The Chicago Blackhawks continued to utilize their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, by recalling forward Brandon Pirri this week. From Pirri to Antti Raanta to Jeremy Morin to Joakim Nordstrom to a handful of others, the IceHogs have been sending players to the Blackhawks for much of the season and will likely deliver a few more by season's end.
IceHogs coach Ted Dent took the time Tuesday to talk about Pirri's latest recall, Morin, developing players at the AHL level, Andrew Shaw's model, his own NHL coaching aspirations and more.
What did you work on with Pirri since he was last reassigned to Rockford?
Dent: You know he got injured fairly quickly here. It was a matter of taking care of the injury and strengthening the muscles around it and making sure he wasn't going to injure it when he came back. When he came back last weekend, trying to get him to play at a high level, high intensity, a lot of speed and do what he does -- create offense and make plays.
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said he believed Pirri needed to improve defensively. Was there some feedback about that?
Dent: I talked to Joel when Pirri got sent down originally. I had a conversation with him to find out what you mentioned. See what we could do as a team to improve his weaknesses and what Joel saw as his weaknesses. I also have dialogue with Stan Bowman and Norm Maciver when they watch our games in Rockford or in Chicago. They will also give me some feedback on how he played and what he needs to work on.
How do you implement that into your coaching in Rockford?
Dent: Brandon, I've worked with four years now on his defensive game. On his positioning away from the puck, it has gotten better for sure over the course of four years. We've worked a lot on intensity and pushing the pace and trying to empty the tank every shift. We've had a lot of discussions on that. Overall, it's gotten better for sure, at least at our level.
What makes him such an offensive threat?
Dent: I think he's a great playmaker. He sees the ice real well. He's also a threat to shoot the puck and score goals. He sort of has both sides of it. A lot of guys are shooters or they're playmakers, one or the other. Brandon has the ability to do both. He sees the holes. He makes the wingers around him better, usually gives it to them on the tape. On the power play, he's effective because he can pass, shoot. Here at the American League level, he can play the half wall on either side, which is a nice luxury as well.
Have you been happy with the way Jeremy Morin has responded to his last reassignment?
Dent: It's always hard for players when they come down after being in the NHL, especially after an extended period of time. That's what we found this time with Jeremy and Brandon. They were disappointed. It took both of them some time to mentally adjust back to being in Rockford.
Obviously, Brandon got a hurt. Jeremy has been with us, slowly getting better and better. He always shoots the puck. He's always good for 3-8 shots a game. Now it's finding a consistent effort with and without the puck. I think he finally hit his stride this last weekend and had a really productive weekend.
For Morin is it about being better in those other areas as well?
Dent: I know Jeremy's game well enough over the last four years. I know when he's working. I know when he's got more in the tank. I know when he's on his game, mentally dialed in to what we're doing here. It was a tough beginning when he came down, took a little time to settle in and play at a high level down here. It's been better as of late. Hopefully, he will continue that.
The team was in a bit of a funk the last time we talked. Has it come out of that since?
Dent: Every year I've been here it's been sort of the same thing. It takes 35-45 games for our team to really come together. I think the fact is we don't have the same veterans guys come back. It's always a new group. I think we started the year with 10-11 rookies on the team.
The whole schedule, the travel, playing three games in three days, a lot of these college players never played midweek games in their career. They never played on Monday, Tuesday nights with not a lot of people watching and having to bring their A game and staying motivated is a whole new experience for them.
It takes time to mesh together as a group. Hopefully we can continue to get better every day and play more consistently as a whole team. Not that we haven't played good hockey. We've had six one-goal games. We've played well. We just haven't found a way to be on the winning end of those games until recently. For young hockey players, that compete level I always talk about has to be there every shift and every night.
How have the first-year pros, players like Mark McNeil, Phillip Danault, Garret Ross, etc., handled that transition this season?
Dent: Everyone develops at a different level. Some come flying out of the gate and taper off. It varies from player to player. It's a whole new experience. The nutritionist comes and educates them, the strength coach and staying on them, off-ice workouts.
It's a whole process. It's not just the on-ice practices and games. Learning to be a pro athlete, trying to become a professional, learning those details and habits and lifestyle you have to have to be successful at this level.
I remember hearing a lot of players at prospect camp saying they wanted to make the Blackhawks this season. Is there a reality check for them?
Dent: I think for a lot of the young players they look at their draft status and where they were drafted as a big thing. The draft gets [them] in the door. Whether you're a second-rounder or a fifth-rounder, you're in the organization now. It's a clean slate for everyone. You have to prove yourself every single day. There's nothing to be given to you just because of your draft status.
An example of that is Andrew Shaw. Coming into Rockford on an American League deal and not an NHL contract, playing hard for us and earning our trust in Rockford, deserving the ice time he got and opening some eyes in the Blackhawks organization. One thing led to another and by the end of the year he's playing for the Blackhawks. That's part of the process -- proving yourself every game down here and getting better and improving your game.
Is it a goal for you to coach in the NHL?
Dent: It's not something I think about a lot. I don't put pressure on myself. It's not something I write on a piece of paper and say this is where I want to be. If it happens, it'd be great for sure. It'd be a dream come true for me, my wife, my family and everyone involved in my hockey career and has been part of my whole life. I'd definitely love to get in the NHL and continue coaching at some point if there's an opportunity.
Do you enjoy the challenge of the IceHogs where the goal is to produce players for the Blackhawks, not necessarily win games?
Dent: It's a challenge at times. We're all competitive and wired to compete and try to win. The players and staff here in Rockford aren't different. It's not the be-all and win-all. The message from management down to us is to make the young players better and get them ready for the NHL. Our team isn't built, we don't sign players to win the Calder Cup. We're a development team trying to get 2-3-4 players ready for the end of the year and get to the Blackhawks. We do the best we can night in and night out. To the start of the year to the finish every year, our teams get better. That's all we can ask for. Try to get better every day and compete.
Has there been anyone who has surprised you with his development this season?
Dent: I think a guy who really has gotten a lot better in a short period of time is Joakim Nordstrom. He's still a first-year pro here. He played a handful of games last year. I think it helped him coming to Rockford, playing 10-12 games to get a taste of what's it's like in the American League. He had an opportunity to train all summer. He went to training camp and made the Blackhawks, which I think surprised a lot of people. He just continues to work. He brings it every day. He can play every forward position with us. I think that's a great asset to have as a coach. I think that gives more coaching options.