Chicago Blackhawks minor-league system rife with NHL ready talent

By Brad Gardner
Photo: Jeremy Morin has been among several Blackhawks prospects to make an impact at the NHL level this season. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Rockford IceHogs are on the upswing as the calendar year draws to a close. Wins in four of their last five games of 2010 have bumped the team above the .500 mark with a 14-13-1-4 record. Allowing just seven goals in those final five games, Rockford outscored the opposition in December 36 goals scored to 31 goals against. The strong month has not quite made up for the team’s struggles the first two months and they still remain in last place in the Central Division.

The IceHogs are one of the youngest teams in the AHL, fielding up to three 19-year-olds at a given time. They have struggled accordingly with consistency, especially on special teams. The power play ranks 24th in the AHL as of December 31st, converting on just over 16 percent of their chances. With a middling penalty kill as well, the reasons behind Rockford’s slow start are clearer.

Kyle Beach, LW, 20

It is difficult to fault a prospect for not immediately producing at the pro level, but expectation are high for 2008 first round pick Kyle Beach. In 31 games, he has scored just five goals along with eight assists and earned a minus-13 rating.

Often lining up alongside a playmaker in Brandon Pirri, it has been a season of good and bad for the former WHL star. He is second on the team with 72 penalty minutes, including six fights, but has already been benched for his poor judgment by Rockford coach Bill Peters. He also leads Rockford in shots on goal with 83, but has the team’s worst plus/minus rating.

Such a duality is expected from Beach at this point, with his excellent wrist shot and decent offensive instincts forever clouded by his poor judgment and short fuse. When the 6’3 forward engaged 5’10 Norwegian Mathis Olimb on two occasions at the summer prospect camp, the smaller forward eventually suffered a shoulder injury that would keep him out of the Rockford lineup for the first two months. Olimb has been very good since returning, working his way up to the top line alongside Jeff Taffe and Ryan Potulny.

Recently, Beach and Olimb found themselves bearing down on an empty net with a 2-on-1 break. Beach passed on the empty net and made the dish to Olimb. The Norwegian would actually shoot the chance wide, but Beach recovered and put the puck it on net with Olimb eventually banging in the rebound off the post.

Jeremy Morin, LW, 19

It is hard to imagine Jeremy Morin’s pro career getting off to a better start than it has so far with the winger having solid performances with both Chicago and Rockford. He played well despite only scoring two goals and one assists in nine games with the Blackhawks. With the IceHogs, the sniper has seven goals and four assists in 19 games.

When in the AHL, Morin has been one of Rockford’s top offensive threats. He is well-known for his quick shot, but has also improved his skating and shown a dedication to finishing checks. His physical game has led to 34 penalty minutes, ranking him fourth on the team on a per game basis. He has also dropped the gloves twice for Rockford and once in Chicago, a rematch against Chris Porter (STL) when both players were suited up in the NHL.

Most recently, he has skated for the USA at the World Junior Championships. One of the few returning players from last year’s gold medal game, he will serve as an alternate captain. He returned for the American’s third game after suffering a shoulder injury in his first game of the tournament.

Rob Klinkhammer, LW, 24

Rob Klinkhammer is in his third season as a member of the Rockford IceHogs. The winger has five goals and 15 points through his first 28 games of the season. Not only is he one of a handful of ‘Hogs with a positive plus/minus rating, but his plus-five ranks him third overall on the team. He dished out three hits in his NHL debut in Chicago on December 8th.

He is solid in the defensive zone and brings a physical element to Rockford’s checking line. After a slow November on the score sheet, Klinkhammer has scored six points in 10 December games. Both of his goals this month have been game winners. Though he may not light up the score sheet all the time, Klinkhammer’s presence in the Rockford lineup has certainly made an impact for the young club.

Brandon Bollig, LW, 23

Signed as a free agent over the summer, Brandon Bollig has mostly played a fourth line role for Rockford this season. He has played in 23 games and scored two goals in those appearances.

The Missouri-native’s most tangible contribution is in the fighting department. He ranks second on the team behind heavyweight Kyle Hagel with seven fights on the season. Expect to see more of the same from the tough winger as the season rolls on.

Brandon Pirri, C, 19

Another 19-year-old on the Rockford roster, Brandon Pirri is a skilled playmaking centerman. The first year pro has five goals and eight assists in 27 games and a minus-seven rating. He was also one of the first forwards to be called up to Chicago, making his debut on October 9th but playing less than nine minutes.

Pirri has been a mainstay on the power play while centering the second offensive line. Listed at 160 pounds, he is still easily overpowered when he tries to carry the puck against opposing defensemen. When he can find room in the offensive end and on the rush, however, he has proven to be a good playmaker.

His struggle to duplicate his previous production was to be expected considering the huge strides he has taken from the junior-A level two years ago, to the ECAC last season, and now the pro level. He should continue to get plenty of minutes in the AHL in order to continue his adjustment to the pro game.

Evan Brophey, C, 24

One of the few remaining prospects with multiple years of pro experience, Evan Brophey is again filling the role as the top checking center for the IceHogs. He has scored three goals and three assists in 26 games, serving as one of Rockford’s alternate captains. He is yet another forward to be called up to Chicago, though he only skated 10 shifts in his debut on October 23rd.

Apart from missing several games to a lower body injury, Brophey has been one of coach Bill Peters’ primary penalty killing options. He fills the role of checking center
well, decent on draws and playing a well-rounded game in all three zones.

Chris DiDomenico, C, 21

Former Toronto draft pick Chris DiDomenico has been one of Rockford’s most-frequent scratches to start the season. He has appeared in just 18 games, mustering only one assist and minus-10 rating.

While Taffe and Potulny combine to handle top line center duties, Pirri and Brophey have firmly established their place on the Rockford depth chart ahead of DiDomenico. Coupled with the emergence of Peter Leblanc, a former Chicago draft pick currently signed to a minor-league deal, DiDomenico has been the one squeezed out of the lineup. Between the scratches and the limited ice time when he does dress, he seems to be destined to spend some of the 2010-11 season in the ECHL.

Igor Makarov, RW, 23

Makarov is in his first year of North American hockey after playing four years of pro hockey in Russia. Through his first 31 games, the winger has scored three goals and 12 points to go along with a minus-nine rating.

Rarely playing higher than the fourth line in his time in the KHL, the 6’1 195 pound winger has received a much larger role with the ‘Hogs. He has skated on the second or third line for the better part of the year and Peters has also used him on both the power play and penalty kill.

The Russian skates well and plays a bit of a chippy game. Although he possesses some offensive skills, his future is likely as more of a two-way, bottom six forward.

Ben Smith, RW, 22

Also in his first pro season, Ben Smith has been an integral part of Rockford’s forward corps, especially in a checking role. He currently stands at six goals and five assists through 31 games and a minus-seven rating. He was also one of the IceHogs to be called up to Chicago, skating in three games with no points while averaging about 12:30 minutes of ice time per night.

An intelligent player in all three zones, Smith has been used as one of the primary penalty killers through Rockford’s first 32 games and has scored both of the ‘Hogs shorthanded tallies. Offensively, the former Boston College forward has seen his production drop off some since a strong start, registering just three goals and one assist in his last 18 games for Rockford. Still creating chances on the rush and with his aggressive forecheck, the points are likely to be on the way for Smith.

Nick Leddy, D, 19

Leddy opened the season on the Blackhawks’ blue line, filling in for an injured Brian Campbell. Playing on the third pairing with just over 14 minutes per game, he notched his first NHL goal and blocked 10 shots in six games.

He has earned a lot more ice time and played in all situations when suited up for Rockford. At both stops, the Minnesota-native has been smart and patient with the puck. In Chicago, he had only two giveaways at a time when the Blackhawks defense as a whole had trouble making plays. He has also played with incredible poise, having been whistled for only one minor penalty all season.

Leddy is skating with Morin for the USA at the World Junior Championships in Buffalo. He has one assist and a plus-two rating through the team’s first four round robin games.

Shawn Lalonde, D, 20

Also making his pro debut on the Rockford blue line, Lalonde leads all IceHog rookies in points and ranks fourth overall on the team with 16 points. In 27 games, the smooth-skating defenseman has four goals and 12 assists with a respectable minus-two rating.

Lalonde is an offensive-defenseman who is at his best when he is carrying the puck. He skates very well and has earned a role on the top power play unit, where he has more opportunities to pinch in and create chances. His four goals, all of which have actually been at even strength, leads the team’s defensemen.

It was a good December in terms of production for the blueliner, scoring eight points in nine games thanks to two separate performances with one goal, two assists. He should have plenty of time in Rockford to continue adding strength and rounding out his game.

Ivan Vishnevskiy, D, 22

A highly-touted defensive prospect and former first round pick, Vishnevskiy has shown flashes of his potential so far this season. The former prospect of Dallas and Atlanta has skated in 27 games for Rockford, scoring two goals and adding eight assists. His minus-nine rating is the worst among the team’s defensemen and he was held off the scoresheet in his last eight games in December.

Despite his excellent skating and breakout ability, he can be careless with the puck and turn it over as he tries to transition his team to offense. His defensive play leaves something to be desired as well, though he has been used alongside more stay-at-home types such as Garnet Exelby and Simon Danis-Pepin to alleviate some of those concerns.

The skill and potential are still there for the Russian blueliner, but he is still a ways away from contributing at the NHL level. Vishnevskiy should get plenty of even strength and power play minutes to prove he can provide more consistent production with fewer mistakes.

Brian Connelly, D, 24

Connelly, a second year pro, has led Rockford in scoring for much of the year from the blue line. As December closes, he is tied for the team lead of 21 points with veteran Jeff Taffe. Appearing in all 32 Rockford games, Connelly has scored three goals and added 18 assists on the season.

Most of that production has come on the power play, where he has 11 assists. Rockford has only scored 26 goals as a team with the man advantage, so the 5’10 blueliner has contributed to over 40 percent of those conversions. His shots have gotten to the net as well, leading the defensemen with 70 shots.

With Leddy away with team USA, Connelly has moved up to Rockford’s top pairing alongside Ryan Stanton. His size will likely always be a factor for him, but he has stepped up for the ‘Hogs as one of the more experienced players on the back end.

Ryan Stanton, D, 21

Now in his first full pro season, Ryan Stanton has emerged as a strong defensive defenseman in Rockford. He has recorded seven assists and an even plus/minus rating in 29 AHL games.

He plays a steady, stay-at-home defensive game. Compared to the smaller, skilled blueliners, Stanton brings a bigger body at 6’2 for clearing the front of the Rockford crease. A regular on the pentaly kill, he also has a pretty dependable first pass and gets some ice time on the power play.

Undoubtedly, the Alberta-native is in there for his defense, which provides some much-needed balance with all of the smaller, offensive blueliners.

Simon Danis-Pepin, D, 22

A healthy scratch for several games already this season, Danis-Pepin has appeared in 20 games with one goal, two assists, and a minus-1 rating. Like Stanton, the Quebec-native fills a stay-at-home role on the Rockford blue line.

He can be effective in the defensive zone when he is able to control the gap and use his long frame to force skaters away from prime scoring areas. Listed at 6’6 and 229 pounds, Danis-Pepin still does not consistently use that size to his advantage. Still relatively young for a four-year college player at 22 years old, the gigantic defenseman should get opportunities to try to establish a more stable role in Rockford.

Alec Richards, G, 23

Alec Richards is in his first season of full-time AHL duty and has split starts with Hannu Toivonen so far this season. The former Yale goalie has a 7-9-1 record so far this year with a 2.69 goals against average and .908 save percentage. He had a pretty strong December, allowing just 10 goals in five appearances.

When the 6’4 goalie has struggled this season, it has largely been due to rebound control. Richards has displayed a strong mental game, bouncing back strong from some tough losses. In his worst game this month against Chicago, Richards gave up four goals in under 45 minutes, with the final two being tough bounces off the sticks of his defensemen. Rockford coach Bill Peters still came right back with Richards in a rematch two days later, in which the goalie made 38 saves for the victory.

The two netminders will likely continue splitting netminding duties in the new year.