It took until March for everything to feel quasi-stable in my hockey universe, but I can’t complain. As of today, the Blackhawks sit in fourth place in the embattled Western Conference, and despite the logjam, one would be hard-pressed to argue against their chances of making it to the dance. They are playing great hockey right now and showing glimpses of that four-line magic that was so crucial in last year’s run to the cup.
Personally speaking, I am one who keeps a careful eye trained on the future of this club. While I always live (and sometimes revel) in the present, I am perpetually interested in what tomorrow might bring to the Indian Head. During last summer’s cap-imposed evisceration, I was more interested in the incoming names of Stalberg, Morin, and Paradis than departing names of Versteeg, Byfuglien, and Ladd (although I will still argue that losing good ol’ number 16 hurt me –and the team- the most). Past seasons and players are simply bygones, and should be filed away with old tax returns. Bring on the new blood.
This past weekend, I got the opportunity to get a very close look at the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate, the Western Conference's last-place Rockford Icehogs. I say “very close” not in terms of any sort of inside access, but rather because I was seated right on the glass behind the bench to watch the Icehogs take on the Lake Erie Monsters at Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland. Just a mere few inches from some of the names that have been tossed around these very message boards as potential upgrades for the big boys – Lalonde, Olsen, and Beach.
The downside to my seating arrangement was that I spent a good portion of the game staring directly into the windpant-clad backside of head trainer D.J. Jones. There was a lot of neck-craning, and my view of the action in the neutral zone was largely restricted to the paltry camera work on display on the overhead scoreboard. Although on the upside of things, Jones did toss me a game puck that flew into the bench late in the third period, my reward for being the sole soul rooting for Rockford in the surprisingly rowdy arena.
But, I digress. I did note a few observations on some of the kids that stood out. Here are some musings on various Icehogs…
I don’t think there was an educated hockey fan who wasn’t at least marginally impressed with Smith when he made his ‘Hawks debut last October. For a kid with negligible professional (only three AHL playoff games last season) and no major-junior experience, he looked surprisingly at ease skating with NHL pros.
Smith was a stand-out for Rockford on Saturday night’s game, opening the scoring with a nasty wrister from the deep slot high to the glove side. What impressed me more than the goal, however, was his defensive zone play. While he may have victimized some unskilled defensemen (I don’t have a thorough scouting report on the Lake Erie defensive corps) he made life generally miserable for the Monsters’ blueliners at the point and along the side boards. The kid has a lot of grit and tenacity, and he disrupted the opposition’s attempt at a cycle game by winning a lot of puck battles. He’s still learning the pro game, but he looks like a prospect with that all-important “light” starting to turn on.
I know that there were some collective groans when the Colonel made an appearance in a ‘Hawks sweater last December instead of say, Kyle Beach. But after watching him at the AHL level, I certainly understand why he got the call.
Klink is a guy with a great hockey sense. Just watching his eyes and head movements – and how they translated to his position on the ice with and without the puck – he is a guy that just gets it. He knows where he is supposed to be, and he has the basic talent and athleticism to get there – at least at the AHL level. While, physically speaking, he didn’t look like a sure-fire NHL’er, he just looked like a rock solid two-way forward, even adding a nice shorthanded tally in the second period. And while we all know that +/- is an iffy measure of a forward, it is certainly easy to see why he is the one of only two Icehogs with a positive rating (the other being forward Mathis Olimb). I will not be so bold as to say that Klink will be a contributor to the NHL roster down the road (as a restricted free agent after this season when his EL deal expires, who even knows if he will be back), but he certainly has enough of a mental grasp on the game for it to be feasible.
Ah, what you have all been waiting for. So what’s new with the 2008 first-round draft pick? In a concise cliché, not much.
Hockeybuzz Blackhawks blogger John Jaeckel has said it many times before – Beach doesn’t have a game that is NHL ready. Those words continue to fall upon the deaf ears of some who insist upon viewing the big boy through rose-colored spectacles. Even though I saw him for a mere 60 minutes of AHL hockey, I will go out on a limb and say, Mr. Jaeckel, you are correct, sir.
And not to totally feed this kid to the wolves, I suppose. Gauging from the pre-season games I saw last fall, Beach’s skating has improved. He also has a nice shot – something we already knew from his 52-goal season with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs a year ago. But for someone has big as he is (6’3” 210lbs per his listing on the AHL website – looks every bit that size in person), he doesn’t assert himself physically as often as he should. Also, he had a big problem winning puck battles in the corners and along the sideboards. He doesn’t have a great stick in those situations, and apparently hasn’t learned to leverage his size in order to gain an advantage.
One thing he has not lost, however, is his propensity to jaw. He spent a solid three minutes barking across the bench at Lake Erie forward Mike Carman, which was entertaining to say the least. If he does earn a spot on the ‘Hawks roster, he could become an agitator extraordinaire. Maybe in the mold of Alex Burrows, only with the stones to back it up without resorting to hair-pulling. The down side of Beach’s edge, however, is that it still appears to be his main focus, rather than hockey. Even my wife, who knew nothing of Beach going in, asked how the kid was even coachable. It’s a valid question, and one I don’t have an answer to.
Just few more quick-hitters, both Mathis Olimb and Igor Makarov are really, really good skaters. Olimb looked very comfortable (and impressive) moving the puck up through the neutral zone – one of the only guys from either team that I could say that about despite my limited viewpoint. Makarov has a nice burst and is nothing if not technically sound. The kid also has balls (pun intended), as he stood in front of a slap shot that found its way to an unfortunate location and left him down on the ice for several minutes. I don’t think he missed but one shift after that.
Looking at some of the defensemen, , there was nothing much that jumped out beyond the typical mishmash of average AHL skill sets. Lalonde looked okay but not overly impressive, and Exelby and Cullimore looked rather stately and stoic, making the occasional over-anxious young forward look foolish. I don’t think either of those guys would be a bad resource to have for the Blackhawks come playoff time, provided that neither are a relied-upon fixture. Dylan Olsen got some nice ice time, including a couple of looks on the power play. He has good instincts and great size, but is a long, long way from NHL ready. Give him time though, I have a hunch that he’ll make it.
Still no sign of Jeremy Morin, in case anyone was wondering. I do not believe that he has played a game in Rockford since he left for World Juniors in December. I have looked high and low online and still have found nothing definitive on his condition. I at one point heard it was a shoulder injury in WJ’s, but have since read unsubstantiated reports that he has a concussion. Regardless, he’s not playing, and it makes me wonder if he doesn’t spend another full year down in Rockford in the 2011-12 season, especially if upcoming RFA’s Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg are re-signed. (And in my opinion, both should be if the price is right) Morin is a scorer, and in my humble opinion, it better suits him to spend a year playing that role in the minors than to shoehorn him into a checking role in the NHL, especially at such a young age and with three full years remaining on his entry-level deal. (Remember he gets the bonus fourth year for playing fewer than 10 NHL games this season)
Thanks for stopping by and reading. These are only simple and shallow observations from a very small sample size, but thought you might enjoy getting a quick glance of things down on the farm. Now, Let’s Go ‘Hawks.