By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – It may take some time for Jeremy Colliton to surpass Ted Dent as the Rockford IceHogs’ winningest coach.
But, judging by the 32-year-old’s record leading Mora IK of the Swedish Hockey League the last four years, it could be quick work.
Colliton, who is coming off a 35-4-13 record, was named the fourth head coach of the AHL IceHogs last week. Dent was fired last week after six years. He posted a 221-179-33-21 mark and led the ‘Hogs to back-to-back Calder Cup Playoff appearances in 2015 and 2016.
The 2016-17 season was a much different story. It was one for the circular file, a season that begged to end so coaches could forget about barely winning 25 games and focus on next year’s slate. To Dent’s credit, trades and callups depleted his roster and rotating injuries took their toll.
But, even before Mark McNeill, Sam Carrick and Spencer Abbot were traded, the IceHogs couldn’t find the back of the net. Teams that average but a pair of goals per game usually lose as often as they win, and Rockford was slipping into the Central Division basement by Christmas.
Goaltending was sub par, defensive play was nothing to write home about and not one skater produced a plus rating.
Dent left a lasting impression on fans, former players, and the Blackhawks organization, but 25-39-9-3 is no a way to end a season after back-to-back playoff appearances in an organization that has three Stanley Cups in six years.
Colliton’s 2016-17 Mora IK squad? It was just about the opposite and no fluke. With Colliton running things, Mora IK only lost 18 games in four seasons.
What was his secret overseas? He had talent on his roster. Most teams do, and the stable of Blackhawks prospects is no different than those coming through the ranks around the NHL. Even the Swedish league is top-level hockey. Talent goes without saying. Dent had talented players. Team buy-in was another story.
The way Colliton played made his transition from the ice to the bench a seamless move.
“I was a guy who paid attention to the team being successful,” he said of his nine-year pro career. “I was interested in what we were doing and why were doing it. And at 28, I thought I had a lot of years left to be involved.”
A 2003 New York Islanders draft pick, Colliton skated in 57 NHL games and played most of his career with the Isles’ AHL club in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Post-concussion syndrome forced the centerman to retire just three games into the 2013-14 season. He then took over as head coach of Mora IK.
The Alberta native’s interview with Blackhawks brass came down to his philosophy of developing young players, and whether it fits General Manager Stan Bowman’s system of producing winning NHL rosters. Bowman like dwhat he saw.
“Jeremy’s experience as a player and a coach will allow him to be a great leader and mentor for our young prospects,” Bowman said.
The IceHogs youth movement was underway before March’s trade deadline and is expected to continue. Veterans like P.C. Labrie and Jake Dowell will likely move on to make room for a host of hopefuls much like recent groups that produced Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Dennis Rasmussen.
Who cracks the Chicago roster out of training camp this year is anyone’s guess. But it’s Colliton’s job to keep it within reach for his team.
“There are a lot of young, talented players coming through the organization,” he said “(The message) is that if you are on an NHL contract, the focus should be on playing for Chicago.”
An NHL callup while winning in the minors is a cog Colliton hopes to get turning out of the gate, too. That means he’ll have to find the right balance. There’s a time be a no-nonsense coach, and a for individual personalities to set the tone.
“It is important to build relationships with players. There is also a time for relaying that message more forcefully.”
However that plays out, at the end of the day, it will be about getting better.
“The rest will take care of itself. Winning will come.”
Top IceHogs assistant, former NHLer Derek King, is expected to remain in Rockford. The Blackhawks have yet to announce a replacement for defensive coach Mike Kitchen, who was fired a day before Dent was relieved.