AHL Preview: IceHogs gear up for 2018-19 season
By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – The Rockford IceHogs have made their final preseason roster moves and are set to begin the 2018-19 season Friday night in Cleveland.
The ‘Hogs started the week after releasing several players on professional tryout deals and sending two guys on AHL contracts to the Indy Fuel of the ECHL. Rockford also got goaltender Collin Delia back from Chicago, along with forward Dylan Sikura, the skilled forward who, at the beginning of NHL Training Camp seemed to be a lock to start the season with the Blackhawks.
Former Rockford Park District and Rockford Iceman youth player Josh McArdle was also in camp with Rockford after signing a one-year AHL deal in the offseason. The defenseman and forward Brett Welychka who’s also in an AHL contract, to Indy Monday.
After a four-year career at Brown University, McArdle hoped to make history as the first local player to crack an opening-day IceHogs roster. Rockford, however, is full prospects on NHL deals. That often means guys on the American League bubble are assigned to the ECHL to make room for players Chicago needs to develop in the short term.
Welychka played three seasons at Carleton University in Ontario, where the flashy forward led the team in scoring with 31 points (12g, 19a) in 28 games. He completed his college career ranked sixth in career scoring.
The ‘Hogs made history as a franchise last season, reaching the AHL Western Conference Finals where they were eliminated by the Texas Stars in six games.
“We had a lot of fun,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “That’s the kind of environment you want to be in and the kind of games you want to play in. We got a taste of how enjoyable it is to go to battle in the springtime and so we want to get back there again.”
There were 40 players on the Rockford roster for last Friday’s intersquad scrimmage. A dozen were released after the game. Some may have made the team under different circumstances.
“There were some decisions guys are disappointed with,” Colliton said.
The IceHogs lost a few key players from last year’s run. Guys like Cody Franson and Adam Clendening are no longer with the organization. John Hayden, Andreas Martinsen and Luke Johnson have cracked the Blackhawks roster. The ‘Hogs have gained Andrew Campbell, a 6-4 defenseman with 42 NHL games under his belt, and veterans forwards Terry Broadhurst and Jordan Schroeder.
“It’s been good for them,” Colliton said. “And this week is important because we’ll have our team and get that structure as far as how we want to play. It’s important for everyone to get on the same page.”
The IceHogs forwards are following up a very solid year offensively. Rockford led the AHL in shots on goal and finished seventh in total scoring.
Anthony Louis, last season’s team leader in points, returns to the Rockford forward ranks. Louis skated in all but four IceHogs regular season contests and tallied 44 points, which ranks 11th for any AHL rookie. With a full professional season now under his belt, the 23-year-old is ready to take on more of a leadership role.
“I’m just going to try to lead by example,” Louis said. “I’m not much of a talker but just leading by example, going out and working 110 percent every day, (shows) the newer guys what you need to do because [if] you take a day off, you take a step back.”
Matthew Highmore and Tyler Sikura, last year’s second and third leading scorers respectively, will start the season in Rockford and could join Louis atop the stat sheets. Highmore is coming off a season in which he set the IceHogs rookie goal-scoring record with 24 tallies. Sikura’s 23 goals and 16 assists on the campaign helped earn him the Team MVP award.
Despite the returning stars, the IceHogs will have to replace the services of several key forwards such as Vinnie Hinostroza, Chris DiDomencio and Tomas Jurco, who were contributors last season.
New forwards like Broadhurst, Jacob Nilsson and Schroeder will be tasked with filling these departures. Broadhurst makes his return to Rockford after skating with the IceHogs for parts of three seasons from 2011-14. The 29-year-old scored 32 points in 49 games with the Cleveland Monsters last year, including seven points in seven games against Rockford.
The Rockford defensive unit is due for a changing of the guard in 2018-19, with young up-and-comers replacing last season’s veteran core.
Over the summer, the team lost its two leading scorers on the blue line, as Clendening signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Franson inked a deal with Avangard Omsk of the KHL. Viktor Svedberg, the defense’s plus/minus leader, remains a free agent.
An offseason acquisition, Campbell skated in the AHL for parts of 10 seasons and captained three different teams and offers veteran stability. Dennis Gilbert was selected by the Blackhawks in the third round of the 2015 NHL Draft, strives to impress in his first professional slate.
“(The opportunity) is exciting,” Gilbert said. “We definitely lost a lot of big pieces so there’s a lot of big shoes to fill, so hopefully some of us can step up.”
Returning Rockford defensemen Carl Dahlstrom, Darren Raddysh and Luc Snuggerud, all younger than 24 but come into 2018-19 as seasoned veterans among a relatively young IceHogs defense. Dahlstrom and Raddysh trailed only Svedberg in games played among Rockford defensemen last season, while Snuggerud contributed five goals and 12 assists despite being limited to just 40 games because of injury.
The IceHogs have plenty of options in net for the upcoming season.
Collin Delia, who was in net for 10 of Rockford’s 13 contests in the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs, battled for the No.2 spot in Chicago, and was among the last two players sent down. He saw NHL action last season, a remarkable feat for a guy who started the campaign in the ECHL. The 24-year-old recorded a 2.34 GAA and a .924 save percentage during the IceHogs’ postseason run.
Rockford saw the departure of Jeff Glass, who split time with Delia last year. Glass also saw action with the Blackhawks. He has since been released by Calgary Flames and could land an AHL deal somewhere.
With Delia’s sights set on Chicago, there could be room for other goalies to establish themselves in Rockford. Matt Tomkins and Kevin Lankinen are the top candidates as of this report
Tomkins spent the majority of the 2017-18 season in the ECHL with the Indy Fuel, but got a taste of AHL action with eight starts in Rockford. Lankinen is coming off a year in which he boasted a 1.33 GAA and a .946 save percentage in Finland’s SM-liiga.
IceHogs Developmental Goaltending Coach Peter Aubry is confident each will perform when called upon.
“I think (they) both had great summers and got ready for the situation,” IceHogs developmental goaltending coach Peter Aubry said.” New to the organization, (Lankinen) probably had a lot of excitement and wanted to put his best foot forward, and he’s done that.”
Aubry said he expects Tomkins to be a “pleasant surprise.”
“He’s just kept pushing and pushing and he took a step this summer too,” Aubry said. “He had a real good summer, trained with some good coaches and put himself in a position to have some success this season.” R.