For the Rockford IceHogs, the 2016-17 season is now in the history books. It wasn’t memorable in terms of team success, but it’s over. For the moment, that’s the best thing I can say about the last eight months.
Rockford wrapped up its season at home in what was announced as a sellout BMO audience. Some folks who bought tickets to the finale opted to sit this one out, though there still was a hefty crowd of IceHogs fans who wanted to send off a team who kept on plugging away for the bulk of the 76-game schedule.
It wasn’t pretty at the end. Rockford suffered a pair of blowouts to conclude a frustrating season. Saturday’s game was a sad affair that saw the league’s second-worst offensive team, the Iowa Wild, put up a five-spot on the Hogs (guess who the AHL’s worst offensive club was?) in the first two periods.
With what amounted to 20 minutes of garbage time awaiting us, I commented to the folks in my section (the ones who got out of the BMO before a torrential rainstorm kept people from checking out at the second intermission) that if the final score was 5-1 and the one Rockford goal came from the stick of P.C. Labrie, a lot of the fans wouldn’t mind so very much.
Several minutes into the most final of final periods, Jake Dowell got to a loose puck and skated it out of his zone. As he crossed the blue line, he spotted a teammate skating behind the Wild defense. Dowell quickly slid the puck through neutral territory and onto the stick of…Labrie, who had gone all season without knowing the feeling of sending a biscuit into a basket.
The assembled throng poised on the brink of ecstasy as the big forward faced his destiny, as well as Iowa goalie Steve Michalek. A simple flip over Michalek’s blocker allowed the crowd to release a season’s worth of frustrations into one glorious outpouring of joy.
Rookie William Pelletier took a touch pass from Brandon Mashinter into the offensive zone and beat Michalek from the dot to make it 5-2 in favor of Iowa. One Michael Latta fight (for which I assume he’ll be suspended next season) later and the game came to an end and it was time to leave. So we did.
Before the game, the IceHogs presented their annual team awards. I spent a bit of time speculating on possible recipients; below is a comparison of how that hardware was distributed.
IceHogs Defenseman Of The Year
Team Pick-Eric Gustafsson (68 games, 5 G, 25 A, 30 P, minus-27)
My Pick-Carl Dahlstrom (70 games, 6 G, 5 A, 11 P, minus-12)
Why go with Dahlstrom as opposed to Gustafsson or Ville Pokka? To me, it’s simple; I went with the defensemen most likely to defend effectively.
I’m not knocking what Pokka and Gustafsson did on the offensive end, but one of the major problems of this IceHogs team this season was the lack of shut-down types on the blue line. Rockford’s back end is largely set up to push the puck into the offensive zone; the lack of speed up front prevented that from happening. With the defense on its heels most nights, it led to a record amount of pucks in the Hogs net.
Pokka and Gustafsson are much better players when they are moving forward and looking to get scoring plays started. They were also a combined minus-52 between them. This was the first season that Pokka wasn’t partnered with an offensive monster (T.J. Brennan) or a solid defender (Cameron Schilling) most of the way, and it exposed some defensive flaws.
Gustafsson led the Hogs in assists (25) but also had a team-worst minus-27 rating. He was prone to very inconsistent play in his own end and still has much to learn defensively.
Viktor Svedberg played in just 51 games this season, but was very respectable in this area. His positioning has really improved in his time with the IceHogs. However, Dahlstrom has been the team’s most steady defender over the entirety of the campaign, and that’s how I’m going to interpret this award.
IceHogs Rookie Of The Year
Team Pick-Luke Johnson (see below)
My Pick-Luke Johnson (73 games, 8 G, 9 A, 17 P, minus-24)
To me, this award came down to the two players who were with the IceHogs for the bulk of the season-Johnson and Robin Norell.
Both Tyler Motte (43 games) and Gustav Forsling (30 games) started the year with Chicago and played a good chunk of time for the Blackhawks. Johnson seldom got out of Rockford’s bottom six for most of the season and accounted for just three assists in his first 20 games with the Hogs.
Getting his first AHL goal December 20, Johnson played hard at both ends and has been one of the more steady presences in the lineup. Of late, he has been part of a pretty effective line with Brandon Mashinter and William Pelletier.
Johnson’s rookie season wasn’t the stuff of dreams. He did come in at an opportune time; with the dearth of prospects on the roster he was able to get lots of ice time. Next year, the minutes may be harder to earn, but Johnson at least has a head start on the young guns.
IceHogs Unsung Hero
Team Pick-Martin Lundberg (see below)
My Pick-Martin Lundberg (67 games, 9 G, 12 A, 21 P, plus-one)
Lundberg is the type of guy I would love to see back with a role in next season’s club. He spent the majority of 2016-17 as a penalty killer and defensive stopper. However, he has the skill to compliment a scoring line as well. Lundberg was Rockford’s handyman this season, capable of fitting in with whatever grouping Ted Dent saw fit for him on a given evening.
Fourth on the current Hogs in goals and the only positive rating among the regulars, Lundberg also inserted himself in a couple of scraps along the way. He was also tied for the team lead with two game-winning goals.
IceHogs Most Improved Player
Team Pick-Kyle Baun (74 games, 14 G, 20 A, 34 P, minus-14)
My Pick-Johnson, Baun, or Robin Norell
I ultimately penciled in Norell for this award, assuming that the team wouldn’t double up on anybody and had already slotted Johnson and Baun into other awards. However, it would be hard not to recognize Baun based on his rocky start with the Hogs in his rookie campaign.
Here’s the thing; I could probably make a case for Baun for Most Improved and MVP as well as where I placed him on my list. Of the Rockford players remaining in town by season’s end, Baun was one player who stood out.
I was hoping that the free-agent signing from Colgate would be healthy and able to sweep aside what was a pretty forgettable rookie season. I felt like he had a lot to prove in 2016-17. Mission accomplished; Baun earned my respect with his sophomore performance.
Baun (who was also presented with the team’s top scorer award) appeared in 74 games this season, second to only Pokka, who again was the only Hogs player to play in every game. He made an impact at both ends of the ice, earning time on both special teams after rarely drawing such duties last season.
It’s hard to say where Baun slots into the organization’s plans moving forward. Baun is a heady player who earns his living around the net from an offensive standpoint. He should at least be in the mix to make the roster in Chicago.
IceHogs Heavy Hitter
Team Pick-Chris DeSousa (36 games, 4 G, 1 A, 5 P, minus-eight)
My Pick-Kyle Baun (74 games, 14 G, 20 A, 34 P, minus-12)
This is where I placed Baun; he dealt some of the biggest impacts of the season. He also laid into guys on a pretty consistent basis. Most importantly, his physical style paid off in the form of points throughout the season.
DeSousa? Well, he attempted to play the same up-tempo, forechecking style that served him well last season. The trouble is that it wasn’t nearly as effective when he wasn’t skating with Mike Liambas, who spent this season in Milwaukee.
He also didn’t get anywhere close to the ice time in which to make things happen. DeSousa missed the first couple of weeks with an injury and just never seemed to get a steady foothold in the lineup. With the AHL’s new fighting rules putting the kibosh on designated scrappers (I’ll get to that next week), Hogs coach Ted Dent often used Evan Mosey on the fourth line in lieu of DeSousa.
This isn’t a knock on what DeSousa brought to the team (including six fighting majors) or on his effort this season. The feisty winger played hard when he was in the lineup. That just didn’t happen enough for him in Rockford.
IceHogs Most Valuable Player
Team Pick-Brandon Mashinter (see below)
My Pick-Brandon Mashinter (61 games, 15 G, 15 A, 30 P, minus-20)
In any other year, Mashinter would have secured his place in the order of things with another 15-goal, 30-point type of season for which he can be counted on in the AHL. He would be an excellent complimentary player who leads by example, cleans up around the net, and handles the occasional physical disagreement.
Mashinter did all of those things this season, as has been the case in parts of four seasons in Rockford while wearing an “A” on that big sweater of his. He hit the 15-goal/30 point plateau for the fifth time in seven full AHL seasons despite missing almost a month due to an injury. He dropped the gloves on four occasions. He posted a hat trick back on November 12 and had two other multi-goal efforts.
Two of those team-leading 15 goals were of the game-winning variety. In fact, in the 25 games won by the IceHogs, Mashinter united rubber and twine a dozen times, leading to eight Rockford victories.
I know that I’ve made this general statement about Mashinter more times that we’d all care to hear concerning his place in professional hockey. In a season where the IceHogs jettisoned it’s three top scorers with six weeks remaining, the guy that operates in that fifteen feet around the cage gets a little extra recognition. Even on a team as bad as Rockford.
Some, But Not All, Of The Recaps
Wednesday, April 12-Milwaukee 2, Rockford 1
Milwaukee’s first goal came midway through the first period when Vladislav Kamenev managed to thread the needle between Lars Johansson and the left post. At the 15:47 mark, Ads forward Yakov Trenin made an incredible spin move to reign in a Mike Liambas pass in front of the Hogs crease. Maneuvering as if defenseman Erik Gustafsson was nowhere to be seen, Trenin flipped a backhand shot into the upper right corner of the net to give Milwaukee a 2-0 advantage at the intermission.
Rockford settled down and played hard the rest of the game. As has been the case all too often this season, the Hogs just weren’t able to create enough offense to catch the Admirals.
Tyler Motte put back a rebound of a Kyle Baun attempt to draw Rockford to within a goal of the lead at 11:50 of the final period. That was as close as things got as the IceHogs were not up to the task of tying the contest.
Lines (Starters in italics)
Radovan Bondra-Jake Dowell (C)-Anthony Louis
Tyler Motte-Jeremy Langlois-Kyle Baun
Brandon Mashinter (A)-William Pelletier-Luke Johnson
Matheson Iacoppelli-Michael Latta (A)
Luc Snuggerud-Ville Pokka
Erik Gustafsson-Robin Press
Nolan Valleau-Carl Dahlstrom
Friday, April 14-Milwaukee 6, Rockford 2
The IceHogs saw their lineup shrink before the second shift of the evening. Rockford coach Ted Dent had listed Anthony Louis twice on his official lineup card. As a result, Michael Latta was not listed in the official Hogs lineup. Latta was sent from the ice, ending his night before it started.
Milwaukee took the lead on the power play 5:01 into the proceedings. The goal came when Frederick Gaudreau skated to the left dot and sent the puck to the back of the net over the shoulder of Hogs goalie Mac Carruth.
The Admirals advantage was doubled at the 14:41 mark, after Carruth sent away a shot from the right circle by Vladislav Kamenev. The rebound found the stick of Justin Kirkland, who drove home the goal before Carruth could slide back into position, giving Milwaukee a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission.
The IceHogs fell behind 3-0 just 2:17 into the middle frame when a centering feed by Sam Girard hit the skate of Hogs defenseman Nolan Valleau and into the net. Valleau would get Rockford on the board a few minutes later. Shooting from the outside hash marks on the left halfboards, Valleau banked the puck off the far post and into the cage to cut the lead to 3-1 5:01 into the period.
Some rapid puck movement resulted in a Matt White tally at the 9:32 mark made it a 4-1 Ads lead. However, Rockford answered just over a minute later. Luc Snuggerud, shooting from a similar spot that resulted in Valleau’s goal, picked up his first pro goal when the puck glanced off of a Milwaukee skater and past Admirals goalie Marek Mazanec.
Down 4-2, Rockford had a pair of power play opportunities to get back in the contest. The first came and went without a serious chance. The second resulted in a shorthanded goal by Milwaukee’s Adam Pardy 17:43 into the middle frame. The late score put the Hogs down 5-2 after 40 minutes.
The third period was uneventful for Rockford, with the Admirals getting an even half-dozen on a Trevor Smith goal at the 3:54 mark.
Lines (Starters in italics)-Michael Latta was omitted from the lineup card and did not play.
Tyler Motte-Jeremy Langlois-Kyle Baun
Matheson Iacopelli-William Pelletier-Anthony Louis
Brandon Mashinter (A)-Luke Johnson-Radovan Bondra
Pierre-Cedric Labrie (A)-Jake Dowell
Luc Snuggerud-Ville Pokka
Eirk Gustafsson-Carl Dahlstorm
Nolan Valleau-Robin Norell
Power Play (0-2, surrendered a shorthanded goal)
Penalty Kill (Milwaukee was 1-1)
Wrapping Things Up
Next post, I will try and reflect on the season that was in Rockford. There’s lots to cover, but I will try to touch all the bases.