photo credit: Kris Gray, Rockford IceHogs
Adam Clendening battles for the puck with Milwaukee’s Taylor Beck (41)
By Chris Block
The American Hockey League All-Star Game was held in Providence, Rhode Island on Monday night.
Chicago Blackhawks prospect Adam Clendening, along with Rockford IceHogs team captain Martin St. Pierre were both selected by the league to represent the team from just up the road off Interstate 90.
Both St. Pierre and Clendening were held off the scoresheet in the game. The Western Conference won with some late heroics by Toronto Marlies captain Ryan Hamilton, who completed a hat-trick with 11.2 seconds to go in regulation to give the West a 7-6 victory over the Eastern Conference all-stars.
Clendening, who turned 20 in October, and leads all IceHogs players with 21 assists this season, said he was initially surprised when news of his AHL All-Star nomination came.
“I was actually eating lunch [on January 17th] with a bunch of the guys,” Clendening recounted.
“I just got a call from Bernie [IceHogs general manager Mark Bernard] and I didn’t really know what it could be about. And I really didn’t think of answering it (at first).
“And then I was like ‘whatever, I’ll answer it.’ I didn’t want to be rude with all of the guys there. So, I just answered it. And [Bernard] apparently had called Marty (St. Pierre), who was at the other end of the table – We had 10-12 guys eating lunch together. He called him and then he called me.
“So, he just told me (about being named to the Western Conference All-Star team). I was pretty happy but I was with a bunch of guys, so I didn’t want to make it that big of news.”
The rookie tried to play it cool, but with many of his teammates following social media his news wasn’t much of a secret.
“They knew already,” Clendening said. “I guess it came out somehow. I just didn’t try to make it a big thing.”
Clendening and around a dozen of his IceHogs teammates were commiserating over lunch, a handful of them having traveled to Chicago the night before to play a practice game against the Chicago Blackhawks as the parent club spent its final night in Chicago preparing for the start of the NHL regular season.
A Niagara Falls, New York native, Clendening was one of nine current IceHogs who participated in that informal scrimmage at the United Center.
“It was really fun,” said the Blackhawks first pick in the second-round (36th overall) of the 2011 Entry Draft.
Making the drive up to the United Center for the January 16th scrimmage were Clendening, St. Pierre, Dylan Olsen, Klas Dahlbeck, Shawn Lalonde and Jeremy Morin – joining IceHogs teammates already in Blackhawks camp – Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Hayes and Ryan Stanton.
“You get to measure yourself and get to see how hard it is to play defense against some of the best players in the world,” Clendening said of the experience. “You know, you got Kane and Toews, Hossa, Sharp – to name a few. And you get to watch Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook – the way they operate out there.
“You try not to be star struck about it – when I was playing. But, just to watch them and play defense on them was a treat. It was pretty fun even though it wasn’t a real game.”
Prior to the NHL lockout ending, Clendening himself spent seven weeks skating alongside an NHL defenseman when IceHogs head coach Ted Dent, on somewhat of a whim, chose to pair the rookie alongside third-year pro Nick Leddy.
After spending the initial six weeks of his first pro season alongside Dylan Olsen, Brett Lebda and then Klas Dahlbeck – Clendening saw his game flourish while skating alongside Leddy. In Lebda (who skated with the rookie in preseason as well), the idea was to provide Clendening with a veteran presence and player in a similar mold. With Olsen and Dahlbeck, the IceHogs head coach had the offensive blue liner paired with defensive specialists. So, the Leddy pairing felt a bit odd at the onset.
Clendening had been seeing power play shifts with Leddy for some time, but it wasn’t until a see-saw first period on November 21st against the visiting Peoria Rivermen – in which the IceHogs jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead only to head into the first intermission down 3 goals to 2 – did Ted Dent pair the two together at even strength. At the time it was an attempt to shake up his team after things spiraled out of control over the final seven minutes of that night’s opening period, but it was a tandem that just instantly clicked.
“It was awesome,” Clendening said of the twenty games he was paired with Leddy. “I don’t really know how else to say it?
“Nick’s great. He helped me a lot.”
Getting slotted with a rookie also seemed to refocus Leddy’s game (whose season was ho-hum up to that point), as Clendening’s game is still raw south of the center red line.
“He made me look pretty good out there,” Clendening chuckled in a nod to the 21-year old now-Blackhawks defenseman. “So I owe him a lot of credit.”
Clendening noted he learned just from observing Leddy’s approach to the game and how he comported himself during the NHL lockout.
“Just watching him approach the game and how he controlled the game,” Clendening continued. “Everything he was about – the style of play and just the way he handled himself around, and in public. It was good to learn from a guy like that, who’s not too much older than me – but he’s been around the block once or twice. He was a lot of help. He’s a great player.
“You could notice the difference just going up and playing in that scrimmage. He was the same old Nick Leddy… He can really do some damage with his skill and his skating ability.”
Now that NHL is finally back in session, and Rockford has been stripped of its NHLers and a few burgeoning new ones, Clendening and the IceHogs have had to readjust and soldier on.
Yet, he said the loss of players such as Leddy, Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw won’t change or hinder his or the IceHogs’ ability to push a high pace.
“Actually we’re trying to open it up but I think we’re playing team defense more soundly than we have in the past,” said Clendening in a post-game conversation after Rockford’s 3-1 win over Peoria on January 18th. Of course, the IceHogs went on to allow a combined 17 goals in their next two games, but the team got back on track defensively over this past weekend.
“We’re concentrating on our neutral zone and trying to get the turnover and allowing ourselves to create transitionally and get the D in the rush and allow ourselves to play more offensive.
“I think we’ve really concentrated on our neutral zone game and in our own end and its translated into offense for us.”
In other fallout from the end of the NHL lockout impacting the AHL, the league abandoned its ‘Hybrid Icing’ experimental period which began when the season began in October. Essentially a race to the faceoff dots in lieu of the goal line, hybrid icing was removed by the AHL for the remainder of this season in an effort to keep the rules of the game consistent with the NHL.
Clendening, for one, hopes hybrid icing gets reinstituted for next season.
“I like the rule a lot,” he said. “I think it’s very useful. And if it’s used the right way it’ll save a lot of injuries.”
The rule was instituted with a move toward player safety in mind, which is why it was a surprise to see the AHL eliminate it, if only for the time being.
“Guys think it’s a joke going back with a guy bearing down on you,” Clendening says. “It’s the name of the game is trying to touch the puck. If that guy feels he’s got to hit you to play the puck, then that’s what he’s gonna do. And if you touch [the puck] then you have nothing but the boards to stop you going at full speed. It is a bit of a scary feeling going back on a puck like that. But, you just hope the guy has enough respect and doesn’t take advantage of you.”
Hybrid icing is expected to make its debut in the NHL for the 2013-14 season, and return to the AHL as well. And that has Clendening’s seal of approval.
“I like the no-touch a lot – the race to the dots,” he reaffirmed. “It still allows the guy to beat out the icing but it’s a race to the (faceoff) dots. And that gives the guy enough time to let up and the [linesman] to blow the whistle and make a judgment call. So, I think just in the long run it will save a lot of injuries. That’s just my opinion.”
photo credit: Greg Hamil, Rockford IceHogs
Clendening takes to the ice on Los IceHogs night
Clendening is also another of an ever-expanding percentage of U.S. college players leaving school early to turn pro. Some feel pressure from the NHL team that drafted them, some choose to leave school on a high note, there are also those who bolt to different venues citing developmental concerns, while others are enticed by the money. For Clendening, he says the timing just felt right for taking the step up to the professional level.
“I think it was just more of a personal thing,” said Clendening in a conversation we had with him back in October.
“I played my time at college. It was great for my development. I just personally felt like it was the right time to take the next step and challenge myself again at another level. It was awesome (at Boston University). I enjoyed my time there. I still miss it here and there.
“But, the level of hockey here is another step. And I felt it was time for me to take that step.”
After two seasons at Boston University, and a Hockey East First Team All-Star nomination after posting 4 goals and 33 total points over 38 games in his sophomore season, Clendening said it wasn’t the pace of the hockey that was the biggest adjustment for him, making the jump from college to the pros.
“The speed of the game is something that is pretty similar to college,” he noted. “A lot of guys in college are older. The speed is pretty similar – obviously its (the AHL) a little bit faster. The big thing was the structure and the smarts of every player. So, that was probably the most eye-opening things for me in my first couple of games.”
Clendening has adjusted quite well.
While his offensive output may suggest to some that Clendening is nearing NHL ready, the Blackhawks current plan is to take their time and allow Clendening to round out his game at the minor league level.
He can stand to add a bit more muscle to his 5-11, 190 pound frame and a good off season workout program will add more agility and first-step explosiveness to his skating stride as well.
Right now, Clendening is not ready to face NHL forwards, as he consistently gets beat by speed to the outside. Yet, he competes every night and every facet of his game has gradually improved as the season has gone along. He’s even helped kill a few penalties over the past couple weeks as the coaching staff has scrambled for answers for that special teams unit’s recent downturn.
Clendening reached the All-Star break in a tie at 11th in rookie scoring (25 points) and his 4 goals and 21 assists rank him 8th overall amongst AHL blue liners.
His 25 points are now 1st among active-AHL rookie defenseman with Edmonton Oilers prospect Justin Schultz (18 goals, 30 assists, 48 points in 34 AHL games) now very likely permanently promoted from Oklahoma City.
The Blackhawks have been high on Clendening’s potential from the start, and what they’ve seen out of him thus far has not discouraged them one bit. He’s targeted for a permanent NHL spot a year or two down the road and there’s no doubting he’ll be leading a power play rush once he gets to that point.