Season number 15 is in the books for the Rockford IceHogs and with another offseason here, it’s time to take a peek into what the 2014-15 campaign may hold for the club. At first glance, the team might look a lot like the 2013-14 version, and that is a good thing.
I should preface this by saying if training camp in 2013 taught us one thing, it’s that we shouldn’t anticipate anything. Going into training camp last September, it looked as though the IceHogs were going to have one of the stronger defenses in the American Hockey League.
But Ryan Stanton was claimed off waivers and eventually so was Mike Kostka. Then Dylan Olsen was traded to the Florida Panthers and goalie Antti Raanta became a permanent fixture with the Blackhawks in mid-November and all of a sudden the IceHogs were second from the bottom in goals against (3.45) in the AHL.
So why again is it a good thing that next year’s team could look like the 2013-14 version?
Well, for starters, last season’s crop of rookies made more progress during their first full pro season compared to any group of rookies during Rockford’s AHL’s era. A fair comparison would be the 2010-11 crop that featured Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith, Brandon Bollig, Kyle Beach, Dylan Olsen, Ryan Stanton, Shawn Lalonde and Peter LeBlanc.
Every player in that above listed group has played at least one game in the NHL with the exception of Beach. But you compare that group to the rookie class that just completed their first full professional season which includes Alex Broadhurst, Mark McNeill, Garret Ross, Joakim Nordstrom, Phillip Danault, Drew LeBlanc and Mathieu Brisebois, the group compares pretty favorably in terms of first year progress.
Remember, Morin was injured and missed most of the season in 2010-11 and Pirri scored more than half his points in the final two months of the season. This past season’s group of rookies was much more consistent and I felt had a much steadier growth curve and a greater impact on their respective teams.
So on building next season’s roster, we’ll start with the above listed group. Of the listed, Nordstrom has the best chance of making the Blackhawks in the fall. We also have to toss in Stephen Johns and Ryan Hartman who will both be playing their first full season in the pros. On a side note, Hartman could technically return to juniors next season, but the way he played during his nine game stint in Rockford (3g-4a-7pts), I believe he is ready for the pro game.
With Nordstrom, who could make the Blackhawks in the fall, that’s eight players right off the hop that could/should return next season.
Other players under contract for next season include defensemen Adam Clendening, Klas Dahlbeck and Viktor Svedberg; forward Brandon Mashinter and goalies Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth.
Terry Broadhurst is a restricted free agent and makes sense to get re-signed and return. Counting the elder Broadhurst, Rockford could have up to 15 players on next season’s Opening Day roster that played down the stretch with Rockford. This also does not include Teuvo Teravainen who could also see time in Rockford in 2014-15, but we’ll succumb to the hype and keep him off the list for now.
Plus we need to throw in the next crop of prospects that could be in the mix which include defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk and Dillon Fournier along with forward Matt Carey who are all already under contract with the Blackhawks. Up front, other potential first-year players include Vincent Hinostroza and possibly Kevin Hayes. Unlikely, but something else to consider would be a skater or two from this June’s NHL Entry Draft. It’s unlikely because in Rockford’s first seven years as the Blackhawks AHL affiliate, just one player (Andrew Shaw-2011) began the season in Rockford in the same year in which he was drafted and he signed a AHL contract.
Here is the list of skaters whose contracts are expiring and their status.
Unrestricted free agents
Restricted free agents
Just to put names on paper, the following is a list of players that more than certain will be in Rockford next season.
Terry Broadhurst-Alex Broadhurst-Ryan Hartman
Brandon Mashinter-Phillip Danault-Garret Ross
Mark McNeill-Joakim Nordstrom-Drew LeBlanc
Adam Clendening-Klas Dahlbeck
Viktor Svedberg-Mathieu Brisebois
Stephen Johns-Trevor van Riemsdyk
Remember, these aren’t necessarily lines to start the season, but just to show who could be on the roster in the fall.
The “X” factor in all this of course is any type of offseason trade.
As of right now, third year d-men Clendening and Dahlbeck should be the “veteran” leaders on the back end for Rockford and judging by the small sample size that we saw with Stephen Johns, he could be an anchor with this unit as well.
Brisebois showed signs of a fairly well rounded defenseman and Rockford’s record with Svedberg in the lineup was 21-10-3-1 compared to 14-22-2-3 with him out. So hopefully big Vik can get healthy as he definitely was a presence in Rockford’s lineup.
Van Riemsdyk and Fournier are question marks and I’m sure will have the usual rookie ups and downs. So that does leave room for maybe a veteran signee or a late in training camp PTO type guy to fill out the IceHogs defensive unit.
With the long list of defenseman already under contract, it would be hard to see any of the free agent blueliners from last season re-upping in the organization and returning to the Forest City. Although captain Jared Nightingale was a great leader for this team.
On the forward side, there are some open spots and again, I think Terry Broadhurst would be a logical returnee. Outside of that, I’d expect the Blackhawks to sign a veteran or two to help fill out the forwards and this could include Brad Mills.
After watching the progress and development of the core group of rookies last season, it’s hard not to be excited for 2014-15. The offense was a big question mark last season, and with trades and recalls of key veteran forwards, the first and second-year skaters stabilized the lamp lighting.
As of now, there is a little more room for outsiders up front for Rockford to fill spots as there are three to five open winger/center positions available. Again, a couple of veteran skaters could be slotted into these spots. Brandon Mashinter is the only veteran on the roster at any position right now so the IceHogs have a lot of flexibility.
I would not count on Morin being in Rockford next season as if he is re-signed by Chicago, I highly doubt he’d make it through waivers.
Just a thought, but a potential candidate that I think would be a great fit is former Blackhawks and IceHogs center Colin Fraser. Fraser would be a great depth guy for the organization, has won two Stanley Cups and could be a solid captain candidate for Rockford. He is currently under contract with the Los Angeles Kings and will be an unrestricted free agent.
Kent Simpson is entering his third pro season in 2014-15 and Mac Carruth his second. They will compete for one of the two goalie spots in Rockford as I’d expect Chicago to sign an experienced goalie who can serve as the #3 guy on the organization’s depth chart. There have been some crazy goalie situations in the NHL over the past couple of season with injuries and teams need to make sure they have someone in their system that can be recalled and play if needed.
Imagine where the Blackhawks would have ended up if it weren’t for Antti Raanta stepping up and carrying the workload with Corey Crawford out injured in December.