Ice Hogs

High On The Hog: Sifting Through The Ashes

The 2016-17 Rockford IceHogs were not built for success. It should come as no surprise that the team went through the worst season in its ten-year AHL history.

There is much optimism for the team that will work the BMO Harris Bank Center ice come October. Let’s face it; after the recently-completed campaign there is no option but to look to the future for hope.

(Speaking of which, take a gander at that little girl’s face as she holds hands with Michael Latta for the anthem in Rockford’s season finale. I defy you to tell me her skates touched the ice as she made her way off the rink.)

I included this to give you a warm, positive feeling heading into this post. Feel better about the last couple of days? O.K., then. Let’s get to the Hogs season wrap-up.

No Rockford team, including the last nine AHL years and eight previous seasons in the UHL, has won fewer games than the 25 the Hogs won in 2016-17. Their .408 points percentage is by far the lowest since Rockford became a Blackhawks affiliate.

Last Saturday, after the IceHogs had dropped their 22nd home game of the season, the team claimed in their post-game video that Rockford had a winning home record for the tenth-straight year. I appreciate the need to place things in a positive light, but that just isn’t the case.

The Hogs had a .513 points percentage. However, they lost 22 games at the BMO; 15 in regulation, five in Gus Macker Time and two shootouts. Rockford was 16-22 at home, a .421 winning percentage.

Using this standard, the IceHogs also had losing seasons at home in 2010-11 (19-21, .475) 2011-12 (18-20, .474). Still, this is the worst Rockford has been in its own barn.

Away from the BMO, the Hogs were abysmal. No amount of spin-doctoring can remove the stink of the road.

Scoring only 1.92 goals a contest, Rockford staggered to a 9-24-4-1 mark. That is a .237 win percentage and a .303 points percentage. The IceHogs were the AHL worst out of their home digs this past season. The road wins (9) and road losses (29) are also franchise nadirs.

Three of those nine road wins came during what would prove to be the high-water mark of the season. Rockford won in Milwaukee February 10, then came home and won four straight. The season-high five-game win streak was broken February 18, but the Hogs went to Manitoba and swept the Moose in a two-game set.

At that point, Rockford had won seven of eight and was approaching some measure of respectability. Then the IceHogs went out to California and lost to San Diego and Ontario. Rockford returned home and the bottom completely dropped out.

In the space of two days, the Blackhawks sent the Hogs top three point scorers-Abbott, Carrick (who had done a lot of the heavy lifting during the Hogs surge), and Mark McNeill-to other teams via trades. From the time of the McNeill trade shortly before Rockford’s game with Manitoba on February 28, the team went 4-13-1 the rest of the way.

The severely undermanned Hogs put on a brave face and chose not to lay down in the bulk of those games. Despite the influx of some prospects on amateur tryouts and the refusal of the team to pack it in, the last 18 games yielded a .222 win percentage to go with a .250 points percentage.

For the season, the Hogs won four straight after dropping their first two games in Cleveland to begin the season on a positive tip. They won three straight just before Christmas and had the aforementioned five-game win streak in February.

That was about it; Rockford won consecutive games on four other occasions. On the other hand, the IceHogs had losing streaks of nine, eight, seven, six, and four (three times) games over the course of the season. With the exception of two weeks in February, there wasn’t much for Hogs fans to be excited about.

How did this happen? Let me offer the following thoughts.

 

Whom Do We Sue?

If you’re the type that has to assign blame for a disastrous season in Rockford, let’s spare a few parties. This was not coach Ted Dent’s fault; Dent’s role is to develop young players and those were in short supply. The players assembled on the roster played to form for the most part. I credit Dent, along with the team leaders, for the IceHogs playing hard despite the long odds facing them on a nightly basis.

There were some underachievers that I’ll point out next week when I take a closer look at the players on this season’s roster.  Just know that this team was flawed in some key areas, and for that the blame must be squarely focused on Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman.

Again, let’s not light any torches.  Bowman’s job is to win at the NHL level. The IceHogs are not run in a way that will make them perennial AHL championship contenders. Rockford feeds prospects to the parent club. The only fair criticism that can be made in terms of Bowman’s handling of the Hogs was that the cupboard was bare in terms of young players for Dent to develop.

This wasn’t a mystery going into the start of this season. This comes from my 2016-17 preview:

As of my writing this preview, I see just a few legit Hawks prospects on that list. (Luke) Johnson and (Tanner) Kero fit into that category. (Kyle) Baun has a lot to prove in order to retain the prospect tag to me, but if he’s on this list (Sam) Carrick deserves to be, too. The rest of the two-way guys are AHL depth signings.

Kero played just 28 games in Rockford, spending most of the season with Chicago along with players like Ryan Hartman, Tyler Motte, and Vinnie Hinostroza. Most of the Blackhawks top prospects were pressed into service at the NHL level. Again, that’s the goal. However, very few replacements for those departed players were signed. The ones that were-Alexandre Fortin and Graham Knott-wound up back in juniors.

 

Offense

The seeds for a low-output offensive team were there at the start of the season. Again, from my preview:

Heading into the season, there is a lot to consider. Depending on what players make the club in Chicago, there could be a real dependence on veteran scoring this season. Like the parent club, the IceHogs look to be very solid on the defensive side and in net. Most of my question marks lie in who’s going to be around to put the puck in the opposing goal.

By the end of the season, there was practically no one.

The Hogs had Spencer Abbott as their only real veteran scoring threat. At the time of his February trade, Abbott was leading the Hogs in goals (15) and points (35). In fact, those numbers would still have topped the roster in both categories despite his playing elsewhere for the last six weeks.

Rockford headed into action on opening night with one real scoring type, a lot of role players who needed scorers to clean up after, little in the way of prospects at forward and a lack of team speed at the position. Sound promising? The Hogs battled to overcome the hand they were dealt but wound up with predictably lackluster results.

Rockford was dead last in the AHL with 175 goals scored. The goal output of 2.30 per contest was the worst in team history (including the UHL days) by a wide margin. The IceHogs power play operated at a 14.3 success rate, second worst in the league to Charlotte (who made it up to their fans by making the playoffs).

Fourth in the league in shots, Rockford was unable to get the puck into high-percentage scoring areas. This was a team that had to rely on dirty goals every night. The pickings were slim; not being able to create goals in transition or by efficient passing was on constant display.

 

Defense

If you’re looking for positives here, move along. Rockford was near the bottom of the league in this category as well. However…

Here’s where I have to apologize; the last few weeks, I have been reporting inaccurately on the number of goals that Rockford has given up this season. Somehow, I plucked out a number and ran with it. I was ready to pronounce a franchise-record regarding goals allowed until I went to confirm that final total and saw my gaffe.

Rockford did not set a team mark in defensive ineptness. I offer the most sincere mea culpa to all you friendly folks who tune in here each week as well as my twitter handle.

That said, they still weren’t that good.

The Hogs surrendered (checking again) 246 goals for the season, an average of 3.24 a game. That was 26th in the 30-team AHL. With most of the organization’s defensive prospects coming back, I figured that this would be a strength of this team. The problem was that the back end was set up to push the tempo and create pressure in the offensive zone, and the forward core was not set up to make that happen.

As a result, the IceHogs blue line found themselves perpetually on its heels, facing the rushes of opponents. They did not respond well to the change of style. Rockford defenders were often prone to turnovers in the vicinity of their own net.

More speed and skill up front could quickly turn this unit around. A couple of defensive-minded players would make a difference as well.

 

Goalie

This is an area in which I have written at length several times this season, so don’t expect me to belch out another 3000-words on the topic. I will say that being the last line of defense on a team that gave up so many point-blank chances and odd-man rushes was not a position to relish.

Lars Johansson had a decent debut season in the AHL, all things considered. Jeff Glass was a pleasant surprise, playing solid in net for his 20-game stretch. Mac Carruth did not enjoy the same success he had the previous spring and didn’t get a lot of steady work in the last few months.

Depending on how the chips fall in expansion and free agency, I would expect Johansson (who will be a RFA this summer), Glass (signed through next season), or both to be back in Rockford. Carruth (a UFA) likely moves on.

 

Comportment

Rockford set another franchise mark this season; fewest penalty minutes. The Hogs were tabbed for 973 minutes, far less that last year’s 1292 and way fewer that the previous franchise low of 1159 set in 2013-14. This is an all-time mark for Rockford, UHL or AHL incarnation.

The IceHogs were sent to the box on minor infractions 299 times. That was the second-fewest in the league to Bakersfield’s 273 (dispensed in eight fewer games). The penalty kill unit gave up 49 goals, tied for eighth fewest in the league.

Rockford was in the middle of the pack with a 81.1 kill rate, but they were much better in this area after a very rough start. Trust me, keeping teams from converting man advantages was the least of the Hogs worries this season.

Despite being eighth in the AHL in fighting majors assessed, Rockford earned just 39 in 2016-17. This is by far a franchise low. This could be expected in that all fights coming out of faceoffs would result in game-misconducts, and all fights from the tenth on would be subject to suspension. Here’s my early season hypothosis:

As a result of these rule changes, I would expect to see more players on each team drop the gloves, as it will be hard to keep one designated scrapper on the ice. It surely will be something to keep an eye on early in the season.

How’d I do? Well, here’s how things turned out…

Fights were down 28 percent around the league from a year ago. That percentage went down 34 percent in Rockford. In all, 391 players were given at least one fighting major over the course of the campaign. That was down from 418 the year before, which confused me a bit until I realized that fewer fights meant fewer players scrapping.

My theory that the top pugilists would be less active was correct, though I was still surprised how striking the numbers were in this area. In the 2015-16 season, 22 players had ten or more fighting majors. Mike Liambas led the league with 20.

How many players topped the ten-fight plateau this season? Two. Ross Johnston of Bridgeport led the league with eleven. Rockford’s Michael Latta earned his tenth in Rockford’s finale last Saturday (yes, he will be suspended for the first game in the AHL season come fall).

There were nine players who got to nine fighting majors, including Liambas. No one wanted to face the vacation time required to match the work rate of previous seasons. Jake Dowell led Rockford with seven scraps (Latta earned seven of his FMs in Ontario), while Chris DeSousa and P.C. Labrie followed with six apiece.

 

Come And See The Show (Or Not)

One area that predictably took a hit in the wake of a losing season was the number of butts in the seats.

For the first time in the past five seasons, the IceHogs did not set a new attendance mark. After a record 5014 per night average in 2015-16, Rockford averaged 4328 to the 38 contests held at the BMO this past season.

Attendance was not this low since the 2011-12 campaign (4244). This year’s final tally is the sixth lowest in the ten-years Rockford has been an AHL franchise.

The front office in Rockford promoted IceHogs hockey as “a beautiful combination of violence strength violence, speed and intensity. There wasn’t much violence, thanks to the AHL’s fight restrictions. There wasn’t a lot of speed, or skill for that matter, at least until some of the youngsters showed up in the final weeks.

You know what I can’t fault? The effort. I really can’t. This team was dead in the water even before Bowman waved the white flag and gave up on the Hogs season at the end of February. I can’t say the same for the players based on what I saw down the stretch.

About those players…

I’ve rambled on far enough this week without launching into a player-by-player assessment of the IceHogs this past season. I’ll be returning, possibly as soon as next week, to take a microscope to the roster.

I promise that I might offer my two cents as to who may be around to open the 2017-18 campaign, who impressed me out of the ATOs the last few weeks, and any additional thoughts not squeezed out of my brain.

 

 

 

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