|The IceHogs relied on a solid top line of Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault (front) and Garret Ross, who have improved individually and as a trio in their second full AHL seasons. (Photo courtesy Rockford IceHogs)
In the American Hockey League, patience is not only a commodity, but a necessity. Blackhawks GM of Minor League Affiliations/Director of Hockey Administration Mark Bernard knows this perhaps more acutely than anyone in the organization, having seen the Rockford IceHogs miss the Calder Cup Playoffs in each of the last four seasons, including agonizing ninth-place finishes in 2012-13 and 2013-14. Injuries to key players, slow starts, youth and inexperience, a stacked Western Conference — each year, some combination of unfortunate factors would cause the Blackhawks' farm team to fall short of the playoffs.
That all changed this season, when the IceHogs hit the ground running, stringing together eight consecutive wins from Oct. 25-Nov. 8 to put themselves ahead of the pack in the Midwest Division, arguably the toughest in the league. (All five teams finished the regular seasons with a winning record and 81 or more points in the standings.) They finished just two points behind top-seeded Grand Rapids and will face the defending AHL champion Texas Stars in the conference quarterfinals, which begin on Friday on the road. Ahead of Rockford's playoff push, Bernard chatted with chicagoblackhawks.com to reflect on a successful regular season and discuss the development of the Blackhawks' farmhands.
Was it a relief to make the playoffs this year?
It really takes the pressure off, especially when you make the playoffs a little bit earlier. We got in about a week ago, and it takes the pressure off down the stretch; the last two years we’ve been trying to make them up until the last weekend of the seasons. It’s a great reward for the players and a credit to all the hard work they and the coaching staff have done. We really try to walk that narrow line between winning and development. We understand that development is number one for our organization, so we’ve got to make sure that our players are prepared to play in Chicago, but we also want to win, and this has been a great season for us — to be able to do both.
Team scoring has been spread pretty evenly throughout the lineup all season long. You have two 20-goal scorers and nine guys with 10 or more. Is it nice when everyone is contributing?
It really is. It takes the pressure off the one or two players that you’re looking toward for scoring every night. The fact that we’ve got so many players over the 10-goal mark and a few over the 20-goal mark really provides relief for your top guys.
Even though offense has been a group effort, Rockford has a productive top line of Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault and Garret Ross, who have been together when everyone’s healthy. How would you evaluate their development individually and as a trio?
Individually, all three of them have really taken the next step in their development and in their careers. Danault, for example, after a first year that was up and down for him — which is not irregular for a first-year player — has come back and is playing with so much more confidence. I feel like he’s stronger, he’s protecting the puck, his energy and work ethic every day are through the roof, and he’s really turning in a great second season.
McNeill has picked up where he left off: He continues to be a force around the net for us, as he’s a big body that drives the net and has a great shot, and skates extremely well. But he’s also a huge part of our penalty kill; he’s one of the first players over the boards when we’re killing penalties, has the ability and the willingness to block shots.
Last year coming into training camp, Ross lost a lot of weight after being ill. This year he had a great summer and came back a lot stronger, more confident than he was in his first year. He’s up in scoring, and he’s playing the game with a lot more confidence as well. So all three players have really taken that next step, and they’re really going to compete at training camp next year for Chicago.
This season you lost three veteran defensemen to trades, but it seems like the blue line is still seven deep most nights. Who has stood out as someone who has stepped up as a leader on defense?
I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t speak of both Ville Pokka and Stephen Johns. They’ve both enjoyed very good first seasons in Rockford. I think both of them have stepped their game up lately over the last month, with the loss of Klas Dahlbeck, T.J. Brennan and Adam Clendening. It created a lot more ice time, and those guys are both playing over 20 minutes a night, in key roles and situations — power play, penalty kill.
Was it a difficult transition for Pokka and Johns to take on bigger leadership roles in the middle of the season?
The nice part is that it wasn’t. It doesn’t mean that they’re talking any more in the locker room. They’re just letting their play speak for them. They’re playing extremely well, playing a lot of key minutes, and they come ready to play every night and every day in practice.
As important as it is to have depth in Rockford for Chicago, it’s been important for Rockford to have depth in Indianapolis with Dillon Fournier and Kirill Gotovets, who have come up and played very well for us. The acquisition of Keith Seabrook, as well — he’s come in and played very well for us. And now we have Robin Press and Carl Dahlstrom come over and join our team for the end of the season, and that gives us a lot of options. We have a lot of depth on defense right now, and they're young, but we’re very confident in them.
Is that defensive depth the reason the organization was able to deal T.J. Brennan for Spencer Abbott?
It was, and it was also to create more ice time for Pokka and Johns. We were also looking to help our offense, add a little more scoring with the loss of Joakim Nordstrom and Teuvo Teravainen to Chicago. That took a bit of offense away from the front end of our lineup, and Abbott has come in and been fantastic for us.
Still, did you expect Abbott to fit in so well so soon?
I expected him to come in and play as well as he has, but he’s exceeded my expectations. He has just played fantastic on that line with Brandon Mashinter and Peter Regin. The three of them have really developed chemistry very quickly, and he fits in our locker room very well. He’s a quiet, soft-spoken guy, just goes out and plays his game each and every night, and he’s done a fantastic job for us since he’s joined us.
In addition to getting a few defensemen from overseas, you've also added a couple of players out of college in Vincent Hinostroza and Tanner Kero. What was the plan for fitting them into the lineup, and have you been happy with their contributions so far?
At the end of the year, we’re always getting players in Rockford who are finishing their junior or college careers. We ask them to play a few games, get their feet wet and get a sense of what it’s like at the American Hockey League level. Tanner and Vinnie have done exactly that. Both of them have played extremely well. Tanner’s got five goals in six games, and Vinnie has two points as well. They both came in, fit right into our system and our locker room, and are enjoying some success, which takes the pressure off them, makes it a little easier to fit in and feel confident.
The biggest part for them is seeing what it’s all about on a day-to-day level in the AHL: seeing how our coaches operate day to day, and what the players, especially the older veterans, what they do on a day-to-day basis to have success, and how they carry themselves, how to be a good pro, so they are that much more aware when they’re entering their first training camp and pro season next year.
How impressive has Michael Leighton been in net this season?
Leighton has been a rock right from day one. Our goaltending has been a strength, whether it’s Michael Leighton and Scott Darling, or Mac Carruth, or Antti Raanta. But Leighton has been the rock all year; he’s been tremendous, and he’s great in the locker room with our young players. He’s an older player who keeps himself in tremendous shape, so he still has the ability to play a lot. In goalie years, I think he’s still young and has a lot to offer our group.
Who has been the unsung hero for Rockford?
For me, the unsung hero is Cody Bass. He comes to work every day, and he plays extremely hard each night. He’s not a big point producer, and what you see from Bass doesn’t show up on the scoreboard. But he’s well-respected in our locker room, he stands up for all of our players, the young players love him, and I think he’s done a fantastic job for us.
Nordstrom was appointed captain at the start of the season, but he's spent much of the season up with Chicago. Is that a case where older guys like Bass and Labrie become important pieces, keeping the locker room together?
All those guys — Peter Regin and Zach Miskovic, Bass and Pierre-Cedric Labrie — have done tremendous jobs. We talked about it, and we weren’t going to rename a captain. Nordstrom is the captain of our team, and he was called up, but that’s a pretty special role when you get named captain, and we weren’t going to diminish that by renaming someone else. Our great assistant captains have paved the way since he left.
There are just a handful of players who have been to the playoffs before, in both the AHL and NHL. Overall it’s still a pretty young team, and a lot of them are seeing postseason action for the first time. What are your expectations for this group going into the Calder Cup playoffs?
They’re very excited, for one. But they all have goals, they hold themselves accountable and they want to have success. I don’t think they’re just happy making the postseason; they all want to do well, and it shows that they have the ability to play in the postseason and have success. I expect them to perform very well. Maybe in Game 1, some may have some nerves, but that’s where the veterans like Leighton, Bass and Labrie (who won a Calder Cup a few years ago in Norfolk) will help.