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By: Mike Peck

14th season to kick off on Saturday in Rosemont

Rockford, Ill.-For the last two seasons, youth has been served with the American Hockey League’s Rockford IceHogs. In both 2010-11 and 2011-12, Rockford’s roster was the second youngest in the AHL.

Entering 2012-13, the IceHogs’ average age for their 26-man opening night roster is still a tender 23.2, but the core group of the team has been together for two years now. Of the 26 skaters on Rockford’s roster, 11 of them were on the ’10-11 version of the team and 21 played last year.

Playoffs were the goal each of the past two seasons, but ferocious finishes couldn’t offset slow starts and the IceHogs missed out on the postseason both years. The Calder Cup Playoffs are the goal once again in 2012-13, but expectations for this team are higher.

The familiarity runs from the players through the coaches. For the first time in the six seasons as the AHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, the IceHogs coaching staff is intact from the prior season.

“I think the transition is a little easier, because we know three-quarters of the players who have been here before and we know their tendencies and their habits, and they know how we work as a staff as well,” said IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent.  “In saying that, the tricky part for us is going to make sure to spread the ice time around and make sure they get enough ice time because we have a lot of good hockey players on this team.

“But it’s no different with every team in the AHL, they’re going to be strong from top to bottom and our guys have to realize that. We have some good players on paper, but we still have to go out every game and prove that we’re a good team and play good team structured hockey to come out with a win.”

Dent enters his second year behind the bench as the head coach of the IceHogs, but seventh overall in the Blackhawks organization as a coach of the team’s AHL affiliate.

He was with the team as an assistant coach in 2007-08 when Rockford made its AHL debut, the same year that Martin St. Pierre was on the club and finished second in the AHL in scoring with 88 points. With all the hype that has surrounded the five or six players in Rockford who should be playing in Chicago right now, St. Pierre could be the “X” factor for this hockey team.

“We didn’t get the outcome we wanted as far as the playoffs,” replied St. Pierre on his first stint with Rockford in ’07-08. “Hopefully I can bring that experience here with the young guys and make us strive for the playoffs once again.”

One area that St. Pierre should help improve is Rockford’s power play. When the Embrun, Ont. native was quarterbacking the man-advantage unit in 2007-08, the IceHogs set a franchise record with 88 power-play goals with a conversion rate of 18.6%.

Since Rockford’s inaugural AHL season, the team has averaged a 15.0% conversion rate on the power play and haven’t finished better than 15.5%.

“It’s just a matter of getting the chemistry and molding together,” said St. Pierre. “It’s not the skill that we’re missing here. It’s just the matter of finding the right timing. We have some good defensemEn who can rush the puck so we have some good shots from the point. And it’s just a matter of keeping our play simple and not trying to do too much.

“Obviously we want to be in the top five or ten in the league, that’s what we strive for. As for me being a quarterback on the power play and point getter, and an older guy that’s a leader, hopefully I can help that task and show the young guys, score some goals and win some games.”

The would-be Blackhawks, however, can’t be overlooked. The likes of Nick Leddy, Andrew Shaw, Jimmy Hayes, Dylan Olsen, Brandon Bollig and Brandon Saad would have been strong candidates, if not shoe-ins, for roster spots with the Hawks this season if it weren’t for the NHL’s on-going labor issues.

Leddy and Olsen will help depth to the blueline for Rockford with returnees Ryan Staton, Joe Lavin, Shawn Lalonde and Ben Youds. Add NHL veteran Brett Lebda and promising rookies Klas Dahlbeck and Adam Clendening, Rockford’s defense shouldn’t be a work in progress like the previous two campaigns, which really contributed to the slow starts.

Up front, several players are entering their third professional season, crucial in the development process for prospects. Among them, Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Peter LeBlanc, Kyle Beach and Ben Smith will be relied upon to lead as well as contribute.

And in goal, Carter Hutton will try to pick up where he left off in 2011-12. Hutton was brilliant for Rockford in net, setting a single season record with a .917 save percentage.

IceHogs fans are hungry for the postseason after a two-year drought, and if this team can stay healthy, the playoffs should be in the future for Rockford.

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