The following appears in the November edition of Blackhawks Magazine. Pick up the latest issue at all Blackhawks home games and at the Blackhawks Store by calling (800) GO-HAWKS.
Ask any hockey general manager what factors will determine his team’s success in a given year and chances are high the first words out of his mouth will be “good goaltending.” When the GM in question is a former netminder, as is the case with Blackhawks GM of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard, it’s an absolute lock.
“I think that’s the key at any level,” said Bernard when asked what his Rockford IceHogs would need for a strong 2011-12 American Hockey League campaign. “With the young group here, I think we’re fortunate right now at the start of the season to have Alec Richards and Alexander Salak, two guys who can carry a team at any one time.”
Of course, there will be several other keys for Rockford this season, including staying healthy and some of the club’s top young talent taking their games to the next level. Bernard sat down with chicagoblackhawks.com’s Adam Kempenaar to break it all down.
MEET THE NEW BOSS
Ted Dent takes over as bench boss this year after five years as an assistant under Mike Haviland and Bill Peters. How would you rate Ted as a head coach so far?
MARK BERNARD: So far he’s been fantastic. Teddy has hit the ground running, and he’s apprenticed under two very good coaches in Mike Haviland and Bill Peters, both now in the NHL obviously. He played a key part in developing a lot of our players who were on the Stanley Cup-winning team from Norfolk and Rockford, and Teddy’s taken the good and bad from both coaches and developed his own style.
What are his strengths as a head coach?
MB: What I like about Teddy is that he’s very confident, he’s driven, and he provides structure. His organizational skills are exceptional, and he knows exactly where he wants to go and how he’s going to get there with his team. But at the same time he knows we’re a young group and young guys want to have fun. He’s been able to keep it loose for them.
The other thing he does really well is direct his staff. Assistant Coaches Ben Simon and Steve Poapst, and every member of his staff, know exactly what’s expected of them and that they all have a voice. At the end of the day it’s Teddy’s decision, but he listens to everybody and takes into account what they’re saying.
THE GREATEST WEALTH IS HEALTH
Having your top guys in the lineup is obviously crucial, and the player with arguably your most offensive upside is Jeremy Morin. He missed a good part of last season and all of training camp with the Blackhawks due to injury. How important will it be to have Morin back and healthy?
MB: It’s going to be huge. In Jeremy, you’re getting a guy who is a pure goal scorer. He’s got a great knack around the net, as he showed last season and the year before in Kitchener in the Ontario Hockey League. He has really nice hands and has the ability to make very good plays. He’ll definitely be a top-six guy in our lineup, and we’re looking forward to him contributing to the offense.
Philippe Paradis is another forward with a lot of skill who missed all of training camp. What can he bring now that he’s healthy?
MB: With Philippe you get a different player than Jeremy. He has good hands and can contribute offensively, but he’s a bigger guy who skates extremely well and loves to play physical. He loves to crash and bang, and that’s what we’re looking for from him. So they both bring different elements that are going to help our team.
GET UP, STAND UP, DON’T GIVE UP THE FIGHT
With Rob Flick in the mix and the addition of Andrew Shaw — guys who racked up their fair share of penalty minutes in the Ontario Hockey League — being a tough team to play against shouldn’t be much of a problem.
MB: Well, when you look at our roster, I think one thing that jumps out is that we have good team toughness. Brandon Bollig is a legitimate heavyweight. He’ll take on all comers, and it’s important for our team to know that he will stand up for his teammates. With Kyle Beach and Shaw and Flick, those guys are willing to go anywhere with anybody, but they’re also players we want on the ice.
Shaw is deceptive. He has great speed, nice hands. He has the ability to put up good numbers, as does Beach of course. We’d rather those guys play that game where they get under the skin and irritate the heck out of opponents. Beach drew six penalties the other night because of the way he plays. If he can do that and keep the rest of his game under control, he’s a very useful player for us.
Jimmy Hayes is a rookie in Rockford after a successful career at Boston College and a strong showing in the preseason for the Blackhawks. How well is he adjusting to the professional game?
MB: He’s very comfortable at this level. Jimmy is a big man who can skate very well. He’s very strong, but the nice part about him is he has soft hands and a nice touch around the net. He has the ability to make plays, and for a big man that’s special. He’s really impressed me so far with his strength and ability to win those battles for the puck along the walls, both in the offensive and defensive zones. He has a good knack for driving to the net.
He’s a player that has to learn on the power play that he’s most effective in front of the net, and he can learn that by watching a guy like Brandon Segal, who does that extremely well for us. Jimmy has a lot of great attributes that he brings to us on a daily basis.
You mentioned feeling fortunate to have Alec Richards or Alexander Salak in net. How much of a luxury is it to have Salak, who very easily could have won a job with the Blackhawks out of camp?
MB: We’re very lucky. We’re kind of spoiled. It actually takes me back to the time (2008-09) we had Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford in Rockford. It didn’t matter who you threw at the opposition. Night in and night out, you had a feeling you could win and be successful, and that’s the way we feel right now.
Salak is coming off a fantastic year overseas in Sweden. He wanted to come to North America and make the Blackhawks, but I also think it’s good for him to be here and play. I think the combination with him and Richards gives us a great one-two punch, and we feel very comfortable with either one of them in goal. With that confidence stemming from the net, it’s going to allow our team to play without worrying too much about what’s happening at the other end.
RAISING THEIR GAMES
Let’s talk about some of the top Blackhawks draft picks who now have some AHL seasoning and should be major contributors for you. He’s only 20 years old, but how much will you count on Brandon Pirri this year?
MB: Brandon is a player we’re looking at to provide a lot of offense this year, and I’m looking for him to take a big step. I felt he did that halfway through last year, at the end of January and early February, where it really clicked for him what he would have to do to be successful night in and night out at the American League level.
I think he’s made huge strides in his game. He really invested in himself a lot this offseason by spending the majority of the summer training with [21-year NHL vet] Gary Roberts on his conditioning and strength. I think he feels a lot more confident in his body now, and he’s going to make plays and battle and win those battles that last year he couldn’t because he’s stronger, smarter and he knows what to do every day to have success. He’ a kid who still has a long way to go but is right on that fringe of cracking the Blackhawks roster.
Dylan Olsen only played half the season in Rockford after leaving college, but he was the last defenseman cut by the Blackhawks at training camp. How far has his game come?
MB: For Dylan I think it’s all about confidence. He’s a player who was on the bubble for us last year, making the jump from the NCAA to the World Juniors to the American Hockey League; the play was really elevating each step. Going into the second half of the season, it was a lot for a
For Dylan Olsen, I think it’s all about confidence. Going into the second half of the season, it was a lot for a 19-year-old to digest. This year the ‘wow’ factor is gone. He went into Chicago and had a great training camp. I was really proud of him. - Mark Bernard
19-year-old to digest. This year the ‘wow’ factor is gone. He went into Chicago and had a great training camp. He had a good summer where he really worked hard on his conditioning. I was really proud of him. He took off some pounds and slimmed down, and he looks like a professional athlete now.
He has the ability, he skates well and is a big guy who can make plays. He moves the puck very well, and he’s physical. He needs to continue to build down here and play a high number of minutes. That’s important for a young defenseman. We’re looking for him to be very effective on our penalty kill. He has to be the guy — and has to want to be the guy — where in the last few minutes of play, the coaches are tapping on his shoulder to go out and defend.
What are your expectations for speedy Shawn Lalonde this year?
MB: Shawn is another player that really had to learn the pro game last year. He came from a situation in juniors where he could skate the puck on the Olympic-sized rink they have in Belleville (OHL) and could really do whatever he wanted. Coming here to Rockford, he had to learn the pro style of game where less is more. He did a good job last year and made good strides, and now he has to continue to work on his positional play and making the easy play. Not everything has to be a home run or a rush up the ice, but he’s making great strides, and I like where he’s going.