Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011
By Chris Boden
There are some emails I can try to answer, and others I have no business answering.
As questions about the progress of some of the Blackhawks' prospects at Rockford have increased, I've had to confess I have yet to make the trip out on I-90 to see for myself. It's still on the much-delayed To-Do List whenever there's an opening in CSN duties and responsibilities on the homefront. It is, after all, a time investment. But I still wanted to try to get answers on the Blackhawk investments you've been asking about.
The man with those answers is Norm MacIver, the organization's Director of Player Development, who played 500 games for six NHL organizations, was voted the AHL's best defenseman 20 years ago and wound up his playing career wih a Turner Cup in 1999. Some of his time between then and now was spent as a Boston Bruins Assistant Coach. Here's the way he characterized the development of some of those Icehogs prospects you've been asking about when we spoke over the phone Tuesday. Each of these players were tagged with one common phrase by MacIver in his assessments: needing more consistency in their games at the AHL level before they'd be trusted with a prolonged opportunity in the NHL. Stats listed are through Monday with Rockford.
LW Kyle Beach (21 yrs. old...11th overall pick in 2008...6'3"...9 goals, 12 assists, -7 rating, 85 PIM)
His game has improved significantly the past month and a half in his first AHL season. He understands the player he has to be, getting much better at knowing when and where to use his physical game, and realizing there's three zones he must be responsible for in order to take the next step. Too often in the past he's passed up offensive opportunities and is beginning to shoot the puck more.
C Evan Brophey (24...2005 3rd rd. pick...4th yr. at Rockford...6 goals, 6 assists, 8 rating)
Having a strong season as he's embraced a two-way role and become solid on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle. His development defensively has come at some cost to his production (averaged 15 goals the past 2 years), but now seems to realize his ticket to the NHL as a prototypical 4th-line center, and has made strides to get his foot in that door.
D Brian Connelly (24...2nd full AHL season after being signed as a free agent out of Colorado College...4 goals, 21 assists)
Talented and skilled with the puck, earning him All-Star honors. He's in the process of learning to play the position at his size (5'10, 167), while using his speed and quickness as an asset, and recognizing spots when to jump up in the play and putting those assets to work at the right times.
LW Rob Klinkhammer (24...4th full AHL season..signed as a free agent in '09...6 goals, 14 assists, 10)
Having a very good season finding that consistent niche. He and Brophey have turned into strong penalty killers. He realizes after his first NHL game earlier this year that if he can be an asset in certain areas, he can gain a coach's confidence and trust.
D Shawn Lalonde (21...2008 3rd rounder..first full AHL season after 8 games last yr...5 goals, 15 assists)
Has made a ton of strides the past month and a half, taking off to another level while influencing games offensively. He flashed some of that at Prospects Camp in July, but the focus with the Icehogs has been learning and growing at his position without the puck.
RW Igor Makarov (23...2006 2nd rounder...4 goals, 9 assists, 8)
Dealing with a huge adjustment in first season here in transitioning from the KHL. Brings a passion and energy (and had his first fight last week). He's beginning to understand what he has to do to find consistency, being hard to play against, and finish checks. If he's not going to be an elite scorer, he can't turn pucks over in certain areas.
D Dylan Olsen (20...2 games into AHL career after departing Minn.-Duluth following World Juniors)
An impressive overall performance for Team Canada at the WJC as half the defensive shutdown pair. Had an excellent first half at Duluth and is "night and day" compared to last year. He has the size and mobility, and must now become more confident with the puck and make plays in certain situations rather than dump it in.
C Brandon Pirri (19...2009 2nd rounder...1st year in the "A"...5 goals, 9 assists)
Has quickness and surprising maturity, but physically (6', 160), has a ways to go in the bigger, stronger AHL after just one year at RPI. He's a pass-first, shoot-second playmaker-type with terrific vision, a good hockey sense and skill level.
RW Ben Smith (22..2008 6th rounder...1st AHL season after 4 years at B.C....7 goals, 9 assists)
The 2010 Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player for the national champ is currently sidelined by injury. He's displayed a terrific attitude and work ethic after coming to camp in incredible shape. He's the type of player who'll eventually find a way to become valuable all-around and play different roles. He can't let his offense affect his game in order to bring out his best night-in and night-out.
D Ivan Vishnevskiy (23...3rd AHL season...5 career NHL games...5 goals, 9 assists)
Dallas dealt him to Atlanta to get Kari Lehtonen en route to parting ways with Marty Turco, leading to 28 games with the Wolves. The Hawks got him in the Andrew Ladd deal. A dynamic skater. Dangerous when carrying the puck. An elite shot. Now he has to figure out ways to prevent a big drop-off in performance from one game to another.
Pirri, Klinkhammer, Brophey and Smith all had brief emergency call-ups earlier in the season with the Hawks. Rockford does not have anyone among the top twenty scorers in the AHL, and Nick Leddy and Jeremy Morin have obviously been the most immediate-impact players when the Hawks have needed them. Morin would almost certainly be among the leaders if not for his time with the Hawks, Team USA at the World Juniors and injuries. Goalies Alec Richards and Hannu Toivinen have split time and have nearly identical numbers, including the exact same .907 save percentage.
MacIver also adds that 2010 first round pick Kevin Hayes and older brother Jimmy (who was acquired later in a draft night trade) have often been paired together on a line at B.C. with '09 Rangers first-rounder Chris Kreider. Kevin was sidelined early by a knee injury and has six points in 12 games, but Jerry York and his staff rave about his skill level. Jimmy (6'5") has nine goals and 13 points in 20 games, but has gotten better every year and is being used in a lot of situations.
So there are some assessments from a man who'd know. If you've checked out the 'Hogs yourself, feel free to provide your own. At least until I get out there one of these days.
Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.