Rockford IceHogs coach Derek King covered a lot of topics Tuesday.
King hadn’t spoken to the media since March 10 in a post-practice scrum, two days before the AHL put a pause on the season due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic. During the course of 20 minutes, he discussed the AHL canceling the remainder of the season — including the Calder Cup Playoffs — Monday, player development and more.
Here are six takeaways from what he said.
1. Reaction to AHL canceling remainder of season, playoffs
King wasn’t surprised when he learned the AHL canceled the season, but it was still disappointing.
“I just had a feeling that this wasn’t going to work out, we wouldn’t be able to finish the season,” King said. “I liked where we were at coming in the stretch there. We still had our head above water. The playoff spot was in our reach and it was up to us on making that happen. Overall, I was upset, obviously, but I was happy with the way our guys performed.”
The IceHogs (29-30-2-2) had lost two straight (0-1-1-0) after a three-game winning streak before the AHL paused its season. Rockford trailed the Chicago Wolves (Golden Knights) by .16 on points percentage for the fourth and final playoff spot from the Central Division in King’s first full season behind the bench.
2. Who could be called up if NHL resumes play
The NHL wants to resume its season and play out the playoffs. There have been reports about a possible expanded playoff field, which would include the Blackhawks. That idea would likely expand rosters and have AHL players called up to be extra players.
“I take it they’re going to be guys that got some NHL experience already,” King said. “Obviously guys that are already up there now, Brandon Hagel and Lucas Carlsson. Guys like that will probably be on the list. You still have Dylan Sikura that could go up. You have MacKenzie Entwistle. On [defense], you have Dennis Gilbert.
“There’s plenty of bodies for them, it’s just who are they going to take to fill those final voids I’m not sure. These guys should be preparing this summer and right now if the NHL goes that they might be one of five or six guys that are going to get an opportunity to go up.”
Hagel led the IceHogs with 19 goals and all rookies with 31 points before he made his NHL debut in Chicago’s 6-2 win against the Sharks on March 11, the Blackhawks’ final game before the pause. Sikura, who is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, had 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) in 45 AHL games, and finally scored his first NHL goal this season. Entwistle played in a middle-six role at right wing and had 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in 56 games for Rockford during his first professional season.
Defenseman Nicolas Beaudin also made his debut March 11 and didn’t look out of place after having 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) in 59 AHL games. Carlsson, who had a team-high 21 assists and led Rockford defensemen with 26 points, had one assist in six NHL games and embraced shot-blocking more this season. The defensive-minded Gilbert drove up and down I-90 a lot due to his frequent callups to Chicago, and had seven points (one goal, six assists) in 30 AHL games and three points (one goal, two assists) in 21 NHL games.
3. Communication with Blackhawks
King was the first coach from the Blackhawks organization to be interviewed by media. The Blackhawks haven’t granted interviews to coaches or players since the pause leaving many to wonder what the organization plans to do next. Those questions increased when chairman Rocky Wirtz released president and CEO John McDonough. King was positive about the communication he’s had with the Blackhawks and isn’t worried about his job status.
“The communication has been great,” King said. “We’ve had a couple staff meetings and there’s no reason for anybody to be alarmed or nervous about anything. That was a decision they made, that’s out of my league. I stay in my lane. But everything, as far as I know, is status quo and we’re just moving on and kind of — obviously our season’s over — waiting to see what happens with the NHL. I’m sure maybe or maybe not, after the season’s officially over, there may be some more conference calls and we’ll go from there, but as of now everything’s good. It’s just too bad the season ended the way it did.”
King added that he’s talked with Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton and they’re both in the same boat — searching for answers that no one has.
“He’s not sure what’s going on either,” King said about his conversations with Colliton. “He just kinda chatted to see how the family and kids are doing. We talked a little hockey and a little bit about the season. He’s just kinda pacing and waiting like all of us we just want to get back to the rink and get this going. Obviously he has got the last chance to get hockey going here, so when that happens I’m sure I’ll be really, really hearing from him about who I feel or what I think of what players should be up there.”
4. Standout players
King highlighted five players when asked which prospects took the steps forward in their development this past season.
- On Carlsson: “I thought Lucas Carlsson had a huge, huge season. A big jump.”
- On Entwistle: “I really like the way Entwistle’s season went. He’s got some things to work on [skating and speed] obviously, but I thought he should be happy with where he’s at. I liked him.”
- On Gilbert: “He was real good for us leadership wise on and off the ice. I think he made strides. I think it was just a little bit of a yo-yo for him and that’s hard to get in a groove and a rhythm. I liked the way he handled it so there’s a positive there that he’s learning from that.
- On Hagel: “I was really surprised at how well he did. I think he could’ve easily been our MVP, unsung hero. He really stepped up. Did I expect that from him? To be honest with you, I thought he was going to struggle a little bit to find his way through this league, but he’s a battler. I would keep an eye on this guy.”
- On Philipp Kurashev: “It’s too bad he got hurt. I think you would’ve maybe seen him up earlier or you would’ve seen him higher in our points is Philipp Kurashev. I believe he’s going to be an NHL hockey player. Whether it’s a year or two down the road, that’s going to be up to him, but I really liked the way he performed. He looks like a pro, he does everything like a pro, it’s just getting comfortable and staying healthy.”
Kurashev, a left-handed center that played at wing sometimes, had 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 36 games despite missing 25 games from late December to late February due to a concussion.
5. King on 3-goalie rotation
King and goaltender coach Pete Aubry have used a three-goalie rotation the past two seasons and have had success with doing so. Both coaches say the system can give goalies extra practice time and one-on-one time with Aubry.
“I was spectacle and we were all kinda [asking], ‘can we do this? Can we pull this off?’” King said about the system this season. “I believe with our team it was the right thing to do for the goalies. All three of them [Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Matt Tomkins] deserved to be in the AHL. I believe Pete Aubry did a helluva job with these guys.”
Delia was the team’s No. 1 goaltender for a second straight season with a 16-13-1 record, 2.66 goals-against average and .912 save percentage in 32 games during his third AHL season. Lankinen, Rockford’s lone AHL All-Star, stepped up to the No. 2 role with a 8-10-2 mark and 3.03 GAA and .909 save percentage in 21 outings. After a strong ECHL campaign, Tomkins moved to the AHL full time and had some success with a 5-7-1 record, 3.12 GAA and .896 save percentage to help him earn a two-year NHL contract.
King said he turned to Aubry and they’d talk about who should be the starter each game.
“For the most part, I only recall once that I said let’s go back with somebody that we really weren’t playing on going back with just to give them back to back games,” King said. “But for the most part, Pete had his hands on the whole thing and project.”
6. How IceHogs players, Blackhawks prospects will train this summer
Before the AHL paused its season, IceHogs athletic trainer D.J. Jones and strength and conditioning coach Kristian Skarphagen talked about potential training plans for players. Now, the duo will talk with King about how players should prepare for next season without knowing if or when the 2020-21 season will start.
“The players, it’s hard on them because they’re usually so used to if they don’t make the playoffs, you’re done in April, you go home, go on a trip come back and then you start and get ready for that training camp at the end of September,” King said. “Right now, it’s up in the air. We could have another four or five months here with nothing to do. It’s pretty hard. If you train hard for five months, you are going to be burned out before the season starts.”
“It’s not easy times. How do you prepare for a season that you might not even start until December? Who knows? We have to come up with a plan where they’re not burned out from that type of training.”
King also said he and assistant coach Anders Sorensen and Blackhawks vice president of hockey operations and team affiliates Mark Bernard decided via text message Tuesday morning to conduct player exit interviews via video calls before the summer hits.