By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD — Although the Rockford IceHogs were officially eliminated from playoff contention, interim coach Derek King is focusing on the positives that came out of the 2018-19 season.
King was hired as Rockford’s interim coach on Nov. 6, when the Blackhawks fired Joel Quenneville and promoted Jeremy Colliton. Twists seem to loom from the start. Injuries mounted, a shaky goalie situation in Chicago made things tricky in Rockford and the IceHogs were bereft in the goal department. Through it all, the club managed to log 80 standings points and were 29-28-3-4 under King and 19-13-1-1 over their last 34 games.
“I think I handled the adversity that was thrown at us when the (coaching) switch was made,” King said. “We had a lot of injuries and a lot different players in and out of the lineup every night. I think I did a good job managing that.”
King has now spent two of his 11 years in the AHL with Rockford. And after being a part of last year’s ride that took the IceHogs to the Western Conference Finals and laying a foundation of young talent this year, narrowly missing the playoffs, he hopes to lose the interim tag and continuing building on that layer.
“I’d love to stay,” King said. “We have a great staff here. I’d like to think they were happy with me. If I was being let go, I don’t think I’d be talking to you. It would have already been done. So, I feel confident. Working with the organization, these guys have been real good to me and classy about keeping me around after the firing and giving me the opportunity to do this.”
Rockford scored just 184 goals this season and still managed to finish 35-31-4-6–a glaring testament to how Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Anton Forsberg handled things between the pipes behind a young group of defensemen with limited pro experience.
“Our goaltending was outstanding,” King said. “Our young D played really well considering how young they were. They defended well. We just couldn’t find the net. (And) there’s a bunch of young talent coming.”
Brandon Hagel, Chad Krys and Philipp Kurashev showed that they’ll be immediate contributors next season. And with a roster that could be left with a significant number of free-agency holes, young talent will be a welcomed part of the equation.
“We gave some (young) guys an opportunity to play, and they reacted well,” King said. “They played hard and they didn’t quit. I don’t think a young kid coming into this dressing room this year can say they didn’t get a fair shot of playing in big games or even getting the opportunity to play at all. We needed to win games, obviously, but I was always rotating the lineup–putting in new guys, putting in young guys, putting them in situations, especially at the end. Reese Johnson, Hagel and Kurashev–they were in our lineup.”
The IceHogs played a chunk of this season without a big part of their offense. Injuries sidelined last year’s rookie scoring machine Matthew Highmore for 63 games. William Pelletier missed 35. Terry Broadhurst and Tyler Sikura were also in and out of the lineup.
“Most of our injuries were key guys that are here to score goals and put up numbers,” King said. “We just couldn’t stay healthy long enough to go on a little roll. That’s learning for me. But I don’t like to make excuses. We still had enough (bodies) to make the playoffs.” R.