The Chicago Blackhawks are set to kick off the NHL season Tuesday against the Washington Capitals, which means some Rockford hopefuls ended up back in the American Hockey League for the time-being. Forwards Jimmy Hayes, Joakim Nordstrom and Ben Smith along with defensemen Michael Kostka and Sheldon Brookbank made the cut to replace the off-season departures of Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik and Dan Carcillo. These skaters earned spots on one of the most well-rounded teams in the NHL right now and they deserve high praise.
Jimmy Hayes saw some NHL action with the Hawks over the past two seasons, scoring 13 points in 41 games. He has a major presence on the ice managed to register a goal and two assists in six preseason games over the past two weeks. His play through 77 games with Rockford last season placed him sixth on the team in scoring, surrounding himself on a list with the other top prospects for Chicago.
Ben Smith registered nearly a point-per-game, scoring 48 points through 55 contests and had the chance to develop into a contender for the Blackhawks. He has been fighting for several seasons and appearing in NHL regular season contests with Chicago but the coaching staff seemed to think he needed to mature just a little bit more. He’s certainly doing that by skating harder, smarter, cutting down on poor passes and keeping his head up more. Smith could crack the lineup if a core member needs replacement.
On defense, Michael Kostka broke into the scene quite fantastically for the coaching staff and earned himself a spot on a defensive squad filled with some of the NHL’s elite. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya returned to postseason form immediately in the preseason and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are – well – the blue line monsters we expect them to be. For Kostka to break onto that scene and take over the spot from Ryan Stanton and Adam Clendening really speaks to the 27-year-old’s level of play. His offensive approach meshes well with the high-speed defense Queneville thinks could benefit the team this season.
What about Brandon Pirri? Or Ryan Stanton? Not even Jeremy Morin?
Stanton was put on waivers Sunday and acquired by the Vancouver Canucks Monday afternoon. No Stanton.
Pirri and Morin were sent back to Rockford just hours after defeating the Washington Capitals in the final preseason game Saturday, but could see NHL action this season. They were among seven men fighting for five spots, and Quenneville elected to staff eight defensemen and leave only three spots available to forwards. With how well Smith, Hayes, and Nordstrom played there simply was not enough room for all the men to make the final cut. Neither Pirri or Morin seemed to impress the coaching staff enough to secure a spot from Nordstrom, despite Morin’s three points in three games this preseason.
Brandon Pirri led the Ice Hogs in points last season with 75, so the likely reasons for him not making the NHL cut could be thus: his style of play doesn’t match the need on the Blackhawks right now and his leadership will be good for a young Rockford squad. The 22-year-old Toronto native is excelling in nearly every area of the game and quickly rose to the top of the AHL last season. Him not making the Hawks’ roster right out of camp and preseason should not be alarming because he could see some time in the NHL this season if a spot opens up.
The Blackhawks kick off the NHL regular season Tuesday night against the Washington Capitals and Quenneville said the regulars who were questionable just days ago should be set to play. A last-minute emergency call-up from Rockford is unlikely, but more information will come Tuesday morning.
Rockford opens its AHL regular season against the San Antonio Rampage on Saturday, beginning the season with a five-game roadtrip before hosting Grand Rapids in Rockford on October 19. With the skill of the young prospects sticking around in the AHL, the Hogs could have a big season – despite missing the postseason by just two points after a strong push late last season. There are lots of young players with great skill in the mix between Rockford and Chicago so this season could be promising for Hawks fans.