It was a season of change and challenges for the Stockton Heat of the American Hockey League in 2015-16.
The Calgary Flames’ top affiliate was uprooted from Glens Falls, New York and moved across the continent to Stockton, California as part of the AHL’s westward movement. The team also saw college superstar goalie Jon Gillies go down for hip surgery early in the season and saw a rotation of injuries, call-ups and other maladies stall their growth.
Despite all that, they very nearly made the post-season.
I had a chance to chat with Stockton Head Coach Ryan Huska about the season last week.
You just finished your second season an AHL coach. As somebody, like your players, that would like to get to the NHL one day, how did you feel the season as a whole went?
I think again, the one thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years about the American Hockey League is that it’s a very hard league to coach in because of a lot of different reasons. Your roster changes all the time, you have the dynamic of working with Calgary in regards to making sure certain players are in certain situations, and you also have to find a way to build a team and at times it can be a real challenge.
But I think when you look back at it over the last couple years even, I think the American Hockey League is a great way to prepare someone for that next level. There’s a lot of things that go on, there are a lot of variables that take place every day and I think it forces you to be on your toes and it really helps you improve as a coach.
From training camp to the end, which players took the biggest strides this season?
That’s a real good question. Off the top of my head, one guy that I would say is Brett Kulak. He out of camp made the Flames. He came down and I felt as the year went on he continued to get better.
The beautiful part about Brett is the work he puts in to making himself a better player. So, when you look at players and you want to see guys that really have the will to get themselves to that next level, he’s got it.
Like he really puts in the time to improve his game. So he’s one guy that I was very impressed with along the way.
I think when you look at different players on our back end, Oliver Kylington was a guy that improved over the course of the year. And for an 18-year-old to come in and be able do what he did over the course of his season, I was very impressed with him. And there was significant other guys: you can look at the Hunter Smiths and the Austin Carrolls and the Morgan Klimchuks, and they may not have been huge point producers for us in their first year, but I think they made huge strides from the beginning of the season and for me, I’m looking forward to seeing how they come back next year and seeing what they can do with an increased role.
Much like the NHL club really got tripped up by goaltending, their situation was mirrored by yours: Jon Gillies went down early and you ended up leaning on an 18-year-old in Nick Schneider in the most important games of the season because of injuries. How would you assess Gillies and Schneider’s experiences?
It was a strange year, I’ll start off by saying that. I think we had 11 goaltenders over the course of the season if I’m not mistaken. There’s a lot of times you can’t control when injuries happen or when certain situations arise, and I feel like this year we saw a lot of funny things over the course of the year and unfortunately Jon, who was off to a really good start with us, had to be shut down fairly early in our season. But he’s doing well right now, he’s back home, he’s feeling good about himself and he’s going to be fully ready for development camp.
I think him coming into camp and starting the season feeling really good about where he’s at physically is going to be a great thing for him. I think he has a great challenge in front of him where he can push to be the guy that’s going to get the majority of our starts or push to get himself to the Calgary Flames roster sooner rather than later.
So a lot of expectations for him and I’m excited for him that he’s feeling better now and looking forward to the upcoming season.
Nick Schneider, when you look at his situation, the last nine games off the top of my head we were in a playoff spot (or in a playoff fight, I should say) and we had to rely, as you mentioned, on an 18-year-old goaltender.
I think most people when you see a situation like that would probably have said ‘These guys don’t have a chance anymore.’ But he came in and he gave us an opportunity as an 18-year-old.
I would bet if you ask him, it was kind of a dream situation where he came not expecting to start and then shortly after he arrived in Stockton, he was our starting goaltender and playing every game that was meaningful for us and doing a very good job. I was very impressed with him as well, especially for the demeanour he was able to bring to the table as a young guy in that situation.
You’ve gotten previews at development camps of a lot of the players turning pro next season. You got a look at Mark Jankowski at the end of the season. Looking ahead to the guys that are going to be first-year pros next year (like Mangiapane and Andersson), are there any names that you’re particularly excited about?
I don’t really know at this time, there’s certainly guys that I would like to see but for them, personally, I would like to see them have a chance to make the Calgary Flames out of camp as well.
Mark Jankowski, I really enjoyed having a short period of time with him over the course of the latter part of our season. I thought he came in and did a great job of proving that he can play and is a very good player.
For him, his big challenge over the summer is making sure he has the right mindset where he doesn’t come in expecting things are gonna be pretty easy because he had some pretty good success with us towards the end of the year. And I’m like other people, I want to see how Mangiapane can do, I want to see how Rasmus Andersson can do. They’ve had very good junior hockey careers. Mangiapane with the 100 point seasons two years in a row, that’s not an easy thing to do in the CHL. So I’m looking forward to seeing what guys like that can bring to the table.
But every year there’s always somebody that surprises you, and I think that’s the best part about training camp and young players. They mature and develop a lot over the course of the summer so some guys that you might not be thinking of will step up and surprise a lot of people and they’ll make a pretty good name for themselves.
After all the challenges your club faced, you still nearly managed to get into the playoffs. What was the message given to players during your exit meetings?
Well, the good part about the Calgary Flames is they’re very in-tuned to what we do. Brad Pascall was here as well for the meetings.
Our messaging to the players was direct and to the point: we want these guys to push for jobs next year with the Calgary Flames.
And I think for the majority part, we challenge players to make sure they’re pushing themselves over the course of the summer so when they come back, and if they are with us, they’re ready to elevate their play and that’s really what we want to see. So you always touch on things that the players do well, you touch on some things that you’d like to see improved over the course of the summer, and then it becomes something that the player has to take ownership of. The majority part of our messaging to our players was about making sure they’re focused and are going to be dialed-in with the summer conditioning so next year when they come back, wherever that may be – whether it’s with Calgary or with us – they’re ready to take ownership of being a new and improved player.
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