Grimaldi eyeing chance to chase title in Rockford

Photo: Ross Dettman

📝 by Patrick Williams

Rustled from a nap on the team bus somewhere on the interstate in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, Rocco Grimaldi got the news.

The veteran sniper was getting a chance to chase the Calder Cup.

Rockford IceHogs general manager Mark Bernard did not go halfway leading up to the trade deadline, landing Grimaldi from the San Diego Gulls in an AHL deal March 2.

“I mean, it was shocking to start with,” Grimaldi recounted of getting that news. “I did not expect that or see that coming.”

In snagging Grimaldi, Rockford added an elite scorer who is tied for second in the AHL with 27 goals and seventh overall with 57 points.

Rockford also knew Grimaldi all too well from last season, when he collected 26 goals in only 44 games with the division rival Milwaukee Admirals.

Bernard, who also serves as the vice president of hockey operations/team affiliates for the parent Chicago Blackhawks, had been long at work on the trade with the Anaheim Ducks, San Diego’s parent club. Two trades, in fact.

The IceHogs wound up receiving Grimaldi and Logan Nijhoff from the Gulls for future considerations, while the Blackhawks sent Dylan Sikura to the Ducks for forward Maxim Golod.

“We were really excited that we were getting a guy that not only can score at the American League level but also has a lot of experience,” Bernard said. “He’s played [203] NHL games, and I think will be a good leader and a good example for our younger players and hopefully will help us down the stretch and into the playoffs.”

Bernard also cited a directive from Blackhawks GM Kyle Davidson.

“Kyle told me, ‘You build it. We want to go some rounds here. We want our young players playing.’”

Going into play this week, Rockford sits fifth in the Central Division, where the top five teams qualify for the postseason. Their lead is eight points over Chicago and Grand Rapids, and the Wolves hold two games in hand. The IceHogs also have a demanding schedule ahead, beginning with a visit from Manitoba tonight and a Friday-Saturday home set with Colorado this weekend.

Rockford head coach Anders Sorensen put Grimaldi in between a top line with Mike Hardman and Buddy Robinson this past weekend. He also logged power-play time, picking up an assist on Bobby Lynch’s goal in Grand Rapids on Friday.

Hardman and Robinson were recalled by Chicago and skated in Tuesday’s 6-3 win over Boston, joining fellow IceHogs forwards Joey Anderson and Lukas Reichel in the Blackhawks lineup. All four are eligible to return to Rockford, and would provide the IceHogs with a potent lineup down the stretch and into the Calder Cup Playoffs.

And wherever Grimaldi is slotted in Rockford’s lineup tonight and beyond, he is ready to fit in with his new club.

“I’ve played just about every system you can imagine,” said Grimaldi, a ninth-year pro who has also been part of the Florida, Colorado and Nashville organizations. “It’s just a quick change of mind, just a readjustment. Just trying to remember you’re going 2-1-2 [on the forecheck] or going 1-2-2 or whatever. It’s just a quick reminder when you’re out there of what you’re actually doing.”

Any in-season deal brings sudden change for a player and his family. Bernard could have asked Grimaldi to scramble and travel across the continent to meet the IceHogs the night after the deal; the club was in the middle of a road trip to Toronto, Belleville and Laval.

“It wasn’t fair to him to make him jump on a plane the next morning, try to get to Toronto, get a car service to Belleville,” Bernard said. “I said, ‘You know what, Rocco? I’m going to fly you back home to San Diego, you can let this news settle in with your wife, and then we’ll bring you in.”

Grimaldi took Bernard up on the offer, which helped to ease some of the shock of leaving San Diego for the Southern California native. So did follow-up efforts by the Chicago organization.

“Everyone here has been super-easy to work with,” Grimaldi said of the Blackhawks and IceHogs. “The moving, life, shipping cars, all that stuff, it’s been a first-class organization. It’s been really easy for my wife (Abby) and I and kind of took the stress off, for sure.”

Before leaving San Diego, Grimaldi had taken some advice from head coach Roy Sommer. Shoot the puck, Sommer recommended. Simplify your game.

So Grimaldi did just that, piling up 49 shots and 13 goals in what would be his final 15 games with the Gulls.

“I agreed with him,” Grimaldi recounted. “That’s something that I definitely have been thinking about.

“I’ve taken off since then and hope to keep it up here in Rockford.”