ROCKFORD — The Rockford IceHogs fell 3-1 to Chicago in the season finale on Saturday, bringing to a close the shortest — and most unusual — season in the organization’s history.
With COVID-19 restrictions in place throughout the league, the Hogs battled on the ice and off it in an effort to accomplish what everyone in the organization said was its No. 1 goal.
“You always have your goals, but this was a different one,” Rockford head coach Derek King said when it was all over. “This year for us it was all about improving. … The goal for us was to make sure these kids were improving. I think we accomplished that.”
The season lasted only 32 games due to the pandemic, and there was no postseason of any kind. They were not allowed to play in front of Rockford fans until the final three home games of the season, and the constant COVID-19 testing and protocols took a toll.
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What made it even more difficult for Rockford is the team played 21 rookies over the course of the year, and as many as 17 in one game, both the most ever for the Hogs.
“I’ve never been on a team with that many young prospects before,” said captain Garrett Mitchell, who had three goals and two assists in 29 games. “But, I tell you, the guys did a great job. With everything they had to deal with, I’m proud of them all.”
Rockford (12-19-1-0) struggled to find a rhythm much of the way, finishing below .500 (8-9) at home, and never winning more than two games in a row. But they also lost 16 games by just one goal, and in another four contests only empty-netters kept it from being a one-goal loss.
It was one big learning experience, and we may not find out the results until next year and beyond.
Rocky season, but some ups
The Hogs lost their first six games of the season and were never above .500 all year.
But they then won 11 of 18 during a midseason stretch, and then four of six during a late-season push to finish with 12 wins. That still had them at the bottom of the six-team AHL Central Division standings with 25 points, tied for the fourth fewest in the league, but with no playoffs to shoot for, it didn’t really matter.
The wins weren’t the priority in the AHL this year. There was a different key word being thrown around.
“The culture was one of learning,” Hogs general manager Mark Bernard said. “Mistakes are going to happen, and you just have to improve on that. Everyone improved. Everyone got better.”
Earlier this month Alec Regula became the 130th Hogs alumni to make his NHL debut and the 96th Hogs player to go from Rockford to the Chicago Blackhawks, and the seventh this season alone.
And while fans were stuck watching and listening to broadcasts most of the year, the BMO Harris Bank Center and the Hogs opened the last three games up to a select number of season ticket holders, setting the stage for a return to normal in the 2021-22 campaign.
Busy offseason begins
The Hogs have 18 unrestricted free agents, but they also have 19 players signed to entry-level or AHL contracts and eligible to suit up for Rockford next year.
The list of UFA’s includes the team’s scoring leader Dylan McLaughlin, its No. 1 goalie Matt Tomkins and all of the veteran leaders, topped by defenseman Cody Franson and winger Garrett Mitchell. The list of those who will most likely return includes forwards Evan Barratt and Reese Johnson and defensemen Regula and Isaak Phillips.
“We’re going to have a lot of these kids back next year,” Bernard said. “We kind of hit our rhythm, and then the season was over. I can’t wait until next year and we hopefully hit the ground running.”
AHL makes it official: No playoff hockey for Rockford IceHogs this year
Coaching staff retained
Head coach Derek King and his entire coaching staff were offered three-year extensions and are all expected back for next season in their same roles. King will return for his fourth year, but it will be just his second full AHL season.
“We have to look at the big picture and what they do overall with the players here,” Bernard said. “Derek and (his staff) have done such a phenomenal job of picking up where Jeremy (Coliton) left off when he was called to the Blackhawks a few years back.”
Team awards begin
Each day this week, the Hogs will announce one of their major team awards, and it started Monday with word that Dylan McLaughlin was named the Most Improved Player. McLaughlin led the Hogs in goals scored with eight, tied with Chris Wilkie, and led the team in points scored (22).
On Tuesday, defenseman Dmitry Osipov was named Heavy Hitter of the year, after applying 46 hits in 22 games played. On Wednesday, the Unsung Hero Award will be announced, followed by the Rookie of the Year Award on Thursday, the Best Defenseman of the Year Award on Friday, and the IceHogs MVP on Saturday.
Jay Taft: firstname.lastname@example.org; @JayTaft