In the abbreviation that was the 2020-2021 AHL season, the Rockford IceHogs, despite their record, have plenty of bright spots moving forward.
The Chicago Blackhawks' AHL affiliate finished the year with a 12-19-1-0 mark and found themselves in last in the Central Division. However, head coach Derek King maintained his focus on development throughout the year and allowed players to show their strengths while working on weaknesses in their young careers.
Like any other team sport, clubs need leaders and experience to keep the train moving. In Rockford's case, team captain Garrett Mitchell and veteran defenseman Cody Franson fulfilled such roles this season.
Mitchell was named the IceHogs' 13th team captain in their history, an honor that the 29-year-old sported with the Hershey Bears in the Washington Capitals system. Coming into this season, Mitchell had over 400 games of AHL experience and was talked about as a great emotional leader. This became evident on multiple occasions throughout the season, especially in physical battles with the Iowa Wild. He also showed a great deal of flexibility in who he played with as multiple bodies interchanged due to injuries and adjustments to the Blackhawks' taxi squad.
As for Franson, an alternate captain for the IceHogs, his ability to play with multiple prospects on the blue line helped send Wyatt Kalynuk and Nicolas Beaudin to the NHL. With stats dating back all the way to 2002, Franson's NHL experience with the Nashville Predators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres, and Blackhawks provided him with a wealth of hockey knowledge that he utilized to help his fellow defenseman.
An honorable mention in this case is Rockford's other alternate captain, John Quenneville. Despite suffering an injury that plagued his 2020 season, Quenneville was effective in his time played. He was notorious for scoring quick goals from the start to generate energy on the bench and put some wind behind his team.
Hockey fans love skaters who find the back of the net, and despite the IceHogs not being one of the league's top scoring clubs, there were a few names that stood out.
Forward Dylan McLaughlin led the way for the IceHogs and finished the season with 22 points (eight goals and 14 assists). The 25-year-old went undrafted despite being a Hobey Baker Award finalist out of Canisius College. A native of New York, McLaughlin tallied three game-winning goals for the IceHogs and scored in bunches toward the back end of the season.
Chris Wilkie, a Nebraska native who finished the season behind McLaughlin, Franson, and Penn State alum Evan Barratt in points, also notched eight goals of his own through 22 games. There were stretches of games in which Wilkie seemed to be the one who Rockford needed to get the puck to if they needed a goal, but gravity and the difficulty of hockey kept him here on Earth.
A hot-button topic surrounding the Blackhawks has been goaltending. With Kevin Lankinen graduating from the IceHogs and making a splash in the NHL, the netminders in the system were going to grab a bit more attention.
The short-lived tryout for Scott Darling paved the way for younger goalies to show their worth until more reinforcements entered the picture.
Statistically, the club's best goalie was Notre Dame product Cale Morris. He earned a pair of wins in his seven games but sported a .923 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average.
The other goalie worth mentioning is a KHL transfer by the name of Ivan Nalimov. The IceHogs used Nalimov in a few games where he recorded a 2-2-0 record with a save percentage well under .900. With Morris still looking for more playing time, his name is one to watch over the next few seasons.
Truthfully, there are a list of names that are worth mentioning, but two of the most notable skaters include Andrei Altybarmakyan, D.J. Busdeker, and the aforementioned Barratt. Altybarmakyan and Busdeker each logged five goals and seven helpers throughout the season.
Altybarmakyan showed a nose for the net and the ability to dip his shoulder and skate around defenders. His quickness is likely going to be an asset as his game continues to grow.
Busdeker showed a disciplined game, totaling just nine penalty minutes. The Michigan native's high praise from his former affiliates speaks to his potential. A winger with a high hockey IQ is going to have time to develop his game and build on those five markers.
As for Barratt, he brings a well-balanced game to the table and has the flexibility to man multiple roles. The Pennsylvania native even didn't hesitate to drop the gloves, something the IceHogs didn't do much of this season.
The Big Picture
While it may be tough to let go of the 2010s, Blackhawks fans should open their arms to the new era of Chicago hockey. Rockford was one of the youngest teams in the AHL and had over 15 players make their North American or Pro debuts in 2021. Growing pains and developmental years are in the near future, but if everything goes the way the aforementioned players hope, there are going to be numerous exciting young stars skating on the United Center ice in the coming years.
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