By Todd Reicher
I sat down this past weekend with the Rockford IceHogs’ director of communications, Mike Peck, to discuss the first half of the season for the IceHogs.
Todd Reicher (TR): Good morning, Mike, and thanks for sitting down for our midseason interview.
Mike Peck (MP): You’re quite welcome, always look forward to it.
TR: So, the team started off great, then tailed off to a sub-par December. It’s hard to attribute it to just one thing, but maybe the team just clicked off the bat, and then other teams started to click and caught up; maybe other teams scouted Rockford better and figured out how to play them; we’ve had injuries and call-ups … there’s many factors.
MP: Yeah, I think the biggest thing would be lack of offense. That has been the biggest thing with the team since early December. At the start of the year, we looked at it and said, “the goaltending is deep, the defense is deep, the offense is deep, but there really isn’t that top front-line scorer, and the team stopped scoring by committee. Most of the games, the shots-on-goal have been there, but the finishing hasn’t. The team was scoring over three goals a game coming into December, and now they are at 2.70 goals per game. So, I think the offense has to get going again. And yeah, the defense has tailed off a bit, and you hate to rely on your defense for scoring, but with the two highest-scoring defensemen in the league last year on this team, you would expect them to contribute more, which T.J. Brennan has.
TR: Going into the stats, the goals against, we are in the top five in the league, so the goaltending has been solid. But, like you said, the offense needs to get it going. As for the shots-on-goal department, we are getting shots on the net, but just not converting. Would you attribute that to too many perimeter shots being taken, not getting the rebounds for second and third chances, staying in and getting those greasy goals?
MP: I’d agree that it’s getting more greasy goals. They’re getting shots from the perimeter and there have been guys in front of the net to help screen, but we just haven’t been getting those greasy goals. Take, for instance, the last game against Charlotte. Guys were in front, but we just couldn’t convert. Some of it is puck-luck, some of it is you make your own luck, so it’s a little of both, but I would like to see more opportunities from within the slot. Most games we are getting more chances, but we need to make harder ones for the goalies to save.
TR: We’ve seen good production on the defensive end, and Mark McNeill was doing well before his injury, and he did well upon his return, but as we mentioned, the scoring has slightly tailed off. In that retrospect, who would you think are some of the forward stand-outs in the first half?
MP: For me, the two who have been stand-outs are McNeill and Garrett Ross. Ross has been a little more inconsistent compared to McNeill, but McNeill has been the most consistent. Teuvo Teravainen has been up and down, which is typical of a rookie in this league, but he overall has been really productive and had been really good the last month, month-and-a-half he was here before getting called up, and Joakim Nordstrom was pretty steady when he was here, too. You know, Nordstrom is a guy that probably won’t turn a lot of heads offensively, but he is a big “glue-guy” for this team here in Rockford. I think that loss has certainly hurt, losing him, probably more than Teravainen from that standpoint. If they were both here together, Teravainen would out-produce him more, but Nordstrom would hold rank in different ways.
TR: How about the defensive side?
MP: Ville Pokka, I think, is hitting a typical mid-season rookie blues spot, but overall most of the season he has been really good. I don’t think any of us knew what we were getting with him, since he came from a different organization and overseas, and there wasn’t a lot out there on him. Stephen Johns has also been good. For him, offense is not his game, and this year he has been able to play more of his game, which is a defensive defenseman, and I think he has been great at it. Brennan has been good at both ends, too, better defensively than initially advertised to me, and offensively as well.
TR: I know they have been putting Brennan on the penalty kill unit, which shows the confidence in his defensive ability.
MP: Yeah, and he has been in the top two and three as far as plus/minus goes, and last year he was a -12 with 72 points.
TR: Goaltending is hard to put a peg on, since they have both been playing so well.
MP: Scott Darling hasn’t really struggled a bit. He had a game where he gave up four goals and was pulled, but you can’t fault him — the team wasn’t very good in front of him. Michael Leighton has been good this year and has lost some tough games. I mean, he lost a 1-0 shootout game and 1-0 overtime game and made 47 saves in a 3-2 shootout loss. So again, he has been great. They both hit a plateau at one point, but have come right back. This is probably, for an active goaltending combo, the best we have ever had, and that includes going back to the days when Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi were here, just because it was Niemi’s first year here and Niemi hit a bit of a low at one time.
TR: How about some of the rookies this year? I’ll start off with one that has surprised me, and that is Dennis Rasmussen. Here’s a guy that is playing his first year of North American hockey, which can be a big adjustment for many of the foreign players, since the ice rink is smaller and the style of hockey is different. As you know, they play a more free-wheeling style of play — less hitting, more passing and flash — where over here, you have the opposite. I think he has adapted quite well.
MP: I think that’s a fair assessment. You don’t see very many Swedes that come over here and play as physical as he plays. Maybe a defenseman like Niklas Hjalmarsson, but when he was a rookie, he was like that. But yeah, Rasmussen will be gritty, get in the corners. He’s not like Cody Bass where he will blow guys up, but he will take hits, give hits, and his style of play seems to translate well to the smaller ice here.
Ryan Hartman is a guy that just works so hard. You can tell there are areas of his game that he needs to work on, but the guy plays so hard. His motor is always going. He gets under the skin of the opponent, not unlike Andrew Shaw, and he will tell you he would like to compare himself to Shaw. And Shaw was more of a brash type, whereas Hartman is more of a chirper and just gets under the opponents’ skin that way. He draws a ton of penalties from that. He needs to work on his hands a little bit, and more of his hockey sense.
TR: We talked about the defense, and there aren’t many rookies, but we did talk about two of them in Johns and Pokka.
MP: Yeah, not much else we can say about them, but I can compare Johns to Klas Dahlbeck from his rookie year. Many people won’t notice him, but it’s a good thing. He just brings that presence there. He’s not going to put up a lot of points, because he doesn’t have to, but he is just so steady defensively.
TR: We’ve never really done this before, but let’s do a grading scale. Let’s start with the offense on a scale of A-F.
MP: I would give the offense a B-. It’s been just above average. I think they can do more, and they should do more, but I wouldn’t give them anything more than a B-. Looking at it as a group, you have to look at it as a group, not just your first few lines. They are steady, and it’s a unit you can live with because the other units are so good.
TR: What would you say about the defense?
MP: I’d say B+ on the defense, if you are talking about the team defense. The reason I would not give it higher is because the team has struggled at times getting the puck out of the zone. They are good defensively and jumping in to play offense, but there have been sequences to get the puck out of the zone, and they can’t do it. You look at a long, grinding playoff series, and that is what will make the difference of a team getting out of the round and a team not getting out of a round.
TR: One thing that has been better since last year is that the team has not had as many mental or pressure mistakes. Last year, people would pressure us on a hard forecheck and we would lose the puck, and this year, I could probably count on one hand how many times we have been pressured into a turnover deep in our zone.
MP: I can certainly agree with that. Maybe there is some panic sometimes, and they will fire the puck down the middle and ice it, or they just won’t get it out. But other than that, they have been good in that aspect.
TR: Let’s move on to goaltending.
MP: A-, at a minimum. Maybe even an A. It’s kind of a by-product of the defensive unit, but Leighton and Darling have simply won games for this team, and that hasn’t happened over the past years. These two guys have carried the team at times when they were hanging them out to dry.
TR: How about special teams? Let’s start with the PK unit. Last year, we were at the bottom of the league, and this year, coming into this week, we are ranked in the top three.
MP: Yeah, last year we were almost worst all-time, and this year it would be another group that I would give an A. On the road, it has been phenomenal. You take out the game here against Lake Erie where they went 4-for-4, and we would be top five at home as well and probably top in the league. The power play has been pretty bad, about a C, but I would rather have a better PK and a PP unit. I think, going back to what we said early, getting gritty and getting dirty would be where they need to start getting better.
TR: What are you projecting for the next half of the season? We’re sitting in first place in the Midwest Division, and we have been playing well against our division rivals. What is something the team needs to do to finish strong?
MP: Well, it’s that time of year where people start to get tired and it really tests the depth of the team. The first half, everyone has energy, and the second half, you hit the mid-season blues and your rookies are going to hit a down period. They just aren’t used to this schedule and playing this many games, so it’s bound to happen. Taking that next step in the development is what will help. If these guys can continue to progress, the team will get better, and the way the team has been set up, they have average start, a not-so-good middle, and then they explode at the last half. And that is how you hope the team goes. You just have to make sure the drive and the hunger is there for them.
TR: Who should we keep our eyes on for the second half of the season?
MP: I’ve just been so impressed with Ross, McNeill and Phillip Danault. They are basically making this their team. They all have a big future in this organization, and I love seeing how these guys are taking the team over. There is no sense of arrogance or entitlement, but on the ice, they are the next Brandon Pirri or Jeremy Morin — guys like that who can take the next step. From a leadership standpoint, certainly them. From a production standpoint, Adam Clendening has certainly struggled in the first half, and I would see him making some progress in the second half.
TR: Thanks again for your time, Mike. Looking forward to a great second half!
From the Jan. 21-27, 2015, issue