ANALYSIS: Assessing the Rockford IceHogs’ blue line for 2020–21

  

As the dust begins to settle on the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2019–20 campaign, with the offseason ahead, General Manager Stan Bowman and company face a number of difficult decisions, many of which are on the blue line.

Before the postseason, Olli Maata was tabbed as a likely buyout candidate. By all accounts, he had a pretty solid series against the Vegas Golden Knights and now may be sticking around regardless of his hefty price tag. We can all whine about Brent Seabrook’s contract, but he will be back and that is that. Duncan Keith will be still be in the fold. Adam Boqvist will continue to grow as a player, and Calvin de Haan will likely return. Slater Koekkoek is now a restricted free agent, and if the Hawks are trying to make room for highly touted prospect Ian Mitchell, then we may have seen the last of Koekkoek and Bowman could deal his rights. Sure, Bowman could keep him with a cheaper deal and then have Koekkoek and Lucas Carlsson round out No. 7 and 8 on the depth chart and leave it at that.

But, that is exactly what that would be, “leaving it at that.” Candidly speaking, other than a possible marginal upgrade with Mitchell in the mix (though he is hardly a can’t-miss prospect), the Hawks’ blue line will again be mediocre, they will be outshot frequently and will need to rely on their goaltending and offense to win games. So, barring a much-needed shakeup in the back, which may or may not happen, that is what we are looking at.

So, what does that mean for the rearguards of Rockford? Well, one thing that Bowman has prioritized in recent years is the acquisition of defensive prospects. Some will argue he has drafted and acquired too many that are of the same style. I am of that mindset as well, but there is some significant talent in the bunch, and the 2020–21 Rockford IceHogs could have players in a defensive unit with with realistic NHL aspirations.

Rockford has some holes to fill on defense, with some from last year’s squad up for contract who likely will not be re-signed. T.J. Brennan and Ian McCoshen will most likely not be back and the same can possibly be said for Joni Tuulola. In addition, some recent later-round draft picks by Bowman will not be signed. 2019 seventh-round pick Cole Moberg will head back to Prince George for his final year in the WHL, which is smart for him. Roope Laavainen, a 2017 fourth-round draft choice, has signed a pro deal in the IPK second division in Finland. 2017 fifth-round selection Jakub Galvas has signed in Finland with Mikkelin Jukuritt. Alex Vlasic, a solid 6-foot-6 second-round prospect from the class of 2019, will most likely be skating for Boston University for the next two seasons. None of those names will be seen anytime soon. But, while those guys may factor in at some point or never, there are assets under contract who will be skating 90 minutes northwest of Chicago. Where do they fit in? Let’s take a look.

Lucas Carlsson — LHD

Let’s assume that Mitchell lives up to the hype machine and immediately makes the Hawks’ roster out of camp. Well, many fans want to see Carlsson as a permanent fixture with the big club as well. He is included on this list is even if that is indeed the case, as under the current defensive structure, he may still see some time in the AHL next season. Carlsson is a smooth skater that moves the puck well, can provide some offense and plays responsibly in his own end. In a mere six games with the Hawks this past season, he was steady. If Bowman and Jeremy Colliton do not plan on playing him, and have him around to practice and sit in the press box for games, that makes little sense. If Maatta is bought out, the window is open for Carlsson, unless the Hawks go shopping. With two strong seasons under his belt in Rockford, it is time for the Hawks to get serious about this player or look to move him.

Lucas Carlsson Rockford IceHogs

Lucas Carlsson carries the puck during a Rockford IceHogs game. (Photograph courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs)

Dennis Gilbert — LHD

Known for his toughness and adding a spark when he is in the lineup in Chicago, Gilbert is easy to root for. He played 21 games with the big club last season, but candidly, if he plays more than that in Chicago next season, it will be clear that the Hawks are really struggling. The kid has a ton of heart, but his long-term prognosis is most likely to be an AHL regular. For Rockford, ultimately he will have the chance to be a leader and could be a solid contributor for any AHL team for a long time. He will see some games in the NHL this season, but it is hard envision that with regularity.

Hard-nosed Dennis Gilbert could see another season of shuttling back and forth from Rockford to Chicago. (Photograph courtesy of the Chicago Blackhawks)

Nicolas Beaudin — LHD

Beaudin will likely need another full year in Rockford, and then it will be make-or-break time for him. Some think we are already there and would like to see him dealt now for team upgrades in the event he does not pan out. He is not big at 5-foot-10, is only 20 years old and showed last season that he does need to refine his defensive habits and his skating before progressing to the NHL. Posting 15 points and a minus-5 rating in Rockford last season is evidence of that. There is upside and another season in Rockford will do him well, but is this recent first-round pick expendable? Perhaps.

Chad Krys — LHD

With the signing of Wyatt Kalynuk this summer, excluding Carlsson, that is the three left-handed defensive prospects of the same mold: mobile, offensive, undersized and not refined defensively. Unfortunately, Krys is one of those three, and you begin to wonder where his next stop will be professionally. He is similar to fellow BU alum Adam Clendening, where you want to like him but his limitations prevent that. For Rockford, Krys could have a very good year. The 2016, second-round pick will be a third-year pro and is a good enough skater at the AHL level. Still, his gap control and his in-zone play need attention. He will not be ready to make the jump to the NHL in 2020–21 and you start to wonder if he ever will, considering the logjam of prospects at his position. When Bowman is considering moves this offseason, do not be surprised to see his name involved in a potential trade.

Chad Krys plays a similar style to a number of young defensemen in the system, which may limit his prospects within the organization. (Photograph courtesy of the Texas Stars)

Wyatt Kalynuk — LHD

There was a lot of buzz about this kid when he signed with the Hawks in July. Kalynuk has elite skating ability. When he skates forward, he flies and creates an enormous amount of offense. That will be exciting to see as a first year pro in Rockford. What he was unable to prove at the NCAA level is having the ability to win 50/50 pucks in his own end. The AHL is still an upgrade from the Big 10, and he will have some work to do, unless the intentions are to groom him solely into a power play specialist. There has been excitement about Kalynuk and it is warranted, but a full year in the “A” is necessary.

Alec Regula — RHD

Of all the current defensive prospects in the treasure chest for the Blackhawks, this may be the one with the most upside. I do not traditionally bet against London Knight alums coached by Dale Hunter, and I would not bet against this one either. I am not sure what Steve Yzerman was thinking when handing over Alec Regula for Brendan Perlini last fall, but that is his and Detroit’s problem. Regula is big, tough, right-handed, can skate and can provide offense. He tallied 60 points in 56 games in his final season in London, and while Mitchell could win fan popularity contests in the future, Regula could be an anchor for the Hawks down the road. He is 6-foot-4, 205 pounds and is still figuring it out, but has a high ceiling. Yes, he will more than likely see a full year in Rockford, but if he continues to progress at the rate he has the last few years, he will be in Chicago before we know it.

Rockford still has a few gaps on the back end and one or two right-handed defensemen will most likely be inked before the AHL season commences in December. Nick Seeler may very well play a few games in Rockford, but if the Hawks hang on to him, he will most likely be with the big club in a very limited role.

As always, the NCAA is a solid feeding ground for AHL talent and there are some strong rearguards that can contribute to the Hogs. Among the promising blue liners that are unsigned are some of the following:

Josh Maniscalco — RHD (Arizona State)              

Maniscalco is a rock. At the completion of his sophomore year at ASU, he registered 11 goals and 21 assists in 36 games. Though a rising junior, he is undrafted, and with so much uncertainty facing college hockey, luring him into a professional contract is worth considering. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he is a legitimate professional prospect and ultimately, the NHL is not out of reach for him.

Connor Moore — RHD (Boston College)

For four seasons, Moore played in every situation for the Eagles. He can kill penalties, contribute on the power play and his gap control and willingness to battle for loose pucks are among his attributes. Had the season not been cancelled for him and his third-ranked Eagles, a Frozen Four appearance could have been in the cards, and he may have be penned to a deal by now. He could be a player that would fill a nice roll with the other prospects in Rockford.

Four-year Boston College letterman Connor Moore could be a useful addition to the Rockford IceHogs. (Photograph courtesy of DistinctAthlete)

Mike Lee — LHD (Sacred Heart)

Sacred Heart had a season for the ages and was NCAA-bound for the first time in program history. Lee was a big reason for that. 33 points in 32 games and a left-handed defenseman that can play both sides. He could be useful for the Hogs in 2020–21, and could be a decent contributor for a few seasons.

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