The annual NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., is around the corner, with the Blackhawks slated to compete in the eight-team tournament from Sept. 8-12. It's the first competitive hockey of the season, an early chance for organizations to see how their prospects stack up against other clubs around the league. For Chicago, this year's competition is not only an opportunity to evaluate players like Alex DeBrincat, David Kampf and Luc Snuggerud, it's also the first test for the Rockford IceHogs' new coaching group, which now includes Jeremy Colliton and Sheldon Brookbank.
"Probably 90 percent of the team we're bringing to Traverse City will be in Rockford this season," Senior Director of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard said, noting that the coaches will focus on assessing possible line combinations and defensive pairings over the course of the tournament. Before the team hit the road, chicagoblackhawks.com spoke with Bernard for a conversation about Rockford's coaching changes as well as his expectations for the upcoming campaign.
Click here to view the Blackhawks' roster, and click here for more information about the Prospect Tournament. All Blackhawks games will be streamed live on chicagoblackhawks.com.
The biggest thing heading into next season from an administrative point of view is a new coaching staff. Starting with the head coach, Jeremy Colliton, can you describe what the process was in hiring him and what kind coaching style he'll bring to Rockford?
First of all, we were looking for a coach who was going to be very energetic and very passionate and embrace the fact that he was going to have a very young team. Our mandate in Rockford is that we want to have success there, but we also want to make sure that the young players are developing so they can jump into Chicago. Being a cap team, it's imperative that these guys are developing quickly. When Jeremy's name was brought to us and we started digging into his record as a young coach, we discovered that not only had he had a lot of success with his team, but he's done it with a very young group. Mora IK (his former team in Sweden's second division) wasn't spending a lot of money on players, so he was developing a lot of 19- to 23-year-olds and at the same time having a lot of success. That drew us to him right away. Once we met him, his passion and energy came through, and it was a no-brainer for us.
He's also pretty young himself. Will that help in terms of relating to players or exploring new coaching tools?
The fact that he hasn't been out of the game that long will help him forge relationships with the players. He was a high draft pick, and unfortunately injuries cut his career short, but I think that will help him. He's a little bit closer in age to the players, he knows what they're going through on a day-to-day basis, and he's been through it. He'll be able to help them, whether they're going up [to the NHL] or coming down.
You added Sheldon Brookbank to the coaching staff as well. What led to the decision to expand the bench by another person?
After we hired Jeremy we started looking at our bench. We had [Assistant Coach] Derek King back, of course, but with the number of rookies we have coming in this year, anywhere from 10 to 12 possibly, we thought we maybe needed to look at getting another coach. Probably half of the American Hockey League teams have three on their coaching staff, so we looked into it.
When we decided we were going to go ahead with it, we thought ideally we'd hire a defenseman to work with the D. We could move Derek, who was a very offensive player when he played, to work with our young forwards coming in, and it just worked out that Sheldon had reached out to [Senior VP/GM] Stan Bowman, and we went from there. He's a perfect fit; he played for Joel Quenneville and he knows what Joel looks for in defensemen. Him and Derek have a relationship from playing together in Grand Rapids, early in his career and late in Derek's. It just seemed like a natural fit for us.
All three of the coaches have NHL experience. Was that an important factor in terms of being able to work hands-on with prospects?
I don't think it's a must, but it's definitely a plus, because they've been through what these players are going through. Even though Derek was a first-round pick, he spent time in the minors and went up and down, and Jeremy and Sheldon had been up and down. So they know all the feelings, they're not just guessing, and they'll be able to help them when they get sent down from Chicago to Rockford, maybe help them get over that hump a little quicker and get back to business.
What were your first impressions of the players who stepped into the AHL straight from college at the end of last season: Anthony Louis, Matheson Iacopelli and Luc Snuggerud?
I thought they adapted really well. They weren't coming into an ideal situation because we weren't in a playoff position, so the drive wasn't there in all of the players at that point in the season. They came in and injected some fresh energy into our room and helped us finish strong down the stretch.
Anthony is a little water bug out there. He brings energy and excitement; he's not just a north-south player, he's a north-south-east-west player. He makes things happen offensive and is exciting to watch. Matt came in and played well. He's got a tremendous shot, and it'll be important for him to utilize that a lot. We saw it in the first game he played. He got open and got his shots off.
Lastly, Luc was very steady for us. He was able to create chances for us through his shots from the point, but he also defended well. He handled the pace very easily, he made good reads and decisions with the puck, and I'm excited to watch him step in this year for a full season.
Is there something that presents the biggest immediate challenge for players making that jump to the pros in the middle of a season?
Usually when they come in there's generally 12 or 13 games left in the season, so we're not having to look for a place for them to live. We keep them in the hotel, and a lot of their meals are taken care of at the arena, so they just have to come in and focus on playing. We tell them right from the start: This is about getting your feet wet, getting some experience for next year, learning what the AHL is all about, learning what the day-to-day routines are. We're hoping they can find some early success so they can return with some confidence, but it's more about that experience so that next season when they return to Rockford, they can hit the ground running.
You mentioned all of the rookies potentially coming in next season. How do you manage expectations, taking into consideration their talent level and potential but also their inexperience?
We have to be very careful. I'd love to sit here and say that we're going to be a Calder Cup-winning team, and that's the goal of everybody down in the AHL. You want to have success and win, not only for your career and yourself and your team, but also for the community of Rockford. At the same time, these are going to be young players who make young mistakes. Our goal is that they learn from these mistakes quickly. Because the skill level is there, I think we're going to have a very fast skating team that can play with a lot of pace. I think we're going to be able to hound the puck both up the ice and in the defensive zone, and I think it's going to be important that Jeremy gives the guys the freedom to play offensively, as long as when they lose the puck, we get it back quickly. We have that ability. I'm really excited about our group, and how quickly we learn from our mistakes early on is how quickly we'll be able to enjoy some success.
Did anybody or anything stand out to you at July's Prospect Camp?
First of all, I really like the new format that we had. We didn't invite as many kids and kept it more limited so our development staff had more hands-on work with our actual prospects. The pace all week was great, the energy level was there and the scrimmage on the last day of camp was very good.
I really liked Dylan Sikura; he had a really good week. Collin Delia had a really good week in net. Ian Mitchell was very impressive. There are others, but those three jumped out right off the bat. But all the kids did well. We're not really evaluating them as much as we're getting an assessment on them -- where they've come from after last season and where we want them to get to by training camp.
For the IceHogs, the blue line should have a lot of returning faces next season. Can you talk about the strides that some of the defensemen on the team have made over the past year?
For Robin Norell and Carl Dahlstrom, it was a big year for them, coming over from Europe to North America for the first time -- smaller playing surface, having to find a place to live, having to find a vehicle to drive. There was a lot going on for them, and they made really good strides last year. I told them, "We're not looking so much at your points or your goals or what you achieved. We're looking at whether you took the next stop." I felt they both did that, and now we're looking for them to take another step. I'm going to expect them to provide some leadership this season.
Ville Pokka came in right from the World Cup, and I'm sure he was a little disappointed at not making Chicago's roster, but he never showed it. He worked hard and had another very steady season. Erik Gustafsson, same thing. I'm sure he was disappointed to land in Rockford after playing so much in Chicago the year before, but he played hard, played well and worked a lot on his game. Those two I expect big things from in training camp.
Which veterans will you be relying on to provide extra leadership this upcoming season?
It's really going to depend on who makes the team in Chicago. Kyle Baun will be a third-year player, and if he lands in Rockford, we'll expect some leadership out of him. Luke Johnson's only a second-year player, but by our numbers he's going to have to provide some veteran leadership. Of course, on the back end, it'll depend on Pokka and Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg. There are going to be some good battles at Blackhawks training camp, so we'll have to wait and see what happens there.
Is the goalie situation pretty set in the minors? (Note: Collin Delia, who is on the Prospect Tournament roster, was signed after this interview was conducted.)
I really like the depth we have right now. Jean-Francois Berube is still a young goalie at 25 years old. We've got a guy who's still really a prospect who's won a Calder Cup (in 2015 with the Manchester Monarchs) and just hasn't played a lot of hockey the last couple of years because they've had three goaltenders in the Islanders system. Jeff Glass came in and did a great job for us when we needed it last year. He was a real rock in our locker room. Matt Tomkins finished really strong at Ohio State and this will be his first year of getting his feet wet. He'll probably start in Indy and play some pro hockey there, and we'll see what happens for him. The depth is a little more than what we've had in the past, and I feel confident going into the season with the guys we have.
Lastly, what are your expectations for Rockford next season?
The expectations are always to make the Calder Cup Playoffs, and then anything can happen. Aside from that, our expectations are to make them better each and every day and make sure a few of these players are ready to take the step up to Chicago next season.