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Looking Ahead To 2011-12

04/29/2011 1:10 PM - Mike Peck
Now that the offseason is officially here for the Chicago Blackhawks organization, let’s look ahead to 2011-12, specifically for the Rockford IceHogs.

I really like the potential for Rockford for next season and a lot of this is fueled by the strong finish the club had in 2010-11.

The good news for the IceHogs is that a big core group of players will be back next season. The uncertainty, however, are some big holes/shoes to fill for 2011-12.

First off, let’s look at who will probably be back barring trades in the offseason:

Forwards (8 forwards under contract, plus Ben Smith)-


LW Kyle Beach: OK, before you start freaking out about Kyle Beach and how much of a disappointment his rookie season was, let me try to talk you off the ledge. First off, Beach is just 21-years old. He has a lot of development left in him and can you imagine if Chicago would have given up on the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Bickell or Jack Skille after just one season?

Beach actually had more points (36) than Skille (34) did during his rookie season and the same amount of goals (16). The biggest area in my eyes for Beach to improve upon is his skating. I think over the next two seasons, if Beach can improve that, he’ll make some huge strides in both ends of the ice.

RW Brandon Bollig: During his rookie season, Bollig definitely provided some toughness for the IceHogs and if Kyle Hagel doesn’t return, he could be the team’s main tough guy. Like Beach, I think Bollig’s skating needs to get better to make him more versatile.
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RW Chris DiDomenico: It took a little longer to adjust to the pro game for DiDomenico than I thought it would in 2010-11. After spending the first three months of the season with Rockford, DiDomenico registered just one assist in spotty ice time.  He was sent to Toledo where he posted 25 points in 20 games before a late season recall to Rockford.  The difference was night and day for him upon his return and he was a lot more engaged. He’s a guy who could take a huge step in 2011-12 if he continues to take and hand out a little contact.

RW Jimmy Hayes: It was great to get Hayes into the AHL following his senior season this spring and get him a few games under his belt. I think the experience was a quick dose of reality for the potential power forward and I believe it will better prepare him for his first full pro season. Like all other young skaters, he has to grow into his body, and once he does this he could be a big force up front.

RW Igor Makarov:  I thought Makarov was adjusting to the North American style of hockey during his first season here.  He was a lot more physical than I thought he was but he does have to bring “it” on a more consistent basis. Next season is a huge season for Makarov, as if he can take that next step he could find himself in the NHL.

C Jeremy Morin:  A year from now Jeremy Morin could be a full-time NHLer. No doubt the injuries set him back a bit during his first full professional season, but you have to keep in mind that Morin just turned 20-years old on April 16. With his skill and talent level, Morin could be a consistent scorer in Rockford next season…if he’s not in Chicago.

LW Philippe Paradis:
Paradis is one of those players that after seeing him for four games this past season,  I can’t wait to see him again next year. He’s a big, physical forward who has a cannon for a shot. His one goal during his first pro stint was highlight film material. He’s got great hands and can skate. I know he needs some polishing, but Paradis could become a fan favorite during his first full pro season.

C Brandon Pirri: No forward made more progress this season than Brandon Pirri. After returning from injury on March 8, Pirri really seemed to settle into the AHL game. Potentially a call-up guy next season, Pirri will probably need at least one-more full season in the AHL. No doubt he benefited by playing with Jeff Taffe, but he showed his potential and he has a lot of upside. Like DiDomenico, though, I’d like to see Pirri engage a little more and take a few more hits while initiating some contact.

RW Ben Smith:
Well, I guess Ben Smith is all but graduated to the NHL, and if not right off the hop in 2011-12, I’d expect him to be a full-time NHLer before the season is finished. Remember the Hawks sent Byfuglien (because of injury) here in 2007 and Troy Brouwer here in 2008 for a few weeks before permanently keeping them up in the big show. Smith acts the part and deserves to be up. If for some reason he ends up in Rockford at some point, I wouldn’t expect it be for long.

Defensemen (4 defensemen under contract)-


Shawn Lalonde: Lalonde’s first season in the pro ranks had its ups and downs. The positives: He showcased the offensive puck-moving abilities that he earned his reputation for and he improved in the defensive end. On the flip side, he didn’t score a goal since Jan. 8, a span of 42 games and he was a -16. Like most young defenseman, he needs to pay the price a little bit more and be more of a presence in the d-zone. Again, we’re talking about a 21-year-old kid who is learning the pro game.
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Joe Lavin: Like Paradis, we only had a very small sample size of Joe Lavin. He played in Rockford’s final two games after Notre Dame was eliminated in the National Semifinals and I really liked what I saw. Lavin really has the potential of being a well rounded defenseman with great size. He has yet to endure the rigors of a full professional season, but I really like his make-up.  He seemed composed and made some good decisions.

Dylan Olsen: Olsen joined the IceHogs after the World Juniors ended in early January and at times played up to his 6-3 frame and sometimes didn’t. Like Hayes, he needs to grow into his body a little bit and after seeing the professional lifestyle, needs to grasp that to take the next step. Olsen should be a d-man that can clean up in front of the net. I’m not sure Olsen is ever going to establish himself as an offensive defenseman, but he showed some good offensive sense and confidence as the season progressed. I’m thinking specifically of a play on March 26 against Milwaukee when recognized an opportunity to start a rush from the Rockford zone and set up Pirri for a transition goal after activating.

Ryan Stanton: I just love the way that Ryan Stanton plays. I think he’s the top d-man prospect in Rockford and could be serviceable next season in the NHL if the Blackhawks run into a pinch at some point in the season. Another full-season in the AHL will really help him out, but I think Stanton has a nice NHL career ahead of him. He has flown under the radar because he went undrafted and people seem to want to just rate drafted players. But he’s a diamond in the rough and is a name that Hawks fans might not be familiar with now but will be soon.

Now for the holes:

-There are no goaltenders under contract for next season, not only in Rockford, but the entire organization.

-Again, veteran presence will be key to the IceHogs next season and the right vets need to be added. I’d like to see two veteran defensemen, one experienced goalie and at least three veteran forwards brought in who are not currently under contract.

Here is my wish list:

-On the defensive side, I’d love to see Brian Connelly tendered and that would give Rockford five d-men off the top. Connelly could be serviceable in the NHL next season as well and I believe deserves another contract after a real solid season.

-Resign Rob Klinkhammer. Like Connelly, I think he deserves at least one more look in the organization and could be a fill-in guy with the Hawks. I really liked Klink’s game last season, but he needs to avoid shying away from contact. Besides that, his veteran presence and energy would be great to have back.
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-Sign David Gilbert to an Entry Level contract. Again, we only had a small sample size of Gilbert (pronounced ZHIL-behr) over the past two seasons, but I have been extremely impressed. He can skate and he looks to be a solid playmaker.

-Resign Kyle Hagel. The problem with resigning Hagel, isn’t a matter if there is a match, but if he gets a better offer. Hagel was a great fit in Rockford, is one of the best “team” guys that I’ve ever seen and provides that necessary toughness needed on the roster. With him and Bollig, that’s two legit tough guys.

-This might be a stretch, but bring back Jeff Taffe. I say stretch because I’m not sure if Taffe is in Chicago’s plans despite being the best player in Rockford in 2010-11 and he never got an opportunity in Chicago to prove his worth with the big club. Again, he’s a guy who has and can play in the NHL if needed and proved how valuable he was to the young IceHogs squad.

-Finally, bring in an experienced goaltender. I know that Hannu Toivonen won’t be a popular pick for the fans, but he was solid down the stretch. If not him, then another legitimate #1 goaltender. The one thing the Hawks will have to offer this offseason is an opportunity for a young goalie. Let’s say for intense-of purpose that Chicago signs Corey Crawford and Alexandre Salak for next season for the big club, the team could lure another free-agent goalie into the system and maybe tender Alec Richards to continue his development. Like pitching in baseball, you can never have too much goaltending…just ask Nashville!

So here is Rockford’s potential roster with my wish list, not including Ben Smith:

Forwards:
Taffe-Pirri-Klinkhammer
Beach-Gilbert-Morin
Paradis-Makarov-Hayes
Bollig-Hagel-DiDomenico

Defense:
Connelly-Stanton
Lavin-Veteran Free Agent
Olsen-Lalonde
Veteran Free Agent

Goaltending:
Veteran Goalie
Alec Richards

The above list has 18 returning players from last season’s roster with the addition of three free agents. Opening day rosters typically feature around 22-24 players, so this leaves a couple more signings/prospects that are ready to turn pro.

It’s early, but I like the way this looks!

AHL Division Finals Nuggets

04/27/2011 1:14 PM - Mike Peck
Tonight marks the official beginning of the second round of the 2011 Calder Cup Playoffs-the Division Finals.

Already, three of last season’s final four teams left have been eliminated, including the two-time defending champs Hershey Bears and the Western Conference Champion Texas Stars. Manchester reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010 making Hamilton the lone survivor from last season’s final four in the AHL.

It’s hard for me to gauge the Eastern Conference since we didn’t play anybody from that conference this season. But out West I really like the Houston Aeros. Down the stretch, I was chatting with a coach from a from an opposing team and he thought that Houston was the best team in the Conference, and I have to agree with him.

A couple of things concern me a bit in the immediate for the Aeros and over the long haul in this postseason. First off, the Aeros haven’t played a game since April 19 and by the time the puck gets on the ice on Friday, that’ll be a span of 10 days.

How about this for a weird stat, since April 3, Houston has played as many games (5) as the IceHogs and Rockford didn’t even qualify for the postseason.  Rest is good, yes, but when teams are rolling along in the playoffs, all’s they want to do is get back out on the ice and play some games.

My second concern is rookie goalie Matt Hackett. His first year at the pro level, he’s played a lot of games and could still have a lot ahead of him. He played more minutes (2,552) than both Hannu Toivonen (2,463) and Alec Richards (2,369), but he is coming off of back-to-back3,000-plus  minute seasons in the OHL.

You can’t overlook Milwaukee, however, as Lane Lambert’s teams are always disciplined and he seems to get more out of his teams than any other coach in the Western Conference that I’ve seen. I consistently look at the Admirals roster throughout the course of a season and wonder how in the heck are they sitting at the top of the division?

I’m a little bummed that Lake Erie got knocked out in the first round as I was rooting a bit for them to make a run in the Calder Cup playoffs. I think they had a great make-up this season with the exception of a decimated defensive unit down the stretch.

But give credit to Claude Noel’s Manitoba Moose for knocking off the Monsters after falling behind 3-1 in the series and winning Games 6 and 7 in Lake Erie to take the series.

Hamilton has to be happy that Lake Erie was eliminated as they were just 3-5-0-0 against the Monsters in 2010-11 while absolutely dominating the Moose going 6-0-0-2 against their North Division foes. As a team, I like Manitoba more than Hamilton as the Moose seem to be a little deeper and balanced.

But Drew MacIntyre has been very good for the Bulldogs and Nigel Dawes has been tearing up the AHL  this season.

So my unsolicited prediction for the Western Conference Finals is Houston and Manitoba.
As for the Eastern Conference, again I’m not going to make any predictions or attempt to breakdown the series, but how about Ryan Potulny? The former IceHogs center tore up the first round scoring eight goals and adding six assists. He notched the overtime Game 7 winner on Saturday to lift Binghamton over Manchester.

Bingo, by the way, won all four first-round games in overtime.