The Rockford IceHogs kicked off the 2021-22 American Hockey League (AHL) season last weekend with mixed results. They played much better Friday night at the Grand Rapids Griffins than the 6-1 loss might suggest. They earned a huge 5-3 road win at the Chicago Wolves the following night despite being outshot 43-22.
Head coach Derek King had one of the youngest teams in the entire league last season by dressing 17 first-year players. Many of those players are back for their second professional season, including forward Josiah Slavin and defenseman Isaak Phillips. However, they have some veteran help along the way with the likes of Brett Connolly and Ryan Stanton.
Slavin’s Hard Work Paying Off Early
There wasn’t much fanfare when the Chicago Blackhawks selected Slavin in the seventh round (193rd overall) of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. But there is a tradition of work ethic and hockey smarts that run in the Slavin family. Josiah’s older brother Jaccob is a defenseman for the Carolina Hurricanes. His sister Jordan played at the University of North Dakota and represented the United States on the international stage.
Slavin signed his entry-level contract with the Blackhawks after his sophomore season at Colorado College concluded. He scored three goals and seven points in his first 15 games of professional hockey last season. He worked hard to come into training camp, ready to take the next step in his career.
“I got a lot of training in during the offseason since we didn’t have playoffs,” said Slavin. “It was a long summer, which was nice, to build that muscle up; to get bigger, faster, and stronger going into a new season.”
The work has paid off, as King had a rave review for the 22-year-old winger after his first two games of the season.
“He’s been one of the best players on the ice in those two games,” King said during the most recent media day in Rockford. “He’s been pretty consistent. His first two strides have gotten better. He worked hard over the summer. He looks like he’s stronger and put a little muscle on. He’s playing with some confidence and doing all the little things we ask him to do. It’s showing up on the ice. He had a good training camp, and he’s brought that into the games.”
Slavin quickly agreed with his coach’s assessment and revealed what led to the improvements over the offseason.
“With the long summer, there was a lot of work in the training room and putting in the effort in the weight room,” he said. “Gaining my explosiveness and getting stronger. That has helped with my first couple of strides. I started skating a lot towards the end of summer. I think training camp with the Hawks helped too. Being up with those guys and seeing how fast the game’s played and how fast you need to be.”
Slavin had the lone IceHogs goal in their season-opening loss at the Griffins. He followed that up by picking up the primary assist on Lukas Reichel’s first professional goal during the victory in Chicago.
“I don’t know if my style is points, per se, but it was good to get back out there and playing again,” he said of his performance. “The points were definitely a bonus, but my style of game is to get in on the forecheck. I can do structural things right.”
If Slavin’s progression keeps trending as it has over the past 12 months, the Blackhawks may have found a real diamond in the rough with the seventh-round pick.
Phillips Continues to Impress While Learning
The 2020-21 season was a whirlwind for Phillips, to say the least. First, he was drafted by the Blackhawks in the fifth round (141st overall) of the 2020 NHL Draft. The original plan was to return to the Sudbury Wolves in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). However, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, and the OHL never took to the ice last season. Instead, he was allowed to play with the IceHogs, scoring two goals and nine points in his first 27 AHL games. He played so well that he was signed to an entry-level contract by the Blackhawks in March.
“Last year, I kind of felt it out the whole year,” Phillips said of the experience. “I was trying to be a sponge and absorb as much as I could. Now, I am really excited about this year. I think we have a great group. I’m coming in to be a top performer down here and, hopefully, make my debut up top and show them I can be an NHL defenseman. That’s my goal every day; impress them down here and get a shot up top.”
Phillips spent some time in training camp with the Blackhawks and even dressed for a pair of preseason games before returning to Rockford. He started his AHL season off strong with an assist and a plus-2 rating, even with the IceHogs surrendering nine goals over the weekend.
“I’ve developed much better in the last six or seven months, he said. “I’m just trying to carry that momentum on. Even playing in those first couple of exhibition games with the Blackhawks helped me. Going into these first AHL games, I feel confident with the puck and strong going into the corners.
“The biggest thing for me is to be strong in the defensive end. I want them to know they can trust me in any situation. They can put me out there with a minute left if we have a one-goal lead. That’s my game this year; be hard in the defensive end and chip in on offense once I take care of my own end.”
Phillips is well on his way to joining Slavin as late-round steals for the Blackhawks.
Connolly & Stanton Helping the Next Wave
One of the best aspects of the AHL is seeing veterans and young players come together during the course of the season. Teams add experienced players to bolster their chances of winning and help the prospects learn what it means to be a pro. The IceHogs have a handful of these players on their roster, including Connolly and Stanton.
“With Conns, it’s verbal, and being around these young guys is going to help with the way he conducts himself,” King said of having the veteran forward in his locker room. “He’s a pro, for sure, with the way he conducts himself on the ice. He’s full-on. He’s not once taken his foot off the gas pedal. He works hard at every practice and when he is off the ice training. He’s great to have. You love having a guy like that because he’s such an asset to our young guys.”
Connolly was acquired by the Blackhawks at last season’s trade deadline from the Florida Panthers. He could not make the team out of training camp and was sent down to Rockford after clearing waivers. He brings 527 games of NHL experience with him and hasn’t let the demotion affect his game. He came up with a huge goal against the Wolves and has influenced players like Slavin.
“It’s awesome,” Slavin said about playing with Connolly. “He’s been around, so you can pick his brain about the things he’s been through. Just to have the veteran experience showing us the way is awesome.”
Phillips has had the luxury of playing with two long-time pros since arriving in Rockford. Last season it was Cody Franson, and this season he gets to have Stanton as a mentor.
“They’re both great guys in the locker room,” Phillips said of getting to play with the two leaders. “They’ve been around and know what it takes to be at that level. I try to ask him (Stanton) a question every day. If I’m thinking of a play, like a 2-on-2, I’ll get his opinion on it. We’ll bounce ideas off of each other on the bench. During a game, our D core likes to talk about what we see out there and how we can help each other. Having a guy like that is huge on the team.”
Young players all need a multitude of guidance along the way. The best examples are usually set by the older players who have been through the rigors before, instead of the coaching staff. Connolly and Stanton have embraced this role, and the Blackhawks are hoping to reap the benefits from it.
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.