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 chicagoblackhawks.com to discuss the new faces on the team and the coaching staff, as well as his high hopes for the 2013-14 campaign.
Rockford has what seems like a very strong class of recently drafted players coming in. A few of them have seen some pro action already, and they all ended their junior careers on a strong note. How do you see each of them fitting in?
It seems like every two to three years we have that cycle where everyone changes over. Four, five years ago, it was Dustin Byfuglien, Troy Brouwer and Dave Bolland who graduated to the National Hockey League, and in came Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith and Jimmy Hayes. They’re now ready to graduate, and Blackhawks training camp will dictate where they are. In comes the new players. We could have up to seven rookies on our team this year, including Phillip Danault, Mark McNeill, Garret Ross, Joakim Nordstrom and possibly Alex Broadhurst, as well as Viktor Svedberg, who was a free-agent signing. We have a lot of expectations for these players. We’re hoping Garret Ross can have the same result as Andrew Shaw. [2013 Hobey Baker Award winner] Drew LeBlanc will also start with Rockford to work on a few things; he’s a player who figures very highly in the Blackhawks’ plans.
They’re great signings for our team; you can never have enough quality defensemen in the organization, and both of them have proven over the last few years that they can play at the NHL level and be contributors to their teams. They both play very different games. Peckham is a rough and rugged type of player who got a lot of experience in Edmonton; Kostka is a player who has been in the minors for a bit and finally got his chance in Toronto last season. If they’re in Rockford, you want to rely on their experience and hope that they can be good leaders and show the new players and young guys who are in their first professional season how to be pros. We do a lot of background checks before we sign players, and we know that these two are high in character and will be good leaders in the locker room for us.
Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck came in as first-year defensemen last season and really made an impact. What do you expect from them this year, and who do you see coming in and fitting in right off the bat like they did?
Adam is a very special player, has terrific vision, moves the puck very well and doesn’t shy away from anything. He’s a strong skater—that’s his strongest point. Klas is a player who I really enjoyed watching last year. He does a lot of things very well, and he’s very consistent night in and night out. The biggest fact is that they both love coming to the rink and getting better every day, so I’m really looking forward to those two taking the next step in their careers.
I hate to pinpoint or single out certain players, because they’re all excellent, but I really think Phillip Danault could come in and make an immediate impact on our team. He does a lot of very special things with the puck. He’s very good defensively; two years ago he was voted best defensive player in the QMJHL, while also leading his team in scoring. He has a very complete game, a very well-rounded game.
With some IceHogs veterans most likely graduating to the NHL, do you expect any of the new faces to take on an immediate leadership role? Who else do you see stepping up as leaders?
Players like Danault, McNeill and Ross had to go back to juniors last season because they weren’t eligible to play in the AHL yet, but I think that extra year in juniors for them really did help their development. They went back and were leaders on their teams, so while they were developing on the ice, they were also developing leadership skills in the locker room, which hopefully will serve them when they get into their second and third years as pros. They can draw from that experience, whether they’re in an NHL or AHL dressing room, and provide wisdom to young players coming up. [Director of Amateur Scouting] Mark Kelley and his staff have done a fantastic job drafting character players for us, and all of the players we have joining us this year are high in character and high in skill.
We do have some great leaders returning, including Brad Mills and Wade Brookbank. Kyle Beach will be a fourth-year for us, and I want to see him step into more of a leadership role. Ryan Stanton, Smith, Morin, Pirri and Hayes—whomever is not in Chicago will be called upon to take that to the next level as well.
It’s going to be interesting, and that’s another situation that will resolve itself in training camp. The key for us with a young goalie is, we don’t want them sitting on the bench, we want them playing in a lot of a games. That’s why the decision was made to send Kent to Toledo [last season], where he was able to play 40 games, including in the playoffs, and be their number-one guy. Mac went back to juniors and led his team to the Memorial Cup, played a lot of games and had a tremendous year. Those two are really going to have a heated battle in training camp to see who wins the spot in Rockford. It’s not going to be a situation where one of them plays in Rockford and the other one plays in Toledo; it might be a situation where we platoon them a little bit and get them both some experience. Training camp will sort all of those things out, and it’s a good problem to have.
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