In his first full season as head coach of the Rockford IceHogs, Derek King has guided the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate to a 20-23-1-1 record to have the team in sixth place in the Central Division and on the outside looking in at the AHL All-Star break. King shared his thoughts on his coaching performances, how he communicates with Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton for call ups and how some of his top players have progressed this season.
BC: What do you make of your team’s performance in the first half? Are you guys where you expected to be?
DK: I think we’re exceeding expectations a little bit. Maybe just a little better than we thought we’d be based on our lineup, which has been up and down all season with injuries and call ups, losing four or five guys at a time. I think we’ve made strides. Our young guys have gotten better and the process is maybe slower than they like, but they’re doing the right things. I like where we’re at. I think we maybe overachieved a little bit at times. ... in those times we had a weaker lineup then we won hockey games and when we had a stronger lineup maybe we didn’t win those games. I guess it balances out.
BC: With the lineup changes you’ve had this season, how helpful was last season with all the injuries for you to be able to learn how to jungle a lineup?
DK: It’s good, it’s all about learning, right? How to manage the team better, shuffle lines, how to prepare for a game when you think you have all your lines set up then guys call in sick or a couple guys get called up and I’ve got to scramble to get different bodies in there. It’s really a process. I think for the most part. ... and obviously with the help of Anders (Sorensen) it makes it a lot easier and it seems we’ve managed it a lot better, especially this season.
BC: Are you and Anders a bit of a ying-yang situation coaching wise?
DK: I guess so yeah (said with a laugh). He keeps me calm and reasons with me. He’s a real smart hockey guy and has a lot of information. He’s good at helping me out in key situations.
BC: You had Adam Boqvist for about a month at the start of the season. What have you seen in the differences in his game from when he was in the AHL to now in the NHL?
DK: His game suits the NHL more, if that makes sense, then here in the AHL. He’s got a little bit more time up there. His puck decisions are pretty good and at a high level. (In the AHL), it’s a little sloppier play than it is up (in the NHL). Guys are in the right position and can handle passes better. His game has just skyrocketed since he’s left us.
BC: The same thing with Dennis Gilbert, what have you seen with him in the NHL?
DK: A little bit up and down. With Bert, his game shouldn’t change no matter what league he’s in. His has got to be solid defensively, hard to play against defensively and be that shutdown guy. That first pass has to be on the tape and he’s been doing that all season. Hat’s off to him.
BC: How do you change with your evaluation with a guy like Gilbert who’s more defensively-minded compared to guys like Nicolas Beaudin and Chad Krys who are more offensively-minded defensemen?
DK: You’ve got to break it down for all the players and how you rate them differently. Obviously, they all have different assets and do different things well and things they need to work on. You look at an offensive player, it’s not always all about the points. It’s about what he creates, when he touches the puck what happens after that. Do good things happen with the puck after he touches it or do bad things? You’ve got to rate these offensive guys that way and not just based on points.
BC: What have to you made of Beaudin’s progression?
DK: He’s gotten better and better since Day 1. He’s still a ways a way, but some guys take a little longer. That’s the thing with these kids, they’re impatience and they want to finish the race (to the NHL) quick. They don’t want a marathon, they want a sprint, right? But he’s gotten better and better and made some big strides. He’s a smart hockey player, skates well, shoots strong. He needs to keep working on his first pass and once he does that and gets real comfortable with everything it’ll all fall into place for him.
BC: What have you seen with Dylan Sikura? It looked like he was going to be in the NHL after last season and due to trades and free agency he was pushed back down to the AHL. How has he taken that?
DK: He takes it fine. I think sometimes he forces it and thinks he has to put points up to get recalled or have other NHL teams look at him. That’s not the answer. The answer is what happens when he has the puck like we just talked about when you’re rating these offensively-minded players. When he touches the puck good things happen. He has to realize that and we try to keep pounding that into him that he’s making good plays and just because he’s not getting the points doesn’t mean he’s playing bad. If he can be comfortable with that than he’ll do fine.
BC: Is it harder for a player like him when the AHL is a little sloppier like you said then they go up in the NHL and they’re playing with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews?
DK: It’s a lot different, right? All these kids in this league are in the same boat, they all want to get better. It’s a development league and they all want to get to the next level. He just has to realize that he can’t base all of his success on points and goals. Like I said, when he touches the puck, what happens? Is it positive things or negative things? Probably for the most part it’s all positive when he has the puck.
BC: How do you manage guys like Brandon Hagel and MacKenzie Entwistle that are probably bottom-six guys in the NHL, but in the AHL they’re top-six players? How do you balance that with them?
DK: They’re young and still got to get the junior out of them. I have a son (D.J. King) their age and he actually played with Entwistle (with Hamilton of the OHL), so I know how these kids think. Again, it’s a marathon not a sprint. When you’re on a team like this when some of our guys are up (in the NHL) so their ice time gets more and they’re probably put in situations they don’t really need to be in right now. They need to stay within themselves and they need rest, they need to sit out a couple games like we did at the start of the season to concentrate on working out, concentrate on the skills and the skating on the ice. We just don’t have that luxury right now because we’re banged up and we’ve got guys going up. They’re probably playing a little more than they should, but they’re handling it well.
BC: With these guys being 20-21, how important is “load management?”
DK: Yup, they need to look after themselves. Like I said, they’re getting more ice time than they probably should and they’re tired and fatigued. It’s hard to work them out and get them to stay on top of their conditioning, but that’s hockey right? It’s a grind and they have to manage themselves.
BC: Whenever we talk about goalies you kind of defer to Pete (Aubry). Why is that and how value of a resource is he for you and the goalies?
DK: Pete works with the goalies all the time, so he knows them inside and out. It’s a trust factor between me and him. He knows what goalie should be starting, what goalie needs rest, what goalie should just be doing his skill stuff. We rotate this three-goalie system and it’s not always perfect, but he does a great job with it.
BC: What have you made of the hot stretch Collin Delia has had of late?
DK: It’s good. He went through a bump in the road there (in November). Everyone goes through it in their career and I’m sure it’s not over for him. He’ll have another one sometime down the road. I thought he came out of it really well and he’s stronger for it. Now it’s showing on the ice and he’s back to where he is if not better.
BC: It was kind of the reverse there where Collin was down and Kevin Lankinen was playing well and now it’s vice-versa.
DK: I don’t think Lanks is in a rut like Collin was. I think Lanks has been playing well. There might be that one shot that he doesn’t like that went in. But we haven’t had the firepower, we haven’t been scoring enough to help him and that’s been hurting him.
BC: What’s been the communication level you’ve had with Jeremy Colliton when guys go up and down and with scouting reports?
DK: He just asks what I think (about a guy) and what to expect, and I’ll give him what I feel about them. He kind of knows what they’ll do, but he just wants to know more about they are playing. When they come down we always communicate about what was the best situation for them and what they have to work on, and whatever it is I have to make sure to stay on top of it.
BC: So what’s your goal for the second half of the season for this team?
DK: Score more goals and win more hockey games. I think our goal should be to get better as a team. Individually, yes and they will do that, too, but I think our goal should be looking for that playoff spot.