The Rockford Ice Hogs begin their inaugural season as the Chicago Blackhawks‘ AHL farm team in 2007-08. Playing just 90-odd miles up the Illinois Tollway from the United Center, the Ice Hogs will be very tightly meshed with a young Blackhawks team. In fact, there is not a great deal of difference – if any – in the abilities of the top players at Rockford (Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer and Petri Kontiola) and some of the young players who will start the season with the parent club.
Last season saw a regular shuttling of players between Norfolk (AHL) and Chicago. The much closer proximity of Rockford will make those moves much easier, both logistically and organizationally. It will also afford the team’s hockey staff to keep a very close and regular eye on key prospects.
Also, unlike many AHL teams and last year’s Norfolk team in particular, the Ice Hogs roster is almost devoid of "career" AHL players, with the exception of goaltender Wade Flaherty. It is a roster packed with NHL prospects of varying degrees of promise, including five second-round draft picks (Bolland, Michael Blunden, Bryan Bickell, Adam Berti an Corey Crawford) and two recent top-10 NHL draft picks (Cam Barker and Jack Skille).
Second-round pick in 2003 Corey Crawford assumes the No. 1 goaltending role in Rockford, backed up by 39-year-old veteran Wade Flaherty. Crawford is a big goalie with sound positioning. Perhaps his greatest asset is a clam, workmanlike demeanor that prevents him from being negatively affected by letting a goal or two through. He performed exceptionally during the Hawks’ training camp and preseason games, and appears to be maturing into the type of No. 1 goalie the team has envisioned him to be. Last season at Norfolk, he was 38-20-2, with a 2.84 GAA and a .909 save percentage. Wade Flaherty, a well-traveled veteran, will be the No. 2 stopper in Rockford. It will be interesting to see which of the two goalies will be called up to Chicago, in the event of an injury or trade, as the Hawks want Crawford to continue to get regular No. 1 minutes at Rockford.
Dustin Byfuglien and former No. 3 overall draft pick Barker head the group of Ice Hog blue-liners. Like Byfuglien, young Swede Niklas Hjalmarsson currently occupies the Blackhawk injured list, but will be sent to Rockford once he’s ready to play. Jim Fahey, Steve Marr, Jordan Hendry and Prestin Ryan are four more solid defensemen with a fair amount of pro experience. Decisions will be need to made as to which of the following players remain in Rockford: Jean Claude Sawyer, Ryan Stokes and Jerramie Domish. Sawyer is a speedy, offensive defenseman who put up big numbers as a junior in the QMJHL. Conversely, Stokes is a big, rugged defender, who gained recent notoriety for earning 200 stitches to the head while delivering a vicious hit on Columbus prospect Jared Boll. Of all the Rockford defensemen, Barker, Byfuglien and Hjalmarsson are clearly the top NHL prospects, though Fahey, Ryan, Marr or Hendry could also see some time with Blackhawks. Both Barker and especially Byfuglien have improved their games and are very close to making the full transition to the NHL.
Look for some combination of Kontiola, Bolland, Brouwer, Skille, Bryan Bickell, Pierre Parenteau and perhaps Kris Versteeg to compose the Ice Hogs top six. Like Barker and Byfuglien, Bolland, Brouwer, and perhaps Skille are considered very close to playing regularly in the NHL. During the recently completed NHL preseason, Bolland especially impressed the Hawk brass, leading many to believe he is the Hawks’ future No. 2 center behind Jonathan Toews. He has gained size, strength and speed since last season, where he acquitted himself well as a rookie in Norfolk. Brouwer demonstrated his unique package of size and offensive skill during the NHL preseason, especially on the power play. He was a runner-up in voting for AHL rookie of the year, after registering 41 goals and 38 assists at Norfolk in 2006-07. Brouwer, Bickell and Skille will bring a physical, yet mobile and skilled presence to the Ice Hogs top lines.
Other prospects who will play key forward roles with the Ice Hogs include Adam Berti, Evan Brophey and Michael Blunden. Like Bolland and Kontiola, former OHL star Brophey is considered a Hawk center of the future. Paired together, Berti, Brophey and Blunden could form an intriguing "power" third line, as all have good size and skating ability. Blunden in particular is a vicious hitter. Center Adam Hobson makes his pro debut after five seasons with Spokane (WHL). Hobson projects as a fourth line NHL player, but no one plays the game harder or more responsibly. Centers Colin Fraser and Gavin Morgan could also see playing time at Rockford.
Though the Ice Hogs will be a somewhat young team, there are also indications it could be a very successful team. Brouwer, Parenteau, Bolland, Byfuglien and Versteeg, in particular, put up good numbers in a very competitive race in the AHL Eastern division last season. Skille scored eight points in just nine games with the Admirals. The fact is, some, if not all of the aforementioned prospects would be skating regular NHL shifts if they played with other organizations, which is a reflection of the depth and richness of the Blackhawk talent pipeline. And while the team has switched homes and conferences, it remains under the steady hands of Coach Mike Haviland and Assistant Coach Ted Dent.
Further, through effective marketing and recent erosion of the Blackhawk fan base in Chicago, the Rosemont, IL-based Chicago Wolves organization has built a significant fan following. As a result, many hard-core Wolves fans are somewhat cynical current and former Hawk fans. This, coupled with the fact that just 80 miles of highway separate the two teams, should create an environment for a very heated rivalry.
Colin Fraser, C, 22, Sicamous, BC
Jim Fahey, D, 28, Boston, MA
Jordan Hendry, D, 23, Nokomis, SASK
Jacob Dowell, C, 22, Eau Claire, WI
Jerramie Domish, D, 28, Collegeville, PA
Evan Brophey, C, 20, Kitchener, ON
Adam Hobson, C, 20, Lund, Sweden/Vancouver, BC
Corey Crawford, G, 22, Montreal, QUE
Wade Flaherty, G, 39, Terrace, BC
Adam Berti, LW, 21, Scarborough, ON
Troy Brouwer, RW, 22, Vancouver, BC
Bryan Bickell, LW, 21, Bowmanville, ON
Michael Blunden, RW, 20, Gloucester, ON
Dave Bolland, C, 21, Toronto, ON
Petri Kontiola, C, 23, Seinajoki, Finland
Cam Barker, D, 21, Winnipeg MB
Jack Skille, RW, 20, Madison, WI
Kris Versteeg, RW, 21, Lethbridge, AB
Ryan Stokes, D, 24, Sarnia, ON
JC Sawyer, D, 21, St. John, New Brunswick
Prestin Ryan, D, 27, Arcola, SASK
Pierre Parenteau, W/C, 24, Hull, QUE
Gavin Morgan, C, 31, Scarborough, ON
Steve Marr, D, 23, Kamloops, BC
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.