By Todd Reicher
The 2009-10 season for the Rockford IceHogs was a season filled with ups and down, records that were eclipsed, and hearts that were broken.
Rockford entered the season in their third year with the AHL (American Hockey League) with an overhauled roster and high hopes. In the offseason, the ’Hogs traded away their captain, Tim Brent, and assistant captain, Pascal Pelletier. To fill the void, Rockford picked up a slew of new members.
One of those new members was Mark Cullen, who in the 2008-09 season played with the Manitoba Moose and made it to the Calder Cup Finals. Rockford was hoping Cullen’s deep playoff experience would transfer over to his new team. Because of his experience, Cullen was awarded the assistant captain title for the ’Hogs. Despite missing 18 games during the middle of the season, Cullen led the team in points with 53, while being extremely disciplined by amassing only 16 penalty minutes.
Bracken Kearns was picked up from coach Bill Peters’ old team, the Norfolk Admirals. Kearns played two seasons with the Admirals, but in 2008-09 was sidelined for the last 23 games of the season with a lower body injury. Kearns was on the way to reaching a career year in points and goals before the injury ended his season. Kearns’ leadership earned him the assistant captain title, an honor he would live up to. Kearns played all 80 games for the ’Hogs this season, and set personal records for goals (15), assists (36), points (51), and a +8 plus/minus rating in one season.
Another high-scoring pickup was winger Kyle Greentree. After finishing second in the 2008-09 season in goals with 39, Greentree was brought in to add firepower with returning favorite Jack Skille. Greentree found his spot on the top scoring line with Skille and set-up man Kearns. The line proved to be quite potent through a majority of the season, as Skille, Kearns and Greentree totaled 63 goals and 82 assists among the three of them for a total of 145 points. To get a perspective on their scoring ability, as a whole, the team totaled 226 goals and 375 assists for 601 points.
Rockford’s second scoring line wound up consisting of returning ’Hog Pete MacArthur (who was nominated as the team’s Rookie of the Year in 2008-09), Matt Keith and Cullen. These three players all set career highs in either points or goals scored in a single season. MacArthur beat his point total of 25 with 42 this season. Cullen just beat out his career high of 52 points with 53 this year, and Keith had 20 assists this year, topping his rookie year (2005-06) assist total of 19. This line totaled 50 goals and 86 assists for 136 points.
Chipping in on the defensive side was the only player other than Kearns to play 80 games, Richard Petiot. In his fifth year in the AHL, Petiot doubled his career highs in goals, assists and points with 8 goals and 29 assists, for 37 points. His previous season high was 14 points, which he reached twice—once in 2005-06 with the Manchester Monarchs and 2008-09 with the Toronto Marlies. Petiot also had a career and team high +2 plus/minus rating.
With new players in place, the IceHogs had one of their best seasons in the AHL as far as points (94), along with 26 home wins (previous record was 23 in 2007-08) and tied their AHL record of 44 wins in a season.
The team also made the playoffs for the third consecutive year. To make the playoffs each year, the team has finished in a different spot each year. In 2007-08, the team finished second in the division, fourth in 2008-09 and third in 2009-10. Their first year in the league (2007-08) was the most successful as the team made it past the first round of the playoffs and reached the division finals, where they lost to the rival Chicago Wolves in seven games. The ’Hogs were up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, and lost the last two games. In the last two seasons, the ’Hogs have been swept out of the playoffs 4-0, this year by the Texas Stars and last year by the Milwaukee Admirals.
Looking ahead to the 2010-2011 season, I am sure we’ll see the same exodus as past years with old players leaving, new players arriving, and current players called up to the “bigs.” With the Chicago Blackhawks’ current salary cap issues, one would bet that a few members of this year’s ’Hogs will be called up. Bryan Bickell, who played a majority of this season with the ’Hogs, was called up for the playoffs, and has played a few games so far. If the team is happy with his play this year, he may find a spot in the roster next year.
Skille, who has a very large valued contract, did not see much time with the ’Hawks this year because of his contract. The salary cap prevented him from being called up, but if the ’Hawks can alleviate some of that cap, Skille may find himself playing for Chicago come next year.
Rockford’s captain in the 2009-10 season, Jake Dowell, saw limited time with the Blackhawks this season. While called up, Dowell showed the toughness he has displayed here in Rockford, which could be an asset to a ’Hawks team that sometimes lacks the hard-hitting forwards.
Although new to the league this year, Kyle Beach is regarded as a high-ranked prospect for Chicago. Whether or not he’s ready for the NHL is a different story, but come July when Chicago’s prospect camp begins, Beach would need to bring his best game for a chance.
The defensive ranks are a bit young in Rockford, but Shawn LaLonde has been talked about as a candidate for next year as well as Brian Connelly. In my opinion, both players are a bit young, and defensive talent tends to take a little longer to develop. I would think these guys are going to be with us next season, but again, time will tell.
Of course, all of this is speculation, and the hockey world is a fickle place. All we can do is wait until trading resumes in July and see whose star shines in prospect camp this summer. I’ll be reporting about the prospects once camp starts, but until then, get out there and enjoy the flavors that summer has to offer.
From the May 5-11, 2010 issue