By Chris Block
Each week from now until the end of the season we will bring you a first-hand account of the latest news, developments and analysis of this season’s Rockford IceHogs, the Chicago Blackhawks’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Conflict of Interests?
“Well, we’re 1-3. So, that’s my assessment.”
That was IceHogs coach Ted Dent this past Saturday night after a 4-2 loss at home when asked to give his assessment of Jimmy Hayes’ performance in the four games after the decision was made to move Hayes from his regular spot at right wing, over to the center ice position.
Eight games into the season, the edict came down from Chicago Blackhawks management that they wanted to see how Hayes would do at center.
Little forward thinking went into this decision either, apparently. Blackhawks Director of Player Development Barry Smith was quickly dispatched to Rockford to go over film and one-on-one instruction over three days with Hayes, who admittedly hadn’t played the center position since he was a kid.
Not during training camp. Not over the summer when Hayes was a part of a group of 12 top Blackhawks prospects who traveled to Sweden for a five-day August mini-camp. No, during the last week of October was when the IceHogs coach received word he was to play Hayes at center until further notice.
“No, I haven’t played there in a long time,” Jimmy Hayes said last week.
It’s good for me to learn a new position. Kind of feed into my game a little bit. There’s still some stuff I need to work on.”
“But, all in all it’s a good experience – and trying to find out how to play every aspect of the game,” Hayes concluded.
Yet, this past weekend you could sense some frustration in Dent’s tone when speaking of the experiment and those variances Hayes will need time adapting too. The second-year head coach knows the role a minor league affiliate plays in the development of prospects but feels the pressure to win at the same time.
“With Jimmy Hayes going to center, it changes things and the whole complexion of our team,” said Dent when answering a previous unrelated question about the line of Brandon Pirri, Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin, which has been the one line that has stayed intact for the past month, saying the Pirri line gives has provided his team some stability in the lineup.
While Hayes has produced on the offensive side some in the four games since the move to center, 1 goal and three assists in that span, he has understandably struggled in the other aspects expected of a player at the position.
It is in those aspects Hayes is working with Barry Smith, who assisted on Scotty Bowman’s bench in Detroit and has since coached overseas as well as served in scouting and now in the go-to developmental role for the Blackhawks.
“Barry is a very knowledgeable hockey guy,” Hayes told us. “He’s been around the game for a while. He knows his stuff. He’s great with developing skill.
“He’s been great working with me trying to figure out where to be on the ice. And learning a new position, which is hard thing for some guys. He sits down and watches film with me and works on my skills and always having my stick available.”
For those who’ve watched Hayes’ game at the AHL level over the past year plus, its not difficult to understand why the Hawks would be inclined to move the six-foot five, 230 pound Hayes off the wing.
Though Hayes has the body type to be a dominating physical player, he’s yet to show an eagerness to be that.
Hayes to this point of his pro career seems to have the mindset of a goal scorer. He’s often drifting into the middle of the ice anyhow, into shooter’s lanes. He gets beaten in one-on-one board battles far more often than you’d like for a guy his size and his body check attempts are awkward at times.
While the Hayes experiment may be unrelated at this time to the Blackhawks immediate need for a second line center, its not something out of the realm of possibility should Hayes adapt well to the position (should he stay there) over the next couple months.
“I think the biggest adjustment is just learning how to be in the right spot,” Hayes explained.
“The center plays a different style of game. It’s not up and down. (The center) has to be available for everybody. He’s got to be available for the (defense) and both wingers. It’s finding the right lanes and using your speed – when to skate and when not to skate. All-in-all it’s great to learn.”
Hayes has NHL caliber hands and a very good shot. His skating improved once again over the off season and once he gets going he’s one of the IceHogs faster skaters. He would compliment a passer like Patrick Kane very well.
After the fallout of last spring’s first round ousting by Phoenix, the Blackhawks, specifically Executive Vice President and General Manager Stan Bowman, speculated that he didn’t see second-line center as an area of need going into the off season. Bowman intimated, if not outright said, he was comfortable with Patrick Kane as his second line center.
While there is no question Patrick Kane is one of the most-gifted players in all of hockey, and he could skate at center ice and not kill your team in the process, other coaches would counter act with bigger and more physical centers. Couple that with understanding that a center’s responsibilities on the ice stretch the length and width of the ice every shift, Kane’s 5-10 frame probably wouldn’t hold up over the course of a long season.
Without getting ahead of ourselves, because Hayes is just four games into adjustment, you also have to take into account that the mystery of who the second line center will be, should that be where Kane spends most of his time (assuming Toews & Hossa are together on the top line) isn’t a dire area of concern.
Patrick Kane is the puck distributor on any line he skates on. So, there isn’t a need for an Adam Oates or Joe Thornton type centerman when it comes to skating with Kane.
I think this is at least partially where the Hawks are coming from on this Hayes experiment. The other now being with every prospect in Rockford under the microscope of Stan, Scott Bowman, Barry Smith, Joel Quenneville and his staff – there will continue to be movement to evaluate players in different situations and to put them in positions where the organization feels they can get the most out of the player.
–Twelve games into the season one aspect of the IceHogs game that has really been up and down has been their starts. Some nights, Rockford comes out firing for the first 5 to 10 minutes, then penalties or turnovers take over (usually both) and the game slides away from them at least temporarily. Other nights it’s the team’s start that puts them in chase mode for the rest of the night.
Already this season, the IceHogs have surrendered 6 goals against in the opening five minutes of games, allowing the opposition to get on the board first, and early. Four of those goals have come during the second or third shift of the game. On October 27th at Grand Rapids, the Griffins managed two goals in the first 2:57 of the contest.
Rockford is 2-3-0-0 in those games they’ve given up a goal against in the initial five minutes of a game. But in those two times they’ve emerged victorious, the IceHogs have needed overtime and a shootout to do it.
On the flip side, Rockford has scored inside the first five minutes of a game twice; 10/28 vs San Antonio (Ben Smith) and 10/19 at Peoria (Pete Leblanc). They defeated San Antonio 3-1 and lost to Peoria 2-1.
Kyle Beach’s Suspension
–Kyle Beach’s reputation probably cost him a one-game suspension last weekend as result of his hit on Grand Rapids Griffins defenseman Brendan Smith.
Beach was assessed a five-minute major for checking to the head which comes with an automatic match penalty. A match penalty also carries with it a minimum one-game suspension.
The call was controversial in that the point of Beach’s contact was Smith’s right shoulder.
Smith, the same Red Wings’ prospect who gave Ben Smith a concussion during the 2011 NHL preseason, was clearing a puck along the left wall along the goal line in the Grand Rapids zone. Beach, who was in pursuit from behind the Griffins’ net, checked Smith as the puck left Smith’s reach.
Those who were able to watch and dissect a video of the check (a replay was never shown on the AHLLive.com feed) said that while Beach’s shoulder did ride up Brendan Smith’s shoulder on the continuation of the hit, at no point was the head the point of contact.
In this case Beach was more likely the victim of an inexperienced referee, Tom Chmielewski, who, in seeing Brendan Smith fall to the ice and slow to get up, reacted as though Smith had been seriously injured.
Smith was slow to get up but did not miss a shift. In fact, it was Smith who scored the power play goal as Grand Rapids capitalized on the Beach major.
Despite this and evidence on the video, the AHL chose not to rescind the match penalty given to Beach and thus he was suspended for Saturday night’s 4-2 home loss to Milwaukee.
Hogs Hosting Peoria Tonight
–Kyle Beach and Dylan Olsen will both return to the IceHogs lineup tonight when Peoria visits the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford. It’ll mark the 2nd of 12 meetings between the two clubs.
Peoria arrives, not just the worst team in the Midwest Division, not just the worst team in the AHL’s Western Conference…. The Rivermen own the worst record in the entire AHL (2-7-2-1).
Tonight would seem to be a good opportunity for the IceHogs to gain a couple points.
Peoria’s goaltending has been below average and no team in the AHL has scored fewer goals than the Rivermen.
Even Adam Cracknell, who is one of Peoria’s leaders and most dependable players in the past, has posted just 1 goal and 3 points thus far in the 2012-13 season.
Saad Looking and Feeling Better
–In a conversation with Brandon Saad post-game Saturday night, he admitted the leg injury which put him out of action for three weeks was actually something he played through for the first three games of the season.
That’s a bit of a relief in a way since Saad was largely pedestrian in his performance opening weekend against the Chicago Wolves. After Rockford’s third game at Peoria on October 19th, the decision was made to pull Saad off the ice and begin physical therapy to heal the injury, now said to have been a pulled muscle.
Last weekend Saad regained that explosive second gear that sets him apart from most of the other prospects in Rockford.
Saad netted his first goal of the season in his first game back from missing seven consecutive games in Grand Rapids on Friday night.
Jimmy Hayes sprung Saad in on a breakaway for Saad’s first professional goal at 6:16 of the first period.
Ted Dent was not shy about Saad’s minutes in return either. Saad was a regular on both special teams units, skating with Pirri and Morin on the first power play unit and Martin St. Pierre on the penalty kill.
–Nick Leddy played in his 30th career AHL game in Saturday night’s 4-2 loss to Milwaukee. It was Leddy’s second game back in returning from a concussion that sidelined him for the previous four games.
Leddy has 2 goals, 11 assists and is a minus-7 in his 30 game AHL career.
–Veteran winger Brandon Svendsen, who has yet to play in a game this season, has had the sling removed from his right arm and is targeting a December return to action. Svendsen underwent surgery for an undisclosed arm injury prior to the start of the regular season.
Some notes on the IceHogs current roster….
Eight of the current twenty-five players on Rockford’s roster were never drafted into the NHL. Those eight are Brandon Bollig, Wade Brookbank, Brett Lebda, Martin St. Pierre, Ryan Stanton, Brandon Svendsen and goalies Carter Hutton and Alec Richards.
The remaining IceHogs by draft round:
1st Rd – 4 (Beach, Leddy, Olsen, Paradis)
2nd Rd – 5 (Clendening, Hayes, Morin, Pirri, Saad)
3rd Rd – 2 (Dahlbeck, Lalonde)
4th Rd – 1 (Flick)
5th Rd – 3 (Kruger, Shaw, Lavin)
6th Rd – 1 (Smith)
7th Rd – 1 (Leblanc)
You could add Rostislav Olesz (#7th overall, 2004) to the group of first rounders in the event he does return to the IceHogs. Olesz cannot be assigned to Rockford until a new CBA agreement is in place and he can clear waivers. Olesz still has 2 years and $8.25M remaining on the contract the Blackhawks inherited in the trade with Florida that sent Brian Campbell to the Panthers on draft day 2011.
Stats over last 25 games played with Rockford
Brandon Pirri – 8g + 11a = 19pts, +4, 72 shots
Jimmy Hayes – 7g + 11a = 18pts, -4, 57 shots
Rostislav Olesz – 7g + 9a = 16pts, -3, 74 shots
Jeremy Morin – 9g + 6a = 15pts, +3, 79 shots
Andrew Shaw – 7g + 6a = 13pts, -4, 57 shots
Kyle Beach – 6g + 6a = 12pts, +2, 49 shots
Ben Smith – 6g + 5a = 11pts, -4, 55 shots
Pete Leblanc – 5g + 6a = 11pts, -2, 68 shots
Rob Flick – 5g + 5a = 10pts, +6, 24 shots
Brandon Bollig – 3g + 0a = 3pts, -2, 42 shots
–Olesz is included for comparison purposes. While Ben Smith brings great intangibles and can’t be defined simply by how many times his name appears on the scoresheet, he does regularly skate with the best offensive players so he should be expected to produce more.
For all that hoopla over Kyle Beach’s Player of the Week honour and some people wondering if Beach is “finally getting it” or “finally realizing his potential” – the reality is that five point weekend encompassing two games represents nearly half of his offensive production over the past 25 games.
Current IceHogs individual streaks of AHL games without a goal: Joe Lavin (32), Brett Lebda (31), Nick Leddy (20, Ben Youds (20), Philippe Paradis (15), Ryan Stanton (15), Rob Flick (12), Wade Brookbank (11), Pete Leblanc (8), Klas Dahlbeck (*7), Dylan Olsen (7), Marcus Kruger (5), Ben Smith (4), Martin St. Pierre (4), Andrew Shaw (3), Brandon Bollig (2), Adam Clendening (2), Kyle Beach (1), Jimmy Hayes (1), Shawn Lalonde (1), Brandon Saad (1), Jeremy Morin (-), Brandon Pirri (-), Brandon Svendsen (-)…
Current IceHogs individual streaks of AHL games without an assist: Brandon Bollig (27), Dylan Olsen (20), Ben Smith (13), Wade Brookbank (8), Klas Dahlbeck (*7), Shawn Lalonde (4), Joe Lavin (4), Nick Leddy (4), Jeremy Morin (4), Philippe Paradis (3), Andrew Shaw (3), Rob Flick (2), Brett Lebda (2), Brandon Pirri (2), Martin St. Pierre (2), Kyle Beach (1), Jimmy Hayes (1), Marcus Kruger (1), Adam Clendening (-), Pete Leblanc (-), Brandon Saad (-), Ryan Stanton (-), Brandon Svendsen (-), Ben Youds (-)….