IceHogs take pride in Hawks' early success

Rockford IceHogs coach Ted Dent only caught the replay of Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy's game-winner against the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, but Dent’s excitement was just the same.

Dent felt a rush of happiness for Leddy, who had played 31 games with the IceHogs in the AHL during the NHL lockout, but he also felt pride.

“Seeing Leddy score that OT game-winner even if it wasn’t live, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say it’s a good reflection on Rockford and what we try to do here,” Dent said by phone on Monday. “Keep them fresh this year and when the NHL did start, they were raring to go.”

The Blackhawks put that plan in place, and Dent and the IceHogs followed through with it. The Blackhawks had 10 players with NHL experience on the IceHogs’ roster during the lockout. In Rockford, the players were given opportunities in different roles, worked on specific weaknesses, built up more game experiences and were also kept in hockey shape.

When the lockout did officially end on Jan. 12, the Blackhawks recalled seven players from the IceHogs the following day and later recalled an eighth one. At week’s end, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville decided to keep Leddy and forwards Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw. Forwards Jimmy Hayes and Brandon Pirri and defenseman Ryan Stanton were returned to Rockford.

All five players who remained with the Blackhawks have played a part in their franchise-best 6-0-0 start to the season.

Saad stepped in for injured Daniel Carcillo and has been on the team’s top line along with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Saad had eight goals and 12 assists in 31 games for the IceHogs.

“The biggest thing for Brandon is to develop that consistency night in and night out,” Dent said. “In Rockford, he struggled a little bit with that as well. It’s a grind, especially in the American Hockey League -- it’s three games in three nights, three games in four nights. They’re doing that in the NHL now, but that’s something we do every year.”

Leddy has continued to be one of the Blackhawks’ top defensemen and has averaged 15:26 the first six games.

Shaw is the third-line center and is playing on the power play for the Blackhawks. Shaw used his time in the AHL to switch back from wing to center.

Kruger has been a vital piece to the Blackhawks’ penalty-killing unit. Bollig has only played in three of the six games, but he’s provided depth and toughness when he’s been on the ice.

Like Leddy, Dent takes pride in all of his former players having success in the NHL.

“As we’re told, we’re evaluated here in the American Hockey League by how well we prepare guys for the NHL,” Dent said. “That’s really our job to teach them how to be professional on a day-to-day basis, instill in them good habits in their day-to-day games. They’re young. They’re young hockey players. At times, it’s not about winning or losing down here. It’s about getting those guys mentally and physically prepared, so when they get their called by the National Hockey League they’re ready to go.”

While the Blackhawks have thrived lately, the IceHogs have struggled. Without five of their key players and missing Ben Smith due to injury, Rockford has gone 1-4-0 since Jan. 13. The IceHogs are 20-21-1 on the season.

“It’s a different year for sure,” Dent said. “Very different in the fact we knew there was a time we’d lose 4-5 guys once the NHL started. Most teams I don’t think lost 4-5. Most teams lost 2-3. They were all good players for us. It’s an adjustment period for our hockey team. We’re trying to fill the holes.”

One player who has excelled lately for the IceHogs has been Hayes. Since returning to the IceHogs, he’s had four goals and two assists in five games. He’s recorded 12 goals and 11 assists in 42 games this season.

“Jimmy struggled offensively to get some numbers on the board through the latter part of November and December,” Dent said. “It wasn’t for lack of effort, snake bit a little bit. Through Chicago and the Hawks, they tried him at center as well. He was adjusting to a new position.

“Recently the last three weeks, he’s been playing good hockey. He’s been getting some opportunities and he’s finishing. For Jimmy, he just has to skate hard and move his feet.”

Dent hopes his current players are driven by the prospect of being recalled by the Blackhawks. Quenneville said previously he believed he’ll have to recall more players this season.

“They should (be motivated,)” Dent said. “They have to do as best they can in Rockford and continue to push forward. If there are any chances in Chicago, there are 4-5 guys who know they’re in the running for the spot. They just have to continue to play well. When that time comes, whoever is playing best in Rockford at that particular time should get the opportunity.

“I think there are two, three, four guys down here at the right time and the right place, they’re ready to go as well. We have to keep them getting better and ready for the opportunity.”