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Blackhawks Prospect Report: Rockford IceHogs’ Defensemen, Goalies

A final look at the organization’s potential in net and on the blueline for Rockford.

Photo by Brad Repplinger

Now that we’ve looked into the forwards, it’s time to dive into what was really exciting about the IceHogs this season: the player(s) in net and defensemen.

Some might be surprised when the IceHogs announced their team award that 2021 first-round pick Lukas Reichel was not named one of the Most Valuable Players despite leading the team in points all season. Instead, 2021 European free-agent Arvid Söderblom was named co-MVP — along with non-prospect Dylan McLaughlin — as the Swedish rookie netminder improved as the season progressed and was arguably the main reason the IceHogs made the playoffs, especially with his play in the final month of regular season play. In the 10 games since the last Prospect Report, Söderblom went 7-3-0-0 with a .927 save-percentage, the second best in the AHL in that span, while facing the highest shot total (over 330).

Rockford also announced Söderblom that set multiple rookie goaltending records: most wins (21), most saves (1187), best save-percentage (.919), most saves in a win (45) against the Texas Stars on October 30th, and most saves in a shutout (36) against the Wolves on Jan. 29th.

Söderblom continued his strong play for the most part in playoffs, albeit with some fumbles. He stopped 69 of 70 shots against the Texas Stars and was especially good in Game 2 when the Stars nearly doubled the IceHogs’ shots on goal in the first 40 minutes. The Wolves series was rough for Söderblom, as he allowed five goals on 27 shots in the first two periods and was pulled for the final frame, but it’s hard to fault Söderblom for four of them rather than just credit the Wolves for being the much better team. Söderblom allowed another eight goals over the next two games but faced 40 and 49 shots, respectively, in those games and didn’t seem to be at fault for many of the goals against.

The IceHogs’ fate was always linked to how well Söderblom played — no matter how unfair that was. While he was OK against the Wolves, Söderblom just wasn’t up to his near-elite form from the season. In the end, Söderblom finished the playoffs with a .925 save-percentage while facing the most shots per game (37.2).

What’s next for Söderblom? The Swedish netminder is just 22 years old and this was his first season in North America, so it’d be in the Blackhawks’ best interest to allow him to develop more in the AHL. It certainly didn’t hurt Corey Crawford — the last goaltender the Blackhawks actually developed to become a starter in the NHL — to stay in the AHL for a few years. And with the Blackhawks in an explicit rebuild, there’s no need to rush any prospects — especially one as promising as Söderblom — before they’re ready.

Before moving on to skaters, it’d be remiss to not mention Cale Morris (free-agent, 2021) since Blackhawks General Manager Kyle Davidson listed him along with Söderblom and Drew Commesso as the goalies he’s optimistic about in the organization. Morris is already 25 and has only played 14 games with the IceHogs and has a split record — .923 save-percentage in seven games last season but just a .905 save-percentage in seven games this season — so it was an interesting inclusion for Davidson to make.

What’s next for Morris? The goalie situation for the Blackhawks is perhaps the most unknown. Morris is currently a restricted free agent and the organization does need bodies to fill out their nets, but Rockford might be crowded with Söderblom and newly signed NCAA free agent Jaxson Stauber ahead of Morris.

As usual, the Blackhawks prospect pool gets deeper when talking about the defensemen in Rockford, and it started with IceHogs’ Defensemen of the Year: 2017 second-rounder Ian Mitchell. He was the undisputed No. 1 defender for Rockford after the first 10 or so game and played in all situations. Mitchell reignited his offensive touch seen from his collegiate years — racking up 35 points (11 G, 24 A) in 57 regular season games, including four points (2 G, 2 A) in his final six regular season games and two assists in the playoffs — and saw massive improvement in terms of defense. As has been mentioned before, Mitchell’s strong positioning was key to his growth this season, and he was one of the best defenders at preventing zone entries against as well as breaking up plays in the defensive zone.

Just to note, Mitchell did miss some time this season due to injury on at least two separate occasions but always picked back up where he left off when back in Rockford’s lineup.

What’s next for Mitchell? Mitchell did everything the Blackhawks asked of him and more in Rockford this season and arguably deserved a look in the NHL this season. At 23, he’s still young enough that he could stay in the AHL for another half season or so, but it feels like he may have learned all he can at that level. And his hockey IQ is likely higher than a few other defenders that spent all season with the Blackhawks.

Isaak Phillips (fifth-round, 2020) is a defensemen that has seemingly skyrocketed up the prospect depth chart thanks to the leaps he’s made developmentally over the last two seasons. This year, Phillips slowly made his way up to being Mitchell’s partner on the top pair, and together, they were arguably one of the best pairings the IceHogs have had in years. Even when Mitchell was out with injury, Phillips manned the top-pair admirably with a rotation of partners, taking on top quality of competition every night and playing on the penalty kill.

Phillips’ poise with the puck has always been impressive, especially on defense. But that skill translated to offense as well this season. He had six points (2 G, 4 A) in his final 12 regular season AHL games to being his season totals to 25 points (10 G, 15 A) in 64 games. He arguably had the best shot among defenders — both his wrister and slap shot — but it was his smart playmaking and knowing when to jump into a play that really stood out in the offensive zone. Defensively, Phillips used his strong skating and good gap control to take on opponents one-on-one successfully, be disruptive in the defensive zone, and block shots efficiently.

What’s next for Phillips? Phillips is the youngest defender in Rockford at only 20 years old, and while the strides he’s taken this year developmentally are very good, he’s another player who would do well to mature more in the AHL. He has arguably the most raw athletic ability of anyone in Rockford this season and the progress is promising, so taking the longer development approach to a player like this is probably the best course of action.

There’s probably more buzz around Alec Regula (trade acquisition, 2019) than any other defensive prospect in the Blackhawks organization right now simply because he did well with the Blackhawks in nine games at the end of the season. He had only one point (a goal) in the NHL, but he endeared himself to fans thanks to his performance with and without the puck. He also saw steady increases in the quality of competition he faced during his cup of coffee with the Blackhawks, playing over 20 minutes in three of his final four games on the second pairing.

In the AHL, Regula played in just four regular season games since the last Prospect Update — scoring two goals in that span — and then picked up another goal in five playoff games. Regula ultimately finished with 26 points (4 G, 22 A) in 41 AHL games, an impressive feat considering he was sidelined much of last season by injury. His defense is still a work in progress, but the Blackhawks have to be happy with the way he’s been able to translate what makes him so good offensively — strong skating, good puck handling, quick thinking — into his developing defensive instincts. Despite being one of the bigger defenders, Regula isn’t overly physical, and instead relies on his long reach and skating in defensive situations.

What’s next for Regula? Regula is an enticing prospect for many reasons: the 6-foot-4, 207-pound defenseman has the size many teams covet on the blue line, he skates extremely well for that size, and he’s very smart. He’s also still working out some kinks when in the defensive zone, but it’s possible that he’s learned all he can in the AHL in that regard. The fact he played more NHL games this season than any other Rockford defender suggests the Blackhawks see Regula impacting the NHL full-time sooner rather than later.

The IceHogs defense group was a quick, mobile group that tended to lean more toward offensive abilities than pure defense, except when it came to 2017 fifth-round pick Jakub Galvas. He was still able to produce — 20 points (2 G, 18 A) in 59 games, including five points in his final 12 regular season game — but while Galvas is as good a skater as anyone else in Rockford, his focus was obviously more defense-oriented. He processed plays quickly, shut down shooting and passing plays effectively, and can skate or pass the puck out of the D zone with ease. He wasn’t rewarded with points often, but his outlet passes from the defensive zone often started the IceHogs transition in the other direction. Galvas was also one of the more physical defenders despite being on the smaller side at 5-foot-11 and 161 pounds.

What’s next for Galvas? Galvas is going to be an interesting prospect to watch for next season. The Blackhawks’ blue line seems pretty shallow and it feels like both Mitchell and Regula are ahead of Galvas in terms of NHL readiness, but the smaller defender is the elusive combination of defensively strong while along being able to move the puck well — something the Blackhawks lacked this past season. It feels like Galvas will start the season in Rockford, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him up with the big club sometime for a longer stint than this past season.

Once perceived as a favorite of the Blackhawks, Wyatt Kalynuk (NCAA-free agent, 2020) had a good but not necessarily great season in Rockford. He finished with seven points (all assists) in his final 12 regular season games of the season, bringing his total to 27 points (7 G, 20 A) in 52 games. The thing about Kalynuk is that when he was on, he was really on, but he ended up having streaks in which he just wasn’t impactful. Interestingly, the former college star changed his game a bit this season: he went from an offense-only, power play quarterback style player to a hard-to-play against pest on the blueline. Kalynuk was much more aggressive when it came to engaging other players whether in open ice or along the boards, though sometimes this was to his detriment.

What’s next for Kalynuk? Kalynuk feels like the hardest defender in Rockford to pin down when it comes to his future with the Blackhawks. He was passed by both Caleb Jones and Riley Stillman despite being better than both in his tenure with the Blackhawks last year, yet he hasn’t done enough in the AHL to really argue for his advancement over others. He also just turned 25 — which is getting a bit old for a prospect — although the aforementioned Jones and Stillman are similar ages and seem to have longer leashes with the organization. Kalynuk is probably looking for an NHL opportunity — and he changed management teams in April — but he has no trade value, so the Blackhawks may let him walk this summer rather than give him a qualifying offer.

Finally, 2018 first-round pick Nicolas Beaudin ended a disappointing season by being a healthy scratch for a majority of the AHL playoffs. He made it into the last game of the Wolves series but didn’t make much of an impression in limited minutes. Five (1 G, 4 A) of Beaudin’s 16 points (2 G, 14 A) came in his final 11 games, suggesting there was improvement in that span, but it wasn’t enough to endear him to the coaching staff in Rockford. Last season saw him able to access both offensive and defensive situations effortlessly with minimal mistakes, but he never found a rhythm to his play this season and his decision-making suffered as a result.

What’s next for Beaudin? Beaudin will turn 23 this October, so it’s not like he’s old by any means, but it does feel like he got lapped by a few of the other defensive prospects this season. The tools are still there, yet it’s discouraging for a top prospect to take such a big step back. Beaudin is signed for another season, and if he’s still with the Blackhawks organization this fall, the chances are very slim he’ll start anywhere but in Rockford.