Blackhawks report card, part 3: Rockford IceHogs RFAs/UFAs - who might make the NHL?
Having discussed the active Blackhawks roster over the past two days, now we look to the Rockford IceHogs - Chicago's AHL affiliate and the top of the Blackhawks depth chart, including a few collegiate, ECHL or other junior league players who might be ready to make the transition to the AHL, since that factors into NHL interests in the case of call-ups.
Currently, of the 26 or so players who had time in Rockford this season, 8 are RFAs and 4 are UFAs. For part 3 of the seasonal report card, we'll look at the UFAs and RFAs, and then finish up part 4 by discussing those who will still be under contract through at least the 2011-12 season.
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Hannu Toivonen, goalie - Hannu Toivonen is a journeyman goalie who has never quite managed to stick with the NHL. He once competed with Tim Thomas for the starting goaltender position for the Bruins, but spent more time with the Bruins AHL affiliate in Providence. He also put in time with the St Louis Blues and their affiliate, as well as a Finnish league. This year he tied the IceHogs record with three shutouts, but with only 21 wins in 49 games played, a .907 sv% and a 2.90 GAA, it should not be expected to see Chicago look to re-sign Toivonen, especially with some talented goalies like Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth in the pipeline. (See also Alec Richards under RFAs)
Rockford has a very good goalie coach who has helped shape Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford into excellent NHL goaltenders. The importance of solid goaltending cannot be understated: if the skaters feel that they can depend on the man in the pipes, then it helps give them confidence as a team, and it helps the team as a whole. Rockford missed the playoffs this year, and at times, the goaltending was holier than a sieve on a team full of young talent. Although Rockford finished the season on a winning streak, it didn't make up for the rest of the year. It wouldn't be surprising to see full goaltender turnover in the fall.
Jeff Taffe, left wing - Jeff Taffe was the most productive member of the IceHogs this season by a 15-point margin, tallying 30 G and 37 assists, and +10, in 74 games with just 22 PIM. Taffe is another journeyman who has alternated his time between the AHL and NHL, seeing NHL ice time with the Rangers, Coytoes, Penguins and Panthers before Chicago. He saw a game or two with the Blackhawks and was called up as a Black Ace. If Chicago re-signs him, it would be most likely to continue his veteran presence rather than spending time in the NHL.
Garnet Exelby, defense - Garnet Exelby served as Rockford's captain this year. Exelby's veteran experience (seven seasons in the NHL, primarily with the Thrashers) was helpful in Rockford; he is known for his physical style of play. His stats for the year included 10 G, 13 assists, +7, with 128 PIM. Whether he will be brought back to continue to help Rockford remains to be seen.
Jassen Cullimore, defense - At 38 and another journeyman (sensing a trend here?), Cullimore was one of the oldest players in the NHL this year. He played half the season with the Blackhawks before being sent down to Rockford to finish out the season. Cullimore was solid enough to not be a huge liability on the NHL side, but ultimately, there were better in Chicago's system. Would not expect him to return; there are several defensemen in the Blackhawks pipeline that need to log a lot of minutes in Rockford next season for refinement.
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Alexander Salák, goalie - Salák came from the Florida Panthers in the same pre-deadline trade that sent Jack Skille to the Panthers and brough Michael Frolik to Chicago. A big, physical, exciting goalie, the Czech goalie actually initially generated more excitement than the Czech forward in the trade. Salák played this season with Färjestad BK of the Swedish Elite League, posting a .926 sv% and a 1.97 GAA in 32 games. His current EL contract is for $1.3M, which, assuming Chicago resigns him for around the same price, is too high to let him languish in Rockford. Expect him either to be re-signed and be the most likely prospect to back up Corey Crawford next season -- or perhaps used as part of a trade.
Alec Richards, goalie - Alec Richards had 17 wins in 44 games, with an unimpressive .899 sv% and 2.89 GAA plus 2 shutouts. Amazingly, as grim as those statistics look, they were records for Rockford rookie goalies. Rockford had a rough year overall - there's potential in Richards, although on the professional level he hasn't lived up to the promise shown in college (Yale), so he may or may not be re-signed for another season on the IceHogs next year.
Brian Connelly, defense - Brian Connelly was named Rockford's top defenseman for the 2010-11 season. He was 6th among all AHL defensemen with 52 points (11 G, 41 A, including 4 GWG, +3) - and his points total also put him second on the team for scoring. As defensemen go, Connelly is on the small size (5'11"; 185 lbs), but he clearly fits the Blackhawks "puckmoving defenseman" mold. He set defensemen records for the IceHogs and was the only skater who appeared in all 80 season games. He was also named to the Western Conference All-Star team. The Blackhawks need physicality on the blue line, but his offensive ability is hard to ignore. Whether to use in a trade or to give him another year in Rockford - or even potentially to make the leap to the 3rd line in Chicago - it would be surprising if Chicago didn't re-sign him.
Ivan Vishnevskiy, defense - Part of the blockbuster trade that sent 3 Blackhawks players to the Atlanta Thrashers, Ivan Vishnevskiy was hailed as a top-end defensive prospect, but ended up playing only 46 games this year, finishing with 5 G, 10 A, 0+/-. He sat out a sizeable amount of the year with injury. Served as a mentor to fellow Russian prospect Igor Makarov; but whether or not Chicago sees enough value in his play to want to re-sign him is TBD.
Evan Brophey, center - Evan Brophey has spent a lot of time in Rockford. This year's record included a late-season 7-game suspension, 10 G, 9 A, and 65 PIM in 67 games. Brophey was a third-round draft pick in 2005, but as his EL contract expires, so far hasn't shown the form that he's ready to make the leap to the NHL.
Rob Klinkhammer, right wing - Rob Klinkhammer has spent four years in the AHL between the Norfolk Admirals and the Rockford IceHogs. He has had steady if unspectacular production in the AHL for his first three seasons; this year he made the leap forward with 17 G, 29 A, +14, over 76 games. Klinkhammer had his NHL debut on December 8th. A fan favorite in Rockford, combined with his improved production, would make it worth re-signing him, either in Rockford or as a trade piece, but the Blackhawks are extraordinarily deep at right wing - it would be challenging to break into the Chicago team at that position.
Mathis Olimb, center - Mathis Olimb, a member of team Norway in the 2010 Olympics, was signed to the Blackhawks on a 1-year contract. Kyle Beach fought him on the ice during prospect camp; Olimb ended up getting his shoulder injured when he hit the ice, and missed the beginning of the season due to that. He posted 60 games with 10 G, 22 A, +8, with just 22 PIM. Olimb is incredibly fast with good hands - between his size and his skills, he's reminiscent of Marty St. Louis. Following this past season, he signed a two-year contract with Frölunda HC, and has been playing for Norway at the World Championships. Although he will not return to the Blackhawks, he will be worth keeping an eye on as he continues to develop.
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Part 4 will wrap up the season report card by reviewing those Rockford players/Blackhawks prospects who are signed through at least the 2011-12 season.