With the Calgary Flames playing the way they are this season – and sitting where they are this season in the standings – it’s natural for everyone’s thoughts to drift from the present to the future. And organizationally, the future of the Flames is exemplified on their farm team, the Stockton Heat.
During the All-Star Break, we had a chance to have a chat with Stockton’s head coach Ryan Huska on a few topics of interest to Flames fans. Most notably: how are the team’s recent high draft picks doing this season?
(Questions and answers edited for clarity.)
Morgan Klimchuk started the season quietly, but now we’re starting to see and hear a lot more about him. How’s he progressing this season?
He’s come a long way from the beginning of the year. The first point he got, if I’m not mistaken, was our last game before the Christmas break. So that was December 20th. He went for a fairly long period of time without generating any offense, through a stretch where he was injured as well. But during that time he was becoming a trustworthy player.
He’s very sound systematically, he understands the game very well, and he really works hard at improving his game. And I think since we’ve come back from that Christmas break, things have started to click a little bit more for him, where we have a lot of confidence using him in different situations including offensive ones and he’s become one of our better penalty-killers as well.
Emile Poirier is another guy that’s been scoring more lately. Was it a matter of him gaining some confidence? What’s the difference been for him?
I don’t know if Emile was confidence because he was in the league last year, so he kind of understood what to expect and how hard this league was coming in. I just think he got himself off to a slower start, right from camp in Calgary, and when you put yourself behind the eight-ball it’s tough playing catch-up. But I think he’s getting to the point where he’s there now, he’s playing the way we kind of expect him here, where he’s using his speed to his advantage, he seems like he has a lot more jump in his step; because of that, the way he’s coming to the rink now and the energy that he’s bringing, he’s starting to generate a little bit of offense for us.
There’s been a little bit of chemistry between Emile and Derek Grant, and hopefully that will continue for us because Emile’s a big part of our team and we need him to be a guy that will generate some offense for us down here.
We’ve been hearing a lot about Oliver Kylington this season. Is it a bit surreal to see an 18-year-old play at the level that he has been?
There’s lots of times we actually remind ourselves in the coaches room that he is only 18 still and he’s still 18 for another number of months yet. It’s a huge step for a young guy, and even though he played with men in Europe, being 18 years old in a different country there’s a lot that he has to learn and there’s a lot he has to deal with when you compare him to other players that are two, three, sometimes five, six years older than him when they’re first starting in the American Hockey League. So Oliver’s done a real good job of trying to understand the game a little better, he’s done a great job at working on the defensive side of his game while not losing that offensive side.
So I guess his challenge that we have for him is to continue to improve everyday defensively, to become a real trustworthy guy in all situations, and at the same time make good, smart plays when he’s generating his offense because he is a guy who has some ability with the way that he skates and the way that he moves the puck.
Joni Ortio’s had a really up and down year. Are some of his struggles a product of him trying to find his footing?
I definitely think it was a challenge for him at the beginning of this year. He came into camp fully expecting to earn himself a job with Calgary, and sometimes the way it works, you have to deal with things. And I thought when he first came down, he wasn’t prepared to play his first game in particular but then he got better for us.
He’s just had some consistency challenges that he’s down here for us, but he’s working very hard and I think he’s at the point now where you almost feel that he’s going to break out and give you a stretch of games where he’s going to be our best player consistently. He has that in him, I think he’s really now, you can see him in practice, you can see him in his games that he’s very close to turning that corner and becoming a guy that’s going to be the difference for us winning and losing games.
Watching from afar, Derek Grant seems to be having a great season. Has he been as impressive up-close as he has been from far away?
Every night he’s consistently been our dangerous threat offensively, but he’s also been reliable defensively. I think that’s what makes him, right now you can say our go-to guy here. He’s having to play against top players, top defending defensemen in our league and against oftentimes checking lines up front, and he still finds a way to generate that offense.
We use him on the power-play, he’s one of our better penalty-killers and he’s a good guy in the face-off circle, so he’s done a lot this year and I think him getting the nod for the All-Star Game is just kind of maybe a small bit of recognition for his play so far, but he’s been an important player for us for sure.
Finally, are there any players on your club that are playing well that might not get the attention that others have been?
I think when you look at our group, there’s someone typically every night that steps up. It might be a different guy from time to time. One guy that isn’t often on the scoresheet either that’s having a pretty good year for us is Bryce van Brabant. He’s played well, he’s played heavy, he’s learning how to be a harder guy to play against and using his size to his advantage. And he’s been pretty consistent with it for the majority part of the year, so if there’s one guy that’s a sleeper and nobody really talks about, he might be the guy.
Big thanks to Brandon Kisker from the Stockton Heat P.R. team for setting up the interview with Coach Huska!