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Rockford season preview, part 2: Player development and starting strong

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks
IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent leads practice (Photo courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs).

As the Blackhawks wrap up their preseason slate this weekend and prepare to defend their 2013 title, their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, are in the middle of their own training camp. Last season, the IceHogs recovered from a slow start to make a mad dash up the conference standings, only to fall two points short of a playoff spot despite collecting 42 wins. If they hope to make the postseason this year, they’ll likely have to do without a handful of team veterans who have a great chance of graduating to the NHL roster. Director of Hockey Administration/GM of Minor League Affiliates Mark Bernard sat down with to discuss the new faces on the team and the coaching staff, as well as his high hopes for the 2013-14 campaign.

The organization added Mark Osiecki to the coaching staff. What kind of experience does he bring to the mix?

I’m excited about having Mark join the team. He was a head coach in the USHL for many years and won a championship there. He graduated to the University of Wisconsin, where he was working with the defense and coached many players who have gone on to great NHL careers, and he also won a national championship there. Then he went to Ohio State. On top of that, he’s been a part of three of the last four U.S. World Juniors teams that have won medals. It’s important to have someone who is going to be able to bring a lot of experience to the table and help [Head Coach] Ted Dent out. He’ll be able to bring a lot of different ideas, new ideas. It’s good to have two great hockey minds in the same office, and we’re very fortunate to have him.

We’ve decided that this year we’re going to go with only one assistant coach. One of the main reasons is that we have such a strong development department now, led by Barry Smith. He has Yanic Perreault, Keith Carney, Andrew Allen and Kevin Delaney under his umbrella. We always seem to have one of those coaches working with us during the week in Rockford, so it’s really like we have a second assistant coach there anyway. We’re very fortunate that Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough and Stan Bowman allow us the funds to have this development department to help the players.

A lot of these players want to get to the NHL. Is patience something you also have to teach at the AHL level?

They all want to be in the NHL yesterday. Chicago is a very tough organization to crack in the NHL because Stan, Al MacIsaac and Norm Maciver have done such a tremendous job keeping the nucleus of the team together, so there may be only a couple of spots open per year. It is important to stress patience to them, that they can never be in the AHL for too long, and they’re only going to continue to develop and get better. We have to remind them of players like Bryan Bickell and Corey Crawford, who spent four or five years in the AHL, and it’s worked out pretty well for them. They’re still young players, they all want to be in the NHL, but sometimes that extra year can be very beneficial to them.

The team had a great run in the second half, but fell just short of making the playoffs. Was it a bittersweet way to end the season? How important is it to start this season off well and maybe try to give yourselves a bit of breathing room?

It was very disappointing; we felt we had a very good team. At the same time that the lockout ended, we really started to gel and move forward. I thought we had a team that, if we could get into the playoffs, could make a lot of noise. There were a lot of teams that approached us after the year—and even near the end of the year—that said, we don’t want to play you guys; if you guys get in, you have a chance to win it all. I think we only lost seven or eight games in the last 31 games down the stretch, and to miss by two points was very disappointing. To be the first team in the 77-year history of the league to not make the playoffs with 42 wins was bittersweet, but we know that from a development standpoint, our coaching staff did a tremendous job in making sure that these players were ready to take the next step to the NHL, and that’s what we’re all about.

You go into every year and wanting to make the playoffs, but at the same time, we have a group that’s going to be very young up front—very young, but very talented. It’s going to be important for our staff to bring them up to speed quickly, because we don’t want to wait until Christmas to turn on the jets again. If you look at our last three years, our record in the second half of the year is always around .700, .750. We need to make sure we get off to a better start, and we’ll make sure during training camp and the exhibition season that our players are aware of that.

What’s the biggest factor in making sure these young players are all on the same page in order to get that running start?

For the first year players, the biggest factor is that they’re going through such a transition in their life. They’re leaving the nest, almost; they’re leaving their parents or leaving college and entering their professional careers. For some of them, they’re living on their own for the first time, cooking, cleaning, paying bills. It’s a big adjustment; they’re becoming adults. Some of them adjust quicker than others. The easier we can make that transition for them, the better their game usually translates onto the ice.

For the second-year players, they know the community now, they’ve been there and lived on their own, and they should be able to step in and help the first-year guys make a smooth transition. I always find that the first six weeks are very important to try and make it very seamless for the new players. Once they get into a rhythm, it’s off to the races.

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