Rockford IceHogs 2019-20 season award picks: Preseason


Apologies for the misleading “preseason” notion in the title, but it is on me to not have done this before the actual season got underway on Friday night. Sometimes that is life. Anyway, as the Rockford IceHogs get their 2019–20 season started, here is a look at players that could be in the mix for a number of team awards once the season comes to an end. These are the awards the IceHogs hand out to their own players, not awards I am making up, to be clear.

IceHogs 2019–20 team award picks: Preseason

For reference, these are the awards that will be picked and their winners from last season.

2018–19 winners:

Most Valuable Player: Jacob Nilsson
Rookie of the Year: Dylan Sikura
Defenseman of the Year: Lucas Carlsson
Unsung Hero: William Pelletier and Tyler Sikura
Heavy Hitter Award: Andreas Martinsen
Most Improved Player: Dennis Gilbert

The 2019–20 Rockford IceHogs roster shows a ton of promise and potential. With the incoming rookie class, the addition of veteran captain Kris Versteeg and the return of a number of still young veteran players, Rockford is poised to return to the Calder Cup Playoffs if all goes according to plans and expectations. But, who will take them there? Here are my picks for the key players for the IceHogs who will take home the team awards this season, the “preseason” edition.

2019–20 award predictions

Most Valuable Player: Matthew Highmore
Dark-horse picks: Collin Delia, Kris Versteeg

Highmore burst on to the IceHogs’ scene in 2017–18, breaking the team’s AHL rookie goal-scoring record in his first year of professional hockey. His season last year was derailed by injuries after starting the year with seven points in his first eight games before suffering a shoulder injury. If it were not for the injury and the resulting surgery Highmore needed to have, he very well could have played significant time with the Blackhawks in 2018–19.

Matthew Highmore Rockford IceHogs

Matthew Highmore prepares for a face off during an IceHogs game. (Photograph courtesy of Todd Reicher)

I am hopeful for a big bounce-back year from Highmore. A hard-working player at both ends of the ice, he has the ability to also be a trigger man for what is shaping up to be a highly skilled IceHogs roster.

Additional dark horse picks include goaltender Collin Delia and captain Kris Versteeg. Delia returns as one of the top goaltenders in the AHL last season and figures, barring injuries to either Corey Crawford or Robin Lehner with the Blackhawks, that he will play the majority of the season with Rockford. Versteeg could have enough gas left in the tank to not only play the role of mentor to the young IceHogs roster, but lead the team offensively, which would be a welcomed surprise.

Rookie of the Year: Adam Boqvist
Dark-horse picks: Brandon Hagel, Philipp Kurashev

This seems like an obvious pick. Boqvist is arguably the top prospect in the entire Blackhawks organization, depending on where you rank him and Kirby Dach. Boqvist could very well end up playing more with the Blackhawks than the IceHogs this season, but if he plays a majority of the year in the AHL, Boqvist could easily be the focal point of not only the rookie IceHogs, but the entire team as a whole.

Adam Boqvist

Adam Boqvist of the Chicago Blackhawks shoots a puck at the 2018 Traverse City Rookie Tournament. (Photograph courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs)

Boqvist’s offensive prowess is the key to his game, but his time in Rockford will be used to get him up to the professional speed of the game at both ends of the ice. If he can become reliable defensively, he will be the total package defenseman the Blackhawks believe he can be.

Additional dark horse picks are Brandon Hagel and Philipp Kurashev. Two forwards with a good amount of speed and snap to their games, both could very well challenge for the leading rookie scorer this season and may have a chance to lead the team at that.

Defenseman of the Year: Adam Boqvist
Dark-horse picks: Chad Krys, Dennis Gilbert

Trying to avoid being redundant here, but again, Boqvist is the main focus for the IceHogs blue line heading into this season. This will be the make or break for him in his first season as a professional. If Boqvist can get his defensive responsibilities and positioning down, he will be ready to contribute in the NHL with the Blackhawks and head coach Derek King and company will have done their biggest job from a development standpoint.

Rockford IceHogs 2019-20 season award picks: Preseason

Chad Krys joined the IceHogs late in the 2018–19 season after spending three years at Boston University. (Photograph courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs)

This is one of the more talented blue lines for the IceHogs in recent memory. Aside from Boqvist, players like Nicolas Beaudin, Lucas CarlssonDennis Gilbert and Chad Krys all look to be relied on heavily for Rockford to keep goaltenders Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen‘s jobs easy. Additional dark-horse picks include the aforementioned Gilbert and Krys, as their talents can shine for Rockford on opposite ends of the ice. Gilbert, the more physical, defensive stalwart, and Krys, the mobile offense generator.

Unsung Hero: Jacob Nilsson
Dark-horse picks: MacKenzie Entwistle, Tyler Sikura

It is hard to imagine a guy who was team MVP last season going down as an unsung hero the next year. But, Jacob Nilsson is a player who does a little bit of everything for the IceHogs. He was a role player for the IceHogs last year that played on the power play and penalty kill and was relied upon to provide point production. He will likely be that player again, but there is the chance that Nilsson’s role will be buried in the lineup if the rookie class for the IceHogs pans out to be all it is being cooked up to be.

Rockford IceHogs Jacob Nilsson

Jacob Nilsson skates in an IceHogs game. (Photograph courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs)

He is still a key piece to the puzzle that is the 2019–20 IceHogs and will factor into what could be their return to the Calder Cup Playoffs. Additional dark-horse picks include last year’s unsung hero Tyler Sikura and rookie MacKenzie Entwistle. Both players fit the role of guys who do a little bit of everything for the team. I will lean harder toward Entwistle than Sikura as my backup pick.

Heavy Hitter Award: Dennis Gilbert
Dark-horse picks: Reese Johnson, Joni Tuulola

No question here. Dennis Gilbert is the most physical defenseman maybe in the entire Blackhawks organization right now. A stay-at-home defender since his time at Notre Dame, Gilbert stood out as a prospect with his physical play. He brought that same style to the ice last year in his first full professional season and later in the year added a bit of offensive production to the table. He was a late training camp cut and even began the season with the Blackhawks. He and Boqvist will likely be the first two players called upon by Chicago if and when there is need on the Blackhawks blue line.

Rockford IceHogs 2019-20 season award picks: Preseason

Dennis Gilbert tallied 14 points for the Rockford IceHogs in 2018–19. (Photograph courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs)

Additional dark-horse picks include fellow defenseman Joni Tuulola and rookie forward Reese Johnson. While physicality is not the name of the game for either player like it is for Gilbert, both have shown the willingness to play heavy in the past and Johnson has a knack already for dropping the gloves when called upon.

Most Improved Player: Kevin Lankinen
Dark-horse picks: Alexandre Fortin, Nick Moutrey

One of the hardest awards to try to predict, given what defines an improvement, but I will go with the guy who will jump out and be the surprise in net this season with Kevin Lankinen. His expectations are high after a busy summer, helping Finland win the World Championships gold medal. He played third-fiddle to one of, if not the best, goalie tandems in the AHL last season behind Delia and Anton Forsberg, but Lankinen had a solid showing in his first North American season. If his summer performance for Finland and with the Blackhawks in training camp is any indication of the future, Lankinen may end up being the ‘1A-1B’ with Delia this year and help backstop Rockford to a highly successful year.

Rockford IceHogs Kevin Lankinen

Kevin Lankinen makes a save during an IceHogs game last season. (Photograph courtesy of the Rockford IceHogs)

Additional dark-horse picks include Alexandre Fortin and Nick Moutrey. While Moutrey’s skillset is more limited in comparison to the rest of the IceHogs’ current lineup and will see him fighting hard to keep his minutes steady, head coach Derek King praised Moutrey’s play last season and rewarded him with consistent minutes. In the case of Fortin, it seems like the time is now or never for him to break out. He has all the speed in his game that one could ask for, but his hands have been what has held him back from becoming an NHL-regular for the Blackhawks. Dealing with injuries has not helped his case either, but if Fortin can stay healthy this year, I have hopes that he can put things together playing with more highly skilled teammates.

What’s next?

After dropping the regular season opener against the Iowa Wild last Friday, the IceHogs will have taken a full week off from hockey before jumping back onto the ice on Saturday night. The IceHogs face the Grand Rapids Griffins on Saturday night at the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford to open the home schedule for the 2019–20 season. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. CDT on Saturday.

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