By Chris Block
I awoke Saturday morning, thinking watching the IceHogs 2016-17 season opener in Cleveland from the night before would be a fun way to start my weekend.
Boy, was I wrong.
Rockford was beaten 2-1 on Friday in Cleveland. This, the banner-raising night for the former Lake Erie Monsters – the team that also eliminated the IceHogs in the opening round of this past spring’s AHL postseason.
Since, Lake Erie has become the Cleveland Monsters – because, apparently these two entities are no longer ashamed to be associated with the other – and former Blackhawks Stanley Cup champion, John Madden has taken over as head coach for the franchise, after Jared Bednar left in August to take over for Patrick Roy in Denver. It’s the first time Madden has been head coach of anything, by the way. Ex-Blackhawk Steve McCarthy serves as one of Madden’s assistants as well.
Friday’s 2-1 final didn’t accurately portray the distance between these two teams on this night.
Rockford had issues dealing with the Monsters’ team speed, and the scoring depth just isn’t there for the IceHogs at this time.
‘Hogs starter, Lars Johansson faced 28 recorded shots to Anton Forsberg’s 25, but the quality chances heavily weighted in the home team’s favor.
The power play was pedestrian much of the time and went 0 for 5, in part, because of that.
Sonny Milano and Alex Broadhurst were the goal scorers on Cleveland’s side. Tanner Kero tallied for Rockford with just 2:24 to play on a shot from the left circle that redirected twice off defenseman Jaime Sifers before sneaking through Forsberg’s leg pads.
A crowd of 13,279 – a strong outing considering Game 1 of the MLB American League Championship Series was happening at the same time 100 feet away – turned up to celebrate the 2016 AHL Champion Monsters at Quicken Loans Arena.
I had taken the past six months almost entirely away from hockey. So, I haven’t really kept in touch with intricacies of what the Blackhawks have been doing, especially at the affiliate levels.
For Rockford, the biggest takeaway Friday was just the lack of real offensive skill this group has as currently constituted.
Mark McNeill, the IceHogs leading goal scorer (25) a season ago, is back for what stands to be his 4th full AHL season. He’s skated for the Blackhawks top minor league affiliate in parts of six seasons now.
Between McNeill, Kero and veteran reacquisition Spencer Abbott, the team should find enough goals to win a modest share of games. The question, though, becomes where will the rest of the offense come from?
It won’t come from creativity, or speed seeing Rockford’s top six is loaded with guys who could be auditioning for Jordin Tootoo’s spot in the event of an injury, or something else.
Pierre-Cedric Labrie is a solid team guy, and a respected tough customer, but he’s is unlikely to duplicate his career year of 2015-16 when he posted 20 goals in 66 games for Rockford. The 30-year old skated in his 515th career AHL regular season contest on Friday and has just 81 goals over that career.
Brandon Mashinter is on the top line for now. But, there really isn’t a better option at this point either.
The Blackhawks last season quietly spoke of wanting to nurture some of their enforcer-type players so to have them better-suited to skate on a fourth line in Chicago. That’s an element the organization has stayed steadfast to over its reign among the NHL’s elite franchises. If that line of thinking has carried forward (say, yes), Mashinter probably remains a top fixture in Rockford’s top six in spite of the groans that may induce among some Blackhawks fans.
Newcomer, Sam Carrick is another guy who enjoys the rough stuff. He’s centering the ‘Hogs second line. Carrick is familiar with Spencer Abbott from their days in Toronto’s system, so it makes sense to stick these two together in that way too. But there’s also really no better option at this point. Carrick posted 16 goals in 52 games for the Toronto Marlies last year, but then went goal-less in 12 playoff contests.
Rockford’s third line is interesting.
Rookie Luke Johnson comes off an intriguing prospect tournament and draws comparisons to a young Dave Bolland. That’s not totally unfair in some senses, but Bolland was much more polished offensively when he turned pro. Johnson is, perhaps, the most interesting forward prospect to watch in Rockford this season
Martin Lundberg is a favorite of Blackhawks scouts but was just another guy in Blackhawks training camp. Jeremy Langlois is a Quinnipiac product who comes over from the Sharks organization. Langlois looks like an energy guy who can chip in for you here and there. This third line could be pesky, if it sticks together, but I don’t see it contributing much offense either.
The fourth line is anchored by returning captain, Jake Dowell, who is 31, north of 600 pro games and never been an offensive threat since potting 19 his senior year at Wisconsin. Last year was Dowell’s first time in double digit goals (11) as a pro.
He’s flanked by Kyle Baun on his right, and what looks to be a revolving door (for the time being) of Evan Mosey, Chris DeSousa (another smallish tough guy) and rookie Bryn Chyzyk out of the University of North Dakota. The Hawks love Baun’s size and work ethic, but there has been no sense to date of him having the hands to contribute offensively with any consistency.
Until Nick Schmaltz, or someone else, gets sent down this team could have a real problem generating enough offense to string wins together.
The blue line is where most of the intrigue on this year’s group lies. However, there are no guarantees in this group and no one in the league of a Stephen Johns from what we’ve seen to this point.
Ville Pokka is looking to build off an encouraging second AHL season. Carl Dahlstrom was paired on Pokka’s left on Friday night. I wouldn’t expect that to last – at least for the time being.
Viktor Svedberg has his ups and downs most nights. Watching Erik Gustafsson play will make you dizzy at times. You can already tell he’ll have to be reined in some now that he’s returning to this level.
Robin Norell is a wild card. He very well could wind up passing all four aforementioned defensemen on the depth chart by season’s end. He has shown confidence in carrying the puck at times, we just haven’t seen him do much with it yet at this level. Defense is more his specialty. But if his puck skills show marked improvement this year, you could see Norell rocket up the prospect chart. I’d look for him to get consistent ice time as long as he stays healthy.
Cameron Schilling has returned for his 2nd season with the ‘Hogs. The 27-year old, Carmel, Indiana native can eat minutes and play in all situations. He did struggle at times last season with consistency, however.
Nolan Valleau is the only extra d-man the team is carrying for now. Dillon Fournier was sent to the Indy Fuel to play.
Johansson and Mac Carruth will split the starts in the early going but Johansson would be considered the team’s number one. Johansson is 29 and is coming off a great season with Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League. He signed a one-year deal with the Blackhawks back in May.
Carruth was brought back in the off season, also on a one-year deal. That either shows you how badly the Hawks hurt for depth goaltending, or that they believe Carruth is a late bloomer. It does prove Carruth has something of nine lives with this organization. The two sides have been unhappy with the other on occasions but Carruth did keep it together enough when he went on that great run with Indy in 2015 and had respectable numbers in 17 appearances with Rockford last season.
Until more help arrives up front, this is a team that must get solid, consistent play from its blue line and great goaltending to be in a playoff picture.
But back to Friday’s game.
Rockford had a glorious opportunity to start the scoring 8 minutes in when Mashinter had Forsberg down and beat. The Monsters’ starter stopped him with an outstretched left skate, however, as Mashinter couldn’t stickhandle around him. Mashinter’s backhand banked off the goalie’s skate then the post.
Lars Johansson’s best save came late in the first when he stuffed Sonny Milano after he came speeding out of the penalty box for a one-on-one with the IceHogs newest goalie.
Milano would beat Johansson with help from a Paul Bittner screen in front on a Monsters power play at 12:46 of the second stanza. Johansson didn’t do much to see around Bittner and it was an easy strike for Milano from just above the left face off dot, uncontested by Erik Gustafsson as well. He was caught standing still and indecisive on whether to challenge the shot or take the passing lane away.
Alex Broadhurst burned his former mates at 25 seconds into the third period when T.J. Tynan found Broadhurst alone on the backdoor for a leisurely strike. Tynan’s feed went right through both Dahlstrom and Pokka’s sticks. Cleveland tried a similar play just seconds earlier off zone entry when Pokka was late to challenge his check. Dahlstrom would up on the right side in the scramble back to the Monsters’ odd man rush and Pokka seemed a little lost on the left side of the ice, at least here.
Midway through the 3rd, while killing a Labrie minor, both Pokka and Dahlstrom got away with terrible giveaways in their d-zone. First, Pokka tried a breakout pass across the Hogs zone that was picked off by Broadhurst. Then Dahlstrom tried a no look, backhand pass behind the goal line back toward his goal. That went right to a Cleveland player in front of the IceHogs net but his attempt was stuffed.
Kero’s first of the season came later.
Rockford’s absysmal power play could be called the difference in the game. As opening night’s in the AHL go, this wasn’t a total throwaway, but it was far from a beauty.
The two teams rematch on Saturday, again in Cleveland.
IceHogs then skate in Grand Rapids on Friday before hosting their home opener on Saturday the 22nd at BMO Harris Bank Center in downtown Rockford.
–Rockford IceHogs lines, pairings, scratches & specials in Season Opener
53-Brandon Mashinter / 10-Tanner Kero / 28-Mark McNeill
22-Pierre-Cedric Labrie / 16-Sam Carrick / 13-Spencer Abbott
25-Martin Lundberg / 37-Luke Johnson / 17-Jeremy Langlois
26-Evan Mosey / 11-Jake Dowell / 27-Kyle Baun
32-Carl Dahlstrom / 29-Ville Pokka
8-Viktor Svedberg / 5-Cameron Schilling
21-Robin Norell / 6-Erik Gustafsson
35-Mac Carruth (backup)
Power Play I: Mashinter-Kero-McNeill w/ Svedberg & Pokka
Power Play II: Labrie-Carrick-Abbott w/ Gustafsson & Lundberg
PK Forwards: Carrick-Dowell, Johnson-Langlois, McNeill, Mosey
PK Defense: Dahlstrom-Pokka, Norell-Gustafsson, Svedberg-Schilling
Forwards: 14-Chris DeSousa… 15-Tyler Barnes… 20-Ben Chyzyk…
Defense: LD-7-Nolan Valleau…