What Went Right In Adirondack

This
is the first part of a two-part season review of the Adirondack Flames where
I’ll let you know what went right in the team’s inaugural (and only) season.

Right
off the bat, it’s important to keep in mind that just because the Baby Flames
didn’t make the playoffs this season doesn’t mean it wasn’t an enormously
successful year for an organization in rebuild mode. In fact, I’d argue that
more went right for this team of youngsters than wrong.

Here
are some of the reasons why the 2014-15 season was such a success in upstate
New York:

FREAK SHOW OF
ROOKIE SCORING

First
things first.

When
your rookies make up
about 45% of
your team’s offense
,
only good things can come from that. It has been such a nice, welcoming change
to see young guys as the leading scorers on the team as opposed to AHL
veterans.

Kenny
Agostino currently leads the pack with 41 points, which is a pleasant surprise.
Often times it takes a while for a college guy to truly gain traction (see Josh
Jooris and Ben Hanowski last season). Agostino’s start to the season went about
as smoothly as a back country trail tallying just 12 points up until the end of
January. Then he scrapped that dollar store battery, put in an a Duracell and
flipped the switch. The result? 29 points in his last 29 games. The difference,
head coach Ryan
Huska explains
,
was he wasn’t getting his nose dirty enough. Turns out, Agostino is one of
those players – the type that gets more engaged the more physical he plays. The
Flames once had a captain like that…

Then
there’s David Wolf, the Clydesdale. His first year in North America can’t be
looked at as anything but a complete success. Wolf was expected to be maybe a
third-line power forward, but he kept clawing his way up until he was on the
top line. Thirty-six points and 152 PIMS later, I’m convinced there isn’t a
player in the AHL that match Wolf physically, especially below the goal line.
All season he’s been able to hold a defender off with one arm, hold the other
defender off with his other arm and stick handle the puck using just his wrist.
Wolf was the straw that stirred the drink on this team. Expect him to be back with
another one year deal. He’s too dominant in the AHL not to be given another
shot.

You
can’t even think about Adirondack’s rookies without bringing up Emile Poirier,
AHL All-Star Emile Poirier. Going from a highly offensive league like the QMJHL
to the AHL isn’t easy, but the Bearded Wonder® has more sides to his game than
a twelve-sided die – and that’s what made his first season a big one. He picked
up 36 points in 55 games playing mostly top line minutes. There’s no doubt
about it Poirier will be an NHL player given he has such an array of talents,
it’ll be up to him and the coaches to find a niche for him.

Bill
Arnold and Garnet Hathaway were electric this season as well. Arnold is on the
fast track to become an effective third-line centre. Despite missing about two
months of hockey because of a shoulder injury, he was still able collect 35
points in 57 games. Hathaway became Adirondack’s version of Lance Bouma early
on and similarly surprised everyone with an offensive touch. His willingness to
dig the trenches made him an invaluable cog to the Flames’ team dynamic, which
earned him a much deserved ELC on Monday.

WOTHERSPOON +
RAMAGE = WALL

If
you would have told me at the beginning of the season that Ramage was going to
be one half of the Flames’ shut down defensive pairing, I would’ve scoffed, “pff,
in the ECHL maybe.”

Turns
out, he’s not too bad at hockey and when you put him with Wotherspoon, you’re
looking at the single most boring pair of defenders you’ve ever seen in your
entire life. They’re just defensemen flavoured defensemen, those two. Because
of that, they turned out to be the best shut down pairing a Flames farm team
has seen in a while. Unfortunately, there are no resources available to track a
player’s SAT in the AHL, but you didn’t see that pairing get hemmed in their
own zone very often.

That’s
why whenever Wotherspoon was up in Calgary, the team had it rough. No one
seemed to really work well alongside Ramage either. These two were clearly one
of Adirondack’s biggest bright spots this season.

PLEASANT
SURPRISES

“The
Unknown” always plays a factor in any
regular season success. Just look at the Calgary Flames and all of their
unknowns that turned out to contribute to their dazzling season. Josh Jooris
coming out of nowhere, Raphael Diaz turning it on three-quarters of the way
through the season, Gaudreau’s 60+ point year, so and so forth.

For
the Adirondack Flames, it’s tough to say exactly who the biggest surprise of the
season was, so let’s start with the most overlooked surprise this season: Ryan
Culkin.

The
former Quebec Rempart was playing like a seasoned veteran – that is, until he took
a skate blade across his hand and sliced some tendons (don’t worry, luckily it’s
not career threatening. He’s already rehabbing). There’s no doubt he was the
Flames’ biggest loss this season next to losing Joni Ortio. Culkin is one of
the best power play quarterbacks in the system, and for good reason. Before his
injury on February 6th, he had put up a goal and 17 assists in 37
games. The crazy part is that 11 of those points were on the man advantage.
When he wasn’t on the power play, he was one of Adirondack’s most fault-free
defenders. He always made smart, safe plays and took a surprisingly physical
approach to the game. A full, healthy season and the Flames could have a real
gem on their hands with Culkin.

Turner
“The Burner” Elson. This kid has some serious leadership in his blood. We knew
that from his days in major junior with Red Deer. However, he just couldn’t
seem to stick in the AHL for an extended period of time until this season, and
boy did he ever take advantage that. How many people truly expected Elson to do
anything of significance this season? Raise your hand. My hand is down. At one
point this season, Elson had a stretch of games where he scored 7 goals in 6
games and had 11 points in 10 games. You want to talk about driving possession?
He did it and he did it every shift. Head
coach Ryan Huska would put Elson with whomever he felt needed a jump start and
it worked every time. Expect him to get another contract because this kid is a
lock to become an assistant captain in Stockton, at least.

Lastly,
there’s Garnet Hathaway. Top 20 AHL Rookie Scorer, Garnet Hathaway to you. My
wish came true yesterday when the
lobster salesman
was awarded an ELC by Brad Treliving. I have rhapsodized
this guy enough in previous articles, but every bit of praise he gets has been
well earned. He has been one of the most pleasant AHL surprises in recent history
as far as Flames farm teams are concerned.

JONI ORTI-OH
SWEET BABY JESUS HE’S GOOD

Can
we take a moment to acknowledge where this franchise might be without a stud
net-minder of Joni Ortio’s age and skill level? Think of the age gap that would
exist between 33-year-old Jonas Hiller, 28-year-old Karri Ramo and then
21-year-old Jon Gillies. That’s a major gap that would need filling if/when
Hiller and/or Ramo hit the ol’ dusty trail or just start to suck.

Luckily,
the Flames don’t have that problem because Ortio is poised to become the next
backup goaltender in Calgary. First thing was first though, he had to show that
his rookie season in the AHL wasn’t a fluke with the Abbotsford Heat. That’s
where Adirondack watchers may have gotten a little concerned because he had a
pretty rough go of it to start the year posting a 4.16 goals against average
and a 87.9 save percentage. Mulligan. After the first month, his numbers plummeted
to All-Star calibre levels and they started racking up the wins like it was
nobody’s business.

Then
the unthinkable happened and big stupid Bodgan Yakimov of the Oklahoma City
Barons smoked Ortio, putting him out for 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain. After
that, Adirondack’s season looked an awful lot like one of those crazy YouTube
videos of sinkholes in China that swallow up entire city streets. With Ortio’s
goaltending, and the way he was playing when he got injured, I’m convinced Flames
fans would be watching two exciting post-season teams this Spring.

Check in next week for Part II: “What Went Wrong In Adirondack”

    • I did get a chance to see his most of his games.

      I don’t know if he was given the green light to rush the puck almost every shift, but he’s been doing it anyways. The guy has SO much confidence carrying the puck, it’s ridiculous. He’s got the wheels to get back in position, which is obviously key for a player like him.

      My only concern (which he’ll rectify with time) is he’s a little loose on defense. Opposing players won’t necessarily walk around him, but he doesn’t use the edge as much as he should to slow them down.

      But hey, we’ve got a legitimate right-handed D prospect in the system and he’s pretty exciting to watch.

  • Lordmork

    It seems to me like the Flames are hopefully developing bottom-six and bottom pairing options in Adirondack. Agostino, Arnold, Wolf, Hathaway and Culkin in particular seem intriguing, but hopefully guys like Elson and even Ramage can find an NHL gear that would represent a step up over some of the players currently with the Flames.

  • SydScout

    Well said. And thanks for keeping us updated Mike.

    Two additional areas I’d point out.

    First, Huska has done a great job. Any player that came up to the bigs this year seemed to have a chance at staying, being well coached and knowing Hartley’s system. Great result, especially as I was disappointed with Ward not heading to Glens Falls.

    Second, Glens Falls! Travelled there for opening night plus two other games throughout the season. Their fans are OUTSTANDING. They deserve hockey there. Great folks, great town, great brewery. I hope the Flames stay committed to that area, as the area has supported us fabulously.

  • SydScout

    Love these baby Flames pieces, Mike. Informative and entertaining at the same time … I hope you continue next season as they move to the left coast.

    Interesting tidbit about the effectiveness of Wotherspoon and Ramage. Could Wotherspoon’s absence having such a big impact indicate he was carrying the pair? Or can Ramage hold is own with the right partner? Does he have enough footspeed to perhaps make it as an effective bottom-paring defenseman in the NHL?

    • Thank you! I plan on sticking with FN for eternity.

      I think to an extent Wotherspoon carried the pair. That’s a fair comment, but Ramage really could hold his own. Those two worked together harmoniously. Though when Ramage was paired with anyone else, you could see the disconnect.

      In that sense, I think you’re right. Wotherspoon was the glue – not just of that pairing, but of the entire defense on the team.

      Regarding Ramage making it as a bottom pairing guy in the NHL, I doubt it. I just feel like there are a few guys ahead of him at the moment.

  • You’ve been a great add to the site Mike, love having someone to update on our AHL team, and your articles are always very well done.

    Count me in for the Hathaway and Elson fan clubs, loved everything I’ve seen from them so far. Good to see Elson back and contributing after that scary concussion.

      • ChinookArchYYC

        I was basically shocked when Ramage was called up. The guy was demoted to the ECHL last year and I thought he was finished as a pro. Glad he proved me wrong.

        I didn’t get a good read on him vs. the Jets last week. How would you describe him? What his foot speed and decision making?

        PS. Loved that he wore his dad’s #55.

        • I wouldn’t get too high on Ramage at this time. He’s got a ways to go before he becomes an NHLer (if he ever does).

          He’s a somewhat physical, stay-at-home defenseman. He’s not very quick, but has improved his decision making exponentially since last season with the Heat. It’s unfortunate, but his size really hinders his ability to play as physical as he’d like, I think.

          But again, he’s a long shot to become an NHLer.

          • I always thought Ramage’s dimensions were overlisted. Whenever I saw him in training camps or Abbotsford (I never managed to catch an Adirondack game, unfortunately) he invariably looked like the smallest dman out there.

    • Purple Hazze

      I think the better pairing might be Morrison/Wotherspoon, they seem to be a natural fit. Right handed puck mover with a left handed stay at home shut down type. Looking forward to seeing this pairing play together next year.

      • ChinookArchYYC

        I hear ya, but Morrison is at least a year away defensively and I don’t see them rushing him in. I figure Morrison is more likely to be tried in the top 4 while Ramage could be a perfect fit in the bottom 3.

  • I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Wotherspoon patterned his game after Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Obviously he isn’t as good, but like Vlasic he’s an extremely low-event player who focuses on shot-supression.

    IMO Vlasic is the epitome of the modern shut-down defenseman. Great skater, some nice tools, but doesn’t really crush people or go on the attack–he’s just so good at suppressing shots against that he ends up with positive Corsi counts (and goal-differentials).