in shots but has already been held scoreless for three consecutive games during four separate stretches this season. He can still make an impact with his hard-nosed style of play, but a more consistent scoring touch would go a long way towards improving Morin's standing in the Blackhawks organization.
Kyle Beach, LW, 22
Entering the most important season of his pro career to date, Kyle Beach has been one of the many IceHogs players to see time with many different linemates. Tied for fifth on the team with eight goals, Beach has not exactly lit it up on the score sheet. Through 30 games, he has only a total of 13 points, but the pesky winger has still made his mark on games by earning 113 penalty minutes.
While his offensive play to date has not necessarily stood out, Beach's wicked shot and ability to play a physical game have come through at times. Those aspects of his game could get him a look in Chicago at some point, but he likely remains behind several others in the pecking order.
Brandon Bollig, LW, 25
Brandon Bollig has settled back into his role as Rockford's primary enforcer this season, leading the team with 13 fights on the season, nine more than anyone else on the team. While the burly winger can chip in the occasional goal, he will never be relied on for offense at the pro level. Instead, it is his willingness to throw his body around and fearlessness in never backing down from a challenge that keeps him in the lineup night in and night out.
Bollig has five goals, four assists through 35 games and leads the 'Hogs with 157 penalty minutes. The best fighter in the Chicago system, he will have a shot to get back into the Chicago lineup after the lockout but will have some competition for the final roster spots.
Philippe Paradis, LW, 22
Despite the increase in numbers on the Rockford roster, Philippe Paradis has managed to keep a spot in the lineup for most of the 2012-13 season. He did spend some time in the ECHL, but Paradis has provided physicality and energy at the bottom of the Rockford lineup. He has registered three assists and 58 penalty minutes through 22 games so far this season.
Terry Broadhurst, LW, 24
Rookie pro Terry Broadhurst would have certainly had a shot at an IceHogs' roster spot if not for the NHL lockout, but the offensively-skilled winger was likely better off playing scoring line minutes in Toledo. Broadhurst ranked second on the team in Toledo with 31 points through 36 games in his rookie year. Recently reassigned to Rockford, he will get that shot in the AHL with the lockout over.
Brandon Pirri, C, 21
With Marcus Kruger on loan from the Blackhawks and Martin St. Pierre brought back via free agency, the center position in Rockford got a lot more crowded for last year's leading IceHogs scorer, Brandon Pirri. Less of a featured role has not hindered Pirri's play, as he still ranks among the team's top scorers with 10 goals and 24 points in 35 games.
Pirri's playmaking ability and tendency to be in the right spot at the right time in the offensive zone have factored into his production this season. Finding that success in a scoring role at the NHL level, even with the talent level in the Chicago lineup, has proven elusive in his limited opportunities thus far, but another shot may not be far off.
Rob Flick, C, 21
The 6’3 Rob Flick has spent the 2012-13 season as the fourth line center in Rockford. Although he has played a rather limited role, he has fulfilled that role fairly well for a player in his first full season of AHL hockey. He is aggressive on the forecheck, and while he may not throw as many big hits as a player like Paradis, he can use his size and strength to win battles along the boards and protect the puck. He has scored three goals and two assists through 31 games but struggled out to a minus-8 mark in the plus/minus column, the worst rating among forwards on the team.
Ben Smith, RW, 24
Named an alternate captain for the IceHogs in his third pro season, Ben Smith has been one of the team's most reliable players at both ends of the ice. His smart and steady play helps him lead by example on the ice, and his work ethic in pursuing the puck and working for position in front of the net is often unmatched by anyone else in the Rockford lineup.
Smith is tied for the team lead with 14 goals and is second on the team with 25 points through 35 games this season. He has contributed on Rockford power play with five goals and not put his team at a disadvantage, having been whistled for only two minor penalties all year. Based on the early returns so far this season, Smith likely has a leg up on some of the other fringe players when Blackhawks' training camp finally opens.
Jimmy Hayes, RW, 23
The IceHogs roster is full of players who spent part of the 2011-12 season in Chicago and Jimmy Hayes may be the prospect with the most to prove in the AHL. A quick start to his NHL career last season gave way to a longer period of relatively quiet play from the 6’6 winger and he would be looking to contribute on the score sheet with more consistency for the 'Hogs in 2012-13.
That goal was slightly disrupted by a move to center for Hayes, a position in which he has had very little experience in recent years. The experiment did not last too long as Hayes has struggled of late to crack the score sheet. He has six goals and 15 points in 34 games so far this season, but most recently he has skated on the fourth. Hayes has been held off the score sheet through his last 13 games.
Andrew Shaw, RW, 21
Andrew Shaw is another player with NHL experience, although his role both in the AHL and NHL is more settled than the likes of Hayes. His habit of getting under the skin of opponents and playing on the edge has already resulted in discipline from the AHL for the aggressive Shaw, but there is no question that his playing style is sorely missing from elsewhere in the Blackhawks organization. Shaw has chipped in eight goals and six assists through 28 games this season. Whether there is room for him and a healthy Daniel Carcillo to coexist in the Blackhawks lineup will be an interesting story to follow when NHL play resumes.
Adam Clendening, D, 20
It was a quiet start for Adam Clendening in a Rockford IceHogs uniform, but the offensive-defenseman exploded on the score sheet in November. Never shy about sending the puck towards the net, Clendening has found success on the team's top power play unit alongside NHL veteran Nick Leddy. The duo has also been deployed together at even strength, and although they give up some size and strength in their own zone, the pairing has proven effective when the puck is on their sticks.
Clendening leads the team's defensemen in scoring as well as Rockford's rookies with 22 points through 32 games. Three of his four goals have come on the man advantage. After four points in his first 11 games of the season, Clendening exploded with 14 points in his next nine games. While he is not ready to crack the Chicago roster quite yet, Clendening’s strong play in the offensive zone has been one of the stories of Rockford’s season thus far.
Ryan Stanton, D, 23
Of all the more defensive-minded players on the back end in Rockford, Ryan Stanton has been the one to maintain his strong play over the last couple seasons. He will occasionally join the rush or pinch in the offensive zone, but Stanton usually sticks to a reliable, no frills approach to his defensive game. Stanton has registered nine assists and a plus-7 rating, which is second best on the team, in 35 games so far in 2012-13.
He has solidified his role on the 'Hogs shutdown pairing, most recently paired with Swedish import Klas Dahlbeck. With Nick Leddy poised to rejoin the Blackhawks, one of the two could be in line to step into the vacated spot on the first pairing.
Klas Dahlbeck, D, 21
Klas Dahlbeck is playing in his first season of North American hockey but has two full seasons of pro experience from his time in the Swedish Elitserien. He had to work his way into a consistent spot in the IceHogs lineup, but his relatively strong play compared to the likes of Dylan Olsen and Joe Lavin has helped the stay-at-home blueliner carve out a role in Rockford alongside Stanton. He is a similar breed of stay-at-home defensemen that plays a low risk style. Dahlbeck has only one assist on the season but has earned a plus-6 rating 29 games into his first AHL season.
Dylan Olsen, D, 22
If Stanton has been the picture of stability, Dylan Olsen has been the opposite. A healthy scratch for a handful of games in the early going of 2012-13, the former first round pick has been a disappointment in Rockford thus far. When he has gotten into the lineup, it has been as a sixth or seventh defenseman. Too often opposing forwards are able to blow by him and he is left to chase the play, and even at 6’2 and 214 pounds, he has yet to establish much of a physical presence. Olsen has one goal and three points through 23 games this season. Perhaps the end of the lockout will help Olsen garner consistent minutes in the lineup so that he can work out of his funk, but with a red hot Ben Youds called up to take Leddy’s spot on the roster, that task may not be any easier.
Shawn Lalonde, D, 22
Another player looking to improve his stock with the IceHogs coaching staff is Shawn Lalonde, a swift blueliner with an offensive track record at the junior level. He has not been able to find that same level of success on the score sheet in the AHL, nor has he seemed to take steps forward in areas such as his defensive play and his tendency to turn the puck over. Lalonde has a pair of goals and eight points in 21 appearances on the season. Like Olsen, Lalonde has been used sparingly when in the lineup and watched his share of games from the press box this season. In the third year of his entry-level contract, Lalonde may not be long for the Blackhawks organization.
Joe Lavin, D, 23
Rockford's Rookie of the Year award winner in 2011-12, Joe Lavin has struggled to rediscover that same level of success in his second pro season. Although he notched six assists through 14 games to start the year, a broken wrist suffered in late November has kept him out of the lineup for over a month. He should get a chance to reestablish himself in the Rockford lineup when healthy.
Carter Hutton, G, 27
A season ago, Carter Hutton was Rockford's team MVP. He entered the 2012-13 season with high expectations, as he would be given every chance to carry the workload for the IceHogs. Although his play at times has been shakier than it was a season ago, Hutton has still done a solid job of meeting those expectations. He has earned a 13-13-1 record so far to go along with a .907 save percentage and 2.77 goals against average in 28 appearances. The occasional soft goal has been his biggest issue this season, but Rockford's relative lack of success compared to the expectations will fall more on the skaters with NHL experience than their netminder.
Alec Richards, G, 25
While Hutton has had his struggles this season, he has benefited from the fact that Alec Richards has not been any better. Richards has appeared in 10 games with a 4-4-0 record, 3.12 goals against average, and .887 save percentage.
Byron Froese, C, 21
Perhaps the Blackhawks' prospect most affected by the work stoppage has been Byron Froese, who proved to be a capable checking line player last season but was forced to Toledo to start the year due to the increase in talent down the middle. He made the most of the move to Toledo with five goals and 17 points through 20 games before a broken wrist took him out of the lineup. Froese may be able to get back into the Rockford lineup when he returns to the ice now that lockout is over.
Kent Simpson, G, 20
A demotion to the ECHL can often be the kiss of death for skaters, but goaltender Kent Simpson's stay in Toledo has been and should continue to be a positive step in his development. With Carter Hutton expected to carry the load in Rockford, Simpson has benefited from ample playing time with the Walleye. He has shared starts with Jordan Pearce (DET) and appeared in 18 games so far this season, earning a 7-7-3 record with a 2.83 goals against average and .885 save percentage.
David Gilbert, C, 21
After splitting his rookie pro season between the AHL and ECHL in 2011-12, David Gilbert has been relegated to the Central Hockey League in 2012-13. The skilled pivot has put up some points for the Bloomington Blaze with 13 goals, 10 assists in 29 games, but he remains on the outside looking in amongst a crowded group of pro prospects in the Blackhawks organization.