If it’s possible for a player to have a first professional season that’s both impressive and disappointing, Ryan Culkin’s may be the best example of that.
A native of Montreal, Culkin made his pro debut last season with the Adirondack Flames and slowly but surely became one of the team’s best reliable defenders. His offensive production came in fits and starts, but he ended up being one of the team’s better positional defenders. His scoring peak came with a seven point performance in the month of December, but you could argue that his plus-7 rating in January was perhaps his most impressive statistical feat.
Culkin seemed a shoo-in for a call-up to Calgary at some point, but he suffered a major wrist injury on February 7 as a skate sliced through several tendons in his left wrist. Despite his season ending prematurely and Culkin missing a chance to make his NHL debut, his first pro season probably has to be looked at as a success. A year after spending the 2013-14 campaign in the QMJHL as an overager because of the log-jam of defenders in Abbotsford, Culkin experienced the ups and downs of adjusting to the professional game.
“It’s always difficult when there’s change, especially [when] it’s my first year,” shared Culkin. “I’m moving out of my billet house, living on my own. I had a roommate, Emile Poirier, that was fun. But it was difficult in the beginning: in and out of the line-up, not sure if you’re going to play a lot. But I worked really hard with Mike Thompson, our strength coach down there. As the season went on I built more strength, got better results, and the coach started seeing that and started playing me in even more situations. All-in-all, I thought it was great.”
Culkin noted that among the bigger challenges of jumping from junior to the AHL were adjusting to the logistical challenges of living on his own, as well as adjusting to the often big age differences in the AHL.
“Moving out you’ve got to do your own laundry, you’ve got to cook your own meals,” said Culkin. “At the same time, you’re playing against men. When I was finished my junior year, I was one of the older guys in the league. Last year, I was probably one of the youngest. I was playing with guys like 35, 36, they have families. It really opens up your eyes, ‘yeah, this is the pros.’ It took a little bit of adjustment, but then I thought I was doing well and taking some big strides for this season.”
Heading into his second professional season, Culkin’s quietly successful first year recalls the experience of Josh Jooris. Jooris was solid if unspectacular in his first pro season with Abbotsford, then burst out of the gates at training camp and won a roster spot soon after. Culkin notes that Jooris is serving as an inspiration for both players and coaches.
“No one expected him to crack the line-up, but in his mind, he was coming here to make the team,” said Culkin. “I think if we all take what he did and bring it to our mindset, if we all come to camp wanting to make the team, I think anything’s possible. He’s the best example. I was so happy for him, too. He came down for I think one day in Adirondack, got the call, and stayed all year. He had a great season last year and hopefully will continue throughout. And who knows? Like coach said prior to development camp: You know what? Anyone can make the team. He said ‘look at Josh Jooris.’ We’re all excited and looking forward to main camp.”
After nearly getting a shot at playing in the NHL and losing a chunk of his year to an injury, Culkin is hungry for another strong year and to potentially take the next step and make the NHL roster in Calgary this fall.
“Why not me?” pondered Culkin. “If I put my mind to it, work hard, anything is possible. So I’m definitely going to leave here with even more experience and come September, I want to make the team. I don’t want to play in the American Hockey League, I want to play in the NHL.”
With an AHL locker room galvanized by Jooris’ strong camp and season in the NHL, Culkin will probably be battling with 20-plus other guys with the same mindset. It should make for a very interesting competition when training camp opens in mid-September.