By Todd Reicher
This past week, I sat down with the Rockford IceHogs’ play-by-play announcer and director of communications Mike Peck to discuss the first half of the season.
Todd Reicher: Thanks for sitting down with me today for an interview, Mike. First off, many things have changed since we talked prior to the start of the season. Ryan Stanton, who was a top-two defenseman, was claimed off waivers by the Vancouver Canucks, and many guys have been up and down from the Chicago Blackhawks. In our talk, we agreed how defense was going to be a strong point for the team, and now, we’re close to 30th in the league for goals against. On the other side, we wondered if anyone would be able to step up in the goal-scoring department, and here we are towards the top. Looking at that, would you have expected what has transpired so far this season?
Mike Peck: I guess it’s “Welcome to the American Hockey League,” right? You never know what’s going to happen. You lose players. Think about this team with Stanton and Dylan Olsen on it, and you have (Adam) Clendening and (Klas) Dahlbeck, that’s a pretty solid top four. The offense, after a good start, has slowed down. Including this game, our past three games we have had three goals a game, but before that, we had a stretch of, I think, about nine games where we had one or two goals, or fewer. So, that offense has been a bit up and down. The offense has definitely changed, but from where we are now from opening night is where I thought we would be. A little up and down, some bright spots and some areas that need to be corrected upon. So from that standpoint, I guess I’m not surprised. And again, the lineup is different from what we thought. Trades happen, waivers happen, so that obviously altered a lot coming into the season. But some guys have showed some flash and are starting to impress, and I think that makes for a promising future.
TR: Speaking of players and who is impressing, let’s talk about some of those guys. I’ll start off with a few people that I have noticed, and let’s start off with the defense and Dahlbeck. To me, he’s continued off from where he was last season, and obviously with him getting the “A” (alternate captain), it shows that coach Ted Dent has confidence in him. I don’t know if it would be considered a surprise, but it’s a bright spot on the back end.
MP: Well, I think the offensive production from him has been a surprise this season. We were joking earlier, and in a recent game, he had four assists. Well, he had five all of last year. So, it’s been a pleasant surprise. I think the coaches were expecting a little more offense out of him, and he made some tweaks in the offseason, like changing the blade of his stick, and he really worked on his offense. The fact is that at the midpoint, he’s in the top five among defensemen in goal scoring and top 10 in points is a surprise, and it hasn’t been at any sacrifice to the team and his defensive part of the game. So, he’s a guy that has stood out and it’s hard to point out a midseason MVP, but he would have to be in the conversation.
TR: Someone else that has drawn some attention is Theo Peckham. Coming into the season, neither you nor I had a good scouting report on him, so we didn’t know what to expect other than that he was a physical player with some NHL experience. He was in the doghouse early in the season, but it appears coach has put some confidence in him by putting him in a top defensive pairing role with Clendening.
MP: I think Clendening helps make him better defensively, not because he is a great defensive defenseman, but it helps keep the other team honest. They can’t go in and move the puck as well as they could if someone else was in there. Peckham is a smart defenseman. He’s been in the NHL for over 150 games, and he is a guy that knows how to play at that level. A few injuries in the NHL and the lockout caused a few setbacks for him, but as he continues to get into shape, he will progress and continue to grow.
TR: Let’s go to the offense. You would assume guys like Mark McNeill, Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and Joakim Nordstrom would step up and produce, which for the most part, they have. But one guy who has surprised me is Garret Ross. He had a very productive last few seasons in the Junior League, and you knew he had that scoring potential, but it’s good to see him transition that to the pro game. He also seems to play a good defensive game.
MP: He’s a responsible player, that’s what makes him such a bright prospect. You don’t know what you’re going to get out of the young guys, so it’s always a pleasant surprise when they contribute offensively. Ross has been a little more consistent than McNeill over the last two months, but just looking at Ross, at both ends of the ice, he’s a good player. He’s a good skater, he’s gritty, he will mix it up in the corners. I had more of an impression of him as being an Andrew Shaw-type guy, but he isn’t. He has a little more skill than Shaw, but he’s not as feisty as Shaw. He’s been a surprise for sure.
TR: Another guy that gets overlooked, and probably because he doesn’t get on the score sheet a lot, is Philip Danault. He’s a great two-way player, smart defensively, and he’s been getting lots of PK minutes. I think he’s a standout for sure.
MP: For sure, I mean two-way game, he’s very strong on the puck, which this team is not good at, but he is. McNeill is, too, and those guys are good at getting the puck out of trouble and sticky situations. But Danault is a guy that is developing into a solid shut-down-type center. Maybe picture a Dave Bolland-type guy. The offense is going to be there a little bit. He’s not going to put up 50-60 points, but he’s a guy that’s going to be an invaluable player. He’s very responsible and a guy the coaches can trust to put out there in tight games. I wouldn’t say surprise, again, because you don’t know what you are going to get out of these young guys. But he has certainly impressed.
TR: What would you say about our veteran leadership, like Brad Winchester and Jared Nightingale? How have they contributed to the team?
MP: Well, I know they are well-respected in the locker room. You throw in Wade Brookbank and Jeff Skinner into that mix. If you look at Nightingale, if we had the defenseman we thought we were going to have, he probably wouldn’t have been an every-game defenseman. But he’s played all but one game this year, and was recently named captain, so that shows you what type of leadership he brings to the table. Like I’ve said, the guys in the locker room respect those guys, and they have been around. Winchester and Brookbank have been in the NHL and have gone through the trials and tribulations being up and down, and I think that goes along well with the young guys we’ve got here. Those guys are very important to have in the locker room.
TR: I guess the only thing that leaves is the goaltending. We knew that it was going to be a big question coming into the season, and with Antti Raanta being called up to Chicago due to injuries, that throws another wrench in the season, and now you have Jason LaBarbera in there. It’s kind of unfair to rate guys like Mac Carruth and Kent Simpson because it’s their first year in the league and they are kind of green, and again, you don’t know what to expect from them.
MP: Right, well, the first thing I would say is that our goaltending has just been average. LaBarbera brings it to another level, but it’s a team thing, and LaBarbera has been pretty good, and he is going to be good, but even when Raanta was here, he wasn’t exceptional. He had some solid games, but he also had some rough games. You look at how good Chicago is and it lets a guy like Raanta settle in. Simpson got off to a great start, but you used the word “green,” and with Carruth, it’s the same thing. He didn’t get off to a great start, but he played well before he got sent down, and he needs to play. Same with Simpson: he needs to play, but unfortunately, someone is not going to get the minutes. Now, Simpson is getting the “No. 2” minutes. Maybe at some time that changes, who knows? I would say the goaltending situation is promising still. Both of those two guys have upside, but they just need to play. It took (Corey) Crawford five years before being an NHL goaltender. There’s still time for them. You’d rather have this situation now with a team that is pretty young and inexperienced along with their goaltender as opposed to a team that is ripe and ready for a playoff run and have a younger goaltender.
TR: We haven’t touched on the PK and special teams. The PK has been terrible, last in the league, but I don’t really know what to attribute that to, and you could probably shed more light on that than I could, but I would attribute it to having a younger team. You do have some vet presence, but you have those younger people who aren’t used to playing the PK. Now, for the power play, which has been heating up lately … you’ve got some varying types of guys going to the net like Winchester, Brandon Mashinter and even Nordstrom going to the net, which seems to be helping.
MP: The penalty kill has definitely been a struggle this year. It started off OK, but around Nov. 9 or 10, that game against Iowa is when it really went south. It is personnel. There are guys that have been thrust into the penalty role that probably aren’t quite ready for it, but there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve got to get the job done. I know they are making some changes to how they are working the penalty kill, so I expect that to improve. The power play was streaky, but we’ve had seven-straight games with a power-play goal, and it was around 35, 36 percent, which is a pretty good clip for a seven-game stretch. I think it was tied for ninth on Wednesday, so it’s gotta be top eight in the league. Eventually, I would think that the power play would settle in around 17.5 to 18 percent, which would be really good. Last year, it was exceptional, which is very rare to have something like that. I think the team was over 20 percent and finished second in the league, really close to first, if not first. But the penalty kill is becoming a hindrance. You cannot take those bad penalties — the too many men on the ice, the delay of game — so staying out of the box is No. 1; and (No.) 2, you have to stay disciplined.
TR: Are there any players or things we have not discussed that you would see as a highlight?
MP: Mashinter, for me, is a guy that is totally under the radar. He wasn’t a draft pick, he was traded away for a guy the fans had given up on in Kyle Beach, and I think he’s an NHL guy. He’s a big body, he uses it, he can fight, and he can score. His skating isn’t the greatest, but I think it’s good enough to play in the next level. So, I think he’s definitely a highlight here. He played injured for a bit, but he’s now healthy and he’s putting up some points. He’s a guy that I would put on the radar as a prospect with the Blackhawks. He played a few games with the New York Rangers this year; he played with the San Jose Sharks for a bit. If the organization wasn’t so tight, I think he would be one of the top three guys to go up, depending on what they need. But I’ve really liked his game.
TR: The injury bug hasn’t bitten the team too hard…
MP: No, just lately, nothing major, which is good.
TR: Yeah, I saw Pirri walking in, and he seemed to be better after an injury suffered on Dec. 30. Was that a lower- or upper-body injury?
MP: It’s a lower, and he’s basically day-to-day now. They were hoping he would be ready this week. I haven’t heard any updates, but I knew he wasn’t going to go today after seeing him skate lightly the other day. Brad Mills should be back soon, too. But knock on wood, we’ve been pretty lucky with the injuries so far. It’s a part of the game, and they’re going to happen, and you just need guys that are going to step up and step in.
TR: Thanks for your time today, Mike. As always, I appreciate your insight, and we’ll do this again at the end of season.
MP: My pleasure, we’ll talk again soon.
From the Jan. 22-28, 2014, issue