Tales from the Trough – IceHogs continue slide toward the cellar

By Todd Reicher

Rockford IceHogs goaltender Jake Hildebrand made his AHL debut this past weekend in a relief appearance during Saturday's game against the Grand Rapids Griffins. Hildebrand gave up two goals on 21 shots in just under 38 minutes of work.
Rockford IceHogs goaltender Jake Hildebrand made his AHL debut this past weekend in a relief appearance during Saturday’s game against the Grand Rapids Griffins. Hildebrand gave up two goals on 21 shots in just under 38 minutes of work.

I’m taking a week break from the weekly review to discuss the current status of the Rockford IceHogs as they continue to inch closer towards possessing the worst record in the league.

So what’s wrong with Rockford? There are a few things to cite as culprits for Rockford’s lack of wins; whether it be defense, goaltending, player turnover, weak special teams or lack of scoring players, but it all comes down to execution.

First, let’s look at the goaltending situation. Rockford lost their starting goaltender for the past two seasons, Michael Leighton, when the management decided not to resign the veteran goaltender and opt to get their currently signed goaltenders some experience. This opened the door for three candidates – Lars Johanssn, Mac Carruth and Jake Hildebrand. Carruth is the “veteran” as far as North American hockey is concerned, with 35 career AHL games under his belt over four seasons. Johansson, at age 29, has technically seen more professional hockey time, but this has been overseas in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) where the brand of hockey is different from North American hockey in terms of play style and rink size. Hildebrand is the rookie of the crew, and was recently called up to the AHL from the ECHL when Corey Crawford of the Blackhawks went out unexpectedly with an emergency appendectomy, and has only played a total of 20 professional games, all in the ECHL.

After a few weeks, Johansson proved himself as the starting goaltender, and thus far, has played 66 percent of the games for Rockford, and has been pretty solid for the most part. There are some occasional goals which should have been saved, but Johansson has adapted well to the North American playstyle.

Carruth has shown signs of growth over the years, and has confidence has certainly grown since he first few seasons, but there are still some lapses in his game. One thing to remember is Carruth is only 24, and Corey Crawford played five seasons in the AHL before his full-time call up to Chicago. By no means am I saying Carruth is the next Crawford, but making the point that some goaltenders do take time to develop and will take longer than others.

Johansson has certainly proven himself as the starter and once he returns from relief duty in the NHL, he will assume the role of starter. The other side is who will go back to the ECHL once he returns? He has only played two periods of one AHL game, but Hildebrand looked good in his time, giving up two goals on 21 shots.

At this point, it’s hard to blame the goaltending for Rockford’s problems. I would say they are on the low end for the reason Rockford is struggling. I would say the lack of, or consistent scoring along with poor defensive play by forwards and defenseman are what is doing Rockford in, along with second-period play.

The second period has not been kind to Rockford as the IceHogs rank last in the league for goal differential in the league. This means the margin between goals for and goals against in the period is the greatest. The AHL doesn’t provide these stats, but coach Ted Dent has said this in a recent interview. It can be attributed to many things, such as the long shift change, but this is one big reason for Rockford sandwich stanza problems.

Secondly, Rockford has no proven point scorers on the team, besides from Mark McNeill and Spencer Abbott. The defenseman have been chipping in with points, but the forwards should be tallying a majority of the points on the team. As it currently sits, three players are tied with 13 points on the team – McNeill, Abbott and Tanner Kero, with McNeill and Kero playing in all 22 games while Abbott has played in 21. Abbott, Martin Lundberg (who is playing his first year of North American hockey) and defenseman Cameron Schilling are all tied for the team lead in goals with five. Three of the top seven point producers are defensemen, which is understandable to have defenseman up in scoring. As a side note, the IceHogs might get a little scoring help as Nick Schmaltz has been reassigned from the Chicago Blackhawks to the IceHogs.

What the above means is you basically have one line which is producing your points, with some minor contributions from your other lines. If you are going to have a team which is not going to put up the points, you need to be solid on the backend to prevent the other team from scoring. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Rockford, where almost every player on the team has a minus rating.

One visible note to this is Erik Gustafsson, who is a team-leading -13. Plus-minus rating isn’t the be-all, end-all stats for poor defensive play, and is rather a futile indicator for showing defensive play. A Corsi-rating would help, but this information isn’t readily available in the AHL. Gustaffson has been told by upper-management in Chicago he needs to shoot the puck more, and be more of an offensive defenseman, which is the case as he is currently second on the team in terms of shots with 62, four behind McNeill. When you are expected to help lead the team in scoring from the backend, you are going to be putting in a great deal of ice time, and at times when the team is behind, you are going to have to play more aggressively, which can lead to many defensive odd-man rushes and breakaways. This has been the case for Gus and his rating.

On the flip side of things, players who are on the fourth and third line do not show as weak of a rating due to their limited time on the ice compared to defenseman and upper-line players. This is why the plus-minus is not a good measure for a player performance.

Special teams have also been detrimental for Rockford. The IceHogs power play unit has not been that bad, as it is hovering at 18.3 percent, which is right in the middle of the pack at 15, it’s the penalty kill which has been more of a concern. The IceHogs currently sit at 24th in the league with a 77.5 percent kill rate. It’s not the worst in the league, but all of the other teams which are below Rockford in PK (minus the Hartford Wolfpack) are higher than Rockford in the PP department, meaning they are making up for this in goal scoring. And it is not just the lack of kills, it is when they are occurring in the game. Rockford has been penalized more in the second and third periods of games, and when they are holding a lead, they have a hard time holding the opposition at bay.

Regardless of the many problems, the IceHogs will have to figure out their shortcomings and work as a team to get things back on track before their season is over early.

Looking forward

The IceHogs have one home game this week, a Wednesday matchup against the San Antonio Rampage. Rockford will then travel down to Texas for a two-game series against the Texas Stars on Friday and Saturday.

Photos from this, and other Rockford IceHogs games can be seen on my website at www.reicherstudios.com/Sports/HockeyPhotos, or on my facebook page, www.Facebook.com/ReicherStudios

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