IceHogs are still learning how to stay consistent
Coaching in the American Hockey League is a little bit like parenting a teenager.
Just as a mom or dad knows what's best for the long-term success of their kids, the coach knows what is expected out of 82-game, everyday NHL players.
Of course the players can often act like teenagers -- eager to do things their way, playing at a hectic pace and not thinking about the consequences of their actions.
In Rockford, where Jeremy Colliton is guiding the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate, the 32-year-old first-year head coach is excited about the potential of Matthew Highmore, Tomas Jurco, Alexandre Fortin, Anthony Louis, Tanner Kero, defenseman Erik Gustafsson and many others.
There are times when it's poetry in motion and the IceHogs are dominating the ice. Other times -- like Saturday at Allstate Arena during a 6-2 loss to the Chicago Wolves -- it's a painful reminder this is still a young team finding its way.
"I really like the group," Colliton said. "There's so much more to get out of it, though. That's what's exciting. We still make it a little tougher on ourselves than it has to be."
Saturday was the perfect example as:
• Rockford took two penalties in the first 7½ minutes.
• Kero committed an offensive zone turnover during a power play, which led to a glorious short-handed chance for the Wolves.
• Gustafsson took an offensive-zone penalty 35 seconds into a Rockford power play.
• Fortin -- moving at about 100 miles an hour -- lost an edge, fell and turned the puck over in the third period, leading to the Wolves' fourth goal. Less than a minute later, the Wolves scored again to make it 5-2 and that was that.
"As a young player, the biggest thing that you have to learn is every part of the game is important," Colliton said. "It's not just when the puck is on your stick. We can be better with how we defend, being ready to defend.
"The other part is when it is on your stick, the decisions you make don't just affect the next five seconds. Sometimes that one decision affects the next five minutes.
"It's a learning process for us. The quicker we get that, the easier it will be for our team to have success."
The IceHogs have enjoyed plenty of success, going 18-13-1-1 and sitting in second place in the Central Division. They keep plugging along despite Vinnie Hinostroza and David Kampf getting called up to the Hawks, dealing with an injury to Gustafsson and adding the disappointed Kero, who was sent down three weeks ago.
Some fans may have been surprised with Kampf's promotion, but Colliton said the 22-year-old Czech native deserved the call up.
"He is just so strong and battles and has a very heavy stick," Colliton said. "He comes out of those small situations with the puck over and over again. Very calm with the puck on his blade. Advances it safely.
"Good things happen around him. It's nice to play with a guy like that."
As for some of the others?
• The 21-year-old Highmore, who signed a three-year deal in March, leads the team with 14 goals and has two hat tricks. He was extremely impressive at Blackhawks training camp and appears to have a bright future.
• Fortin, the 20-year-old star of camp last season, constantly showcases his high-end speed but is still figuring out how to finish. He has 3 goals in 30 games. Fortin said he has learned "so much" in his first year as a pro. "He's excellent for puck-possession for a line because he wins those races to the corner," Colliton said. "He's learning how to create offense at this level. What worked in juniors doesn't work here. Hopefully as the year goes on we'll get more and more production out of him."
• Colliton loves Tyler Sikura's hockey IQ. The older brother of Dylan Sikura, Tyler has 6 goals in 31 games.
• Gustafsson, who missed six weeks with a shoulder injury, continues to earn high praise. Colliton believes the dynamic, offensive-minded Swede will be an everyday NHL player once he learns more discipline in his own zone.
• The speedy, undersized Louis (5 goals) and 6-foot-3, 229-pound Andreas Martinsen (6 goals) are two others to keep an eye on. The 5-7, 151-pound Louis is a Winfield native. Martinsen played in 64 games last season for the Avs and Canadiens.
• Then, of course, there's Jurco and Kero, both of whom saw time in the NHL last season. Jurco has 10 goals, while Kero has a goal and an assist in nine games since his assignment to the IceHogs. "The last few games he's started to adjust to being here again," Colliton said of Kero. "He wants to be someone who can produce here. But sometimes it doesn't just happen; it takes a little bit of time."
Rockford will try to end a two-game losing streak when it hosts Cleveland Tuesday. Fans can see the IceHogs play the Wolves in Chicago four more times -- Feb. 3, March 11 and 17 and April 14.