Young players learning pro realities

ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Phillip Danault, Mark McNeill and Garret Ross all entered their first full professional season with the Rockford IceHogs optimistic that their quest to play for the Chicago Blackhawks would be swift.

All three forwards excelled in juniors. All three created some buzz for themselves. All three possessed confidence in their abilities. They all sought to follow in the footsteps of players such as Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw, who had accelerated paths from the IceHogs to the Blackhawks.

What Danault, McNeill and Ross have learned through 50-plus games, though, is that the jump from the AHL to the NHL isn't so easy. The reality is most first-year pro players endure a roller coaster-like first season, and there are very few instant NHL players.

"You just have to live it and go through it," IceHogs coach Ted Dent said. "It's easy to sit there and tell these young guys what to expect and what you're in for -- the grind of a 76-game season and the ups and downs -- but [you have] to actually live through it and to have to experience it day to day."

All three players can now attest to that. They have all experienced some highs and lows of being in the AHL.

McNeill, a 2011 first-round pick, started the season as hot as anyone. He scored six goals and distributed four assists in his first 12 games. But after that, he slowed down and registered eight points over his next 24 games.

He rediscovered some consistency in January and has produced three goals and three assists over the past seven games. He has 15 goals, 13 assists and a minus-5 rating in 54 games this season.

"That's life in pro hockey," McNeill said. "Every day's not going to be amazing. You just got to keep your head up, keep working. It's a developmental league. You try to get better every day.

"There's a period of time you can say maybe the stats weren't there but I was working hard, I was playing hard and trying to get out of that slump. I think recently I've had a lot of success with my linemates, just moving our feet, keeping it simple, working hard, and we've been getting some good bounces lately."

Ross, a 2012 fifth-round pick, went through a slow start to his season and has since picked it up. He had eight points through the first 23 games and 18 points over the last 29 games. He has 12 goals, 14 assists and a plus-13 rating in 52 games.

"It's definitely been an adjustment from junior to pro," Ross said. "You play more games. It's a lot more high-paced. There's definitely an adjustment there. I think the biggest deal is the schedule and the grind it is through the season."

Danault, also a 2011 first-round pick, began the season on a positive note and had two goals and 10 assists through 24 games. His skid started in December after suffering an injury, and he had just one point between Dec. 20 and Feb. 4. He broke a 29-game streak without a goal by scoring two Feb. 8. He has four goals, 11 assists and a plus-eight rating in 50 games.

"It's hard mentally," Danault said. "At the beginning of the year, I was playing a lot. Then one day, boom, playing less. But you've got to do your job and respond. I got better for sure."

IceHogs forward Brandon Pirri was once in those same skates. He had to go through the same first-year experiences during the 2010-11 season. He believes the current group of first-year players is progressing just fine.

"There's a bunch of talent this new wave of guys coming in here," Pirri said. "They have great skills. Everyone is trying to find their way in here. I did it when I was 19. A lot of guys do it. The second half I can already tell they're a lot more comfortable with the league, living on their own, being professional. It's great to see because they're playing really well and the whole team is doing well."

The first-year players said they have learned from Pirri what it takes to be a pro, but they have also gathered from him and Jeremy Morin how difficult the road to the NHL can be. Pirri and Morin, both fourth-year pros, have each been called up to the Blackhawks and reassigned to the IceHogs multiple times this season.

Those players have also figured out the Blackhawks have one of the tougher NHL rosters to find a way into right now. Ben Smith is the only IceHogs player from last season to find a permanent place in the Blackhawks roster this season, and three former IceHogs -- Dylan Olsen, Jimmy Hayes and Ryan Stanton -- left the organization this season and have become NHL regulars for other teams.

The future doesn't appear to give those prospects much more optimism either. There likely won't be many roster spots coming open in the upcoming seasons.

"With the Blackhawks obviously coming off a Stanley Cup-winning team, they're going to have a deep lineup, and it's going to be tough for guys to crack," Ross said. "You've just got to stay with it, stay the course and when you get a shot make the most of it.

"Every player is different. Every player is NHL ready at a certain time. Whether you play one year in the American League and make the jump or you play four to five years down here, it's a long road to make it there. You just got to stay patient, be consistent with your play and work to be the best."

That is what Ross, Danault and McNeill are striving to do.