By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Not pretty.
That is what coach Derek King said of the Rockford IceHogs after the club dropped its first three games of the 2019-20 season.
“We look good on paper,” King said. “But we’re not a good team right now. We’re not a team. Team is the key word there.”
King said he could blame the early skid on the newness of the season, and that it may take some time to figure out lines but doesn’t want to make that excuse. The ‘Hogs are putting in the time at practice and in meetings and he has a good feel about the roles they need to play. But things just haven’t translated well come game time.
“We’re just not quite there,” he said. “We practice hard, and we do everything right in practice. But when the games start, we shy off a little bit.” So, now it’s me trying to beat that into them – that it’s okay to make a mistake, but it’s not when every time we make one it ends up in the back of our net.”
Such was the case in Monday’s tilt with the Laval Rocket as the IceHogs rarely played in the offensive zone and were outshot 43-22 in a 3-1 loss. As in the first two games, Rockford struck first but then struggled with controlling the puck in the neutral zone.
“We are letting them come through the middle with speed,” King said. “And when you do that, you start playing on your heels and it’s hard to recover.”
Despite being winless, Rockford’s goaltenders have been the bright spot. The three-man rotation of Kevin Lankinen, Matt Tomkins and Collin Delia have kept the IceHogs close, but they’ve also been left out to dry at times. Delia was the latest victim, stopping 40 Laval shots Monday, keeping a rout from happening in front of home fans on a sunny Columbus Day afternoon.
“It’s a good thing (he) was on,” King said. “But that’s not how we want to play and it’s not the way we can afford to play. We’re going to have to tighten it up.”
Delia also got the start in last Saturday’s home opener and stopped 24 shots against Grand Rapids. The spotlight in the 4-2 loss, however, was on rookie Kirby Dach, who was reassigned for conditioning a few hours before the opening faceoff. The stint could determine whether he remains with the Blackhawks or is sent back to the Saskatoon Blades to finish the season.
The third overall pick in the 2019 draft, Dach could be with the IceHogs for three more games but can’t be in King’s plans this season because the 18-year-old isn’t eligible to play in the AHL.
Dach had some special moments Friday, but spent most his time settling in. He was less of a factor Monday but proved that when he has the puck, he controls the tempo.
“It’s nice for (the Blackhawks) to give him to us for a little bit here,” King said. I think he played well for someone who hasn’t played in a while.”
Dach was expected to be in Chicago but suffered a concussion in the NHL Prospect Tournament and hasn’t played since Sept. 10. Per Canadian Hockey League rules, 18-year-olds claimed from the CHL but not retained by an NHL club, must be sent back to their junior team. They may play in the AHL for 21 days for conditioning purposes but can’t remain on a roster.
Dach is eligible for nine NHL games before Chicago must decide whether to send him back to Saskatoon.
King said he has no say in how long the 6’4″ forward will be here, but is happy to have him, especially when the club is battling for its first win.
“He’s a gifted player who will be an NHL hockey player at some point,” King said. “He’s a big body. He’s got great hands. He’s a smart hockey player.”
Dach is not certain about his future in Rockford either but said he will make the best of it.
“I am going take this one day at a time,” he said. “It’s been a blast so far with spending a lot time in Chicago then coming down here. I’ve enjoyed everything about Chicago and Rockford, so I am looking forward to it.”
The IceHogs host Chicago Friday at 7 p.m.