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Blackhawks counting on AHL affiliate for next wave of talent

Reinforcements from Rockford needed after down season in Chicago

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

American Hockey League developmental success stories played a key part in the emergence of the Chicago Blackhawks as a NHL power.

Chicago has won three Stanley Cup championships in the past decade, most recently in 2015.

Among the core of those championship teams were captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Chicago draft picks that went straight to the NHL. Marian Hossa was imported to be another key piece. Other important parts throughout the decade of excellence were homegrown: goaltender Corey Crawford, defensemen Duncan Keith and Dustin Byfuglien, now with the Winnipeg Jets, and a long list of forwards all started in the American Hockey League.

This season, the Blackhawks are struggling (29-30-8, 66 points) and are 11 points out of a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 15 games remaining. A new wave of AHL talent will be needed to accelerate a return to past form.

Chicago's affiliate in the AHL, Rockford, features a rookie coach in Jeremy Colliton, a cast of intriguing young prospects, and a sprinkling of confident veterans. That mix has put Rockford (29-24-3-3) in a battle for fourth place in the tight Central Division.

Here is a look at five storylines surrounding Blackhawks prospects in the AHL:

 

Birthday present

Rockford forward Matthew Highmore received his first NHL recall to Chicago on Feb. 26, one day before his 22nd birthday.

The versatile forward had set a Rockford team rookie record with 21 goals before his recall, which capped a busy four-week stretch for Highmore, who represented Rockford at the AHL All-Star Classic in January.

Highmore (5-foot-11, 181 pounds), was not selected in the NHL Draft. He was playing his over-age season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for Saint John when Chicago signed him March 2, 2017.

"He is very hard-working," Colliton said. "A team-first guy. Really responsible in all three zones. He goes to the net, gets his stick on rebounds and deflections. He is just hungry to recover pucks."

 

Change in plans

A veteran goaltending tandem of J-F Berube and Jeff Glass has not materialized in Rockford. With Crawford out with an upper-body injury, Berube and Glass each has spent time in Chicago.

However, the situation has allowed rookie Collin Delia, 23, to step forward.

Delia (6-2, 200), the AHL player of the week last week, is 11-6-2 with a 2.78 goals-against average and .901 save percentage in 19 games, 18 of which have come since Dec. 28.

"He has come a long way in three months," Colliton said.

 

Stockpiling depth

Amassing young depth in Rockford is key for the Blackhawks.

That group is highlighted by forward John Hayden (6-3, 223). The 23-year-old has played 39 games with the Blackhawks, he has 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 22 AHL games. Rookie Anthony Louis (5-7, 151), 23, has 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) in 54 games. Luke Johnson (6-0, 192), also 23, has shown promise in his second pro season with 11 goals and 11 assists.

The Blackhawks signed forward Tyler Sikura (6-2, 195) to a one-year contract that starts next season. The 25-year old is playing this season on an AHL contract. He has 16 goals.

Dividing time between Chicago and Rockford have been 25-year-old forward Tanner Kero (6-0, 185) and defensemen Gustav Forsling (5-11, 172), who is 21.

"We have some very nice young players that have taken steps in their development," Colliton said. "We're trying to develop guys that you can rely on, guys that in the NHL the coach can trust to put them in when the game is on the line, and I think that they're growing into that."

 

Youth behind bench

Colliton, 33, is the youngest coach in the AHL, but he brought a strong resume to his job interview.

He started his coaching career in Sweden, where he led Mora IK for parts of four seasons in the second-division Allsvenskan. His time there concluded last season with a championship and promotion to the Swedish Hockey League.

"What I took with me [from Mora] was confidence as far as how I see the game, what I think it takes to have success both as a team and in developing players," Colliton said.

 

Swagger

The Blackhawks want to surround their young prospects with some veteran swagger in Rockford, as Colliton terms it.

That group includes veteran forward Chris DiDomenico along with defensemen Cody Franson and Adam Clendening, each of whom has significant NHL experience.

"We're still building to that final product of results, but I like the effect it's having on our players, that you can have a little bit of swagger to your game," Colliton said.

He hopes that veteran personality can rub off on his prospects.

"[Young prospects are] just trying to survive, some of them," Colliton said. "You can't just survive. You're going to get eaten up. This is a league of men and pros. At times this year we've learned some hard lessons because of that."

He wants his prospects to take that approach to Chicago.

"To play in the NHL, you can't just go up there and try to survive," Colliton said. "You can't just try to get rid of the puck. You've got to have some confidence to make some plays, be physical when it's necessary, win a battle when it's necessary."

"It's just part of their process to be the guy that make a difference. We're trying to give them a little bit of that edge, a little bit of personality to their game, and hopefully that will serve them well."

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