Hockey: Tales from the Trough: Looking toward the 2011-12 IceHogs season

Tales from the Trough

By Todd Reicher
Sports Columnist

It seems like just a few weeks ago I was writing about the new prospects coming into the IceHogs, and now I’m writing about the next season.

As mentioned in my last column, the IceHogs had a large player turnover from last year. In contrast, this next year should have the smallest turnover since the team has moved into the AHL.

Quite a few players are under contract with the team, including Kyle Beach, Jeremy Morin, Philippe Paradis, Brandon Pirri, Ryan Stanton, Simon Danis-Pepin, Shawn Lalonde, Dylan Olsen, Chris DiDomenico, Jimmy Hayes, Joe Lavin, Jonathan Carlsson, Igor Makarov and Brandon Bollig. This does not include Ben Smith, who was called up to the Chicago Blackhawks toward the end of the season to replace ex-’Hog Troy Brouwer, who was injured.

Despite Brouwer’s injury, Smith has continued to play, and play well. He has three goals through six games in the playoffs, including a thrilling game-winning overtime goal Sunday night, April 24, to send the series to a deciding game seven. If Smith continues to play this way, I anticipate him staying up with the Blackhawks next season.

Next, you have players on the team who are restricted free agents. This means the ’Hogs have the first right of refusal to the player, and must send the player a qualifying offer to retain their rights. If an offer is not made to the player, he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

The restricted free agents on the team include goalie Alexander Salak (who was acquired in a late-season trade, and has played in the European Elitserien league), Brian Connelly, Alec Richards, Ivan Vishnevskiy, Mathis Olimb, Rob Klinkhammer and Evan Brophey.

Which of these players do I think the team will tender? For me to answer this, we should also look at the unrestricted free agents. Those include Hannu Toivonen, Jeff Taffe, Garnet Exelby and Jassen Cullimore. I think the team will let Toivonen walk, leading the way for the ’Hogs to tender Richards. Toivonen played very well as the season wound down, but I see them keeping Richards over Toivonen.

With Salak, it’s hard to say if the ’Hawks will keep him and assign him to Chicago, or maybe put him in the AHL for a year and see how he performs, since the AHL is a different league from the Euro leagues. Most likely, the ’Hawks will not keep Marty Turco on board, leaving an empty spot in the backup position in Chicago. So, somewhere, the ’Hawks will need to gain a body in net, whether it’s in trade, or through the current pipeline. Joe Palmer is also in the pipe down in the affiliate Toledo Walleye, where Richards was stationed last year.

So, what about Taffe, Exelby and Cullimore? Of the three, I believe Cullimore will be the only one who may return. Cullimore lives in the Chicago area, and would like to remain here. So if he does not play for the ’Hawks organization, he will probably retire from hockey.

Taffe and Exelby both were major contributors to the success and growth of the young team this year. The veteran leadership these two provided was invaluable, and could be of great use in the next season. More than likely, both will be gone, but if either of those two were to remain, I would think it would be Exelby.

If I had my vote, I would keep both Exelby and Taffe just to keep /some of the “gel” the team had late this year, and help these players transition into their second year.

Taffe, while an amazing player, is 30 years old, and has never really had the chance to show himself at the next level. Yes, he has played in 175 NHL games, but never had the chance to stick around. In my opinion, he would make a great third- or fourth-line player for an NHL team, which is why he may not stick around.

Let’s look at some of the restricted free agents. I already discussed Salak and Richards, which leaves Connelly next.

Connelly had his best year with the team this past season. He was toward the top of the league in defensive scorers and was selected to the AHL’s 2010-2011 All-Star team. He’s a risk/reward player, who can make a big play happen, or could leave the team vulnerable.

With the current list of tendered players and free agents, the list is at 10 defensemen. A team usually carries seven, sometimes eight as a scratch, and the remainders are sent to the minors. I would think for his vet presence that Connelly would be tendered a one-year offer.

Another defenseman on the list is Vishnevskiy. Vish was scratched throughout the season because of injury and the overpopulated defensive core, especially late in the season. He also provided assistance and acted as a mentor for Makarov, who is just learning the English language. I believe this is his only tie to the organization. If the team thinks Mak can get by without him, Vish will not be resigned.

Olimb, who was injured in the preseason, missed roughly the first 20 games for the ’Hogs. In 59 games, Olimb finished with 32 points (10g-22a). Olimb had spent the last five years playing in Europe, where he has hit roughly 40 points in each season, with the exception of a 62-point season back in 2006-2007. With the influx of young new talent (Olimb is 25), I feel he has reached his potential, and will not be resigned.

That leaves two of our veteran players—Klinkhammer and Brophey. Both have four years of AHL experience, with Broph playing all four years for Rockford, and Klink playing three of his four with the ’Hogs (his first season was with the Norfolk Admirals). Both players have shown they have the durability and tenacity to play in the league, but have just not been able to make the jump to the NHL. Both players have played at least 66 games each season. Both players have had their roles throughout the season, with Klink being more of a setup guy and Broph more of a checking-line player.

The points reflect this, with Broph having his lowest point total of his professional career with 18 points (9g-9a) in 67 games. On the other hand, Klink had the best point total of his pro career, earning 46 points (17g-29a) in 75 games, eclipsing his previous best of 33 in the 2008-2009 season.

With these facts given, I would think Broph would be the odd man out, and Klink will remain with the ’Hogs and get a one-year offer.

The last remaining players are those who do not have a contract with the Blackhawks organization. Those players include Zack Torquato, Peter LeBlanc, David Gilbert, Wade Brookbank, Andy Bohmbach, Scott Fletcher and Kyle Hagel.

Of the above-listed players, I would say Gilbert has the best chance of making a return, followed by Hagel, LeBlanc, then Torquato. The main reasons I put Gilbert first are his age and his potential. Gilbert has shown he has speed, a great shot, and very good hockey sense.

Hagel is a rare breed. He’s a tough guy who can perform well on the PK as well as chip in a few points here and there. In the 2009-2010 season, Hagel was signed late on a PTO (professional tryout) and was signed for the season with the ’Hogs in 2010-2011. It’s still too early to determine if Hags will be signed or not, but I think the fans would like to have him suit up for the 2011-2012 season.

The remaining players have a low-percentage chance of being called back. Maybe LeBlanc and Torquato will be back, but my bet would be they would spend a great amount of time in the ECHL. Most likely, Fletcher and Brookbank will not be offered a contract. Brookbank was more of a role player, and was scratched quite often in the season, and Fletcher spent most of his time in the ECHL.

That pretty much sums up my feelings for the next season. As news and information is released in regard to new signings, I will write a brief summary of the signing and provide some information about the player(s). Until then, have a great spring and summer!

From the April 27-May 3, 2011 issue

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