It’s back! The FlamesNation Top 20 Prospect Countdown is here, and it starts today with number 20, Ryan Culkin.
It’s August, which means we are starting to get closer to training camp and an end to the miserable, depressing, hockey-free existence that comes in the dog days of summer. As such, we’ll be counting down the Flames’ 20 best prospects, defined as Flames eligible for the Calder Trophy this season. A full explanation can be found here.
First up is Ryan Culkin, who has slid from number 13 last year and is coming off a very disappointing season split between the AHL and the ECHL. Come read all about it after the jump!
A BRIEF HISTORY
Ryan Culkin has had a rough go as a professional hockey player. Just when it seems like he is ready to step up and become a leader at the AHL level, a rake appears and Culkin hasn’t missed one yet. While I’m not suggesting that Culkin is fragile by any stretch, I am suggesting that he switches witch doctors. Soon.
But first, some background. It just so happens that I wrote Ryan Culkin’s prospect profile from 2015 and his player evaluation from this past season, so it seems fitting that I am here with you today to dissect a rather unremarkable year from Culkin. One of four remaining members from a worrisome 2012 draft class (we’re counting on you JG), Culkin had a very successful draft+1 season after being selected in the fifth round.
Things were looking up for Culkin in his first professional season, scoring 18 points in his first 37 pro games. However, a nasty wrist injury caused him to miss the remainder of the 2014-15 season, a tough blow for a guy who looked like he was starting to get his career on track. Despite the injury, Culkin was recalled as a black ace for the Flames during their playoff run in 2014-15, surely an indication of the strength of the first half of his season.
Looking to build on that season, Culkin was again dealt a harsh blow when he was injured at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton last summer. This injury derailed his season and led to Culkin spending a fair amount of time in the ECHL while he tried to get his game back.
As you can see from this table, last season’s counting numbers aren’t exactly pretty for Culkin. This past season, Culkin scored one goal in 60 (!) games between Adirondack and Stockton. That’s not great news, especially as he was held goalless in 33 games in the ECHL. For a defender that has had the ability to put up points fairly consistently in his career, seeing a drop off like that is surely concerning.
Here’s what Stockton Heat Head Coach Ryan Huska had to say in an interview with FN’s Ryan Pike:
On how his season went:
“He unfortunately came off a pretty serious injury and had to deal with another one right away, so when he was ready to come back we had a lot of defensemen and we thought it would be best for him to get himself back into game shape by playing in Glens Falls.
“I think he went down there with the right attitude. I think he was probably down there a little longer than he had hoped for and it took him a little while to get his game going again once we recalled him. By the last five games of the year or so, we thought he was playing to the standard that we saw from him the year before, which is a real positive sign for us.”
On improvements from the last year:
“It’s tough sometimes because the players put everything they have into either playing in the American League or the NHL of course, and when they get pushed down sometimes it’s a challenge for you mentally. And I think for Ryan, it was a real challenge; not only did he have to overcome the injury and getting himself back into game conditioning, but being down there is a real mental roadblock that you have to overcome, and I think because of that we’re gonna see a better Ryan Culkin this year.”
WHAT COMES NEXT?
The fact that Culkin still has a spot on this list is indicative of his strong campaigns earlier in his career. He will likely be fighting for regular minutes in Stockton next season. Further complicating things is the fact that the Flames have too many bottom pairing options at the NHL level at the moment to give enough deserving candidates a shot, making top four minutes in Stockton even harder to come by.
Though we know that his year wasn’t great, let’s try to put Culkin’s season with Stockton in context among his peers using simple stats like shots per game, points per game, and an interesting but imperfect stat called ‘goals created,’ which is explained in detail here.
(Thanks to AHL.Prospect-Stats for the info.)
As you can see, the closest comparable to Culkin during his 27 games in Stockton was
goal per game NHL defenceman Ottawa Senator Pat Sieloff, and I’m not exactly sure that Culkin would welcome that kind of company. Statistical analysis of Culkin’s last year is likely folly.
Truthfully, Culkin is probably in danger of being lost between the cracks of the Flames’ plans moving forward; he’s playing in the final year of his entry-level deal, facing restricted free agency next summer. Perhaps more pressing for Culkin is the fact that the Flames are facing an influx of defencemen into their system this year and next, and Culkin needs to be able to distinguish himself from other, younger prospects.
Joining Culkin in restricted free agency next summer are Brett Kulak and Kenney Morrison and considering the oncoming log-jam of defencemen at the AHL level, I would think it nearly certain the Flames will not be qualifying all three defenders. This season, Culkin will have to distinguish himself in Stockton or he will likely be looking for work next summer.