By Chris Block
While it can’t officially be announced until after the NHLPA membership ratifies the new CBA on Saturday, the Chicago Blackhawks have jumped the gun a bit by recalling four players from AHL Rockford.
Nick Leddy, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw and Brandon Bollig were all recalled by the Blackhawks on Monday January 7th. This, one day after the NHL and Player’s association hammered out the framework for a new collective bargaining agreement to end the NHL Lockout.
All four players were held out of Rockford’s home game Wednesday night against first-place Grand Rapids. The transactions will be made official this weekend. Three of the four were in Chicago skating with most of the other Blackhawks players at informal on-ice workouts beginning Tuesday. Nick Leddy joined in on Thursday.
One player who was surprisingly left out of the initial group of four call-ups is Rockford IceHogs alternate captain, and the team’s leading goal scorer, Ben Smith.
Smith, 24, scored his 15th goal of the season on Wednesday night. He also ranks second in points scored by an IceHogs player, 26, seven behind team captain Martin St. Pierre.
The four recalls would currently put the Blackhawks projected abbrieviated training camp roster (expected to begin this Sunday) at 23 players.
Forwards (13): Bryan Bickell, Dave Bolland, Brandon Bollig, Dan Carcillo, Michael Frolik, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Marcus Kruger, Jamal Mayers, Patrick Sharp, Andrew Shaw, Viktor Stalberg, Jonathan Toews
Defense (8): Sheldon Brookbank, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, Nick Leddy, Steve Montador, Johnny Oduya, Michael Rozsival, Brent Seabrook
Goaltenders (2): Corey Crawford, Ray Emery
Smith is taking the news in stride and was classy when asked about the non-recall.
“I’ve learned now that if you find yourself thinking about it, or hoping for it — it doesn’t come or it throws you off your game,” said Smith after Wednesday night’s 6-3 loss to Grand Rapids.
“So, for me, my thoughts are all with what’s going on here and trying to be the best player I can be – and help this team win any way I can.”
Now, this perceived slight of Smith doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be given a shot to earn a spot on the Blackhawks roster before the start of the season in Los Angeles on January 19th.
The IceHogs began a stretch of three games in four nights on Wednesday and went into Wednesday’s game with only 12 healthy forwards. And with Smith being an alternate captain and one of the IceHogs best players, the decision may have been to keep Smith there this weekend and recall him in time for the start of camp on Sunday.
When asked if anyone from the Blackhawks or in Rockford had spoken to him about the non-recall, Smith responded with a nervous laugh and said, “You know, I don’t control any of those decisions.”
Ted Dent was in meetings with Stan Bowman, Norm Maciver, Barry Smith and then IceHogs general manager Mark Bernard after Wednesday night’s loss and did not speak to the media.
Kyle Beach is currently nursing some minor, nagging injuries. Beach’s prognosis is estimated as day-to-day.
Brandon Svensden, just recalled from ECHL Toledo, has been bothered by a groin injury over the past two weeks. The injury put Svendsen out of Toledo’s lineup over four consecutive games prior to returning to their lineup last weekend. The current plan is to ease Svendsen back into Rockford’s lineup. Svendsen has been battling injuries for the past 9 months. He exited last season with the IceHogs with a shoulder injury. Fully healed from that, he suffered a separate right arm injury in September that required surgery and caused Svendsen to miss the first two and a half months of this season.
It should be noted that after Saturday night’s game in Milwaukee, the IceHogs won’t play again until Friday the 18th when they host Peoria. So, there won’t be any conflicts and a few IceHogs could conceivably attend Blackhawks training camp next week as extra bodies. Or, as in Smith’s case, competition for one of the bottom-six forward positions. Its also conceivable that another goaltender will be called upon to attend camp to relieve some of the workload off Crawford and Emery in what is sure to be a hectic and fast-paced five days of practice sessions.
However, while the IceHogs will be idle during the Blackhawks camp, Joel Quenneville and his staff won’t have much time to fool around as they have four days of on-ice workouts planned Sunday through Wednesday. Then Thursday would figure to be a practice with the team the Blackhawks will take to Los Angeles with them as they prepare to open the season out west on Saturday afternoon at Staples Center.
To compensate for the losses, the Blackhawks reassigned left winger Terry Broadhurst from the team’s ECHL affiliate, Toledo Walleye – to Rockford. Broadhurst, 24, a first year pro, had posted 9 goals in his last 11 games with the Walleye. On the season, Broadhurst had 12 goals, 19 assists to go with a plus-13 rating in 36 games.
Rockford also gets back two of its own players, both on strictly AHL contracts with the IceHogs. Defenseman Ben Youds, who last week was named to the ECHL All-Star team, and right wing Brandon Svendsen, 27, were also recalled by the IceHogs.
The Blackhawks also reassigned forward David Gilbert from the Bloomington (IL) Blaze of the Central Hockey League to the Rockford IceHogs. Gilbert turns 22 on February 9. In 29 games with Bloomington this season, Gilbert had amassed 13 goals and 10 assists. While with the IceHogs in his rookie season last year, David Gilbert appeared in 29 games with Rockford, scoring 1 goal and 3 assists in fourth line duty when he did make the lineup card.
Jeremy Morin, 21, who was also not recalled but is one of the players who could get a chance to play in Chicago this season should the logically anticipated stream of groin, hamstring and hip flexor injuries come to fruition over the crammed and intensely paced 48-game schedule, commented that it is tough to lose the four players they did, but he and his teammates were prepared for the inevitability.
“Obviously we knew it was going to happen whenever the lockout ended,” Morin responded when asked how the team was handling the shakeup. “But we have 4 guys that came up from Toledo and Bloomington. And those guys are good players. “
“These are the guys we have right now, and there’s probably going to be some more up and down and we just have to deal with it,” Morin continued. “Whoever is on our roster that night we just have to play hard and try to get points.
“We have a good team in there and know we are confident in ourselves.”
Aside from Ben Smith, who I still expect will be recalled for the short training camp, there is a smaller possibility that Morin or even Brandon Saad could get a brief look at Hawks camp. In the case of the latter two, it may all hinge on how the two perform this weekend.
Saad (6 goals, 8 assists in 29 games) has not performed to the level some may have expected or hoped thus far in the AHL. Saad is without a goal in his last 10 games and has just 1 over the past 15 – All of this coming skating on either of the IceHogs top two lines. He had a tremendous second period on Wednesday night after shooting right into Petr Mrazek’s chest on a tremendous scoring chance in the low slot late in the first period, but still came out of the game with nothing to show for it.
A couple players who you surely won’t see at Blackhawks camp are Kyle Beach and Jimmy Hayes.
The two big wingers who each have a tendency to not play to their size are not in line for a shot in Chicago anytime soon.
Hayes, 23, is currently mired in the worst slump of his two-year professional career. He has now gone 16-consecutive games without a goal, and has just two assists in that span – both coming in a game way back on December 1st at Charlotte. That was back when Hayes was still playing center. For the season, Jimmy Hayes has 6 goals and 9 assists in 35 games.
Kyle Beach has 8 goals and 5 helpers in 30 games. His shooting percentage (14.3%) is fourth-best on the IceHogs behind Smith (17.3%), Martin St. Pierre (16.3%) and Andrew Shaw (16.0%).
While it’s not inconceivable that the 2008 first-round draft pick could finally get to make his first NHL appearance before the end of this season, Beach will really need to get hot and force the hand of Blackhawks management should injuries cause them to look to Rockford for a winger. He will get no favors and his time in the organization is running out.
Beach has improved in some areas this year after missing most of last season due to a severe shoulder injury. But Beach doesn’t play like a power forward most nights and the biggest thing holding him back right now is that he doesn’t keep him feet moving. He doesn’t skate through enough checks and even on the backcheck he glides and reaches far too often instead of taking the extra stride or two to pokecheck or knock a player off the puck.
As for the four players the Blackhawks are getting, Nick Leddy was the best of the four in Rockford when you evaluate his stay as a whole.
After a slow start and a concussion suffered in late October that caused him to miss four games, Leddy returned to the lineup timidly, almost appearing at times to be consciously playing to avoid further injury. Up to that point, Leddy’s Rockford stay had to be considered a big disappointment. That, however, turned around quickly when a terrible first period against Peoria on November 21st prompted IceHogs head coach Ted Dent to scramble his top two defense pairs. Leddy wound up with rookie Adam Clendening and the two remained together up until Leddy’s departure. The latter was a stabilizing force on the pairing as it was apparent the move refocused Leddy in that he was paired with a very talented, yet defensive liability in Clendening. The results were very much akin to how Duncan Keith turned his game around two seasons ago when Joel Quenneville broke up the Keith-Seabrook pairing and put the former Norris Trophy winner with a 19-year old Leddy.
Brandon Bollig (5 goals, 4 assists in 35 games) is expected to return to the role of Blackhawks enforcer which Bollig slid into during the last quarter of Chicago’s regular season. Jamal Mayers led the Blackhawks in fighting majors last season with 11, but he was also healthy-scratched in the playoffs and whatever amount of playing time Mayers gets this season, it’s not wise for the 38-year old to take on the task of being the Blackhawks’ heavyweight again. Dan Carcillo dropped the gloves on five occasions in the 28 games he skated in before he blew out his knee while checking Edmonton’s Tom Gilbert from behind at the UC on January 2nd. Carcillo is not a heavyweight and the Hawks continue to believe he can add an effective element on a scoring line.
Although he only appeared in 18 regular season games with the Hawks, Bollig ranked second on the last year’s team with 8 fighting majors. In 35 games with the IceHogs during the lockout, Bollig fought 13 times and accumulated 157 penalty minutes.
If grading simply on merit, no chance does Andrew Shaw deserve a recall ahead of Ben Smith, but that’s not always how these decisions are made. A good roster has balance and diversity. Shaw, based on what he did for Joel Quenneville last season, and he did on occasion for Ted Dent during the lockout, brings an element of energy and tenacity that Hawks roster needs.
Shaw has had his problems in Rockford this season. He was suspended six games by the AHL for jumping off the bench to get into a fight on Nov 3 against Lake Erie. During that suspension, Shaw was given a three day leave of absence from the team. He received another one-game suspension on Nov 30 for a high hit he put on Chicago’s Brett Sterling two days earlier, his fourth game back from that prior suspension.
Shaw has 8 goals in 28 games this season. Two of those were empty-netters and four were scored on the power play. More importantly, and if you’re looking for the positives here; all eight of Shaw’s goals came when the score was tight – either tied or with the IceHogs up or down a goal. Shaw’s last 8 minor penalties have all been roughing minors. He has two fighting majors officially. The Nov 3rd altercation didn’t count as one. Shaw figures to land on Dave Bolland’s line, but could also wind up on the fourth.
The promising light in Marcus Kruger’s Rockford stay is that he really proved to be something of a power play ace for the IceHogs.
Of Kruger’s 8 goals (34 games, also 14 assists), 5 of those goals he scored on the power play. He also added another five power play assists.
In fact, Kruger was on the ice for 19 of the 31 goals the IceHogs scored on the man advantage during the lockout. That success wasn’t tied to any unit or defense pairing. Clendening was on the ice with Kruger for 11 of those goals, as was St. Pierre, but not tied together as a trio.
This probably does work to giving Kruger the lead on the second-line center spot should Quenneville decide against putting Patrick Kane in that position, as Quenneville articulated resistance to in his post-season interviews last spring. However, Quenneville’s position was didn’t appear to be in sync with general manager Stan Bowman’s, who presented Kane’s name to the media last spring when members of the media quizzed him about the potential of acquiring a second-line center.
All this noted, Kruger was just average to underwhelming in 5-on-5 situations in Rockford. He started the season well, but for whatever reason tailed off and never stood out for any sustained period of time. Kruger does some of the subtle things that typically go unnoticed pretty well, but he is still a slight fella and spent more than a handful of games skating on the wing in Rockford as well.
As for where this all leaves Ben Smith… he’s certainly a versatile forward who could help the Blackhawks provided he is invited to training camp and gives a strong enough performance there.
One thing is certain, Smith deserves the opportunity.
In the least, he should be there to push fringe players like Michael Frolik, Bryan Bickell and even Carcillo, Shaw and Bollig.
Smith rented a place in Chicago during the off season with Joe Lavin and spent the summer working out at United Center and with Blackhawks skating coach Kevin Delaney.
Since then, Smith has done everything that could have been asked of him in Rockford.
For the most part, the Blackhawks have been pretty good about rewarding the prospects who rightly deserve a shot. At least they have up to this point.
It would send an unfortunate message to the rest of the prospects should Smith be shut out of this camp.
But we’ll see.
Resilient Ben Smith bounces back from injury to top of his game – by Kate Munson
(*Another player to consider, but who is not currently healthy, is left winger Rostislav Olesz. He re-injured his surgically repaired right knee in a game at Milwaukee on April 1st of last season and had it operated on again as a result. Olesz has a timetable of late January to mid February at last word. Olesz figures to be headed to Rockford once healthy, however, under the new CBA, $2.225M of his NHL cap hit will count against the Blackhawks cap even if he’s in the AHL. Olesz has one more year remaining on the deal Stan Bowman inherited in the Brian Campbell swap.)