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Midseason Awards

01/20/2011 3:53 PM - Mike Peck
Yesterday I went through the IceHogs midseason grades, so now I figured I’d go through some midseason awards for the team:

MVP-Jeff Taffe: Taffe really seems to be the catalyst for the IceHogs offensively and I think he has been huge on both ends of the ice. Currently ranked second on the team with 24 points, Taffe missed five games earlier in the season after taking a slapshot off his arm in Peoria.

Taffe had a stretch of 18 straight games of being even or plus on the plus/minus side and has been a minus just five times in 35 games this season.

Best Defenseman-Ryan Stanton: Wait, what? Ryan Stanton? I must be joking right?

Nope! I think Stanton has been very good and is the best kept secret on the IceHogs. Ala a Jordan Hendry, he won’t show up on the score sheet very often (although he does have seven assists in 37 games), but he has done a ton of little things that have helped this team. Plus, he’s been the most consistent d-man on the club.

The rookie d-man has been an integral part of Rockford’s penalty kill, he doesn’t seem to panic with the puck, and he makes minimal mistakes from the back line.  Stanton is a great free-agent signing for Chicago and I think he is progressing towards an NHL career.

Most Improved-Shawn Lalonde: After a strong start, Lalonde struggled for a spell, but over the past month-and-a-half or so, Lalonde has probably been the most dynamic defenseman on the IceHogs.

I interviewed him back in November for a broadcast and I asked him about his offense and he quickly noted that he is really focusing on the defense and it has shown. He’s a +1 with 20 points in 35 games and has improved in his own zone greatly.

Unsung Hero-Kyle Hagel: OK, this is a stretch because I really don’t think Hagel is unsung. But Hagel has been one of the most effective tough guys that Rockford has ever had. When was the last time the IceHogs had an “enforcer” that played on the penalty kill?

About the biggest issue Hagel has had lately is finding a dance partner on the ice. He is tied for fourth in the AHL with 17 major penalties and that number should probably be higher, but there aren’t many guys who want to fight him. Hagel has eight points and 107 PIMs on the year. If he at least replicates his first half numbers in the second half of the season, he would finish the year with 6g-10a-16pts and 214 PIMs.

So this pick might not be going out on a limb, but this prediction might be a little further out there: Kyle Hagel will play in the NHL some day and will have an NHL contract (hopefully with Chicago) with someone next season.

Rookie Of The Year-Ben Smith: He might not be the team’s leading rookie point producer (he’s actually 3rd), but I think Smith has been the biggest difference maker on the ice among IceHogs rookies on a consistent basis. Smith has 16 points in 35 games, but has been shelved with an upper body injury lately.

Smith has played power play, penalty kill and as high up as second line for Rockford. He leads Rockford with two short-handed goals and he has subscribed to the Kyle Hagel School of “Working His Rear End Off” on and off the ice.

Biggest Surprise-Peter LeBlanc: When training camp broke, LeBlanc made the IceHogs roster only to be sent down after game three because of too many forwards. After 22 games in Toledo, LeBlanc was recalled to Rockford in anticipation of three players heading out to the World Jrs and a couple of injuries.

LeBlanc flourished and really was one of the key players, if not the most clutch, in Rockford turnaround in their second set of 20 games. He has cooled as of late, but LeBlanc has 6g-6a-12pts in 18 games and leads Rockford with three game-winning goals.

Biggest Disappointment-Power Play: The power play has been so frustrating this season. It has cost Rockford a couple of, or at least cost them chances at gaining standings points. Rockford’s never really ever had a consistent, effective power play. A range from 10-15th in the league would be a nice change of pace!

IceHogs Midseason Report Card

01/19/2011 4:58 PM - Mike Peck
The 2010-11 season so far has been one of the strangest seasons that I’ve been a part of here in Rockford.

I think coming into the season, most close to the team thought that the IceHogs would be lucky to get off to a really strong start this year. A combination of youth, basically a totally new team overall and an extremely tough division didn’t bode very well for Rockford to start ’10-11.

Playing with up to three 19-year-olds in Oct. and Nov. is pretty much unheard of at the professional level and Rockford’s lineup featured just that, plus a couple of 20 and 21-year-old skaters.

The low point was a 5-0 thumping on home-ice on Nov. 27 against Peoria in front of over 5,000 fans at the Rockford MetroCentre to put Rockford three-games under .500.  Since then, the IceHogs are 11-5-1-2, a .659 winning percentage. To put that in perspective, the only team with a better winning percentage than .659 this season is the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who have a .780 winning percentage overall.

Another saving grace for Rockford and the team’s slow start was the pokey schedule to begin the season. Rockford is the second to last team in the AHL (Manitoba) to reach the half-way point, so they have up to six games in-hand on other teams in the West Division and no fewer than two heading into this weekend.

Here is my list of midseason grades for the IceHogs:

Offense (Grade C): With youth comes inconsistency and that pretty much sums up Rockford’s offense this season.  The IceHogs offense had stretches where it really seems to be hitting its stride (21 goals in a five game stretch from 12/2-12/11) and a few others where the offense looks dysfunctional (10 goals in an eight game stretch from 11/11-11/27).

There is a good chance that Rockford could go without a 50-point producer this season, something that hasn’t happened in 11-seasons of IceHogs hockey. At the halfway mark, defenseman Brian Connelly is leading the team with 25 points.

So if you are wondering why the grade isn’t lower than a “C”, it’s because the IceHogs have shown some pretty good depth on the offensive side. After 40 games, Rockford has six different players with 20 or more points and 15 different skaters with 10 or more points on the campaign.

Plus the likes of Kyle Beach are surging right now (five-game point streak) and injuries and recalls to Jeff Taffe and Ryan Potulny limited their first-half production.

Defense (Grade B-): One of the biggest reasons for Rockford’s turnaround has been the team’s overall defense. The best illustration is the team’s overall plus/minus rating. After the team’s 5-0 loss to Peoria on Nov. 27, the overall plus/minus was -78.  At the midway point, the team is a -16, an increase of +62 in 19 games.

Struggling forwards can be hidden a lot easier than struggling d-men. When a forward makes a mistake, it usually goes un-noticed amongst the fans. But when a defenseman makes a mistake, the puck is typically in the back of the net.

So far this season, Rockford has fielded a 19-year-old (Nick Leddy), two 20-year-olds (Shawn Lalonde and Dylan Olsen) and a 21-year-old (Ryan Stanton) on the blueline. You mix in Ivan Vishnevskiy (23) and Brian Connelly (24), and the core of Rockford’s defense averages barley over the legal drinking age (21.2).

But the presence of Garnet Exelby (29) has been huge for Rockford and when Jassen Cullimore (38) is in the lineup, that type of NHL experience is invaluable. Between the two, they have 1,220 NHL games under their belt.

This unit has really stabilized for the most part and I am looking forward to seeing the young continue their progression in the second half.

Goaltending (Grade B): The biggest question coming into the 2010-11 season was the goaltending. The biggest question after the first month of the 2010-11 regular season was the goaltending.

Through 27 games (through Dec. 16th), Rockford ranked 23rd in the AHL, giving up 3.26 goals per game. In the 13 games since, the Hannu Toivonen and Alec Richards duo have combined for a GAA of 1.92 and have dropped the overall team GAA to 2.83, 14th in the AHL.

There have been some rough outings, but the good outings have far out-weighed the bad. In the team’s past 13 games, Rockford has given up more than two goals in a game just three times.

Special Teams (Grade C-): If it wasn’t for some lock down stretches on the penalty kill, I would fail the IceHogs special teams.

Let’s start with the PK. After starting the season by tripping out of the starting blocks and falling flat on their faces (8-12, 33.3% kill rate), Rockford had one of the  best penalty kills in the AHL. Then another hiccup during a four game stretch from 12/30-1/7 saw Rockford kill off just 16 of 24 (66.7%) power plays.

The IceHogs have allowed half of their 32 power play goals in seven games this season. In the other 32 games, Rockford has stopped 88.2% of the opponent’s power plays. Right now Manitoba leads the AHL with an 86.9% PK.

As for the power play, there hasn’t been much of anything to write home about. If anything, the PP has cost Rockford a couple of games this season by not scoring in key late third-period opportunities with the most glaring coming last week against Houston when the IceHogs had a late third period 5-on-3 advantage and couldn’t convert. 

Ranked 25th in the league with a 14.4% conversion rate, Rockford did have an eight game stretch from 12/8-12/28 when they converted 9-40 (22.5%) of their power plays. That’s been about the extent of the Rockford’s consistency on the PP this season.

Overall (B-): Consider this, if Rockford was playing in the North Division, as of Jan. 15, the team would be four points out of a potential playoff spot with anywhere from three to six games in-hand on all the teams above them in the standings.

I think this team is following the path that the coaching staff has mapped out and is improving each week. Yes, there are going to be down games, and blowouts, but big picture, a lot of the young players have shown great improvement while the veteran players have proved to be solid leaders.

The team still has a few hurdles to clear before we start talking playoffs, but I think it’s safe to say that after 40 games and with a lot of games in-hand on teams in the West Division, playoffs are still a realistic possibility for the IceHogs.