Rockford fans, you have waited long enough, but at last, it is upon us. Finally, the AHL season will commence this week. The Rockford IceHogs will have their first contest on Friday night at home against the Cleveland Monsters.
So, what’s the deal? What should we expect?
Well, there are a lot of moving parts, and given the health crisis, there will be a lot of roster fluctuation on a weekly basis. In the last three days alone, the Chicago Blackhawks have signed and assigned to the IceHogs defenseman Madison Bowey. On the same day, the Hawks reassigned Michal Teply and Anton Lindholm to the taxi squad from the IceHogs, and just hours ago, the Hawks called up Rockford’s Reese Johnson to the big club for his NHL debut on Sunday night. There will be the fun news, such as Rockford summoning Scott Darling back for a professional tryout agreement, and perhaps some young lads from the Indy Fuel in the ECHL being assigned to Rockford and vice versa. In the 30-game sprint in the COVID-19 era of hockey, get comfortable expecting the unexpected. Players will be added to quarantine protocol lists and doors may open for many hockey players to receive opportunities.
All the same, what we do know is that Rockford has 30 games on tap and will see the same teams often. In the 2021 alignment of the AHL’s regular season, the Hogs have been placed in the six-team Central Division along with the Chicago Wolves, Cleveland Monsters, Grand Rapids Griffins, Iowa Wild and Texas Stars. The IceHogs will only play within their division, yet will not have a regular season contest with the Texas Stars. Rockford’s final regular season tilt will be against the Wolves on May 15.
What and who to watch?
What you care about likely depends on if the IceHogs are your favorite AHL team, or if you are a Hawks fan and player development of future prospects is what you are most keen about. Fortunately, at The Rink you will get both. However, those two examples of fandom are not necessarily mutually exclusive either. The IceHogs have a handful of players that are considered legitimate NHL prospects, but are also better suited for regular AHL action at this stage of their development. While this is true of any AHL team, the Rockford should have some pieces in order to potentially take a run at the Calder Cup.
Future NHL hopefuls
Wyatt Kalynuk — Defenseman
Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman signed the former Wisconsin Badger this summer, and with a log jam of young defensemen in the fold for the Hawks this season, Kalynuk should see the majority of his time with the Hogs. He will have an opportunity to chip in offensively and certainly needs to focus on working in the defensive end of the ice to become an NHL player.
Alec Regula — Defenseman
The return in an October 2019 trade that sent Brendan Perlini to the Detroit Red Wings, Regula is a fascinating prospect who this writer believes could be a legitimate top-four defenseman within the next two or three years. The Michigan native led all OHL defenseman in goals in 2019–20 while a stalwart with the London Knights. He is big, smart with the puck and is physical, but his skating and gap control in the neutral zone need improvement. Unless the Hawks want to see a late season audition, a full 30 games in Rockford are appropriate for him to gain confidence in his game.
Evan Barratt — Center/Wing
Barratt projects as a bottom-six forward at the NHL level. That said, during his time at Penn State, his scoring touch and special teams play improved every year. Another player who will need to focus on skating as a professional, if he can find a scoring touch in Rockford this season, ultimately his secondary scoring in a checking role at the NHL level could be extremely valuable.
MacKenzie Entwistle — Winger
The Hawks added Entwistle to their taxi squad a week ago and with good reason. This kid plays with a ton of heart and energy, and if you are trying to bring a young team along, Entwistle’s intensity is something that you should take note of. He did well in his first full season in Rockford in 2019–20, and while he most likely will see the majority of his game time with the IceHogs this season, I would not be surprised if he gets his NHL debut in 2021.
Andrei Altybarmakian — Winger
There has been a lot of curiosity around Altybarmakian since he arrived for his North American debut following a two-and-a-half-year stint in the KHL. He has been a professional for a while now, and at 22, it should be interesting where his impact will be felt. We are soon to find out what the former third-round pick will bring to the table, but his skating ability should keep many hopeful that he has a future in Chicago.
Chad Krys — Defenseman
For clarity, sure, Krys and some others in this category may see an NHL game or two in their future, but in reality, their NHL goals are fleeting. Krys has turned out to be a solid AHL defenseman and at this stage of his career, that may ultimately be his ceiling. He knows the movement of the AHL game, has good gap control and if he is at his best, will have a critical role with the Hogs this season.
John Quenneville — Winger
Again, he may get some games with the Hawks, but if you are going to see him more regularly in a lineup this season, it will be with the IceHogs. Nobody doubts his toughness and the brings energy to a lineup, but with the Hawks having more stability in their bottom six then their top six, it is hard to see an NHL future for him in Chicago. Still, his position in Rockford’s lineup is impactful.
Cody Franson — Defensemen
The veteran blueliner is back in Rockford after a two-year flirtation with the KHL. Once an NHL regular, the 33-year-old will serve as a mentor to younger players while providing much needed stability in the back.
There are certainly others—Michal Teply, Matej Chalupa and Anton Lindholm, for example—who many are curious about. There could very well be a “where did he come from?” moment with a player or players. In addition, newly acquired rookies with distinguished NCAA careers, Chris Wilkie (Colorado College), Mitchell Fossier (Maine) and Cam Morrison (Notre Dame) are intriguing. Morrison’s former Golden Domer teammate Cale Morris will be competing for a starting role in the pipes along with Darling and long-time minor leaguer Matt Tomkins.
Buckle up for the sprint! There will be twists and turns along the way, but IceHogs hockey is back and will be fun to watch this winter and spring.