It’s only a couple of weeks until the Blackhawks drop the first puck of the season. However, all those off-season moves will have a larger effect on Chicago’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. With the re-tooling of the rebuild, Rockford will probably end up with a strong team.
Normally, a good AHL team implies that the NHL counterpart is relatively weak. The theory is that the longer an NHL team is mediocre, the larger the pool of high-end talent available to them because of good positions. Over the last few years, the Chicago Blackhawks haven’t been the best team but managed to acquire some potentially very talented young players. Even if they lost both games in Minnesota, the Blackhawks’ prospects showed that Chicago has a decent pipeline of depth players, and at just about every position.
The caveat here is that many of Chicago’s best young players have been played in the NHL, rather than the AHL for the last few years. Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach, and before he was traded, Adam Boqvist. This will probably happen with Lukas Reichel as well, but his appearance in the NHL won’t change things for Rockford.
It’s worth pointing out one of the moves Chicago made was to formally purchase the Icehogs. This may give the team more control over what happens with their prospects. It’s also likely that Chicago’s brass wants Rockford to be a good, competitive team. Winning usually means a team is profitable. That means there may be a stronger commitment to ensuring Rockford is capable of icing a stronger lineup. In my opinion, Reichel will spend some time in Rockford, and it won’t just be to help him transition to North America.
What’s more, with the arrival of some vets, there isn’t enough room in the lineup for the younger players. A lot happened, and if it helps to refresh yourself, have a look at TSN’s transitions for Chicago. July and August were particularly busy.
Last year, Chicago ran with a trio of goalies, Kevin Lankinen, Malcolm Subban, and Collin Delia. They didn’t all play an equal number of games, but they all dressed at some point or another during the season. This year, Chicago pulled off the heist of the off-season and brought in reigning Vezina winner Marc-Andre Fleury for almost nothing.
Those other three guys from last year? Yup, they’re still on the team. It’s likely someone is traded because otherwise, Rockford’s net is going to be a little crowded. Competition for ice time among the goalies will be fierce, but it’s not like the players are bad, especially in the AHL. Even if the NHL numbers were kind of “meh”, they should be more than up for a stint with the Icehogs. Ultimately, Rockford benefits from the fallout of Chicago bringing in more vets.
Then there’s the defence. Calvin de Haan should be back from injury. Connor Murphy is under contract still. To compliment those players though, Chicago signed Seth Jones and jake McCabe. They already had Riley Stillman and Wyatt Kalynuk. Those young guns on defence like Ian Mitchell or Nicolas Beaudin? They’ll almost certainly be in Rockford, at least to start the season.
It’s the same story among the forwards. There aren’t many young players who have made the jump from the AHL to NHL. While many players were given games during the 2020-21’s shortened season, that was an anomaly. Expect almost all of the players that dressed for Chicago last year to be in Rockford to start the season. Consider what Chicago’s lineup might look like on opening, assuming Toews is ready to return to action:
Dach – Toews – Kubalik
DeBrincat – Strome – Kane
Nylander – Borgstrom – Hagel
Carpenter – Johnson – Gaudette/Khaira
De Haan – Jones
McCabe – Murphy
Stillman – Kalynuk/Jones
This is pure speculation, but you get the idea. Additionally, I didn’t put in Philip Kurashev. He’s still on a two-way entry-level deal. Even though he played well, the team will have to decide whether to play the 21-year-old Kurashev or the veteran Brett Connoly. The final decision will likely depend on the training camp.
What’s missing from this lineup? Rookies. They’ll almost certainly all be in Rockford. If you just look at players under contract with Chicago via CapFriendly, except for Subban and Delia, everyone left is 23-years-old or younger.
This is by no means a terrible group of players. Inexperienced, sure, but then that’s why they’re in the AHL. This is an opportunity to learn. What’s more, almost no one is under contract with Chicago for very long. Most contracts are set to expire within a couple of years, and that includes Kane and Toews. That means there are going to be a lot of guys looking to prove themselves.
Even if Chicago sends a bunch of their younger players to Rockford, it’s only a matter of time before they are brought back into the NHL. This time, with more experience, and (probably) a clearer path towards a regular spot on the roster. The quality of the team is up in the air, but not only could Chicago be good, but Rockford might also be a decent team this year.