10/08/2015 8:00 PM
Photo by Greg Hamil
After a successful 2014-15 season for the entire Chicago Blackhawks organization, the Rockford IceHogs look to build upon last season’s accomplishments and make an even deeper run in the postseason. The IceHogs begin their 17th season in professional hockey, including their ninth in the AHL as the primary affiliate of the 2015 Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks.
Rockford finished 46-23-5-2 in 2014-15, good for a second place divisional finish and the team’s first playoff berth since 2010. They outpaced their in-state rival Chicago Wolves by 12 points, and fell only two points short of their first division title. Returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, the IceHogs swept the defending Calder Cup Champion Texas Stars in three games in the first playoff round before falling to the Grand Rapids Griffins in the Western Conference Semifinals. The series win against Texas was the club’s first playoff series win since 2008.
Rockford continued to feed players to a successful Chicago squad last season, which captured its third Stanley Cup in six seasons. The IceHogs 2014-15 roster featured 11 players who also played for the Blackhawks, with five making their NHL debut. In all, Rockford has sent 56 players to play with Chicago in the NHL since affiliating with the parent club in 2007, and 22 of those players have their name etched on the Stanley Cup after playing in Rockford.
In 2014-15, the IceHogs had their highest win total (46), highest winning percentage (.651), and most road wins (22) since affiliating with the Blackhawks. The team recorded five hat-tricks from four different skaters (Ross , McNeill, Nordstrom, Danault) with three of those remaining with the organization. In fact, Rockford returns 15 players that appeared in a game with the team a season ago, including some key pieces: the team’s Most Valuable Player Michael Leighton, leading goal scorer Mark McNeill, and 2014-15 AHL All-Rookie Team member Ville Pokka.
Forwards (15): Marko Dano, Jake Dowell, Ryan Haggerty, Ryan Hartman, Vince Hinostroza, Tanner Kero, Pierre-Cedric Labrie, Mike Liambas, Brandon Mashinter, Mark McNeill, Jeremy Morin, Daniel Paille, Dennis Rasmussen, Garret Ross, Dane Walters
Rockford’s depth up front appears to be one of the team’s biggest assets heading into the season. Jeremy Morin, the IceHogs all-time leading goal scorer, returns to the team after spending time with the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets in 2014-15. Rockford also brings several scoring threats from last season back to the lineup, including top goal scorer Mark McNeill (23g-21a-44pts), Garret Ross (21g-22-a-43pts), Ryan Hartman (13g-24a-37pts), and Brandon Mashinter (17g-15a-32pts). Tanner Kero, who recorded five goals in six regular season games and three points in the postseason, and Marko Dano, who had 21 points in 35 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets, should both figure prominently into the team’s scoring. Former team captain Jake Dowell, longtime NHL veteran Daniel Paille, and fan-favorite Pierre-Cedric Labrie provide a stable veteran presence to the IceHogs roster.
Defense (8): Kyle Cumiskey, Dillon Fournier, Kirill Gotovets, Erik Gustafsson, Ville Pokka, Dennis Robertson, Cameron Schilling, Nolan Valleau
The IceHogs will seek to match last season’s defensive performance, when they allowed the fewest goals in team history (180). The Hogs welcome back Kyle Cumiskey who was voted Rockford’s Best Defenseman in 2014-15 and won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks after finishing the season with the IceHogs. After leading the defensive corps with 30 points last season, Ville Pokka will play a prominent role on the team’s blue line. Dillon Fournier and Kirill Gotovets each spent time with the team last season and should see an increased role this season. Dennis Robertson and Cameron Schilling are newcomers who scored 17 and 18 points respectively with the Hershey Bears and Charlotte Checkers last season. The IceHogs will also look to Erik Gustafsson (Sweden) and rookie Nolan Valleau (Bowling Green) to keep opposing teams off the board.
Goaltending (2): Michael Leighton, Mark Visentin
Much of the success of the IceHogs last season started with the goaltending. 2014-15 Team MVP Michael Leighton returns to the lineup after breaking the IceHogs AHL era record for shutouts in a season with five. Leighton ranks second place (five shy of the outright lead) on the AHL all-time shutout list, and brings a valuable veteran presence to the team in his 15th season of professional hockey. Visentin joins the IceHogs coming off an injury which sidelined him for the entire 2014-15 campaign. The netminder has talent though, as he was drafted in the first round of the 2010 Draft by the then Phoenix Coyotes. The 23 year-old has two years of AHL experience under his belt and made his NHL debut with the Coyotes in 2013-14.