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High On The Hog: Wrapping Up In Rockford

The Rockford IceHogs had themselves a hell of a season. For four months, at least.

It was another year of development for the 45 players who spent time toiling on the farm in 2015-16. There was some big rookie impact to go with some surprising veteran production over the course of the campaign.

When all was said and done, the Hogs had earned a spot in the AHL postseason for the second year in a row. A host of players had spent time in Chicago, with some becoming quite familiar with Interstate 90 along the way.

Rockford finished with a record of 40-22-10-4, good enough for third place in the Central Division before being swept from the first round by Lake Erie. However, it has to be noted that there is a very definitive point in the season where the arrow veered sharply for this team.

As we take a look at the season that was, know that for four months Rockford was very, very good. And then…they weren’t.

The IceHogs started the season 1-3 before a ten-game points streak vaulted them to the upper echelon of the Western Conference by mid-November. Rockford won all four games on a Texas road swing to start December, fought off a holiday lull and hit its high-water mark with a 8-2-0-1 run to start 2016.

On January 29, the IceHogs beat the Chicago Wolves 6-0. Through 43 games, Rockford sported a 27-10-2-4 mark. That put them on top of the Central and second in the West. At that point, things slowly turned south.

The IceHogs went 3-4-3 in February and never really recovered, going 13-12-8 in the last 33 games of the season. What caused the nosedive?

Well, Michael Leighton wasn’t as good in February and March as he was in January when he was the AHL’s Goaltender Of The Month. The Hogs offense dried up a bit as well.

Through January 29, Rockford scored three or more goals in 26 of 43 games, 60 percent of the time. They reached the three-goal plateau just 14 of 33 times to end the season (42 percent).

Defensively, the Hogs held their opponents to two goals or less 28 times in those first 43 games. In the last 33 games, that happened just 14 times. That’s a drop from 65 to 39 percent.

The most stark change in Rockford’s fortunes came on the road. Through January, the team boasted a 12-5-1-1 record as the visiting team. They were 5-8-8 the rest of the way, dropping consecutive games to road opponents on three occasions. The Hogs lost eight straight in one particularly futile stretch.

Also pathetic in the last three months was the team’s play in Gus Macker Time. Rockford was 0-8 in those last 33 games; they did win the only shootout they had in that span. In all, the IceHogs were 3-10 in overtime and 2-4 in the shootout for the season.

Special teams was also a source of concern in 2015-16. The IceHogs power play was the worst in the Western Conference, hitting on just 14.6 of their opportunities. The penalty kill operated at a 82.5 success rate. With as much as the team spent in the box, that wasn’t good enough.

Rockford was the fifth-most penalized team in the league, averaging 17 penalty minutes a contest. Only three AHL teams were shorthanded more than the Hogs; none of those teams were in the Central Division.

Back in December, I noted that fighting was down in Rockford and that the team could be heading for one of their lowest fight totals. Well…the IceHogs amassed 59 fighting majors in 2015-16, which is their lowest total as an AHL franchise save for the 44 they earned in 2013-14.

In a year where fighting was down, however, that still put the Hogs in a tie with the Wolves for fourth in the AHL. That’s as high as Rockford has finished in their nine-year run as the Hawks affiliate.

Leading the way was Michael Liambas, who led the league with 20 scraps (just edging out former Hogs Kyle Hagel) despite missing most of the first three months with a foot injury. Chris DeSousa chipped in with eight fights, while captain Jake Dowell dropped the gloves on seven occasions.

 

Black, Hypothetical Aces

With Rockford and the Hawks finishing their seasons within days of each other, we didn’t see an influx of prospects onto the NHL roster in the form of Black Aces. This spring, everyone just cleared out their lockers and went wherever the players go to start their off season.

Who might have been recalled were the Blackhawks still in the mix for the Stanley Cup? Here are a couple of pennies from me to you…

 

Forwards

Dennis Rasmussen, who spent the bulk of the season with Chicago, is likely recalled along with Bryan Bickell (cap space not being an issue in the playoffs).

Mark McNeill, who led the Hogs with 25 goals, certainly merited a call-up. Same goes for rookies Vinnie Hinostroza and Tanner Kero. Hinostroza topped the Hogs in scoring (17 G, 33 A) and was easily the prospect who showed the most development over the course of the season.

Kero scored 20 goals in his first full season in Rockford and was second on the team with a plus-15 skater rating. Leading the team in that category was Ryan Hartman with a plus-16 rating.

Hartman had a tendency to take ill-advised penalties; on more than one occasion he was benched in the final minutes of close games. However, he had a solid sophomore effort (15 G, 20 A in 61 games), quite similar to his rookie campaign. So he would have been a no-brainer for this hypothetical round of call-ups.

Kyle Baun? Not so much. In his defense, he was hurt for a big stretch of the season after his arm was cut by a skate. However, he skated with some good players once he came back and didn’t show me that much.

Ryan Haggerty impressed me a hell of a lot more than Baun did, though he couldn’t get steady time on anyone’s line this season. A quick comparison…

Haggerty (36 games): nine goals, four assists, plus-two.

Baun (43 games): one goal, eight assists, minus one.

The former may be looking for a team this summer. The latter signed an extension this spring. I’m willing to give Baun a mulligan due to the injury, but wonder what Haggerty needed to do to see the ice more often.

So…Baun probably gets a trip to Chicago in light of that extension, though I just would have sent him home.

Garret Ross was a frequent scratch once his suspension was lifted and did not play in the playoffs against the Monsters. He did not post a goal after denting the net in that 6-0 win over Chicago January 29. He managed five assists the rest of the season in 25 games. He was scoreless in his last 13 games.

Without factoring in any off-ice activity whatsoever, I’d still say that Ross has skated his last in the organization. Wouldn’t have expected him to come up to Chicago.

 

Defense

Ville Pokka had himself a solid campaign-10 goals and 35 assists. He did that being a mainstay on the top pairing, whether he was skating with Cameron Schilling, Viktor Svedberg, or any of the other Hogs defenders.

The debate can rage this summer as to whether Pokka is ready to contribute to the Hawks blue line. However, there is no doubt that he would have been recalled if Chicago’s season was still going.

Schilling probably gets a taste of the NHL as a Black Ace even though his NHL prospects may be fading. He was the team’s steadiest defender and lent a big shot from the point when he could get a puck settled. I wasn’t real impressed with his hands, but he did contribute 22 points (5 G, 17 A), his highest point total in four full AHL campaigns.

As for the rest? Jay Harrison and Kyle Cumiskey are still injured to the best of my knowledge (Harrison never having skated for the Hogs). The two Swedes who signed entry deals, Robin Norell and Calle Dahlstrom, are on ATOs and aren’t eligible for recall.That leaves rookie Nolan Valleau.

Valleau was often in the pressbox once Norell and Dahlstrom came aboard. He seemed to hit a wall in January, putting up just two assists in his final 31 games. In his first 31 games, Valleau had a goal to go with nine helpers. Like Pokka, Valleau will have to work to be more consistent throughout his second full pro season.

 

Goalie

Mark Visentin had some promising moments, but he was just on an AHL deal and is recovering from ankle surgery. Drew MacIntryre may be coming to the end of a decent AHL career but wasn’t going to get a sniff of Chicago.

What about Mac Carruth?

If there is anyone on the IceHogs team that deserved a recall, it was Carruth. He started the season on an AHL deal and proved himself in his first real shot in net for Rockford over the last few weeks of the season.

I doubt that Chicago would have carried four goalies the rest of the spring. Carruth may or may not have done enough to merit an extension. A recall could have tipped the Blackhawks hand. He’ll be an interesting name to watch for come July.

After Leighton, Rockford has no goalies signed in the organization, save for the deal they gave Carruth this spring for the remainder of the season. Leighton is an UFA this summer, with Carruth being a RFA. How is Chicago going to proceed?

 

A Look At Other Players Of Interest

This season was noteworthy for a host of other players in Rockford. Jake Dowell started the season on a tryout deal and was signed to an AHL contract a few weeks in. Dowell was eventually named captain and had his best AHL season to date.

Dowell was a huge part of the Hogs success in the first half of the season and participated in the league’s All-Star Weekend. In 72 games, he finished with 11 goals, 24 assists, 35 points and a plus-14 rating. All those numbers were AHL career highs for the veteran center.

After signing an AHL deal this past summer, fan favorite Pierre-Cedric Labrie had himself a fine season. Scoring a career-high 20 goals, Labrie continued to endear himself to the BMO faithful.

Labrie benefited from Brandon Mashinter being recalled to Chicago early in the season. This led to more time in front of the net on the power play and an increased role in the offense. The result was a 34-point season.

DeSousa re-signed with Rockford for next year and I have to say that I like this move. The 5’9″ forward was noticeable most nights on fourth line and had enough finish to post seven goals and six helpers.

As for Liambas, well…he played his role and skated hard all season, excepting the two months he was injured. He was an alternate captain for a brief time this season and seemed to show some leadership in the locker room.

He was on pretty good behavior for an enforcing type of player. Liambas wasn’t able to match his meager offensive production of his seasons in Milwaukee, but I really have no beef with how he performed.

Liambas has a pretty simple game; he gets on the ice and looks for someone he can take a run at. He fore checks pretty hard. Despite giving up size to nearly every dance partner, he is a more-than-willing combatant. It’s a style that leads to a lot of league-mandated discipline, though Liambas was not handed any suspension time this season.

What still has me scratching my head is how the Blackhawks looked at Liambas, who had never been on anything but AHL contracts, and gave him a one-year NHL two-way deal. If Rockford brings him back on AHL ink, I could live with it.

Hawks draft picks Nick Mattson and Sam Jardine signed AHL contracts with Rockford hoping to show the team something. Mattson began to get a bit of steady playing time in the last month of the season.

In 17 games with Rockford, Mattson had a goal and six helpers. He saw time on the power play and skated in the last two games in the Lake Erie series. The jury is out on whether he secured a spot on next year’s team.

Jardine, as you may recall, left Ohio State just before his senior season to get his pro career started following a strong showing at Chicago’s prospect camp. In hindsight, he would have been better off captaining the Buckeyes.

Jardine barely got a taste of Rockford, though he did nearly get his head knocked off by Kurtis Gabriel in his AHL debut October 30. He was scoreless in six appearances with the Hogs, spending most of the season in Indy with the Fuel. In 50 games, he had two goals, three assists and was a minus-17.

Also seeing his pro prospects take a dip was Dillon Fournier. The big defenseman spent season two of his entry contract lounging in Indy after he couldn’t stick on the Hogs roster past the second weekend. The Blackhawks second-round draft pick in 2012, Fournier played just seven games with the Fuel, the last being November 13. He was injured in that game and did not play the remainder of the season.

In his first full season of pro action, Kirill Gotovets was a mainstay on the bottom pairings. Gotovets, who was on an AHL contract, played 62 games for Rockford. He had a pair of goals and 14 assists on the season to go with a plus-six skater rating.

Gotovets was voted the team’s most-improved player at season’s end and was the reason that guys like Mattson, Jardine and Fournier spent most of their time with Indy. He’s a player I’d like to see back to see if he can take his game up another notch.

Newly signed Tyler Motte made a late-season impact with Rockford while on an ATO in the final weeks. After two goals and three helpers in five games to close out the regular season, Motte potted a pair of goals as the Hogs were swept by Lake Erie.

 

In Conclusion

As is often the case in the AHL, there was a lot of turnover in Rockford throughout the season. Mashinter (who was named captain before being recalled) and Rasmussen would have no doubt helped the Hogs had they been in town. Rockford weathered the loss of a big scorer when Jeremy Morin was traded and saw players like Daniel Paille and Marko Dano depart mid-season.

The team scuffled quite a bit toward the end of the season but were still interesting to watch. This was another fun season to cover from the stands. I hope you enjoyed the ride as well.

I will try to check in on occasion this summer to offer some insight on what next year’s roster could look like. Until then, follow me on twitter @JonFromi for intermittent bursts of thought on the IceHogs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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