The Chicago Blackhawks already came calling to their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, once this season for a goaltender, and that worked out well for them.
IceHogs coach Ted Dent often expects that to be the case when the Blackhawks need someone to step in this season. Whether it’s goaltenders Scott Darling or Michael Leighton, the number of NHL-ready defensemen they possess or an assortment of versatile forwards, the IceHogs are stocked with plenty of capable players for the Blackhawks.
“I think if they have some injuries, some situations where they need some help from us, I think there’s definitely going to be a lot of options for them,” Dent in a phone interview from San Antonio on Saturday. “We have a lot of good players here. Depth-wise in net, the depth is great. On defense, it’s probably the best as we’ve been here. Obviously some up-and-coming forwards as well.”
The Blackhawks got their first taste of that depth when they recently recalled Darling. He nearly earned himself a permanent spot in the NHL as he went 2-1-0 with a 1.98 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in three starts for the Blackhawks. He’ll rejoin the IceHogs on Saturday after being reassigned Friday.
The Blackhawks’ organizational depth at goaltender doesn’t stop with Darling. Their offseason signing of Michael Leighton is already paying off at the AHL level. He’s gone 4-2-1 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .923 save percentage this season.
Add in Darling’s 2-0-0 record with 1.44 goals-against average and .948 save percentage for the IceHogs, and Rockford is a different place with their goaltenders than a season ago when their goaltenders combined for a 3.35 goals-against average and .893 save percentage.
“Both goalies have been great for us here,” Dent said. “Again, it’s a total-team effort defensively. But when they’ve been called up to make saves for us, they have.”
The IceHogs' goaltenders are an upgrade from the past, but so are their defensemen. The Blackhawks have a stable of quality defenseman prospects in T.J. Brennan, Adam Clendening, Kyle Cumiskey, Klas Dahlbeck, Stephen Johns, Ville Pokka and Viktor Svedberg.
“The players we have right now defensively, it’s probably the strongest defenseman group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Dent, who has been a part of the Blackhawks organization since 2006. “They’re all puck-moving defensemen and join the rush and are active and as well responsible at their own end.”
The IceHogs have also shown some depth in their forwards while getting off to a 6-2-0-1 start to the season. None of their forwards have more than three goals, but eight of them have scored two or three goals.
The IceHogs have had different forwards step up each game. Against the San Antonio Rampage on Friday, it was Garret Ross who scored his first career hat trick in a 6-3 victory. In a 2-1 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Wednesday, Teuvo Teravainen had the primary assist on goals by Matt Carey and Joakim Nordstrom. On other nights, Phillip Danault, Mark McNeill, Peter Regin, Ryan Hartman, Brandon Mashinter and Dennis Rasmussen contributed to the offense. Danault and McNeill share the team lead with seven points.
“It’s great,” Dent said of the depth offensively. “I think we’re going to do it by committee. We’re seeing that. We don’t have [Brandon] Pirris and [Jeremy] Morins, the natural goal scorers. We sort of have a lot of up and down players that can play solid defense and contribute offensively at the same time. It’s not a bad thing. It’s nice that we’re chipping in as a group.”
Dent has liked how Teravainen, who is considered the Blackhawks’ top prospect, has progressed since joining the IceHogs out of training camp.
“He’s been good,” Dent said. “He’s starting to handle the puck more in games and take control offensively. He made a great pass on a 5-on-3 to set up Nordstrom for a power-play goal [on Friday.] Again, same thing, just getting used to new surroundings, new teammates, new buildings, the opposition and everything else. He’s shown improvement in every game.”
Dent has seen his players grow, but also himself. He felt he’s learned some things in his first three years as a head coach that are helping the IceHogs now.
“I think I don’t let the little things affect me as much as a few years ago,” Dent said. “I take things in stride. Understand we’re going to make some mistakes, we’re going to lose some games, but that’s part of it. But try to keep he guys accountable and make sure everyone is working as hard.”