The New Year is a reminder to Rockford IceHogs fans of the next crop of prospects that are beginning their journey to the National Hockey League in Rockford.
In seven short seasons since joining the American Hockey League, the IceHogs have already housed 18 future Stanley Cup Champions, including two goaltenders (Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi) who backstopped the Chicago Blackhawks to crowns in both 2010 and 2013.
It’s this depth and development in the organization that has helped turn the Blackhawks into a perennial contender in the NHL, year in and year out.
The roster turnover in Rockford from a season ago has been drastic as there are 18 new “regulars” listed on the IceHogs current active roster that didn’t play more than a handful of games in 2012-13 with the club. With that said, 17 players from last season’s roster have already appeared in a game in the NHL this year.
The depth has been so great with the Blackhawks that four former IceHogs from last season are regulars with other teams in the NHL including forward Jimmy Hayes (Florida), goalie Carter Hutton (Nashville) along with defensemen Dylan Olsen (Florida) and Ryan Stanton (Vancouver).
“It’s one of those things we identified a while ago that we had to have in order to sustain NHL success was to have young players that are ready to take that next step,” said Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman. “And you have to take your time with them.
“We’ve tried to give all of our young players enough development time, that we’re not putting them in the NHL too early. I think going back a number of years, we’ve tried to bring up one or two young guys a year and try to incorporate them into the group.”
This current wave of Blackhawks prospects features plenty of hope that when Chicago needs to retool the parent club, these current IceHogs should be ready to step in when their time comes.
Leading the list are two first round draft picks for the Blackhawks who were selected just eight spots apart in 2011, forwards Mark McNeill (18th overall) and Phillip Danault (26th overall). Both skaters are currently playing in their first full pro seasons after finishing the last two campaigns with Rockford.
McNeill (Prince Albert, WHL) and Danault (Victoriaville and Moncton, QMJHL) played their junior hockey on opposite Canadian coasts, but have frequently been linked because of their draft status. The two have even been matched up on the same line combination for the majority of 2013-14.
Entering 2014, McNeill has been near the top of Rockford’s goal scoring list this season and is tied for the team lead with three game-winning goals. Danault has shown some versatility during the first three months of the season, establishing himself as one of the team’s top centermen while playing on the penalty kill.
“They’ve played the majority of the games this year together on the same line,” said IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent. “Mark is playing right wing right now and Danault is playing center. Similar to (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane in Chicago, center and right wing, these guys can form some chemistry together and hopefully someday bring that to the Blackhawks.”
A real strength of the Blackhawks scouting department, led by Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley, has been the success of quality late round draft picks. The likes of Dustin Byfuglien (8th round-2003), Troy Brouwer (7th round-2004), Niklas Hjalmarsson (4th round-2005), Ben Smith (6th round-2008), Marcus Kruger (5th round-2009), and Andrew Shaw (5th round-2011), all former IceHogs and skaters who have their names on the Stanley Cup, are a part of this late round class to have success with the Blackhawks.
A current member of the IceHogs who could join this class is rookie winger Garret Ross. Ross, a 5th round selection in 2012, and has shown flashes during his first pro season of another good late round find by Kelley’s scouting staff.
After spending his junior career in the Ontario Hockey League with the Saginaw Spirit, Ross has adapted nicely to the pro game.
“I think Ross recently has really found his stride,” said Dent. “(He’s) playing hard in the corners, in front of the net, playing like a power forward type of player and being very opportunistic. He’s scored some goals recently, so he’s coming along and he just has a nose for the net.”
The Blackhawks have also established depth on the blueline and that is evident in Rockford, even with the trade of former first round pick Dylan Olsen to the Florida Panthers back in November, along with winger Jimmy Hayes for Kris Versteeg and Philippe Lefebvre.
Second year defenseman Adam Clendening has continued to evolve his game after being named a 2nd Team AHL All-Star during his rookie campaign in 2012-13. Clendening has continued to be one of the most consistent offensive defensemen in the AHL this year as he currently leads all Rockford skaters in scoring.
“Clendo has great vision,” commented Dent. “When he’s playing really well, he’s making quick decisions with the puck with breakouts and in the neutral zone. He’s one of the best, in this league at least, with getting pucks through from the blueline in the offensive zone. He competes real hard and he’s willing to take a hit to make a play.”
On the flip side, second-year defenseman Klas Dahlbeck established himself as a solid, stay at home defenseman a season ago, but has added some offense to his game. After notching just one goal in 70 games in 2012-13, Dahlbeck is among the AHL leaders for goals from the blueline as the calendar turns to 2014 with eight markers already this season.
“I still look at him as a stay at home guy whose offense is evolving and his ability to join the rush,” said Dent. “He really worked on his shot this past summer. He changed his stick and his lie. I think he got real confident with the tweaks and changes that he’s made. He’s shooting a lot more and getting rewarded.”
Through 13 weeks of the regular season, Clendening and Dahlbeck lead the IceHogs in shots on goal.
Another Swedish defenseman, Viktor Svedberg, has been a pleasant surprise on the back end this season for Rockford. The 6-9 Svedberg has battled a couple of injuries this season, but has shown great athleticism while fitting in well with the North American style of hockey.
“He’s pretty coordinated for his size for sure,” said Dent. “He’s probably got more puck skills and more awareness with the puck than anyone really thought he had after seeing him last summer at prospect camp. So that’s been a really good surprise in that respect. He’s been relied upon to play with the second pair here for most of the year. And when he’s been out with those two injuries that he’s had for those extended periods, we’ve really missed him and it’s affected our team game and record.”
Even though the Blackhawks core is set in Chicago, Bowman knows that the future success of the franchise lies in the development of the next wave of prospects.
“In order for that to happen you have to have some good teaching that goes on down here,” said Bowman. “I think we’ve done that. I’m really proud of the way the young guys have come along. I know some of them want to get to the NHL faster and they get impatient. We have to explain to them that this is the way the system works.
“They are here to learn and here to get good experience. We also want to win. We think we can do both, we can develop and win at the same time. The biggest challenge is keeping them patient. They all want to get to the NHL right away. And we want to get them there, but we want to make sure that they are developing in the mean time and improving their game.”