By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — There’s something to be said for a developing pro hockey player who exceeds all expectations in the minors.
It’s a different story altogether when an NHL-ready guy comes to the AHL and does it. It’s still exciting, but not surprising. The novelty wears off quickly, but fans enjoy the show.
Rockford IceHogs forward Vinnie Hinostroza is caught somewhere in the middle. He has certainly not disappointed fans, who get a glimpse of NHL skill with every shift. And some say the Blackhawks could have gone either way with him or Alex DeBrincat for their last roster spot. And that’s a strong argument. Both players use their lack of stature to their advantage, Hinostroza as a lightning-fast playmaker and DeBrincat a scrappy skater who finds ways to put the puck in the net.
But judging by the goals the Blackhawks did not produce many of last year compared to their recent Stanley Cup slates, it is slightly clear why Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville shipped Hinostroza to Rockford. The addition of Patrick Sharp and Bandon Saad made it even more apparent that Vinnie doesn’t fit into what Chicago is trying to build, or rebuild, at this point.
Hinostroza has taken his time in Rockford in stride. And why wouldn’t he? There’s not much he hasn’t done for the IceHogs. With 22 points (9g, 13a) in 23 games, his plus/minus is currently a 7. It’s plain as day that when Hinostroza’s on the ice things happen for Rockford.
“I am still pretty young,” Hinostroza said of his timetable to get back with the big club. “So, I just try to work hard every day because I know in the end it will pay off.”
Where it will pay off is the question. The Blackhawks haven’t been afraid to cut top talent loose. Teuvo Teravainen and Artemi Panarin were both ticketed out of Chicago after playing vital roles many felt would continue as guys like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews approach 30. Chicago has also shown signs of being afraid what they’ll lose by shipping players elsewhere. The Hawks are currently allowing forward Tanner Kero to languish when they’re not forcing him into the lineup. Kero has only played in eight games this season, which could see him go in a trade. If that doesn’t happen, he could be sent to Rockford, but that would mean Chicago could lose him because he’s no longer waiver exempt. So far, the risk of getting nothing for Kero doesn’t appear worth it just to create a spot for Hinostroza.
Mutterings of a Hinostroza-DeBrincat line have been heard in hockey circles lately too. But, to make that happen without waiving Kero, John Hayden or Nick Schmaltz would have to be sent down. Nobody should expect an experiment like that. After all, Chicago has already learned from the Tomas Jurco mistake.
That leaves Hinostroza holding a bag full of NHL ability without a place to unpack it. And barring a mustard seed of truth to the rumor that a trade with Buffalo may be in the works, the 23-year-old will hang his hat in Rockford. It’s not a major media market or the National Hockey League, but winters here aren’t as brutal as they are in upstate New York. R.