The Rockford IceHogs are in a familiar position in the AHL standings with 17 games to play. Currently tied for fourth-place in the Central Division, the IceHogs expect to have a number of current and prospective players join their roster and add some punch as the push for the Calder Cup Playoffs reach the home stretch.
IceHogs Getting Healthy
As the IceHogs prepare to go into their final 17 games of the season, 16 of them will be against Central Division foes. With just four points separating fourth-place from eighth-place in the Central, every point and every player counts. Rockford faced the same kind of pressure last season, moving from sixth-place into fourth-place and sealing a spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs in the second-half of the season. A big part of that late-season surge was forward Matthew Highmore.
Highmore has been out of action since mid-November with a shoulder injury and surgery, but has returned to the ice in the last few weeks. IceHogs head coach Derek King mentioned earlier this month that Highmore was progressing on schedule and if all goes to plan, should be available to return to the lineup by the end of March. Highmore had seven points through eight games to begin the season. Last year he ranked second in scoring with 43 points and set the IceHogs AHL franchise rookie goal-scoring record with 24 goals last season.
Another IceHogs staple from the 2017-18 season that is set to return to health this weekend is forward Tyler Sikura. While his production has not been on the same level it was during the 2017-18 season, Sikura still provides a bit of veteran experience and a net-front presence that the IceHogs could use. This season, Sikura has 14 points in 33 games, but has missed the last two months with an upper-body injury. Rockford head coach Derek King will have Sikura back in the lineup as the IceHogs travel to Manitoba for back-to-back weekend games against the Moose.
The returns of both Sikura and Highmore should provide the IceHogs with some offensive pop. Rockford ranks at the bottom of the league in goals-scoring, but has seen a recent increase with the production of Henri Jokiharju, Peter Holland and Jordan Schroeder coming through in the last handful of games.
The good thing about the AHL season this time of year is that not only will teams be able to rely on their own players to try to pull them through the final stretch of the season, they also can field a number of fresh faces as the NCAA and Junior Hockey seasons come to a close in the middle/back-end of March.
College Boys Making The Jump
While the IceHogs are benefiting from players returning to health from their own roster, it doesn’t rule out players ready to make the jump from the NCAA ranks to the Pro game. Players in recent years like Anthony Louis and Luc Snuggerud have made the transition after their final year of College Hockey and have made impacts right away. For more on NCAA players who could make the jump this Spring, I turn it over to The-Rink NCAA Lead Writer, Aaron Goldschmidt.
Fredrik Olofsson (Omaha-Nebraska: 32 GP, 10 G, 21 A)
Of all the players that could be ready for professional hockey this spring, Fredrik Olofsson probably fits the bill the most. After four years of college hockey at Omaha in the NCHC, one of the NCAA’s toughest conferences, the Blackhawks 2014 4th round selection has evolved his game in several different ways.
After scoring 27 goals in the USHL with the Chicago Steel in 2015, Olofsson made his way to college hockey and would eventually change his position from wing to center. He’s always been a play-making forward, but he’s really rounded out his game during his time at Omaha. Having his best season of his college career, Olofsson has 31 points in 30 games (10G, 21A) this season. He’s been a big threat on Omaha’s powerplay and has also shown improvement in his puck control and physicality. Olofsson has always seen the ice well and had great patience with the puck which makes him a great candidate to sign pro after this season.
Ryan Shea (Northeastern: 33 GP, 3 G, 10 A, +17)
Ryan Shea, the Blackhawks 2015 4th round pick, is having a solid junior season with the Northeastern Huskies. Following his sophomore year where he racked up 17 points playing with top forwards Dylan Sikura, Adam Gaudette, and Nolan Stevens, it was unsure whether Shea would have the same offensive output with those players signing pro but Shea has remained consistent. With three goals and nine assists in 31 games this season, Shea is on pace to to as good as he was last year, including having a plus/minus over +15.
Reporting on the Blackhawks prospects last year, I spoke with a Huskies blog often about Dylan Sikura who was the talk of the NCAA at the time. The writer for that blog would always ask me to keep my eye on Ryan Shea, especially at Blackhawks prospect camp. Although I believe Shea will return for his senior season, he could have a chance to contribute one day for the Blackhawks who have few “defensive-defenseman” in their system.
Beau Starrett (Cornell: 29 GP, 6 G, 5 A)
Beau Starrett is a player that the Blackhawks really could use, but he’s yet to light it up in college. Playing in his 4th year at Cornell, Starrett has never scored more than 14 points in a season despite looking relatively good in prospect camps. He has a large frame and can skate pretty well for a big man, but there isn’t one thing he does particularly well.
A comparison may be someone like Graham Knott, although Knott was thought to have a much higher ceiling. The Blackhawks may give Starrett a shot at a pro deal since he was a third round pick, but it’s difficult to tell how effective he could be right away.
Liam Coughlin (Vermont: 29 GP, 6 G, 11 A)
Liam Coughlin could be a wildcard for the Blackhawks. The 2014 5th round pick has shown glimpses of serious talent, but he’s a streaky scorer. There is a lot of compete to Coughlin although it doesn’t show in his numbers. Many forwards have issues adjusting to pro hockey since many junior or college guys play top six situations for their teams, then have to step into 3rd or 4th line roles in the pros.
I think this may be an advantage for Coughlin, taking some pressure off and letting him have some fun grinding. Coughlin can skate and also isn’t small at 6’3 200 lbs. I’d roll the dice on him to add some depth at the forward position.
Jack Ramsey (Minnesota: 35 GP, 3 G, 1 A)
Jack Ramsey is a senior at Minnesota and could give the Blackhawks something to think about at the end of this season. He won’t wow you with his points, but this is a heart-and-soul type player. Ramsey brings leadership, effort, and grit to the table, something the Hawks will never have enough of. Ramsey reminds me a lot of Andrew Desjardins. He won’t go nuts on the score-sheet, but he’s a smart hockey player that puts you in good position to score.
There aren’t enough chip and chase players in the Hawks system who are willing to win pucks in corners and battle below the goal line. Ramsey can be a nice add especially in Colliton’s system.
Chad Krys (Boston: 25 GP, 7 G, 9 A, -8)
The Blackhawks 2016 2nd round pick Chad Krys has had a down year for his standards in his junior season at Boston University. He’s missed some time due to injury and hasn’t returned to his pace from last season where he scored 27 points in 36 games. Krys does a great job leading the breakout for BU and has the offensive ability to take over a game. He can be lethal on the powerplay and often finds scoring lanes from the left point. Although it will be a gamble for him, I think Krys returns to BU for his senior season.
There is no rush for him to get to the pros and he will get more opportunities next season to get his stock back up. People often talk about Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell, and Nicolas Beaudin, but Krys should be in that same conversation. His skill set rivals his fellow prospects and maybe one more season to mature his game could be what’s needed.
Juniors On Their Way Up?
It could end up being a packed house for the IceHogs if any of the NCAA prospects make the jump, but in the Junior ranks, the Blackhawks organization has a number of players who are at the age where a jump to the Pro game is the next step. For a look at those players in the North American Junior ranks, I’ll turn it over to The-Rink Juniors Feature Writer, Ron Luce.
Brandon Hagel (Red Deer, WHL: 61 GP, 38 G, 54 A)
Brandon Hagel was signed in October by the Blackhawks. He was originally a draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2016.
Hagel brings a big frame (6’1”) and scoring touch to the IceHogs assuming he joins the club for a playoff push. The big winger can certainly bring some scoring touch to the offense-lacking IceHogs. As of March 7th, Hagel is tied for fifth in WHL scoring, with 92 points (38 G, 54 A) in only 61 games.
Assuming Hagel can carryover some of his offensive success in the WHL to the AHL, Hagel could be a welcomed addition. With Matthew Highmore being injured nearly the whole season, the IceHogs have lacked a game breaker at forward. Hagel certainly has provided hope as being that type of player.
Hagel has been very successful on a Red Deer team that will likely miss the playoffs. He would arguably be the biggest addition to the IceHogs as they look to have another playoff run similar to last season.
Mikael Hakkarainen (Muskegon, USHL: 35 GP, 17 G, 28 A)
Mikael Hakkarainen has had quite a unique season for the Muskegon Lumberjacks. It began with Hakkarainen leaving Providence College where he was set to play at the NCAA level, to return to the USHL club he played for last season. In his return, Hakkarainen has been nothing short of spectacular, as he sits fourth on the Lumberjacks in scoring, despite playing almost 15 fewer games than his teammates.
Haakarainen, despite missing as much time as he did, is also still in the top-20 in USHL league scoring with 45 points (17 G, 28 A). The 6’0” 193lb center can add great skill for the IceHogs down the stretch. Since Haakarainen left Providence, he is able to go to the pros, which is the logical next step in his development if the Blackhawks are committed to him long-term. It makes a lot of sense for Haakarainen to join the IceHogs and gauge where he is in his development playing against men. The young Finn has made easy work of the teenage USHL competition he’s faced.
Haakarainen would provide play-making ability to the IceHogs. He has good size and can make plays in tight areas. He has been in numerous USHL highlight videos this year with his perfect passes and big goals for the Lumberjacks. Like Hagel, Hakkarainen is likely to join the IceHogs given his history and ability to play pro.
Josiah Slavin (Chicago, USHL: 45 GP, 17 G, 20 A)
Younger brother of Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin, Josiah Slavin has had a very strong season in the USHL. The Colorado College commit started the season with the Lincoln Stars, tallying 27 points in 32 games (10 G, 17 A). As the Stars began selling players off, the Chicago Steel acquired the Blackhawks prospect and he has 10 points in 13 games since being acquired by Chicago (3 G, 7 A).
With Slavin’s impending commitment to Colorado College and the NCAA, it’s uncertain if he will join the IceHogs. If he is allowed to join the IceHogs on an amateur tryout contract (ATO), he could possibly provide some nice depth for the IceHogs. He isn’t as prolific a scorer as Hagel or Hakkarainen, but he still brings a lot of skill to his team. Slavin’s size is comparable to that of Hakkarainen, so he has solid size to compete at the AHL level.
However, I believe it is safe to assume that Slavin will not join the IceHogs and prepare for his fall season at Colorado College, where Aaron Goldschmidt will happily cover the Colorado native.
Philipp Kurashev (Quebec, QMJHL: 55 GP, 27 G, 34 A)
Philipp Kurashev really jumped onto the prospect scene when he had an incredible World Juniors tournament for Team Switzerland. The 20-year old center has been sensational this season, pacing the Remparts in team scoring. Early in the season, Kurashev was a top scorer in the QMJHL. However, Kurashev has fallen off a bit of late, but nonetheless is still having a great year.
Kurashev paces the Remparts in scoring with 61 points in 55 games (27 G, 34 A). The next closest scorer on the team has played eight more games and has 15 fewer points than Kurashev. It’s no surprise the team hasn’t had as good of a season as they may have hoped, since Kurashev is the only player with more than 20 goals on the roster.
The Remparts could always make a run in the QMJHL tournament and prevent Kurashev from joining the IceHogs. Given his age, Kurashev will likely play with Rockford next season, so it would be intriguing to see what he can do in the AHL. He hasn’t dominated the juniors like Hagel has, so it’s uncertain if the over-ager will produce at the pro level. If the young Swiss forward performs like he did in the World Juniors tournament, he could become a nice top-9 forward in the NHL down the road.
Two players that are not described above are Jake Ryczek and Reese Johnson. Ryczek is a former seventh round pick, and has been in the QMJHL since being drafted. He is currently playing on the third defensive pairing for the Halifax Mooseheads. One would hope a player like him, if going to make an impact, would make more of an impact for his junior team when he is 21 years old.
Reese Johnson is certainly a candidate to join the IceHogs late in the year with WHL teammate Brandon Hagel. Since Johnson is a new signing, we did not include a report on his prospects of joining the IceHogs, although it is likely given his age and situation. Johnson is the Captain in Red Deer and has second in scoring with 45 points in 62 games this season.
The Rockford IceHogs are back in action on Saturday and Sunday as they take on the Manitoba Moose in a weekend double-header in Manitoba. After a week off, the IceHogs take on the Moose in back-to-back weekend games in Manitoba on March 9 and 10. Saturday’s puck drop is set for 6pm CT, while Sunday’s puck drop is set for 2pm CT at Bell MTS Place. Rockford holds a 1-0-1 record against the Moose this season.