New wave of prospects, new Rockford coach give Blackhawks depth charge

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — There’s a decent chance that Alex DeBrincat is going to be one of the 14 best forwards on the ice when the Blackhawks open training camp next Friday. But there’s very little chance that DeBrincat will be on the opening-day roster.

Because while the Hawks have many holes to fill in the wake of a tumultuous offseason, they won’t have much roster flexibility at first, thanks to all the bottom-six players on one-way contracts they hoarded. DeBrincat and Alexandre Fortin might have higher ceilings than some of the others in camp, but Tomas Jurco, Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels and Jordin Tootoo likely will make the team because they’d have to clear waivers in order to be sent to Rockford, while the first-year pros wouldn’t.

DeBrincat acknowledged earlier this summer that he’s almost certain to start the season in Rockford, but he’s not ruling anything out.

“I’m going to try to [force] them to make a roster spot for me,” he said after the Hawks’ 3-2 loss to the Rangers in the opener of the eight-team Traverse City prospects tournament.

Alexandre Fortin, who got a taste of the NHL in the preseason last season, could be one of Rockford's top players early in the season. (AP Photo)

He’ll get there eventually. DeBrincat is the headliner of a new wave of prospects flooding the Hawks system, which desperately needs the reboot. With Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tanner Kero and Gustav Forsling now established NHL players, the prospect pool was awfully shallow last season. Rockford coach Ted Dent was fired after the depleted IceHogs finished last in the Central Division, replaced by 32-year-old Jeremy Colliton, who spent the past four seasons coaching in Sweden.

Colliton is a young coach for a young team, as the Hawks rebuild their depth chart nearly from scratch. In fact, Colliton’s Rockford team likely will look a lot like the one he is coaching in Traverse City this weekend.

“Obviously it’s no secret we didn’t have a great year last year, and that was frustrating,” said 2013 fifth-rounder Luke Johnson, a center who will be one of the few familiar faces in Rockford. “It’s going to be nice to have new faces and a new team to build with.”

Colliton will be charged with not only helping players such as DeBrincat and Fortin make the tricky transition from junior hockey to pro hockey, but also to prepare them for future chances with the Hawks. One Hawks scout on Friday said the IceHogs had gotten too far away from the Hawks’ system of play. The AHL tends to be a dump-and-chase league, with lesser talent unable to play the kind of high-pressure, puck-control, creative style the Hawks prefer.

Johnson cautioned that it’s easier said than done, but Colliton — who has former Hawks defenseman Sheldon Brookbank on his staff — believes the IceHogs can authentically emulate the Hawks.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I think how [the Hawks] play is a great way to develop players — puck possession, and try to pressure, and have a little bit of instinct in your game. For a young player trying to show they can be an NHLer, if you can’t make plays in the American League, it’s going to be tough to survive in the NHL. . . . It sure helps when you get called up and the new system up top isn’t Greek. It’s tough to learn a whole new system in 12 hours. So we set those call-up guys for success by playing a similar style.”

DeBrincat, Fortin, David Kampf, Matheson Iacopelli, Matthew Highmore and others probably won’t be wearing Hawks sweaters on Oct. 5,
when the two-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins come to the United Center. But they very well might by Christmas, or by the trade deadline, or in time for the playoff push. Eventually, their time will come. It’s up to Colliton to make sure they’re ready when it does.

“It’s only been a few practices, but I like the way he coaches,” DeBrincat said. “It’s a good style. Obviously, he’s not going to be yelling out here, but he likes to talk to us on the bench and tell us what we’re doing wrong, so the next time, we can do it right. I definitely like him as a coach so far.”

Follow me on Twitter@MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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