“We’ve played every season. We’ve had the good fortune that this league has never stopped playing. There’s a lot of firsts happening. I don’t really see, at this point, how we would get the Calder Cup Playoffs in, but we have the option still open and we’re going to revisit it in May.”
Finishing this season is looking bleak for the American Hockey League as spring rolls around. The above quote came from AHL President and CEO Dave Andrews in an interview on SiriusXM Radio with Gord Stellick and Scott Laughlin on Friday. Andrews called the possibility of the Calder Cup Playoffs happening this summer, alongside a possible NHL resumption of play, “very, very unlikely.”
The NHL is still holding out hope that the 2019–20 season can be salvaged sometime this summer, or, at the very least, the league could hold the Stanley Cup Playoffs or an altered version of the playoffs. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues with stay-at-home orders and social distancing in place, the ability to safely return to real hockey games before the fall seems unlikely for all North American leagues.
With the AHL 2019–20 season all but canceled, the Rockford IceHogs would fall short of finishing the year in what would have been a Calder Cup Playoff spot in the Central Division. But, the season was not a waste. First-year head coach Derek King led a young roster in Rockford through an up-and-down year and had the IceHogs fighting down the stretch of the season. Riding the successes from a trio of goaltenders, the Sikura brothers and a number of emerging rookies to name a few, the IceHogs took a step forward from the underwhelming finish of the 2018–19 season.
With that in mind and the 2019–20 season all but put to bed, let’s take a look at the postseason IceHogs team awards as voted on by me, myself and I.
Heading into the 2019–20 season, the Rockford IceHogs’ lineup was a promising mixture of veterans and high-end prospects turned professional rookies. Add in Kirby Dach for three games and the beginning of the year was an exciting time. And, it feels like a lifetime ago that these were the Rockford lines and pairings:
— Mario Tirabassi (@Mario_Tirabassi) October 12, 2019
Obviously in the AHL, things change nearly every day with recalls, assignments and injuries. But, heading into the season back in October, here’s how I thought the season would play out by this time of year, and who would be the postseason award winners.
- Most Valuable Player: Matthew Highmore (Dark-horse picks: Collin Delia, Kris Versteeg)
- Rookie of the Year: Adam Boqvist (Dark-horse picks: Brandon Hagel, Philipp Kurashev)
- Defenseman of the Year: Adam Boqvist (Dark-horse picks: Chad Krys, Dennis Gilbert)
- Unsung Hero: Jacob Nilsson (Dark-horse picks: MacKenzie Entwistle, Tyler Sikura)
- Heavy Hitter Award: Dennis Gilbert (Dark-horse picks: Reese Johnson, Joni Tuulola)
- Most Improved Player: Kevin Lankinen (Dark-horse picks: Alexandre Fortin, Nick Moutrey)
I was right on zero of these predictions.
My “dark-horse” picks gave me a bit of saving grace. But, with Adam Boqvist emerging as an NHL-ready defenseman in his rookie season, Kris Versteeg leaving the team and eventually retiring and a three-quarters-of-a-season recall for Matthew Highmore, my “locks,” if you will, were way off.
2019–20 Rockford IceHogs postseason awards
So, how did things actually fare and who were the true standouts from the 2019–20 AHL season for the IceHogs?
Most Improved Player: Tyler Sikura
After breaking out for the IceHogs in the 2017–18 season, his first full season in the AHL, Tyler Sikura had high expectations last year to be a major contributor for Rockford and, albeit a long shot, could have pushed for a shot at the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks. Those things did not happen last season for the elder Sikura brother. Coming into this season, Tyler needed to return to the form he saw in 2017–18, where he was one of the top point producers on the team.
He enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2019–20, leading the team in points (34) and ranking second in goals (14), tied with his brother, Dylan Sikura. After Versteeg left the team in November, Tyler was named the IceHogs’ new team captain and played a major role as part of Rockford’s penalty kill this season. Sikura’s AHL contract with the organization ends this summer.
Heavy Hitter: Joseph Cramarossa
Acquired in late November, Joseph Cramarossa came into the IceHogs’ lineup and was a mainstay when healthy. An energy forward and not afraid to mix it up physically, Cramarossa led Rockford with 110 penalty minutes this season with a team-high six fighting majors. The IceHogs as a team registered 24 team fighting majors in 2019–20, the most fighting majors since the 2015–16 season when they registered 39 fights. Cramarossa had 12 points in 42 games with the IceHogs this season and is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Unsung Hero: Gabriel Gagne
Another in-season acquisition for the IceHogs that made an impact was Gabriel Gagne. Acquired on loan from the Allen Americans in the ECHL in January, Gagne quickly showed the scoring ability along with physical presence that made him a second-round pick for the Ottawa Sentors back at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. In 21 games with Rockford, Gagne tallied 12 points and was given top-six minutes and power play opportunities down the back half of the schedule. Prior to the season being put on hold, Gagne signed a one-year AHL contract with the IceHogs for the 2020–21 season.
Defenseman of the Year: Lucas Carlsson
For the second straight season, Lucas Carlsson led the Rockford IceHogs in scoring for defensemen. The second-year player from Sweden finished the season with 26 points in 48 games for Rockford, good for a tie for fourth on the team in scoring with MacKenzie Entwistle. Carlsson’s 26 points was 11 more than the next-highest defenseman this season, ahead of rookie Nicolas Beaudin.
When healthy this season, Carlsson was a regular for head coach Derek King in his defensive rotation and was regularly used on the power play. Carlsson’s confidence this season was evident, as he began to take more chances offensively and earned himself his first NHL call up to the Chicago Blackhawks. The former fourth-round pick played in six games for Chicago and recorded one assist, averaging just over 14 minutes of ice time.
Rookie of the Year: Brandon Hagel
On a team that at one point this season boasted top-end rookie prospects Adam Boqvist, MacKenzie Entwistle, Nicolas Beaudin and Philipp Kurashev, none were more impactful for the IceHogs than Brandon Hagel. The former sixth-round pick by the Buffalo Sabres signed an entry-level contract with the Chicago Blackhawks at the end of the 2018–19 season, skating in the final eight games of the AHL season with the IceHogs and notching one assist.
In the 2019–20 season, his first full professional season, Hagel led the IceHogs in goals with 19, finished third on the team with 31 points in 59 games played and his 126 shots on goal were second on the team behind Dylan Sikura. In the Blackhawks’ development camp, Hagel showed a high motor and ability to get to the net to create scoring chances and those skills translated to the ice at the AHL level. Hagel earned three recalls to the Chicago Blackhawks this season, but was only able to get into one game at the NHL level before the season was paused.
Most Valuable Player: Collin Delia
About a month into the season, calling Collin Delia an IceHogs Team MVP candidate was a bit of a long shot. Delia started the season off on the wrong foot, dropping five of his first seven starts of the season and posting a sub-.900 save percentage. After sitting behind Kevin Lankinen and Matt Tomkins for a three-week stretch from mid-November to the beginning of December, Delia turned both his and the IceHogs’ season around.
Going 14–8–1 from Dec. 3 to the end of the season, Delia was the backbone of Rockford’s push in the second half of the season to get into the Calder Cup Playoff picture. He finished the year with a 16–13–1 record on the year with a career-high three shutouts. The IceHogs rolled a healthy three-goalie rotation this season for most of the year, up until Lankinen’s season was ended due to a shoulder injury, and Delia was the season leader in net with the highest marks in save percentage (.912) and goals against average (2.66). The California native ranked in the top 10 of the AHL for qualified goaltenders in shutouts (three), wins (16) and shootout save percentage (.875, 14/16).
It truly is a shame that the Rockford IceHogs’ season was cut short during the Calder Cup Playoff push. With 62 points in 63 games, the IceHogs were tied for fourth in the Central Division with the Chicago Wolves, only they would be on the outside of the postseason due to points percentage. But, with nine games remaining, who is to say that the IceHogs could not have had one hot streak left in them to make it into the playoffs?
There are plenty of questions, both on and off the ice, facing the IceHogs and the American Hockey League heading into the 2020–21 season. But, when we do eventually get back to regular games, whenever that may be, there is certainty that the IceHogs can be contenders. Given the talent that will return next season, Rockford is set up to be a team to keep on the radar.
I will leave you with a final quote from Andrews’ interview on Sirius XM radio: “Despite the uncertainty, we’ll be okay.”
Stay safe. Stay home. Stay well.