The Blackhawks’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, opened training camp this week, and this will be the second go-around for Head Coach Ted Dent, who was promoted before the 2011-12 season. It’s a unique set of circumstances for Dent and the IceHogs this year: In addition to the normal complement of players on the training camp roster, the team has also been assigned players who would likely be tabbed for the NHL roster if not for the current labor situation, including Nick Leddy, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Bollig and Dylan Olsen.
Dent sat down with chicagoblackhawks.com recently to talk about lessons he learned in his first season as an AHL bench boss, to preview the IceHogs’ upcoming season, and to discuss the luxury of having Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville in Rockford for training camp.
Now that you’ve been through one full season as an AHL head coach, is there one thing you know now that you wish you knew then?
That’s a good question… You can prepare and learn as much as you can from the guys you work with, which I feel that I did. But until you actually live it and go through it, that’s the only way you can really understand what it’s like to be a head coach in this league. It’s hard to explain, but the amount of pressure you put on yourself as a head coach to come up with solutions, and the different issues that come up, dealing with the personalities and stress of winning hockey games…one of the challenges for me is keeping my emotions in check all year.
Last season, with a lot of first-year AHL players on the roster, the team got off to a bit of a slow start, but things really came together in the second half, and you just missed out on a playoff spot. How can this team keep that momentum going into this season?
The one thing is, we don’t want to change too much about the way we were playing or the system we were using; something was working. It’s hard to pinpoint, but we were playing a good, sound team game, we were getting good goaltending and guys were just having fun out there. We want it to be fun, coming to the rink every day, and we want to create that environment here.
With the lockout and so many NHL-caliber players coming to the AHL for some length of time, does that change how you have to prepare on a daily basis?
It really doesn’t affect us at all. We have a schedule in place and we start in a couple of weeks, so it’s training camp as always. We have to get the guys into shape, get them all on the same page as quickly as possible, and whoever we have here to start the season is who we have. It is what it is. We have to get ready to play either way.
You have some familiar faces down here, in guys like Andrew Shaw, Brandon Bollig, Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen—players who graduated to the NHL level last season but are back in the AHL for the time being. Is it a luxury to have those guys back and working with some of the less-experienced players?
It can definitely help the young guys and they can share their experience with our group. The players who have spent time in the NHL have become true professionals. It can only help mold our team into what we’re trying to be: a hard-working, disciplined hockey team that has fun every day coming to the rink while trying to win games at the same time.
That being said, those same guys could be back in the NHL at any time, depending on how the labor negotiations go. Does it affect the team at all, knowing a lot of that experience could move on?
We’re no different than any other team in the American Hockey League, and it affects everyone equally. Every team is in the same boat—we have guys who are ready to come up from the ECHL if that happens, and they can fill those positions. As of now, we’re going day by day, and we’ll start the season with whoever we have.
You were here the last time Nick Leddy was in an IceHogs uniform. Have you noticed a change in him since his last time in Rockford?
I think he’s really matured as a player, and I see him being more confident in himself and his game. He’s handling the puck a lot more. He could always skate—we always knew that—but playing nearly two years in the NHL, he’s developed more confidence and poise as a player. He’s still a young man, and he’s friends with a lot of guys on our team here, so I think he’s happy to be playing hockey. He’s got a really good attitude about coming to play in Rockford this year.
It’s a different story for him, too—in Chicago, he’s the youngest regular defenseman in the lineup, and here he’s almost a “grizzled veteran” who has more NHL experience than just about anyone else on your roster.
I’m sure that the younger guys will take advantage of that experience soon. Right now, everyone’s still getting to know each other, and we’re only a few days into camp. Leddy’s more on the quiet side, but I’m sure once he gets comfortable there will be more communication.
Carter Hutton was one of the really pleasant surprises on last year’s team. He started in the ECHL, but worked his way up to the point where he enters training camp as the IceHogs’ top goalie. Can you talk about the kind of confidence and stability he gives the rest of the team?
I think we saw as a group that Carter was really the backbone of our team in the second half of last year. He really gave us a lot of confidence every night. We’re really looking forward to having him back here this season.
You have quite a few players who are entering their third full season as professionals—players like Jeremy Morin, Brandon Pirri, Ben Smith and Kyle Beach. Do you see them “taking the reins” and becoming even bigger team leaders as a key to success this season?
Those are some of the guys for sure, but I think we have a number of guys who can help lead the way and set a good example for everyone. We have a number of second- and third-year guys now; you go down the list with Ryan Stanton, Ben Smith, Joe Lavin, Shawn Lalonde, Rob Flick, Andrew Shaw, Philippe Paradis…the list goes on. It’s a really good mix, everyone gets along really well, and I think they can all take some shared leadership here.
Another byproduct of the lockout has been the Blackhawks coaching staff, and Head Coach Joel Quenneville in particular, being able to take in a lot of IceHogs practices so far. Knowing that there’s already such a strong coordination between the Rockford and Chicago coaches to teach the same system, how much of an asset has it been to have someone with as much experience as Coach Q on hand?
It’s been great; I talked to Joel last week before camp, and we’ve sat together for the scrimmages the past few days. Any time I can sit and talk hockey with Joel is great for me in my development as a coach. I can ask him questions and just absorb things that he has to say. It’s nothing but a positive experience working with him.
With Rockford only 90 miles from Chicago, not many of the IceHogs players are really “off the radar” for Blackhawks fans, but is there a player on the roster who Blackhawks fans don’t know about, but should be aware of?
There are a few players on our team who haven’t spent time in Chicago yet, but they’re working hard to get their first crack at the NHL level. A couple of the defensemen who don’t get a lot of recognition for us are Ryan Stanton and Joe Lavin. They work hard every night, they play hard, they block a lot of shots—they do a great job all-around for us.
Are there one or two players that Blackhawks fans should be keeping an eye on this season, the guys who you think could take the next step in terms of their development?
I think everyone’s really progressing—the goal of the American Hockey League is to work on your skills and help yourself get better, as well as helping the team win. I look at a guy like Brandon Pirri, who has put in a lot of hard work this summer, and Ben Smith is coming off a couple of surgeries and has worked really hard to get himself ready for this season. Blackhawks fans saw some of Jimmy Hayes last season, but he looks really good and he seems to be flying out there, really using his speed. There’s not one particular guy, but I think there are a few who could have really good years.