It’s been an interesting year for the Stockton Heat, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Calgary Flames, following a summer that saw the Flames organization jettison many of their AHL veterans in favour of giving their homegrown prospects a bigger role.
After the first 25 games of the 2016-17 season, that approach has seemed to work just fine. The Heat finished their pre-Christmas schedule with a 16-7-2 record, good enough for first place in the Pacific Division. We had a chance to chat with Stockton head coach Ryan Huska before the Christmas break about his club’s start to the season. (Questions and answers edited for clarity.)
FlamesNation: How’s the season gone for your group so far?
You know, it’s been good so far. I think we’ve had some success this year, which has been good for our group, and i think our younger players have a lot to do with that success. I think for the most part we’ve been consistent with what we’ve seen from our guys, so we’re optimistic. We’re looking forward to a little bit of a break now, but we’re really looking forward to getting ourselves going the second half here.
During the summer, the Flames organization let a lot of established AHL players walk and it seemed like the Heat would be a lot younger as a result. How has the dynamic been this season?
I think there’s a couple things. The veteran players we do have have been really really good in a lot of different ways, both in their play on the ice and as well as their expectation for how they have to come and compete every day. So they’ve set a proper example for our younger players, whether that’s Brandon Bollig, Matt Frattin or Linden Vey, Keith Aulie on our backend, they’ve all done an excellent job in making sure they’re committed to doing things the right way and making sure we have a good strong dressing room where our younger guys are comfortable and feel like a real part of things. I think because of the older guys being around and our ability this year to place the younger guys with a veteran player has allowed the younger guys a little bit more success early on this year.
After how chaotic it was last season, it must be different having stable goaltending this year. How do you rate your club’s goaltenders?
They’ve been really good, both of them. Last year, I believe we had 12 goaltenders come through our team at one time. So this year we’ve had some consistency in the net. Jon [Gillies] has had the majority of our starts here and he’s done a real good job with that coming back from his injury and having missed a year off, his timing is coming back to him now where he’s kinda back to the guy we saw at the beginning of last year, steady and solid in the net and he gives us a chance to win every night, which is our expectation for him.
A little bit surprised with David Rittich in regards to how well he played. He had an [opportunity] to get a few starts in a row when Jon was out with his minor hand injury earlier in the year and he really played well during those starts. I think because of the way he came in and played, he almost took the reins a little bit and forced Jon to almost raise the ante a little bit where he had to make sure he was stepping up when he was getting a chance in the net. There’s been a bit of internal competition between the two of them, but they really have given us a chance to win just about every night they’ve been in the net, both of them.
It must be different for Jon Gillies this season. For most of the time when he was in the USHL and in college, he was the undisputed number one guy.
I don’t know if I’d want to call it adversity or not, but it was a little different for him for sure because he was used to getting all the starts and then all of a sudden when we were going back and forth between the two of them, it was something different for him. He’s going to have to learn to handle all that stuff, so for him it was something new that he had to deal with and I think that’s going to go a long way in regards to his development and his understanding of how hard you have to compete everyday and what it takes to be a regular starting goaltending in the NHL. And I think having another quality goaltender around, it challenges both of them to make sure they’re better all the time. I think it’s a win-win for our group down here.
Looking at your group from the outside, especially on defense, it seems like you have a lot of players knocking on the door for NHL work, guys that are almost ready for their shot.
And you know, they’re young. The challenge we’ve had for all of them is they have to find a way to separate themselves from their teammates. So as much as we really build team and our environment here, our defensemen, they have to find a way to separate themselves or else they just get lumped into that group. You have to do something much better than the other guys in order to get yourself noticed and get yourself in line for a call-up guy.
So whether it’s doing a better job on our power play or being a solid defender each and every night, you have to find something that people take notice of, and you have to be consistent with that and I think that’s how guys can learn to maybe separate themselves or stand out of the crowd because they are all a very young group and there has to be someone who says ‘this is going to be my job,’ and that’s what we really challenge all of our young guys with. We don’t want to be stuck somewhere in-between and all the same. They have to do a job of making sure people notice them in the specific role they have to play.
A lot of players put up great numbers in junior but can’t translate it to the next level – remember Bryan Cameron? How impressed have you been with how Andrew Mangiapane has adjusted to the AHL game?
I’ve been very impressed with him. And that isn’t nothing. You never know what you’re going to get from a young man when he first comes in. Everybody knows his track record. He’s had a couple 100-plus seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. A lot of good things have happened for him. And when he comes, everything’s a little bit faster, guys are smarter, you’re not necessarily the best guy on the ice all the time. So it’s a little different.
We wanted to give him a chance to show that he can put points on the board, so we put him with Linden Vey and Matt Frattin early in the year, and he found some chemistry with them early on. He wasn’t really afraid or he didn’t look like he was nervous to play with those guys. He just kept making plays and got harder and stronger on the puck and kept improving to the point now where he’s a real important guy to our team on power play time and with five on five play, and he fits right into our top line which is something we’re really happy about.
Maybe the best part about him is the compete and work ethic that he does have. I do feel like he’s going to be a good story. He’s going to still need some time, for sure, but there’s a lot about him that we really do like.
Mark Jankowski was able to spend some time (six days) with the Flames and make his NHL debut earlier this season. What do you hope he takes from that experience?
Well, I would hope that he would take away how hard it is to be an [everyday player] in the NHL and expected to contribute in a lot of different ways. For Mark’s situation, he started the year for us very well. He was a dangerous guy every night. He was competitive, he was working, and he earned that call-up, which was something we were really happy for. Because that’s really what we need to see his progression get to, is he needs to be a full-time guy in the NHL.
I was hoping he learned that you have to raise your compete level, you have to raise your intensity, you have to raise your work ethic, and you have to be able to do it consistently if you want to be a key guy at the NHL level and that’s what we want for Mark to move forward.
Do you think Morgan Klimchuk beginning to put himself into the conversation for a call-up to the NHL?
I do, I really do, and again, I think it’s because Morgan this year has shown a consistency in his play. His work ethic and his compete has never been in question. He’s a very detailed young man that tries to do everything the right way. He got off to a great start this year where he was generating some offense, he was scoring some goals, and I think because of that his confidence took a huge jump and his belief that he can play and he can be a guy that’s counted upon and real important for our team. From the beginning of our year he’s been very consistent with it. He’s probably one of our most consistent guys each and every night with how he shows up and plays. I do believe he has put himself in the mix should the need arise or if there’s a situation where [there’s an injury] up top, he’s put himself in that conversation.
How has Rasmus Andersson been managing the transition from the OHL to the AHL?
He’s been good, too. The challenging thing with Ras is the pace. We’re trying to get him to understand trying to play a faster pace. There’s some nights where you think he’s in trouble and guys are going to beat him wide, but he’s a very intelligent player. He finds a way to be where the puck’s going to be, and when he gets it he has the uncanny ability to suck a forechecker in and then make a good little pass to someone that’s open and we get out of our zone quickly. So he sees the game so very well and I think that’s why he’s starting to put some points on the board for us.
He’s gaining some confidence down here. He’s going to be a work in progress, like a lot of these other young guys in regards to the nutrition, the conditioning side of things and learning how to be a pro player every day, but he definitely has the smarts and intelligence so we’re looking forward to see how he progresses and continues in the second half of the year.
It seems crazy to me that Oliver Kylington has played almost a season and a half in the AHL and he’s heading to the World Juniors this month. His offensive numbers have improved and we’ve heard good things. How has he been for you?
It’s pretty crazy. And Oliver I still believe has come a long way. But we still do see some younger tendencies in him and what we look for out of him now is consistency. So there’s some nights when he’ll try to do a little too much with the puck, young habits, but we don’t see those as often as we did last year and that’s a real positive for us.
And when he uses his skating ability to his advantage, when he moves the puck quick and when he keeps his game simple – when I say simple, that he doesn’t feel like he has to beat everybody one-on-one or make a cute little play, sometimes the simple play is the most effective one and he’s getting a better understanding of how he has to do that on a consistent basis. So that’s really his challenge moving forward. He’s starting to defend better, he’s got more confidence in his ability, it’s now making sure he keeps things simple as he moves forward here.
One of the things I’ve noticed on your roster is that you’ve got a lot of players with NHL experience. Has that helped this year, having guys be able to come in and be able to provide first-hand knowledge about what it takes to get to the NHL?
That’s one of the great things we love about our group here is the older guys we do have – Mike Angelidis, Brandon Bollig – are all guys that have played in the NHL and they have an understanding of what it takes to be there. So this year I feel like when we’re not in the dressing room, those guys do a great job of holding our room accountable and making sure they understand that hey, we have to be consistent with our work ethic, how we compete and how we play the game. And I think because of their leadership in the room, we’ve gotten ourselves off to a good start and we have a belief that we can compete this year.
Finally, what is success for you as the coach? Is it winning a Calder Cup or putting guys into the NHL? Or is it a mixture of both?
You know, I think here in this role it’s a bit of both. I think every day you come to the rink, your expectation is to win, so I think you always have to have that end goal in mind – which is the Calder Cup – that we want to see ourselves there. And then it becomes about the process of getting there. And with the process, that’s how we have the success for the individual players, that we do really want to see guys get called up and be guys that can contribute to the Calgary Flames.
So when a Garnet Hathaway goes up and he’s a guy that makes people take notice or he’s getting things accomplished up top, it makes us feel good down here because it does make us feel like we’re a part of things. To do a job of making sure guys are ready for the jump when that time does come. So it’s kind of two-fold down here: we love to see guys have success up top, that’s really important to us, but winning is one of the key things in regards to development.
You want to try to see your group play in the pressure situations and learn how to win. And I think if you can do that, you’re going to help guys eventually move up top and hopefully you can help bring some wins to the Calgary Flames down the road.