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.
Photo: Swedish forward Ludvig Rensfeldt has been impressive so far in his first season of North American Major Juniors. (Photo courtesy Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
The Blackhawks have 10 prospects developing at the junior level. Three of their top four picks from the 2011 draft, Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault, and Brandon Saad, skated well in the team's training camp but were ultimately assigned to their CHL teams.
Chicago has added depth to the goaltending pipeline in recent drafts with junior players, bringing in WHL goalies Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth in 2010 and OHL rookie Johan Mattsson in 2011. All three are 19 years old this season and could be playing for a pro contract with Chicago.
Photo: In his freshman season for Vermont, Michael Paliotta brings a lot of physicality to the Blackhawks organization. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)
The Blackhawks are re-stocked and loaded with talent after a couple summers of auctioning established players for picks and prospects. Chicago has added a number of high-profile prospects, including nine top-60 picks from the last two entry drafts. The results are some exciting prospects at the top of the rankings and solid depth across the board.
Chicago's strength is on the blue line, where the organization is loaded with smooth-skating offensive-defensemen. They have also added some bulk and physicality to the group in recent years, which is something that has been emphasized at all levels of the organization recently.
Not to be outdone, the forward ranks also boast several top prospects. The left wing position may be the strongest at the top having already seen a pair of prospects exceed expectations and get some NHL time under their belt as teenagers. The center position is strong as well, though the strength there is more in the depth and variety of skills of the prospects.
Photo: Taken in the second round of the 2011 draft, Brandon Saad looks like he could contribute right away at the NHL level. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)
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.
Photo: Phillip Danault was one of six prospects the Blackhawks drafted in the first three rounds of the 2011 NHL draft. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)
The Blackhawks' pipeline has an incredible amount of depth and balance despite the club being just one year removed from a Stanley Cup Championship in 2010. The dismantling of that 2010 team has allowed GM Stan Bowman to stockpile draft picks over the last two summers, giving the club 22 total selections at the 2010 and 2011 drafts combined. Nine of those selections came from the top 60 picks of their respective drafts. Though it is a headache for anyone trying to make sense out of the system, the sheer number of good, if not great, prospects has to be encouraging for Chicago's fans.
1. (1) Nick Leddy, D, 7.5B
Acquired via trade with Minnesota, February 2010