This is the second installment in Second City Hockey’s six-part position group preview on the Blackhawks and their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. This article focuses on AHL forwards.
The Rockford IceHogs missed the playoffs in 2018-19, as a more competitive division sent the Chicago Wolves, Milwaukee Admirals, Iowa Wild and Grand Rapids Griffins in their stead. Now, a talented crop of forwards will try to get the IceHogs back where they belong, in the postseason.
Philipp Kurashev: 59 GP, 29 G, 36 A, 51.85 GF% (QMJHL)
MacKenzie Entwistle: 57 GP, 30 G, 27 A, 54.62 GF% (OHL)
The two young guns will be in their first professional seasons in the AHL and will likely line up in the top six. Kurashev was the surprise of last season, as he wowed in international competition after being taken in the fourth round of 2018. The flyer the Blackhawks took on Kurashev already seems to be paying off, and he’ll be one of the most important prospects to watch this season. He should get chances at both wing and center. Entwistle, who was acquired in the Marian Hossa trade, also surprised in his first season as a Blackhawks prospect. He improved nearly 20 points from his previous mark of 38 points in the 2017-18 season before putting up 21 points in 24 playoff games, being one of the most important contributors for the Guelph Storm.
The Blackhawks folk hero
Kris Versteeg: 12 GP, 4 G, 7 A (SHL)
Versteeg is a veteran Blackhawk at this point, although he’s played in Calgary the last two years he was in the NHL (2016-18) and he spent the last season overseas. Versteeg hasn’t actually been a Blackhawk since 2014-15, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a perfect fit as a veteran presence on this team, especially in the bottom six where he can watch over the young talent above him and help dominate lesser competition. With an impressive camp, a string of injuries could launch Versteeg into an NHL contract and a spot with the Blackhawks, but nothing seems to be in the works now. Still, it will be good for coach Derek King in his first year to have Versteeg to help guide and improve this season’s youthful Rockford team.
In the plans
Dylan Sikura: 46 GP, 17 G, 18 A (AHL)
Matthew Highmore: 12 GP, 3 G, 6 A (AHL)
Aleksi Saarela: 69 GP, 30 G, 24 A (AHL)
Anton Wedin: 32 GP, 14 G, 13 A (SHL)
Whether it’s now or in the future, each of these four should get more extended looks in the NHL. They’re not the designated future that Kurashev, Entwistle, and some of the defensemen represent for Chicago, but they can be valuable contributors. Sikura still hasn’t scored an NHL goal, two years into his residency with the Blackhawks and despite 33 games last season, but he also continues to be one of the best defensive forces the Blackhawks have at forward. Highmore missed much of last season due to injury, but he can be a bottom-six center for the Blackhawks, especially if he proves the 2017-18 season wasn’t a fluke. Saarela has already proven to be a lethal skater and shooter in the pro-level game, and was one of the most important contributors to the 2019 Calder Cup Champion Charlotte Checkers. Wedin was the final (healthy) forward cut from the Blackhawks roster and could be the first promotion when injuries arise this season.
Brandon Hagel: 66 GP, 41 G, 61 A, 64.8 GF% (WHL)
Tim Soderlund: 48 GP, 6 G, 8 A (SHL)
Reese Johnson: 67 GP, 27 G, 26 A, 56.25 GF% (WHL)
Mikael Hakkarainen: 42 GP, 19 G, 28 A, 72.06 GF% (USHL)
Dylan McLaughlin: 37 GP, 19 G, 21 A (NCAA)
Despite high reputations, good performances in camp, and being first-half draft selections, this group still has a number of questions surrounding them. After a better 2017-18 season, Soderlund seeks to translate his game, which involves high-level effort and skating, to North America. Hagel put up more than 100 points in the WHL last season, but he did so at age 20. He has to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. Johnson did well in development camp, but his last season wasn’t too impressive, and he has to prove he’s more than just a faceoff guy. After being one of the better skaters in the USHL, Hakkarainen has to prove he has more in him than just being a big fish in a small pond. The answers to these questions aren’t answered yet, but after this season in Rockford, a better understanding should be gained. McLaughlin has to prove his NCAA success wasn’t just him being a man amongst boys, and his back-to-back 40-plus point seasons can translate to the professional game.
Jacob Nilsson: 61 GP, 15 G, 17 A (AHL)
John Quenneville: 37 GP, 18 G, 21 A (AHL)
Tyler Sikura: 50 GP, 7 G, 12 A (AHL)
Alexandre Fortin: 47 GP, 6 G, 6 A (AHL)
Nick Moutrey: 49 GP, 1 G, 4 A (AHL)
Three of these five have NHL games under their belts, but that may be all they get. Quenneville was acquired in a change-of-scenery trade for John Hayden, but neither may make their respective new rosters. Nilsson played two games, but he’s likely to be the third or fourth center on the Rockford roster this season. Sikura disappointed last season after a much bigger 2017-18 season, and Fortin, once thought to be a future contributor for the Blackhawks, has now been surpassed by other players and hasn’t been able to translate his scoring to the pros as well as he has his skating. Moutrey has experience in both the AHL and ECHL, but he just may be a young AHL lifer at the moment.