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 General Manager of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard to recap the IceHogs' season and track the progress of many of the Hawks' top prospects.
In Part II of the interview, Bernard talks about the expectations for 2008 draft pick Kyle Beach, Ben Smith's success at the NHL level and what's in store for next season.
As a first round pick (12th overall), there’s a lot of interest in Kyle Beach’s development. He had 52 goals his final year of junior. Did that maybe set expectations a little too high?
You can’t expect him just to come into pro hockey and have even a 27-28 goal year. I think Kyle made strides in a lot of areas; he worked extremely hard on his skating all season. I think it was a big year for him in maturing at the pro level. The one thing that Kyle brings that none of our other players can bring is that he can get under the other team’s skin, and he’s very good at it. He can draw a lot of penalties doing it. He has a fantastic shot, and if he can get into the open area, he can shoot the puck like nobody else.
We have to get him to be more consistent. But you know, he’s a 20-year-old kid playing his first year in pro hockey. That’s going to come. It doesn’t just happen overnight. He learned a lot. It was still a good year; he scored 16 goals. If he can break into the 20-goal range next year… It took Jack Skille three years before he got there, so there’s a lot of good things to come for Kyle, and I think he learned a lot about himself and a lot about the pro game this year that he can take away this summer and improve on.
Ben Smith played 63 games for the IceHogs before being called up at the end of the year. How rewarding was it to see his success down the stretch and in the playoffs?
I wasn’t surprised. Ben Smith is a kid that, when we had him in two years ago – after his Boston College career ended, after they won the Frozen Four – he joined us for our series against Texas in the playoffs and right from game one, I said to Bill Peters (Rockford head coach), “This kid is special.”
You could tell by his demeanor off the ice; he’s a very well-mannered character kid. If your kid grows up to be like Ben Smith, you’re very proud. He works extremely hard. Everything that he does is for one purpose: to be in Chicago. Like every first-year player, he had ups and downs. But he’s such a smart player that even on nights where things may not be happening offensively for him, you can still play him. He plays a smart defensive game.
When he scored in Detroit, it was a big goal. I think it was the second-to-last game of the year and his 20th goal of the year (counting Rockford). I remember sitting in my office because it was intermission for us, and I jumped up; that’s Ben Smith! He has the knack for scoring the big goal. He did it for us all year. He did it for Boston College, and then he proved it for us in the playoffs against Vancouver. He has no fear. He’s a smaller player, but he’ll go to the hard-to-play areas. He’ll go to the corner; he goes to the front of the net, and he’s not afraid to get pushed around. He’s got such a good mind for the game, his hockey sense is so good, that he doesn’t get himself in trouble. He’s another player that Blackhawks fans can be excited about. There are so many good, young players in Rockford.
What are you most looking forward to next season?
The last 25 games we finished as the best team in the league. We went 17-5-2 down the stretch; we won 10 of our final 11. With probably 80 percent of our team returning next year, I want to see how these young kids do, if they remember why they finished that way and what got them to that point.
The biggest thing for us down the back third of the season was that our team really developed a work ethic. The young players realized that things aren’t just going to be handed to you now; you’re a pro hockey player. They developed a work ethic, an attention to detail. I want to see if they can carry that through and start the season next year, if they remember this is why we had success. Now they’re second-year players so they need to help the young players understand, and I expressed in our end-of-year meetings with these guys: “Coming in next year, you’re not a rookie anymore. The expectation bar has gone up a little bit. You have to show the younger guys, the first year guys, what it takes.” I’m looking forward to see how they handle that.
And I’m looking forward to seeing the guys that joined us at the end of the year and how they get off to their start. They’re guys that have great potential; they played very well down the stretch for us.
You can only pick one 2010-11 season highlight. What stands out for you?
We went through a really tough stretch the end of January, beginning of February. I think we were 2-14-2. You never see this anymore, but the coaches didn’t ask the players to change what they were doing; the coaching staff changed everything they were doing – from the way they did their meetings to the time they had practice. They just changed everything. But it was like a light bulb went on for the players; it refocused them, and then we were off. And it was so enjoyable to watch.
It was so disheartening during that month of February – the players are trying, we’re losing by one goal, and you just want them to have success so bad. And our staff did a really good job during that lull in the season – it could have been like a morgue in that dressing room. But guys kept the positivity up, the energy was high, guys came to the rink to learn every day. And that’s where your older players are key – the Garnet Exelbys, the Jassen Cullimores, the Jeff Taffes. They were excellent in the room.
Our staff kept it all in such a positive light that everybody enjoyed still coming to the rink. And that was enjoyable to see. You knew it was going to change; you could see it coming. And when it did it was enjoyable to watch. I was so proud of the players. They went from one extreme to now enjoying success. And they got a little bit of a taste of it and just ran with it the rest of the year.