Rockford, Ill.-Taking a large group of youngsters into the start of a season is something of a tradition for the Chicago Blackhawks AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. At the same time, it also raises a yearly question when looking at the forwards on the Hogs roster.
Namely, who’s going to put points on the scoreboard?
Rockford has been near the league basement for several seasons in terms of goals per game. Last season, the IceHogs were 25th of 28 teams with a 2.78 per game scoring average. The dearth of offense was a big factor in the team’s last-place finish in the Central Division.
AHL signing Dylan McLaughlin paced Rockford with 22 points (8 G, 14 A) in 28 games last season. That point total was good for 55th place in AHL scoring in 2020-21. Chris Wilkie co-led the team with eight goals and finished the season with 13 points in 22 games, while fellow rookie Evan Barratt totaled 14 points (5 G, 9 A).
Other forwards who chipped in on offense included D.J. Busdeker (5 G, 7 A), Andrei Altybarmakian (5 G, 7 A), and MacKenzie Entwistle (4 G, 8 A). All figure to be back in action for Rockford, though Entwistle may find a spot on the NHL roster to open the season.
Pulling consistent offense out of players getting their feet wet in professional hockey is a challenge. Some organizations keep their rosters well-stocked with proven, AHL-level scorers to bolster their prospects. That’s a strategy the Blackhawks have employed sparingly over the past few seasons.
In 2020-21, the taxi squad required of NHL teams kept several potential lamp-lighters in a kind of limbo. Chicago had obtained former AHL scoring champ Brandon Pirri, with the plan of him anchoring the IceHogs offense. Pirri spent most of his season on the Blackhawks taxi squad.
When Pirri was unleashed on AHL opponents, he filled the net. In just seven games, the veteran forward potted eight goals, tying him for the team lead. Pirri spent far more time not playing for Chicago than he spent on the ice for Rockford.
Along with other experienced vets, Pirri is still a free agent waiting to contribute to an AHL club. The Blackhawks, who own the IceHogs as of this season, don’t seem to be inclined to move in the direction of seeking established scorers. However, there may still be some offensive punch on this year’s roster.
NHL veteran Brett Connelly, obtained in a trade with Florida last season, cleared waivers this month, and was assigned to Rockford. 2020-21 was a tough year for Connelly, but he’s been a consistent NHL scorer in the past. He put up a 31-goal season with Syracuse in a full season with the Crunch back in 2012-13.
Chicago is getting some cap relief by sending the 29-year-old Connelly to the AHL. If this serves as motivation for him to play his way back to the Hawks or another NHL organization, the IceHogs could have a big offensive weapon to open play in Grand Rapids on October 15.
Center Garrett Mitchell will captain Rockford, as he did last season. Mitchell is probably past the days where you could expect 20-30 points from his stick, but the long-time veteran is on board to mentor the prospects.
Reese Johnson is one of the elder statesmen on the IceHogs, even at age 23. Johnson split time between Rockford and Chicago and is back for his third pro season. Other Blackhawks prospects include Matej Chalupa, Josiah Slavin, and Michal Teply, all of whom spent last season with the Hogs.
They will be joined by Alex Nylander, who the Blackhawks assigned to Rockford after the NHL revised his waiver status. Nylander missed all of last season to a knee injury. He’s a skilled player who could wind up with 30-40 points throughout a full AHL slate.
It appears that 2020 first-round pick Lukas Reichel will begin his North American career with the Hogs. Reichel will be a player to watch in terms of offensive potential. Cameron Morrison will also be looking to get his pro career started. In Morrison’s case, it’s a bit of a restart. The former Notre Dame skater was injured in the 2020-21 preseason and, like Nylander, was out for the year.
Mike Hardman and Jakub Pour are additional new faces on the IceHogs roster. Hardman turned pro after his second season at Boston College and saw some action with the Blackhawks before the season ended. Pour, who, like Hardman, is 22 years old, has spent the last two seasons playing professionally in the Czech League.
Last year, the taxi squad and a lack of depth signings made it necessary for a lot of Rockford’s AHL contracts to carry the load. Besides Mitchell, McLaughlin, and possibly Busdeker, it may be harder for some returning AHL contracts to find ice time.
Wilkie, Chad Yetman, Riley McKay, and Carson Gicewicz could split time between Rockford and the team’s ECHL affiliate, the Indy Fuel. New faces include Kale Howarth, who was signed following his college career ended at UCONN, and Liam Folkes, who was obtained in an AHL trade with Bakersfield.
Dmitri Osipov is a bit of an outlier. The former defenseman is apparently being converted to forward by the Blackhawks. He may get a chance to play the position with the IceHogs, or head to Indy to continue to learn a new position.
The first month of the season may see the IceHogs struggle for points. A team of young players will need to build chemistry and find the same kind of scoring touch from their college or junior days. If Rockford is to aspire to the top half of the division standings, they will have to find some steady point producers.
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