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The Rockford IceHogs should be a lot more fun next season, so here’s a lineup projection

DeBrincat or no DeBrincat, the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate looks much-improved after a rough 2016-17 season.

2016 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Being the farm team for an NHL organization isn’t always easy. Outside of a few fringe guys who might be signed to minor league deals, most of your players are technically signed to an NHL team that ultimately makes the big decisions.

The Rockford IceHogs have seen the pros and cons of this arrangement over the years. Sometimes, the IceHogs get to host a first-round talent like Teuvo Teravainen or Nick Schmaltz for a few months, giving the fine people of northern Illinois something to get excited about other than the No. 1 Mexican restaurant in town. (Sorry Rockford friends I’m sure you have way better places to eat, as several of you have pointed out to me.)

But then there are seasons like 2016-17, where outside of the brief appearances by the likes of Schmaltz and Gustav Forsling, the IceHogs were devoid of exciting young talent. They ended up finishing last in the AHL’s Central Division with a 25-39-9-3 record and the lowest goals for average (2.3 per game) of any team in the league.

It was enough to get head coach Ted Dent fired amid reports that he had clashed Blackhawks management.

The IceHogs now have a fresh, new head coach in 32-year-old Jeremy Colliton, and they’re also set to give him a much more interesting roster than the one Dent was handed a year ago. With an influx of recently signed prospects to the organization, Rockford looks to be a much more entertaining team next season.

Alex DeBrincat could give them a superstar

We’ve seen what DeBrincat, a 2016 second-round pick, can do in the OHL, where he was league MVP last season. There’s a decent chance that the forward will be able to earn a spot on the Blackhawks for opening night, but if he falls short, the IceHogs will be the benefactors as they get one of the most exciting young scorers in hockey.

DeBrincat would immediately give a charge of energy to BMO Harris Bank Center. He’s produced at a level unlike any other Blackhawks prospect in recent memory, and could push for 35-plus goals if given extended time in the AHL. If the 19-year-old ends up in Rockford next season, it’s a guarantee that the IceHogs don’t finish dead last in scoring again.

Other new forwards will help, too

Last season’s IceHogs just didn’t have enough scoring talent to stay competitive. Their best forwards midway through the season were Spencer Abbott, Sam Carrick, and Mark McNeill, who all got traded away at the deadline. Apparently these deals fueled the discord between Dent and Hawks management last season.

Abbott ended up leading Rockford with 35 points last season despite playing in only 53 games. Next up were Kyle Baun (34 points in 74 games) and Brandon Mashinter (30 points in 61 games), then Carrick, McNeill, Michael Latta, and Martin Lundberg. The only one of those players set to return to the IceHogs next season is Baun.

That might actually be good news considering the influx of talent coming in to replace them. DeBrincat is the big name at the top, but even if he doesn’t come, other players will be ready to fill spots. That’s particularly true if the Blackhawks stick with veterans like Tommy Wingels, Lance Bouma, and Jordin Tootoo at the bottom of the roster.

The list of potential new forwards for Rockford under that scenario is impressive: John Hayden, Vinnie Hinostroza, Anthony Louis, Nathan Noel, Laurent Dauphin, Alexandre Fortin, David Kampf, Matthew Highmore, Matheson Iacopelli, and Graham Knott are among guys who could play key roles in the AHL next season.

Compared to the group that was used a year ago, full of uninteresting journeymen like Abbott, Carrick, and Mashinter, this Rockford team will be younger with more upside and potential entertainment value.

Defense will see fewer changes

Part of the variable here is that we don’t quite know how the Blackhawks’ defense will look next season yet. Presumably Forsling will get a permanent NHL spot, but on the right side, it’s unclear who will get the third spot behind Connor Murphy and Brent Seabrook.

The top candidates are Pokka and offseason signing Jan Rutta, although there’s also the (very extreme) long shot possibility that minor league signing Darren Raddysh impresses to the point that the Blackhawks give him an NHL deal. Pokka is no longer waiver-exempt, so that may give him an advantage toward earning an NHL opportunity, as the Hawks would likely lose him through waivers if they try to reassign him to the AHL.

The defense will also see one intriguing addition in 2014 fifth-round pick Luc Snuggerud, who got into 13 games with Rockford during a brief stint last season. He put up big numbers (11 goals, 20 assists) in 39 games with Nebraska-Omaha as a junior to earn an entry-level contract from the Blackhawks. He may be needed to help replace Pokka’s offensive production, or he could add another skilled option lower in the lineup.

One problem for the IceHogs will be handedness. Pokka, Rutta, Robin Norell, and Raddysh, an AHL signee, are right-handed, but Carl Dahlstrom, Jordan Oesterle, Luc Snuggerud, Viktor Svedberg, and Robin Norell are all lefties. There’s also unsigned RFA Erik Gustafsson, who is another lefty. So it’ll be one area for Colliton to tackle as he figures out how to build his defense.

2017-18 IceHogs projected lineup

Position IceHogs
Position IceHogs
F1 Alex DeBrincat - Laurent Dauphin - Vinnie Hinostroza
F2 David Kampf - Matthew Highmore - John Hayden
F3 Alexandre Fortin - Nathan Noel - Matheson Iacopelli
F4 Anthony Louis - Luke Johnson - Kyle Baun
D1 Carl Dahlstrom - Jan Rutta
D2 Luc Snuggerud - Jordan Oesterle
D3 Viktor Svedberg - Darren Raddysh
Goaltender Jean-Francois Berube - Jeff Glass
Bench Graham Knott, Tommy Olczek, William Pelletier, Robin Press, Robin Norell, Matt Tomkins

Obviously this is just a rough sketch given how many moving pieces there will be in the coming months. Here are a few quick thoughts on this lineup:

  • We’re projecting DeBrincat in the AHL here, but that’s not a slam dunk at this point. If he makes the NHL right out of the gate, then Rockford will have Knott (or whoever becomes the odd man out) to step into a steady role.
  • The scoring ability up and down this lineup blows away what the IceHogs had a year ago. Even if you take away one or two from the DeBrincat-Hinostroza-Dauphin-Hayden group of potential NHLers, there are still intriguing scoring options like Fortin, Iacopelli, and Louis. This beats the hell out of Abbott, Carrick, Mashinter, etc.
  • Rutta might be a better player than Pokka, but that would create a challenging decision for Chicago: Do you take the risk of placing Pokka on waivers to lose him for nothing, or try to trade him soon? It seems like the Hawks are waiting until they get a longer look at these two in camp before choosing a route. But given Pokka’s lack of waiver-exempt status, he may have a leg up on the competition to get a look early on.
  • The defense is definitely not coming together as well as the forward group, but you figure a guy like Dahlstrom will improve in his second full AHL season. We’re also not factoring in Gustafsson here, and assuming he re-signs, there’s another skilled blue liner to add to the mix. He’s another lefty, though, so Colliton will likely be cornered into playing at least one guy on his offside.