When the Chicago Blackhawks promoted Jeremy Colliton to head coach of the NHL club, in their statement on his promotion, the front office emphasized Rockford’s first-ever AHL Western Conference Finals appearance with the team going 40–28–4–4 under Colliton in 2017–18. This, coupled with his outstanding record with Mora IK in Sweden, led fans to believe that the next best thing in coaching had been found.
Before the 2017–18 season, the IceHogs had not made the playoffs since the 2015–16 season, and they were defeated in the first round. Since becoming a Blackhawks affiliate, the IceHogs had never made it past the second round until Colliton came along. The IceHogs making the playoffs and winning two series were pushed as an accomplishment and testaments to his coaching ability.
However, when you dig deep (or not so deep) into 2017–18 roster, you will find it filled with fringe NHL players. So, while viewed as an accomplishment at the time, the Blackhawks’ front office might have sold us a bag of fool’s gold.
Let’s not forget adding to the IceHogs’ roster was a change over the philosophy from the prior season. The prior season, the IceHogs traded away their top two scorers at the trade deadline in Spencer Abbott and Mark McNeill—not household NHL names, but AHL scorers nonetheless.
So, let’s look deeper at the Colliton-led 2017–18 IceHogs roster.
- Lance Bouma — Played in 53 games with the Blackhawks that season and was sent down to be playoff eligible. He appeared in all 13 playoff games for the Hogs that year. He had one goal and one assist.
- Gustav Forsling — He is currently playing with the Florida Panthers and appeared in 41 games with Blackhawks in 2017–18 before being sent down to Rockford for the playoff push. He had one goal and four assists while appearing in all 13 playoff games.
- Cody Franson — A long-time NHL player by the time he joined the Blackhawks’ organization in 2017–18, Franson was far and away the most experienced player on Rockford’s roster. Franson piled up 550 career NHL games, all of which came prior to Rockford’s 2018 playoff run.
- John Hayden — Appeared in 47 games with Chicago that season. After spending 22 games in Rockford, he was moved back down for the playoff run. He had 13 NHL points that season. He is currently on the Buffalo Sabres’ roster. Hayden had three goals in the AHL playoffs with the Hogs in 13 games.
- David Kampf — The current phenom in Toronto was sent down to Rockford for the playoff push after appearing 49 games with the Blackhawks that season. He had 11 NHL points and appeared in all 13 Rockford playoff games. He had one goal in those 13 games.
- Andreas Martinsen — Appeared in 64 games with the IceHogs that season and nine games with the Blackhawks. He two goals and three assists in 13 IceHogs playoff games. He appeared in 152 NHL games for his career.
Other names to mention are Adam Clendening, Carl Dahlstrom, Matthew Highmore and Tanner Kero. All of these guys were end-of-the-roster guys in the NHL either before or after that 2017–18 season. Franson was so liked by the Blackhawks that they brought him back in 2020–21 to offer a veteran presence on the ice in Rockford.
You may remember many of these names, but to drive home the point further, the total amount of NHL games played by Rockford’s 2018 playoffs roster is staggering. That group tallied 1,481 regular season NHL games prior to that playoff run. Even if you remove Franson’s 550, the count is still well over 900 NHL games played.
Another telling fact about this roster was its lack of prospects. The closest thing this roster had to a prospect was Anthony Louis, who had spent the last prior season in Rockford after graduating from Miami University. Louis turned out to be a career AHL player.
AHL playoff opponents
In the playoffs, the IceHogs swept the Chicago Wolves 3–0 in the first round. The Wolves’ roster was not composed of nearly as many NHL players. Brandon Pirri and Teemu Pulkkinen were the only two players with any significant NHL experience coming into that series.
In the next round, the IceHogs dispatched the Manitoba Moose in a four-game sweep. Michael Sgarbossa had the most NHL experience heading into that series. He appeared 48 games from 2012–13 to 2016–17 with three different teams. He has only appeared in five NHL games since then. Now, Brendan Lemiuex has the most NHL experience from that Moose squad, appearing 181 games between the Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings.
When Colliton’s teams had more NHL talent on them in the AHL playoffs, his team won.
Eliminated from the AHL playoffs
In the Western Conference Finals, the Hogs fell to the Texas Stars 4–2. The Stars had several guys with NHL experience, including Brian Flynn (275 NHL games) and Curtis McKenzie (99 NHL games).
The Stars also had young group of prospects who went on to to become NHL regulars. Roope Hintz, who is currently with the Dallas Stars, has appeared in 164 NHL games since that series. Denis Gruianov appeared in 74 games with the Texas Stars that season and now has appeared in 146 NHL games since that playoff series. Jason Dickinson, a current member of the Stars, appeared in 42 games with the Texas Stars that season. He has 227 NHL games under his belt.
So, when the Colliton-led IceHogs ran into a team with younger, superior talent and some NHL talent, they were defeated in six games.
In his one season as the Rockford bench boss, Colliton coached fringe NHL players and virtually no prospects. When the playoffs came around, his roster got loaded up with more NHL players, which gave him superior talent and a decisive edge over the first two teams he faced. When his team faced a team with fairly similar talent in the playoffs, his team was defeated.
As much as the Blackhawks sold the fans that his run to the AHL Western Conference Finals was such a great success, it was only used to reinforce the front office’s decision.
In his first season as Chicago’s coach, it was decided to scratch Colliton’s system in favor or a free-wheeling style because the team did not have success with it. After a full training camp the following offseason, the system still did not take hold with the Blackhawks. The third year was more of the same. The Blackhawks are now in the fourth season of the same system with new players and the results are even worse.
His system was never given the chance in Rockford to experience failure or time to adapt. Now, it is failing at the NHL level, and there is no adapting from the coaching staff. There is only uninspired bad hockey. The Blackhawks rushed Colliton to the NHL, like so many of their prospects, only to watch them fail and sometimes fail miserably. Colliton was sold to fans as a Patrick Kane-level talent coaching wise and he currently is a Dylan Sikura-level talent coaching wise.
This is the danger of overhyping and inflating players and coaches. The Blackhawks have a bad habit of letting those overhyped prospects crash and burn, and it appears as though the same fate is quickly approaching for Colliton.