Photo credit: Sergei Belski/USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Culkin’s professional career probably isn’t going quite the way he’d have imagined it. At least, especially not after what had been a pretty good rookie season, only to find himself derailed by two injuries – and spending significant time in the ECHL this past season.
It’s almost as though he’s flipped places with fellow 2012 draftee Brett Kulak, except Kulak has actual NHL games under his belt, whereas Culkin still needs to work towards that.
Culkin’s 2014-15 season ended early when he suffered sliced wrist tendons during a game in February. Had it not been for that injury, he very well may have gotten to play his first NHL game at the end of the season; a meaningless one filled with first NHL games for many, but an NHL game nonetheless – and he’d have earned it, too, having been en route to putting together a stellar rookie season.
Alas, it wasn’t to be, and so Culkin entered the 2015-16 season with one goal in mind: get back to where he had been the season before, and build on that.
There were two key factor was working against him, however. The first? Injuries. In addition to spending the summer recovering from sliced tendons, he also had to contend with a shoulder injury suffered in Penticton during the Young Stars Classic. Before the main camp could open, Culkin was already on the shelf.
The second factor: bodies. The Stockton Heat had a number of defencemen available to them as they started their season off with Oliver Kylington, Tyler Wotherspoon, Dustin Stevenson, Patrick Sieloff, Jakub Nakladal, and Aaron Johnson. Kenney Morrison was in the fold, as was Brett Kulak when he was sent down to the AHL; Keegan Kanzig, meanwhile, got just one game in before the number of bodies forced him back to the WHL.
So in the best interests of the player, both for the sake of rehabilitation and to get some actual minutes under his belt, Culkin was sent to the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder in early November. He played 33 games for the Thunder, scoring eight assists along the way as one of the youngest players on the regular roster. Three defencemen, aged 25-30, vastly outscored him; otherwise, he was in a cluster with four other defencemen, most of whom barely put up any points.
On Feb. 9, Culkin finally made his Stockton debut. Nakaldal was on the verge of officially becoming an NHLer by that point, and a rash of injuries to the Heat’s defensive core necessitated bringing more bodies in. Culkin was young, armed with an NHL contract, and had had success at the AHL level the season before, so naturally, he was a perfect choice for a recall.
He played 27 games in all for the Heat, scoring a goal and adding an assist. He tied Kevin Poulin in points over two fewer games, the problem here being that Poulin is, uh, a goalie.
Impact on team
Culkin had 89 shots on net throughout the season: 65 with the Thunder, and 24 with the Heat. He was getting nearly two pucks on net each game in the ECHL, which was actually the second best pacing out of all Thunder defencemen, including the older, more experienced guys who played 70 (or close to) games through the year on the same team. He couldn’t get anything to go in the net – but he was clearly able to get pucks on it.
Going up a level was a different story, as Culkin came close to a shot per game, but not quite. It did, however, give him a shot rate greater than Sieloff’s, and had Culkin not been limited by back-to-back injuries, he may have been able to put together a stronger season with more points in the AHL.
We can loosely compare Culkin to Kulak when the latter defenceman had to split time between the AHL and ECHL in the 2014-15 season, again due to too many bodies on hand. On one hand, Kulak had greater impact, scoring 30 points over 39 games in the ECHL and 13 in 26 in the AHL over a couple of stints; on the other hand, he didn’t have any injuries to contend with.
What comes next?
It’s tough to get a proper read on Culkin simply because of some of the injuries he’s sustained. His time in the ECHL started off as a conditioning stint, as he hadn’t played regularly in roughly nine months; then, coming on to a faltering Stockton team that was bleeding bodies should have helped him out, but the Heat had problems scoring goals throughout the year, so his lack of offensive production likely isn’t entirely on him.
A fully healthy season could do Culkin wonders, and hopefully, that’s what he gets in the next year.
There is, however, the issue of bodies. The Heat will have Kylington, Sieloff, and Morrison returning, in addition to likely at least one of – if not both – Kulak and Tyler Wotherspoon. Kanzig and Rasmus Andersson will both be graduating from junior as well, making for a total of seven bodies – and that’s not even counting the possibilities of guys like Johnson and Stevenson returning.
Culkin will have to beat some of those guys to stick in the AHL. Kanzig is a prime candidate, but other than him, everyone else has seniority (and the chances of Andersson not making that AHL team are extremely unlikely), meaning he’ll have to really work for it.
If he can draw on his rookie professional season, though, then he might have a shot. Otherwise, with his entry-level contract set to expire after 2016-17, the clock might just be ticking.