Rockford Reinforcements: New faces joining pro ranks
|2011 draft picks (from left to right) Adam Clendening, Brandon Saad and Klas Dahlbeck are primed to make an immediate impact for the Rockford IceHogs this season. (Photos by Chase Agnello-Dean)
When the Rockford IceHogs begin their regular-season slate on Oct. 13 against the Chicago Wolves, they could ice up to a dozen roster players aged 21 or under, continuing their unenviable streak as one of the American Hockey League’s youngest teams. Youth does not equal inexperience, however, and these IceHogs are plenty seasoned. Three of the aforementioned 21-year-olds—Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and Dylan Olsen—are entering their third AHL seasons, and five more are now sophomores in the system.
“The expectations have changed now,” says General Manager of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard. “Even though we’re going to be a very young group in terms of age this year, we have a lot more experience.”
Bernard spoke to chicagoblackhawks.com to assess the talents of this year’s squad, in particular the newcomers to the team. The IceHogs lineup will benefit from the arrival of Brandon Saad, who dominated at the junior level last season; Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck, two blueliners from the 2011 draft class; and free-agent signing Terry Broadhurst, who will start the season with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye. Their addition, along with the return of veteran blueline leader Wade Brookbank and prolific AHL scorer Martin St. Pierre, should help Rockford make the playoffs after narrowly missing out on a postseason berth in 2011-12.
“My expectation this year isn’t to make the playoffs, it’s what we do once we make the playoffs, because that’s the type of team we have,” Bernard says.
BRANDON SAAD, RW
Indicative of Saad’s immediate potential, he made four appearances at the NHL level last year, just months after the Blackhawks drafted him in the second round—two games after making Chicago’s opening-day roster out of Training Camp, and two more in the Western Conference Quarterfinals against Phoenix. In between those stints, Saad dominated the Ontario Hockey League to the tune of 76 points (34G, 42A) in just 44 appearances for the Saginaw Spirit. In late December, Saad represented Team USA at the 2012 World Junior Championship, tying fourth on the team in scoring with a goal and five helpers in six games and leading American skaters with a +8 plus/minus rating.
Not only is Saad physically ready for professional hockey, according to scouts, he also possesses a high level of hockey sense that should ease his transition to the AHL. In Rockford, he’ll round out a stable of talented forwards that are all on the cusp of making a breakthrough, and despite his rookie status, his intelligent two-way play will make him a dangerous addition to Rockford’s dynamic offense.
What he’ll bring:
“Any time you can add a player of this caliber to your lineup, it’s going to be a huge lift. He is highly skilled, a highly offensive player, has great awareness, good size—he’s all the things you ask for and look for in a player. It’s going to be great to have him here; he’s going to be a player that our fans will quickly grow to love.”
Why he’ll succeed:
“It’ll be highly educational for him. It’s a big step going from juniors to pro hockey, never mind going from juniors to the NHL. This year, by coming in and getting to start in Rockford in a very good professional league, it will be good for him confidence-wise, to learn the pro game inside out, both offensively and defensively, and the day-to-day routines that go along with it.”
Clendening had one of the most impressive campaigns by any Blackhawks prospect in 2011-12, playing a full slate of games with Boston University in the ultra-competitive Hockey East and representing Team USA at the World Junior Championship. At each stop, Clendening demonstrated his dynamic offensive instincts: As a sophomore, he paced all Terrier defensemen with 29 assists and 33 points in 38 appearances, and added six points (1G, 5A) in six World Juniors games.
There’s some pressure on Clendening, a solidly built defenseman with a lancing point shot, to provide offensive numbers and blueline leadership in his first year in Rockford. But most of all, Clendening could prove to be a boon to special teams, where the IceHogs struggled last season, ranking 25th in the AHL on both the power play (15 percent) and penalty kill (80.5 percent).
What he’ll bring:
“The one thing I love about Clendening is his skating ability. He has great vision with the puck. I think he’s going to add a dynamic to our team that we lost last year when Brian Connelly was traded, and he’ll be a great asset to us on the power play. He thinks the game really well, makes good decisions, and we’re looking for him to really step up and lead the offense from the back end.”
Why he’ll succeed:
“He’s got an unbelievable work ethic and attitude, and that’s going to take him places. The one thing we can’t instill in a player is work ethic—they either have it or they don’t have it. Little things about their game, our coaches can always work with him to improve. But that inner fire and emotion, you can’t put that in a player, and Adam really has that.”
The last Swedish defenseman in the Blackhawks pipeline to make the jump overseas was Niklas Hjalmarsson, who arrived in the AHL as a 21-year-old and spent parts of two seasons bouncing between Rockford and Chicago before a permanent promotion in the 2009-10 season. Dahlbeck, Chicago’s third-round selection (79th overall) in the 2011 draft, is built in a similar mold: primarily a stay-at-home defenseman, with solid positional sense and a streak of physicality. He’ll try to translate two seasons of first-team experience in Sweden into similar success in North America, but adapting to the smaller rink size and a quicker, more physically punishing game will provide a hefty challenge.
Still, the transition may go smoother than one might expect. Dahlbeck attended the last two Blackhawks Prospect Camps, as well as a development camp held in Sweden earlier this offseason, run by Blackhawks Director of Player Development Barry Smith and staffed by Rockford’s bench bosses. He missed Rockford’s training camp and preseason schedule with an injury, but is expected to be at full health in time to open the season.
What he’ll bring:
“We’re looking for him to be a steady factor back there. He’ll be able to learn from guys like Shawn Lalonde, Ryan Stanton and Joe Lavin, older guys who have been here for two full years now. We’re not looking for him to put big numbers up or anything like that, we just want him to be a steady rock back there, make good decisions with the puck. He plays physical, and we want him to be that way, just make good decisions and good passes.”
Why he’ll succeed:
“There’s an adjustment period, and I think it’s even bigger for [European players]. There’s a lot of different things that go on in day-to-day life. He’s in a different country, everything’s different and new for him. This is where these camps that [the organization held in Sweden] are fantastic and very innovative. Now he gets to know his teammates. In the past, players come over and it takes them some time to feel comfortable with their surroundings and the people they’re playing with. That’s gone now. He’ll know Clendening and Broadhurst, he’ll know Brandon Pirri, so when he comes in, he won’t feel like a stranger. Right away, that’s a big plus.”
TERRY BROADHURST, LW
Broadhurst, one of the oldest additions to the organization this season, enjoyed a two-week taste of professional hockey at the end of Rockford’s 2011-12 campaign, after finishing his college career at the University of Nebraska–Omaha with 36 points (16G, 20A) in 38 games. At Prospect Camp this summer, Broadhurst—an undrafted local product—showed impressive speed and a nose for goal, making a confident statement about what he can bring on the ice. In Toledo, he’ll continue the trajectory of personal growth that landed him on the Blackhawks’ radar over a year ago, and should he be called up to Rockford, he’ll look to add punch to the power play and overall offense.
What he’ll bring:
“The one thing that’s very tough to defend against is speed. Terry has that in bucketloads. He’s like a little water bug out there. Not a huge guy by any means, but he reads and reacts very well to what’s happening around him, and he’s not afraid to go into the corners and dig for loose pucks and work in those areas where some players might be a little more timid.”
Why he’ll succeed:
“The great thing for Terry last year was getting to come in and play eight games with us at the conclusion of the season. He got a little bit of an inside look at what he has to prepare for this season. The ‘wow’ factor is almost gone for him. He knows how hard the guys work; he knows what our routines are from day to day, how we travel. Coming in this year, his eyes are wide open. He knows what to expect, he knows what he has to do, and hopefully he’s put the time in this summer to have some success.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOALTENDING
The most understated reinforcement of all actually arrived in the middle of last season. Carter Hutton joined the IceHogs for good in December and backstopped the team through a thrilling playoff chase, logging a 22-13-4 record, including three shutouts. Hutton played well enough down the stretch to solidify the top spot on Rockford’s depth chart, at least to begin the season, but two up-and-comers in the Blackhawks’ system could offer strong competition for Hutton and backup Alec Richards, both this season and beyond.
Kent Simpson, Chicago’s second-round draft pick in 2010 (58th overall), finished his third season with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League with a junior career-record 3,481 minutes played. He capped off his first injury-free campaign by making one appearance for the IceHogs, a shootout loss. Also in the pipeline is Mac Carruth, who took the Portland Winterhawks to within one win of the WHL Championship in 2011-12 and finished with 42 victories in his third season of juniors (including playoffs).
With the starter’s role entrusted to Hutton, the situation in IceHogs training camp was essentially three goalies battling for the backup spot. Simpson had a strong showing in IceHogs training camp and was assigned to Toledo to begin the season, while Carruth returned to Portland for a fourth season.
Simpson brings a solid technical game and a calm demeanor to the net, while Carruth is a highly athletic goalie who plays with a lot of emotion. Expectations for the two goalies are understandably high, given all they’ve accomplished already in their young careers.
“I want them to force us to play them,” says GM of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard. “I want them to display confidence, and that’s what the team needs to see in their goaltender: confidence. I don’t want them to ever think of themselves as a backup. I want them always pushing for more, always pushing.”