While their NHL counterparts in Chicago were competing for the Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks' American Hockey League affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, were busy honing their craft, many of them hoping to be the next generation of Blackhawks stars. chicagoblackhawks.com's Adam Kempenaar recently sat down with Blackhawks GM of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard to recap the IceHogs' season and track the progress of many of the Hawks' top prospects.
In part one of the interview, Bernard rates Rockford's season overall, and discusses the progress of players including Shawn Lalonde, Ryan Stanton, Jeremy Morin and Brandon Pirri.
As a minor league affiliate, your primary goal is to develop the franchise’s young talent. But you obviously want to win as well. How would you rate last season for Rockford?
I think overall the season was a success for us. We started the season as a very young team; we had three 19-year-olds and three 20-year-olds. I think we were the second youngest team in the league. We had 14 first-year American players in our lineup at times, which is quite a lot. But what I really liked was that out of those 14 first-year American League players, probably nine or 10 of them are legitimate prospects that are going to play in the National Hockey League with the Chicago Blackhawks. There were a lot of jealous scouts many nights in our building. They love what we’re doing and the way that we’re doing it, bringing all these young kids up together. We knew being such a young team that there were going to be some bumps in the road, especially early, and that we’d be a better team in the second half, and that’s exactly how it turned out.
Let’s take a closer look at some of those top prospects. On the blueline, how did 2008 3rd round pick Shawn Lalonde develop over the course of the year?
I think Shawn had a tremendous year from a development standpoint. He’s come from a situation in the Ontario Hockey League where he played in Belleville, and our fans may not know this but Belleville plays on an Olympic-sized ice surface. One of Shawn’s greatest strengths is his skating ability. He was able to do pretty much anything he wanted to do on that Olympic-sized ice.
He has great vision, he moves the puck extremely well, and he skates extremely well. But he had to learn to play the pro game. And that’s where it really helped having a former NHL defenseman, Steve Poapst, now on our staff in Rockford. He almost dissected Shawn’s game right from Day 1 of the season and taught him how to use his strengths to be a pro-style defenseman: not every pass had to be a home run, not every opportunity to go up the ice had to be a full rush through the entire team, to pick and choose his spots more responsibly and be better in his defensive zone. Shawn bought in, worked very hard, watched a lot of video, and the Shawn Lalonde from game one to game 80 is a different defensemen. He really made progress as the season went along and is now a guy that, I think, is a legitimate recall or a player with a potential chance to make the team out of training camp.
|Mark Bernard says Ryan Stanton (above) "plays with a lot of heart and soul" (Photo by Jim Orlando / Rockford IceHogs).
Ryan Stanton was a free agent signee out of the Western Hockey League. Obviously the organization saw something they liked in order to go after him, but was his performance this season a surprise at all?
We knew Ryan would be a reliable defenseman, but I think yes, it was a surprise at how well he played and how well he developed. He brings something that we don’t have a lot of in Rockford or Chicago. We have a lot of puck-moving defensemen in both teams, and Ryan is that more typical stay-at-home defenseman who makes a great first pass. He’s probably one of the best in the AHL at making that little five- to six-foot outlet pass when he’s in trouble. He has tremendous poise with the puck; he’ll take a big hit, but at the last second will move the puck into an open area and boom – we’re out of the zone. He has to take a hit to do it, but he does that better than anyone I’ve seen at the American level.
On several occasions this year he’s stood up for teammates, and as the year went on he just really displayed a confidence about himself. He plays with a lot of heart and soul. He works hard on and off the ice. He turned himself into a guy that in the last minute of play, if we had a lead, he was one of the defensemen we wanted on the ice. That was through his own doing, his hard work. He’s put himself into a situation now that he’s a guy that if he can come in and have a good training camp, anything can happen. But if he’s back in Rockford, he has to leave such an impression that he’s one of those recall guys. The fact that he brings that different element helps him. He’s not just your prototypical, moving-the-puck defenseman; he’s a stay-at-home guy.
On the offensive side, how would you rate Jeremy Morin’s progress?
The one attribute that Jeremy showed me that I didn’t know he would possess was some grit. He dropped the gloves a few times with us and did very well. Then he had a fight in Chicago. It was kind of funny because the game before he came up, he fought Chris Porter; we were playing Peoria in Rockford. And then the next game up here, they fought again. I didn’t know he had that side to his game.
His skating has come along leaps and bounds. He’s worked really hard at that. He was off to a great start. Unfortunately when he returned from the World Championships, he got injured in mid-January and never returned to the lineup, so we only got about 30 games out of him between the two teams. But what he showed us in those games was very promising. He pushed for a spot at training camp last year, and he’ll do the same this year. And if he is in Rockford, he’ll continue to develop. He’s a natural goal-scorer; he’s got great instincts around the net, great vision and a real flare for making the right plays with the puck. He was called up as a “Black Ace” for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and he’s 100 percent for training camp.
Like Morin, Brandon Pirri was also a 19-year-old rookie in Rockford. How was his adjustment to pro hockey after just one year of college?
Out of all the players we had this year, Brandon is one of the guys I’m probably most proud of. I think when Brandon first came in, he thought it was maybe going to be easier than it was. He’s always been the leading scorer, always been able to do whatever he wants out on the ice, and all of sudden he’s playing against men. He’s playing against guys in our league who have played 5, 6, 700 NHL games, and those little moves aren’t working. He had to elevate his game.
Out of all the players we had this year, Brandon [Pirri] is one of the guys I’m most proud of. - Mark Bernard
I think he took a little blow to the ego when he was released from Team Canada at the World Junior tournament. He reevaluated and came back in January and worked extremely, extremely hard and had a fantastic second half. He got it. He recognized what he had to do to have success at the American League level. He finished 12th in rookie scoring with 43 points. As a 19-year-old kid, that’s tremendous. He thinks the game very well; he has great vision; he likes to slow the game down in the offensive zone and bring people into him and find players. He’d shoot the puck to his wingers really, really well. I’m really proud of the progress he made. He worked hard after Christmas and turned his season around.
Visit chicagoblackhawks.com soon for Part II, which includes Bernard's thoughts on Ben Smith's playoff impact, Kyle Beach's first pro campaign and a look ahead to next year.