What’s wrong with the Stockton Heat?

There’s a minor problem with the Flames’ minor prospects. The Stockton Heat just aren’t winning games (although they did last night by a big margin, after this article was written). 

That’s putting it lightly, because they’ve only scored 15 goals in their last 10 games. That doesn’t sound too bad, but 11 of those goals happened in only three of those games. They’ve been shut out four times in 2017 alone. The team that scored four or more goals in 12 games from October to December has only done that four times in January and February. They’re below .500, near the bottom of their division despite an awesome start, and are probably not going to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. They stink.

The Flames have had a not great AHL team for a while now. The last time their AHL affiliate made the playoffs, it was 2013-14. This year is surprising however, as the team has not had major injury problems and the big team hasn’t had to gut them for players. There’s nothing to say except that they’re bad.

It all raises an important question: why do they suck?

The bottom fell out

Here’s a chart of the Heat players’ NHLe’s throughout the season (not including last night’s 5-1 win, though all other stats do):

image (3)

As you can see, the entire team in general has been slowly falling since a great start to the season (if you need raw numbers, you can check them out here).

For the forwards, numbers dried up all around. Early in the year, players were shooting something like 20%, or in the case of Morgan Klimchuk, 30%. Of course those numbers weren’t going to last forever, and we’re witnessing the effects of the bubble bursting now.

Those most affected are Andrew Mangiapane, Klimchuk, and Linden Vey (and Matt Frattin, although I haven’t been tracking his numbers). Although incredibly important players earlier in the year, the offence for all of these players has dried up. Mangiapane has three points in 2017 while Vey has five. Klimchuk has mostly been holding his own, but has fallen behind his linemates Mark Jankowski and Hunter Shinkaruk.

Speaking of such, those are the only two skaters who have kept their heads above water in this dark period, which is promising. Since Shinkaruk returned from injury on Jan. 20, each of them have scored eight points in the 12 games since. That’s pretty good, but still a far cry from the PPG players they once were.

The goalies have also been responsible for this dip, though they’re keeping up their end of the bargain in these tough times. Earlier in the season, David Rittich was a .940 goalie and Jon Gillies a .920 goalie. They’ve fallen to under .920 and around .906 respectively. Now, those numbers have steadied out over the past few games, which is incredibly important considering how often and how much the Heat get outshot (more on that in a second).

But here’s one more concerning trend. If you look at that graph, the further we get along, the steadier the numbers get. Prospect-stats has their PDO at 100.33, which suggests that the Heat are getting bounces both ways. Together, all this may point to the conclusion that…

They actually suck

Here’s a not fun option to consider: maybe the Heat are just bad.

They’re currently 20th in the AHL for shot differential, 17th in estimated Fenwick close%, and 15th in goal differential. Since the new year, they’ve lost the shot battle 5-12 and two of those wins can be attributed to score effects. 

But here’s another thing: they’re eighth league wide in 5v5 goal differential and 5v5 GF%.

A few of Stockton’s struggles can be pinned on anemic special teams. Despite being top 10 in discipline, the PK is middle of the road. The powerplay is disastrous, too. The team is both 27th league-wide at drawing penalties and converting on them. All in all, their special team goal differential is -11, nearly wiping out the 5v5 goodwill.

The Heat, for all their success at 5v5, are unable to support that with their special teams. The team is also seeing the flow of play going against them more often than not recently, which will probably cause those 5v5 differential stats to fall even further.

So fire the coach?

Shout out to the comments sections.

Many people have been calling for the head of Ryan Huska, which seems fair giving the diminishing returns in the AHL standings. But that’s not a good reason to terminate him, because that’s not his job. In the grand scheme of things, winning is secondary for Huska. His primary job is to develop the youth of the Flames, which he has accomplished with mixed success.

On the positive side, he’s pushed low percentage guys like Brett Kulak, Micheal Ferland, and Garnet Hathaway to the NHL. On the negative, there have been complaints that he has stunted the growth of once promising players like Emile Poirier and Tyler Wotherspoon.

Determining how successful Huska has been is like trying to tell the dancer from the dance. There’s a lot of prospects who simply, regardless of draft position, won’t make it and it would be not entirely correct or honest to associate failure of a prospect with failure of a coach. There’s very little Huska, or any other coach, can do to change that path.

You can take both sides in the argument. For example, Poirier was once a very promising player who even got NHL ice time in his first professional season. However, there’s nothing Huska can do to keep a player shooting at 17%. Wotherspoon was once the number one defensive prospect, but perhaps that’s only because the prospect pool was so weak a crease-clearer could be considered the best.

Huska’s real test is right now, when he has been handed the cream of the crop for the Flames. He’s been trusted with developing kids who the franchise believes are sure things, such as Jankowski, Shinkaruk, Mangiapane, Oliver Kylington, and Rasmus Andersson. I’m sure the org is mostly satisfied with the early returns, and they’re probably going to brush off some of the negatives because…

Perhaps they’re just kids

Here’s another thing that could explain Stockton’s struggles: they’re the youngest team in the AHL. At an average age of 23.56, they’re a full year younger than their competition, with the league average being 24.62.

There’s youth and inexperience everywhere you look. They have four players who qualify as rookies (Jankowski, Mangiapane, Andersson, Gillies), six second year players (Klimchuk, Kylington, Hunter Smith, Kenney Morrison, Austin Carroll, and non-Flame Ryan Lomberg), and two North American rookies (Rittich, Daniel Pribyl). Of course they’re going to have a rough time.

This is, of course, not the sole reason for them sucking, but it’s a very important factor and one that any coach would have difficulty overcoming.

And in the end, it’s actually quite acceptable for them to be young and crappy. It was quite clear when the organization cleared out almost the entire AHL roster last summer. The team had a large number of young players that were eligible for the Heat, and they wanted to give them professional time. There’s going to be a lot of struggling and losing involved, no matter how promising the prospects are.

They probably knew what they were sacrificing by cutting good and old AHLers and implanting unproven and growing talent. As it is around all of hockey, the more ice time you give the younger and inexperienced, you will be less likely to win. Conversely, it also gives prospects actual ice time and a chance to get better. At the AHL level, one of those things is more important than the other.

      • Greg

        I feel like getting stoned by a scrambling goalie on a two on one tonight is a more significant watershed moment. He was shaking his head on the bench afterwards, and it didn’t look like a “dang I can’t believe I missed that” but a “dang, I just can’t get a break at all” kind of look.

        I still think he’s got a very bright future, but he looks like his offensive confidence is shot right now.

  • Zalapski

    “On the positive side, he’s pushed low percentage guys like Brett Kulak, Micheal Ferland, and Garnet Hathaway to the NHL. On the negative, there have been complaints that he has stunted the growth of once promising players like Emile Poirier and Tyler Wotherspoon.”

    I feel like that quote says it all. If you’re hindering first round picks and promising prospects and replacing bottom 9 forwards are you really doing your job? A lot of long shots show well in the AHL, get to the show and then move on to play bottom 9 roles around the league for different teams. I like having those guys and am excited to have them come up and be part of the bigger picture for the flames but the constant fizzle of once promising players is hard to swallow.

    I understand there is a ton to learn in becoming a pro. Defensive awareness, systems and team play, as well as attitude adjustments. But why do they seem to crush flair and offensive ability? I have nightmares wondering what would have happened to Johnny if he was sent down to start the season as a rookie. Producing purely bottom six guys isn’t enough to field a winner.

  • King Quong

    I’m pretty sure Troy Ward should get all props for Ferland and not Huska. I actually wish the Organization could’ve convinced Ward to move with the team out of Abbotsford.

  • Parallex

    Honestly, I don’t care if the Heat win games.

    The Heat’s sole purpose to exist is to help the Calgary Flames win games both now by ensuring call-ups are able to hang at the NHL level, and in the future by furthering their professional development. Winning AHL games falls into the category of “delightful, if irrelevant, bonus”.

    • Danomitee

      If you look at the Tampa Bays and the Detroits, there farm teams would compete for the Calder Cup. Then you see guys like Kucherov, Palat, Zetterberg, Datsyuk join the parent club and light it up.

      Winning is everything, we don’t want to develop a loser.

      • Apologies for bursting your bubble, but Zetterberg and Datsyuk never played in the AHL, Kucherov only spent 17 games there, and Palat was the only one to win a Calder Cup.

        There’s almost zero to weak correlation between team AHL success and team NHL success. The Hershey Bears were a dynasty, winning three Calder Cups from 05/06 to 09/10 and the best player they produced is probably either Mike Green or Thomas Fleischmann. The Washington Capitals still have zero Stanley Cups.

        On the other hand, individual success in the AHL is a more telling indication of future NHL success. Ondrej Palat did not become a good NHL player because he won a Calder Cup, but because he was a good AHL player. You can find many good players who never won at the AHL level, and many bad players who did.

        For all the praise the Red Wings get for using their AHL system to develop guys, their worst years (missing the playoffs three times between 09/10 to 11/12) were key years for developing Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar.

        • McRib

          You don’t even mention Tyler Johnson in Tampa Bay’s Calder Cup win…. Hahah. The Hersey Bears at the time weren’t even really a farm team back in the early 2000s, as they were an absolute anomaly being a big market AHL franchise they brought in long term career AHLers to bolster those teams. Which was the main reason for winning all those Calder Cups with a team all the small market AHL teams couldn’t afford anymore (AHL pay is based off of a years as a pro scale). .

          I

  • The GREAT WW

    Last summer the Heat cleaned out their player roster and replaced them with fresh talent. Early on the team did well. Then the Huska effect settled in and it has been disasterous ever since.

    I would be shocked if Huska was behind the bench next season…

    WW

  • The Doctor

    Thanks for writing the article. I was wondering what was going on down there. Epic tanking after a promising start to the season. I think your points about youth and the massive player personnel changes from last year are good ones. Still, playing in a winning culture is important too.

  • Deef

    I wonder how much of the mentality of “We need to teach our farm the same system as the big club” remains from previous years.

    You saw how long it took the Flames to understand GGs system this year. Now throw in a mostly rookie AHL coach and a team of non-Pros to understand and apply the same system, and maybe this is the result.

  • Prototype369

    We have four first round picks from the 2013 draft. One out of four in the first round is unacceptable, no matter how you look at it. Granted Monahan was a for sure bona fide thing, but beyond that, did Feaster pick bad with Poirier and Klimchuk, or was it just a weak draft, because Shinkaruk wasn’t drafted by the flames?

    • cjc

      I lean toward weak draft class. Look at the guys taken around them, Burakovsky is the only guy who has made an impact, Theodore and Hartman look like they will be decent.

      The third round from that draft looks very solid. Pesce, Buchnevich, Guentzel, Duclair, Andrighetto, Slepyshev, Bjorkstrand. Of course Feaster picked Kanzig, so…

  • The Doctor

    Poirier really is an odd and unfortunate situation. Super impressive in the QMJHL, and an AHL all-star as a rookie. Then, seemingly, nothing but stagnation followed by regression. Would love to know if there’s some deeper story there, or if it’s just another example of the fact that ultimately there’s no certainty when it comes to the development of most prospects.

    • McRib

      It all comes back to player development and what the Flames did to absolutely kill Poirier’s confidence, after being an AHL all-star the Flames made Poirier the first cut the next year in training camp and were really hard on his performance in the camp (Bob Hartley was always hard on rookies, especially French Canadian ones). By not rewarding his amazing year before in the AHL in the slightest they sent a terrible message to him and he was never the same. Kenny Agostino also led our AHL team in scoring for two years and got what two games in that time in the NHL. Way to reward success!!!

      I follow the NHL Draft incredibly close and teams like San Jose and Detroit always have average Drafts, but no one produces more NHL talent. Player development is so huge and I think the biggest part of it is building up young players confidence (which I realize is a non quantifiable action and won’t be considered by most analytical people). Small decisions like how the Flames treated Poirier in his first chance to stick with the NHL team after an AHL all-star caliber season go a long way to future success, even if at the time it seems insubstantial. It’s not about going straight to the NHL or spending five years in the AHL, it’s how you treat your prospects along the way wherever they are, something the Flames really haven’t done all that well of late. Even Ferland should be tracking better than he currently is at this point, but he has been buried on the fourth line.

  • freethe flames

    As WW says start with Huska; time to replace him. Second problem is we have only 1 legit center ice prospect; teams need more depth at this position. Wingers have a better chance to produce if there is talent up the middle. Lasts year purge while it created space for prospects failed to replace the center iceman. I would also suggest that the lack of opportunity to play on the big club may hurt in keeping players motivated. When you see your teammates called up and sit in the pressbox you have to wonder.

  • dontcryWOLF88

    Its worth pointing out that many teams have players who were premium picks, like Bennett or Tkachuk, still at that level. The Flames decided to put them straight up to the NHL though. I think they made the right call in both of those cases, however, the trade off is that the AHL team will suffer in terms of depth in comparasion to other teams who havnt done that.

  • redmonton

    This article is screaming for insight that can only be derived from human beings with knowledge of the organization. As much as I love analytics, reciting a bunch of stats doesn’t actually provide any insight to what is plaguing the team. Next time, pick up a phone?

  • KiLLKiND

    For those of you who want Huska fired have you even watched Heat 5 games since January? I’m assuming not because if you were you would understand that the Heat are simply a bad team.

    Poirier not converting on points is not at all on Huska, many players have a down year in their 2nd or 3rd year of pro. He still has the same wheels and can sometimes make amazing plays the bounces this year seem to go against him every time. Klimchuk not producing at an elite level shouldn’t surprise anybody and honestly, I’m happy with the development I’ve seen in his game this year.

    Losing the 3 best players that were on the Heat last year has taken its toll on the Heat as well. Treliving has just as much, if not probably more of the blame for this year’s version of the Heat especially considering who he let go; Kenny Agostino now leads the AHL in points, Grant was playing in the NHL for a decent portion of the year and was the top player last year, and Arnold was a fantastic two way centre. The bottom 6 also took a minor step back losing Turner Elson, Hathaway and I believe there were others that we lost this summer as well. Huska didn’t assemble the team or choose to get rid of all his best players, which has included Kulak being in the NHL for large portions of the season.

    Gilles has also not taken the step forward many were expecting this year.

    Some positives include Andersson and Kylington shouldering a lot of ice time and learning how to play in all situations. If you watched the WJC this year you know how improved Kylington’s decision making is compared to last year.

    Mangiapane is a player I haven’t talked about yet, in my limited viewings he simply hasn’t fully adjusted to the AHL yet. He shows glimpses of the skill he just holds on to the puck slightly too long, misreads passes, and I think the moves and speed he used to easily get past defenders in the CHL doesn’t work as well in the AHL. I think for him to take another step forward he needs to either improve his acceleration to a point where he can simply turn on the jets and blow by defenders or learn to slow the game down and find an open player for a nice pass. He has the hands he just needs to make little adjustments and then he will make a giant leap forward.

    All of this is to say that the Heat’s failure this season isn’t entirely on Huska and saying that he is hindering prospect development is flat out false. He is developing the prospects and in my eyes doing a great job with it. When you compare our team to the top teams in the AHL many of those teams are filled with older players who have been in the AHL for years. Treliving decided to not have a high-end team with who he let go and just as importantly who he brought it. We did not replace high-end AHL players with high-end AHL players we replaced them with rookies as well as Frattin and Vey.