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Blackhawks Magazine: Rockford IceHogs season preview

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks
(Photo courtesy Rockford IceHogs)

This feature originally ran in the October issue of Blackhawks Magazine and went to print prior to the start of the AHL regular season.

The Rockford IceHogs went through some tumultuous changes last year, graduating several players to the NHL in addition to losing a few veterans via trades. Ben Smith spent the entire year with the Blackhawks, while Jeremy Morin and Joakim Nordstrom were called up for a few stints each. Goaltender Antti Raanta, who started the season in Rockford, was summoned away after injuries took their toll in Chicago’s net. Jimmy Hayes, Dylan Olsen and Brandon Pirri—mainstays of the minor-league team, who were all on the cusp of NHL readiness—were traded away early in the year, and the team didn’t receive reinforcements at the AHL level until the trade deadline in February.

Despite all of the activity, the IceHogs put together a commendable regular-season campaign on the backs of a young core, including a couple of (then) second-year defensemen, Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck, as well as rookie duo and former first-round draft picks Mark McNeill and Phillip Danault. The team finished ninth in the Western Conference, narrowly missing out on a postseason berth for the second year in a row, but with a strong rookie class and a bevy of free-agent signings shoring up the roster, the outlook is bright for the future of Blackhawks hockey.

Director of Hockey Administration and General Manager of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard sat down with Blackhawks Magazine to introduce the organization’s new faces and preview the upcoming season for Rockford.

This year’s team is looking like it will be built around a core of returning players in Clendening, Dahlbeck, McNeill and Danault. How much did they mature last season, and do you expect them to take on a bigger leadership role this year?

Both Clendening and Dahlbeck have a done better job each year. Klas wore an ‘A’ on his jersey last year for a lot of the season, and I think both of them have progressed, on the ice and off the ice. We’re going to look for them to take a bigger step this year. With McNeill and Danault, they’re entering the second year of their pro careers, and both of them enjoyed highs and lows in their rookie seasons last year. We’re looking to them to build on that going forward. As far as leadership, that will come to both of those guys naturally.

Also entering their second AHL season are players like Alex Broadhurst, Garret Ross and Viktor Svedberg. What improvements can they make in order to play an even bigger role this year?

Last year, at times we had 10 to 12 rookies in our lineup and playing every game. That goes hand in hand with our whole development process. We want players playing on a nightly basis; we want them playing key minutes. We want them playing key times in the games, whether it’s on the power play or in the last minute of a game. We want them gaining that experience.

Different organizations do it different ways. Another team’s young guys might play a night or two, get limited minutes and be healthy scratches other nights. It’s baptism by fire with our players. They play a lot and learn from their mistakes, and we move forward. That goes hand in hand with everything that [Director of Player Development] Barry Smith and his team are preaching. [IceHogs Head Coach] Ted Dent and Barry work closely with the players, and I think it’s been great so far.

Last year, a few veteran prospects who had spent several years in the system were traded away. Did that create a steeper learning curve for some of the first- and second-year players?

We do put a bigger responsibility on their shoulders just by asking them to play key minutes every night. We tell them, you’re going to make mistakes; learn from your mistakes and go forward. Don’t dwell on them, don’t worry that you’re not going to play tomorrow night or going to be benched. Players don’t get better sitting in the stands, eating popcorn and watching. They get better by playing.

If for whatever reason we have too many players, I’ll send them down to the ECHL to play a game or two, because I feel like we’re doing them a disservice if they’re sitting in the stands. They need to be playing minutes and learning. If there’s more of a responsibility put on their shoulders, I think that’s a good thing. One of the things that [Senior Director of Amateur Scouting] Mark Kelley and his group have done is draft high-quality, high-character players. They all have that ability to carry a bit more responsibility on the team.

There must be a lot of anticipation for the incoming rookie class, which includes Ryan Hartman, Teuvo Teravainen, Stephen Johns and Dennis Rasmussen. It’s a pretty experienced group. Do you have high expectations for them?

I always have high expectations—maybe sometimes they’re too high, if there’s such a thing. With the group we have coming in, those are pretty established guys who have done a lot in their careers to this point. Teuvo and Dennis have both played at the pro level over in Europe. Matt Carey has gotten his feet wet at the NHL level; Hartman got his feet wet in Rockford at the end of last year and did very well.

As a whole, I have high expectations for this group, because it’s not a lot of young rookies who have never played in a pro game. Johns and Hartman were both with us at the end of last year and enjoyed success. The other guys have played pro hockey in Europe and the NHL. So I really like our group.

Adding free-agent talent is always a huge aspect of filling out the AHL roster. What are some of the roles you looked to fill through free agency before the start of the season?

We did a good job adding guys like Cody Bass, Pierre-Cedric Labrie and Zach Miskovic. In goal, we got two very good depth guys in Michael Leighton and Scott Darling. It’s hard because no one has a crystal ball, but when you’re looking at your roster at the beginning of July, as free agency is beginning, you’re trying to fill in the holes you think your team might have.

The one thing we try not to do is take away ice time from our top prospects. You don’t want to take away their power play, penalty kill or 5-on-5 ice time. The one area we felt we maybe could improve upon is bringing in the type of physical player who will stand up for his teammates. In Labrie and Bass, you definitely have those types of players, along with Brandon Mashinter.

The goalie picture is pretty interesting right now, with a young prospect in Mac Carruth battling it out with Darling and Leighton, the veterans. What kind of balance are you trying to establish in net?

It’s always about what’s going to benefit the NHL team. We have to make sure we have another goalie in our system with NHL experience. If something happened to Corey Crawford or Antti Raanta, we don’t want to be in a situation where we have a young goaltender up with no experience, who is learning on the fly. Leighton has plenty of experience, has played deep in the playoffs and is very well known throughout the NHL and AHL as a great teammate. Not only does he provide depth for Chicago, he can be a great mentor for the younger goalies in our organization.

During one of Crawford’s last years in Rockford, we were able to pair him with Wade Flaherty, who was an older goaltender at the end of his career. It’s nice for those younger goalies to have an older goaltender who acts almost like a second goalie coach. They can talk on the road or on the bus with guys who have been through the same issues that maybe they’re going through—the ups and downs that come with being a goalie early in his career.

Another area where Rockford has an embarrassment of riches is on the blue line, which was eight or nine players deep before the start of training camp. How do you see the situation playing out on defense?

I’m really excited. The three names that jump off the board for me right now are Dahlbeck, Clendening and Cumiskey, all guys who in another organization could start the year in the NHL. Klas and Adam both played very well last year as they did in their rookie years, and they’re right on the fringe, just like Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith were last year.

Cumiskey has played in the NHL, played for Joel Quenneville, and is someone who Joel has confidence in and is comfortable with. If he does start the year in Rockford, he provides us with some veteran depth. I’m also excited for the youngsters: Johns, van Riemsdyk, Svedberg and Dillon Fournier. Those are all good young players who are starting their pro careers, and it’s going to be exciting to see how they develop. Watching them last year, especially Svedberg and Johns, I’m really optimistic and high on them. Dillon is coming off a shoulder injury, but was a very good junior player, and van Riemsdyk was a very good college player.

Are there any line or player combinations that found chemistry last season and have solidified themselves as a unit going forward?

Guys find a fit. Our coaches will take care of that stuff—who plays and who gels. Sometimes it’s the players that you never expected that gel really well together. Those kinds of things always work themselves out as the season goes on, and sometimes the line combination you don’t think about is the best one of all.

One thing we try to do is put players in positions where they’re going to have success and put them in roles they will play when they get to Chicago. There’s no sense in playing a guy who we feel might be a third- or fourth-line player in Chicago on the top line here in Rockford, because then he’s out of his realm when he goes to Chicago. You want them to learn the role that’s expected of them if they’re going to play in the NHL and teach them that role to the best of their ability.

You got your first look at a lot of the players who will make up the bulk of the IceHogs roster at the Rookie Tournament in London, Ontario, in September. What were your impressions of the team and how they played?

I was very impressed with our group, both on and off the ice. They handled themselves very professionally and represented the Chicago Blackhawks organization in a first-class way. On the ice, I thought we played very well. We got better as the tournament went along; a lot of young players were fighting nerves in their first game. They want to impress, they want to do well, but they’re nervous. In Games 2 and 3, we totally outplayed the opposition and just fell short in shootouts.

It was a great way for our scouting staff and hockey ops to see the development that these players have made over the summer months.

Which players stood out to you the most at the tournament?

Danault played extremely well the whole tournament. He came in ready after doing a lot of work throughout the summer, and he volunteered to go to Sweden to the camp that Barry Smith runs in late August, which really helped. He put up good numbers in the QMJHL, but he was also picked as best defensive player in the league, which is a special talent. To be that two-way player—a lot of teams would kill for that. He looks not only stronger physically now, but stronger on his skates.

A lot of our other players also got better as camp went along. Svedberg hadn’t played since last January because of an injury, and I thought he got stronger each game. Van Riemsdyk played very well on defense. Teravainen, who played in two of three games, made some great plays. He definitely showed why he’s going to be a very good player.

What’s the ideal shape and system of this team? What kind of hockey should the IceHogs play in order to maximize their potential?

We try to play a system very similar to what Joel plays in Chicago, because we want these players to transition smoothly. We don’t want them to get called up and be like a fish out of water. We want to play with the puck; we don’t want to be a dump-and-chase team. We want them to utilize their skills and develop all of their senses at the pro game.

Looking back at last season, what did you like about the team’s development, and what areas need to improve in order for Rockford to have a successful campaign in 2014-15?

One of the keywords that we have to preach at the AHL level is “patience.” A lot of the time, we have a very young team. They’re going to make mistakes; it’s how they learn from and react to those mistakes that’s interesting to me. That’s part of their development, so patience is a big key.

I thought we finished very well last year. We need to continue to pick up where we left off. We’ve signed some nice pieces that will complement our young players very well. I think our goaltending will be that much better this year, not only because we’ve added players, but also because Carruth is a year older. Goaltending is a very hard position, and you get better as you get older.

If we can get off to a good start to the season, that will be key. We can’t play catch-up. The nice part going forward is that we have a lot of second-year players and not a lot of pure rookies. If those players can build on their first years, we will be in good shape.

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