Defenseman Stephen Johns described his game-winning overtime goal for the Rockford IceHogs in a recent Calder Cup playoff game as the “the most incredible feeling I felt in my hockey career”.
The Chicago Blackhawks are hopeful it’s just the beginning of Johns experiencing those type of feelings. As much as the Blackhawks emphasize the development aspect with their prospects, they like for them to get a taste of team success in the AHL as well.
“It’s something we talk on a lot -- do you want to focus on development or do you want to focus on winning?” Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman recently said. “And for us, we’d like them go hand in hand.
“But No. 1 is development. If you had to choose between the two, we really want our guys to prepare themselves for the NHL. Sometimes that means some growing pains. This year they’ve also taken that next step to where they’ve developed, they’re ready to be NHL players and now they want to win, too. They’ve got that mentality like we know we’re good, we think we have a special group and playing meaningful games in May are important for those guys whether it’s the American League or the NHL.”
The IceHogs had done some winning in recent years, but they just missed out on getting to those meaningful games. They fell short of a playoff berth by a total of six points the last two seasons.
The IceHogs got over that hump this season and clinched their first playoff berth since the 2009-10 season. The IceHogs were able to do that for a variety of reasons. They received consistent goaltending. They had some capable veterans. Of all the reasons, though, the Blackhawks especially liked the one of how their prospects showed signs of development and began stepping up in big games.
The IceHogs’ line of Garrett Ross, Phillip Danault and Mark McNeill proved to be a game-changer from December on. The trio combined for 57 goals and 125 points. Forward prospect Ryan Hartman also took on a larger role and displayed more consistency in his game.
The IceHogs went through a lot of changes defensively throughout the season with the Blackhawks trading TJ Brennan, Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck. But in their place, defenseman prospects Johns and Ville Pokka emerged.
“You watch the team play the young players are all the guys getting the minutes down there,” Bowman said. “It’s not like we’ve got this group of veteran minor league players that are really make the team win. Every night it’s a young guy, a different one. Whether it’s Hartman, McNeill, Danault, Johns, Pokka, you go on down the list. Garret Ross has been good. So, all those young guys sort of carried the load at different points. They have to win at some point. That’s what’s doing it.”
IceHogs coach Ted Dent also recognized everyone enjoying the development process because they were winning. He could tell the atmosphere around the team was positive even if the players weren't content with being in the AHL.
“Overall, big picture, I think it was a tremendous season,” said Dent, whose team was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round on Sunday. “We set franchise records here for most wins, most consecutive home wins. We accomplished a lot. We had a great group of guys. We finished the year off strong here the last two months. We were able to upset the defending Calder Cup champions [Texas Stars] in the first round. Unfortunately, we lost in Round 2. It still stings a little bit, but overall it was nice playing playoff hockey in May for everybody.”
Bowman thought Dent deserved a lot of credit for that and for how he’s had a hand in the development of a number of players throughout the organization. Bowman is a big believer in continuity and Dent has provided stability for the Blackhawks in the AHL. He’s been the IceHogs head coach for four seasons and been with the organization for nine years.
“Ted’s done an excellent job every year,” Bowman said. “You look at the players on our team here [with the Blackhawks]. A lot of them have come up through our system. Maybe they weren’t stars in the American League, but that’s OK. We want them to be contributors in Chicago. Ted realizes that’s what we’re all about. Now we’ve added to this year to be able to win on top of the developing. I think the continuity is important. He’s done an excellent job. We’re lucky to have him helping these guys get better.”