By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — As the Chicago Blackhawks move closer to the reality that they likely won’t make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, late-season moves could have an effect on how the season plays out for the Rockford IceHogs.
The Blackhawks are fresh off a seven-game losing skid, 12 points out of the second wild-card spot and sitting at 24-25-8, one of the league’s worst records. In Rockford, the IceHogs have slipped to sixth in the AHL Central Division.
The AHL is typically fickle at this time of year. Big-club roster moves can turn a playoff contender to a basement dweller, especially when trades happen. The IceHogs, who were all but out of playoff contention by Christmas a season ago, were left in a similar situation when Chicago shipped forwards Sam Carrick, Mark McNeill and Spencer Abbott elsewhere.
But, there seems to be promise in Rockford–for now.
The IceHogs are currently enjoying some Chicago reinforcement in John Hayden, Tanner Kero, Gustav Forsling and Cody Franson. But that’s not to say things have panned out as expected. Rockford had just found an offensive flow with Vinnie Hinostroza, David Kampf and Tomas Jurco when all three were recalled. They are showing promise up top, but how they’ll fit into the future for the Hawks–and the ‘Hogs–will depend on whether Stan Bowman is eyeing a playoff berth or already looking ahead to next year.
The Blackhawks GM has already announced that he wouldn’t be looking to rent players ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline as in past years. That means he’s likely looking to sell what doesn’t fit into the club’s long-term plans. That could mean guys like Michal Kempny and his one-year deal could easily be moved. The defenseman is only 27 and has a lot of hockey left in him. He’s just not been a bright spot for Chicago and likely won’t be down the stretch.
Franson, in his 10th NHL campaign, is 30, and probably won’t return to the lineup any time soon. He had an opportunity a week ago, but Chicago recalled Carl Dahlstrom instead. At 23, Dahlstrom shows signs of being the strong blueliner Franson was in his younger days.
Moving guys like Tommy Wingels or Jurco could make way for a Hayden recall, a move that could prove wise for Chicago but not great news for IceHogs fans. But Hayden isn’t expected to languish in the minors anyway and would complement Hinostroza and Kampf nicely if there’s room.
Then there are are players like Ville Pokka, who landed in Rockford along with T.J. Brennan as part of the Nick Leddy trade. Brennan has since been traded but Pokka, another skater without a future in Chicago, remains in a captive IceHog portal. Cutting him loose this month might make sense, as the return of journeyman Adam Clendening is proving positive for Rockford.
Defenseman Viktor Svedberg is a big presence but has all but served his purpose for the Blackhawks. He skated in 27 games for Chicago in the 2015-16 season but hasn’t had a serious look from Bowman since. At 6-8, the 26-year-old from Gothenburg, Sweden, has a long stick and blistering slap shot that could buy him another stint in the NHL.
That leaves Tanner Kero. Two seasons ago he was a hot-handed undrafted rookie who netted 20 goals in Rockford. But his stock has dropped slightly the last couple years, even if he still has the makings of a two-way NHL forward. He’s just been unable to hang as a third- and fourth-line grinder with Chicago.
Kero’s $750,000 cap hit could be attractive to other clubs, making him a sensible sell as the deadline approaches. Depending on who the Blackhawks would get in return, Rockford would be losing a playmaker, forcing first-year coach Jeremy Colliton to the drawing board.
Like any other season for Colliton, the deadline will come and go. His job to develop players for the Hawks won’t change regardless of decisions that may be out of his control. For now, he’s focusing on who he does have in the system Chicago hired him to put in place.
“It’s been defense awareness and being able to eliminate other teams’ Grade-A opportunities,” Colliton said. “That’s how you win important games. That’s how you win the playoffs. We need that. These players need that if they want to continue on in their careers.”
The IceHogs are still in contention for a spot in the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs. With 56 standings points and a 25-21-3-3 mark at press time, Rockford is in the hunt along with Iowa, Chicago, Grand Rapids and Milwaukee. Manitoba leads the division while the Cleveland Monsters have only mustered up 16 wins on the season. R.