Michael Latta finding his niche and game again in Rockford

Michael Latta finding his niche and game again in Rockford

ROCKFORD – When the Rockford IceHogs traded for Michael Latta in January, Twitter mentions went a little crazy for what was a minor-league deal. Latta earned some social-media darling status a few seasons ago with the Washington Capitals on "Road to the Winter Classic," when he and then teammate/roommate never had anything but ketchup in their fridge.

Good news is, when he was traded here for defenseman Cameron Schilling, Latta's lack of food wasn't an issue.

"Yeah, I took Schilling's place so he left me a bunch," Latta said with a laugh. "So thank God."

All kidding and Costco levels of condiments aside, Latta is in a good place these days. Coming from the Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings affiliate), where things didn't go so well, Latta is now playing a lot of minutes, getting a lot of responsibility and recording a lot of assists. Coming off a three-point game on Saturday, Latta now has seven assists since making his Rockford debut on Jan. 25.

The change of scenery was a welcome one for the 25-year-old, who's been playing with Tyler Motte and Mark McNeill.

"It's been great," Latta said following the IceHogs' practice on Tuesday. "They've given me a lot of chances, a lot of opportunities. And this last weekend I started feeling really comfortable. I get along with the guys and [I'm learning] the system so it's been good. It's going well so far."

The IceHogs were happy to take Latta; Rockford coach Ted Dent said Latta was a thorn in the IceHogs' side when he played with the Milwaukee Admirals from 2010-13.

"He's the type of guy you hate to play against but you love to have him on your team. We lived through the not having him on our team for two years and he was very effective against us, scrappy and in your face and he shows up to play. All coaches respect that and want guys like that on your team," Dent said. "He has a little skill as well that some people may not know about, but if you give him an opportunity he's definitely showing he can play with some high-end players as well."

Latta started the season at the Los Angeles Kings' training camp but was assigned to the Reign in early October. Not much was happening there, so Latta was thrilled at the trade.

Sometimes players go and you think it's going to be a good fit but it doesn't work out," he said. "But I'm happy here, I think I'm a good fit here and I hope they think so, too."

Naturally, Latta would love an opportunity with the Blackhawks. He knows there's plenty of competition for whatever chance there would be but he keeps it in the back of his mind.

"They don't know me very well so it'd be nice to go up there and get a shot," he said. "Just get a chance to show the and see what they think."

If or when that happens, who knows. Right now, however, Latta is happy to get more playing time and more of a chance to get his game back.

"I know he wasn't playing a lot in Ontario, it wasn't going well," Dent said. "He wanted an opportunity. The fact we know him and have seen him play helps out. I've seen him, management's seen him, everyone liked him and [know] the intangibles he brought to the table. Right away he's playing with our top-nine forwards, between 14-17 minutes of ice time a night. I think he's like, 'wow this is fun,'" Dent said. "We just brought the fun back into the game for him at the beginning and now he's getting to know the guys and feels a lot more comfortable."

Blackhawks notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Blackhawks notebook: A busy draft, free agency and RFAs

Eight draft picks in about 3 ½ hours. It was a busy Saturday for the Blackhawks, and when general manager Stan Bowman talked that afternoon about the team’s Day 2 haul, he came prepared.

“I have my little cheat sheet,” Bowman said of the paper on which he had written the Blackhawks’ eight newest prospects.

After a few days’ worth of moves the Blackhawks focused on the future, taking nine players over two days at the NHL Draft. It was a successful weekend for the Blackhawks, who hosted the draft for the first time and built up assets, especially on the blue line. Five of the Blackhawks’ nine selections were defensemen.

“One of the things we talked about was looking at the market. There’s a high value on defensemen. We’re not necessarily looking at the draft but our team this year and over the next couple of years; those are the assets that are valuable around the league,” Bowman said. “Look at the trade Calgary made [for Travis Hamonic], defensemen are a valuable commodity. That was a priority coming in and we were able to accomplish it.”

What comes next

The Blackhawks got what they wanted at this weekend’s draft but the focus will soon shift, as free agency opens on July 1. It remains to be seen what the Blackhawks will have cap-wise come a week from now. Currently, according to CapFriendly.com, they’re $1.445 million over the $75 million cap. It’s doubtful the Blackhawks apply the long-term injured reserve tag on Marian Hossa during the offseason. It’s possible they could still trade Marcus Kruger to gain some space. Bowman said, one way or another, “there will be some movement.”

“We’ll bring some players in, I don’t know how many, what position or what level,” he said. “This is where there’s a lot of activity, the couple weeks in the middle of June until the middle of July. That’s when the most changes happen. We’ll go to work, now that we’re past this.”

Wait for it

The Blackhawks also have to decide whether or not to qualify restricted free agents Dennis Rasmussen and Tomas Jurco. Bowman said that’ll be decided by Monday.

“I’ve had discussions with both agents,” he said. “I don’t have an answer right now but we’ll have that worked out in the next day and a half.”

Niklas Hjalmarsson reflects on time with Blackhawks: 'I had the best time in Chicago'

Niklas Hjalmarsson reflects on time with Blackhawks: 'I had the best time in Chicago'

Niklas Hjalmarsson heard some of the rumors, but not to a large degree. The former Blackhawks defenseman wasn’t spending a lot of time on the internet reading up on his potential fate. He figured he’d still stay put in Chicago.

“But when my agent called me about the 10-team list, I understood it was serious. Stan [Bowman] wouldn’t ask for that unless they made up their mind already,” Hjalmarsson said via conference call on Saturday. “That’s when it hit me that I’m probably not going to put the Hawks jersey on anymore.”

Indeed, Hjalmarsson’s next jersey will be that of the Arizona Coyotes, who acquired him in exchange for defenseman Connor Murphy on Friday. Hjalmarsson’s departure marks the end of the line for another Blackhawks core player, and this one is jarring in how it will change the team’s defense.

Speaking of change, Hjalmarsson faces a lot of it himself now. Sure, there’s the obvious change for a guy who’s played his entire career in one place. It’s new surroundings and a new team, on which he knows former Blackhawks teammate Antti Raanta and fellow countryman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

But the Coyotes have dealt with a lot of upheaval lately. Goaltender Mike Smith is gone. So is veteran Shane Doan. On Thursday, head coach Dave Tippett and the Coyotes parted ways.

“They’re on a rebuild, a lot of new faces, lot of changes,” Hjalmarsson said. “It’s tough to know what to expect but I think they’re a hungry organization that wants to win like other teams. I’m looking forward to try to contribute with playing my game, just try to get the organization back in the playoffs.”

Hjalmarsson should find chemistry with Ekman-Larsson – the two were teammates in the Winter Olympics in Sochi – and Hjalmarsson will likely play a bigger role with the Coyotes. Arizona will probably look to Hjalmarsson a lot during its rebuild, given his Cup-winning history.

The first 24 hours were full of mixed emotions of Hjalmarsson. With his limited no-move clause, he was always a likely candidate to be moved from a Blackhawks team laden will full no-move clauses. He’s turning a page, but he won’t forget his time in Chicago anytime soon.

“I’m trying to always be a positive guy,” Hjalmarsson said. “I spent my whole 20s in Chicago, 10 unbelievable years. I didn’t think I’d win three Cups. Hopefully I can get one more before my career is over. I had the best time in Chicago, enjoyed every single year, playing in front of the best fans in the league. I’ve been spoiled. Now it’s time for me and my family to move on and seize the opportunity in Arizona and create some new fond memories.”