It was an interesting year for the Stockton Heat, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Calgary Flames. The Heat got off to a white-hot start, going 16-6-2 through their first 24 games. Then they crashed and burned, going 3-15-3 over their next 21 games. With their playoff hopes seemingly dashed, the Heat went on another crazy run, going 15-4-4 for the remainder of the season and earning a playoff spot.
We had a chance to chat with Stockton’s head coach Ryan Huska about his team’s tumultuous year. (Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.)
It was a crazy year for your team. What are your thoughts on the season overall?
Well, you said it. It was almost like we played three separate seasons. But I think when you look back at it, we became a better team for what we went through in the middle of the year. And I think when a team faces adversity like we did, it forced us to rethink a lot of things, it forced us to challenge the players in a different way, and I thought they did a real good job in making sure they stuck together as a group and they made sure our dressing room stayed strong. And when we got ourselves on a roll at the end of the year, we had such a real belief in what we were trying to do that were was no doubt that we were going to the playoffs. And we had full confidence that we were going to beat San Jose in the first round, and unfortunately we didn’t get that accomplished. But I was real proud of the way we finished the year and proud of the way we played in the playoffs.
The Heat were a very young group this year, but their youth never really bled through in a bad way in the sense that they never seemed to get run out of the barn or to be in over their skis.
When you talk about getting run out of the rink a little bit, I think of that in a different way where we did have a lot of younger players this year and that presented some challenges for us. But we also surrounded them by a lot of good veteran guys, guys that are real committed to making sure teams play the right way. And when young guys see that, whether it’s a Mike Angelidis or even a Brandon Bollig for that matter – coming down and practicing hard every day, playing the same way and playing hard every time he steps on the ice – they have to follow suit. And that was the thing about our group this year.
And I think the other thing we had, we did have a younger team but I don’t think any one of our younger players felt like they were intimidated. And a lot of that had to do with the makeup of our group. We had some big, heavier boys that if games got a little greasey, I think our younger guys knew that we had the guys that were able to take care of that. And I think that goes a long way when you have a younger team, they have the confidence that they can go out there and play and we have the guys that can control or settle things down, if need be.
Looking at the team you have now compared to the team you had two years ago in Adirondack, it seems that the caliber of prospects is the same but there’s more thought put into the veterans they’re surrounded with. One veteran who seemed to be really noticeable was Brandon Bollig, especially given that he was a full-time NHLer last season. He seemed to relish the role he had.
He really did. You never know how a guy’s going to come down in that situation. When Bolls first came in, he told us how he was going to be and he kept his end of the bargain for the whole year. And I think the one thing that helped him along this year is we used him in a lot of different situations. He really felt a part of things and he enjoyed playing again because he was used in a role that saw him have lots of ice time; sometimes there was some power play, he was always one of our penalty killers, and he was a regular five-on-five.
So I think he really enjoyed the game again this year, but when he was around these younger guys I think they made him feel a little younger again as well and they brought back kind of the fun in the game. He went out of his way to make sure a lot of our younger guys were happy, comfortable, and always had someone around to spend time with. Whether or not he was hanging with guys his age or some younger guys that we still had at the hotel, he did a real good job of being around our group of players and I thought he enjoyed it as well. Like I said, I think it brought the fun back.
We saw both of your goaltenders, Jon Gillies and David Rittich, up at the end of the season. Mark Jankowski was up for a bit. It seems like there are a lot of players on your club that are getting close to being NHLers.
There’s guys I believe are on the cusp of getting themselves there. And that’s a great thing for everybody involved. I think this year, it was a little different from my first couple years because Calgary stayed relatively healthy (and we hope that happens every year) but because they were so healthy, I think a lot of guys that maybe would’ve gotten chances in years prior unfortunately didn’t get them this year but that’s the way the game goes sometimes. But over the course of the year, them getting put into situations here, seeing their confidence level grow and get better, I think they feel a little more confident they can push for a job now. We have a lot of different players that I think are in that category that are really going to start to push, and I think for the whole organization is a real positive thing.
Would you be able to offer up a few names of guys that you think are close?
There’s a lot of guys. I don’t want to not mention someone because I don’t think that’s right. But there’s guys that I think people have talked about all year, and I don’t think it’s wrong of me to talk about Mark Jankowski. He’s been one guy that was consistent with his play all year. You’ve mentioned both goaltenders that we have, I think both of those are excellent prospects. We have the younger guys on the back end and we have some guys up front that are in their second year, some are in their first year, that I think took a lot of steps in the right direction with the right summer ahead of them can push Calgary to at least have some tougher decisions to make when it comes to camp next year.
In terms of specific players, Brett Kulak had a really interesting year. He was up with Calgary for awhile but didn’t play a ton. How was he when he came down to the AHL?
He was really good this year. I think he only played 22 games for us. As you mentioned, it was one of those years where he had quite a bit of time up top, dealt with a few injuries this year, but in those 22 games this year I saw a different guy that I feel is quite a bit more mature. I think his game is matured in how he plays, and I see a guy that’s really ready to push now. He’s one guy that when you look at playoff situations or our push to get into the playoffs, it’s a time when some guys will fade away into the shadows a little bit and it’s also a time when some guys will step themselves out from the crowd, become more noticeable and become a guy that you lean on, and Brett was one of the guys that stepped out from the crowd in my opinion and that’s a real positive thing when you look at guys, and their growth and their development and where they may get to over the next couple years. I was really pleased with his year. He did a lot of great things for us and he showed a real maturity in his game, both on and off the ice, for us. I think he did an excellent job this year and he’s going to make some tough decisions up top, for sure.
Rasmus Andersson was called out during development camp by Brad Treliving, but he seemed to respond really well based on how his season went. He even spent a month in the NHL. Do you think he got a lot out of that experience?
He totally would have, and I think he did. When you have a chance to be around some of the defensemen that are up there, when you have a chance to see how they practice day in and out, how they prepare themselves day in and day out, how they play games, how consistent they have to be to be an elite defenseman at that level, Ras is an intelligent young man where he would take all that stuff in right from what they’re eating, how they take care of themselves before games, how they ready themselves to play, how they take care of themselves afterwards… So the time he spent up there was in my opinion invaluable for him.
Now the real challenge for him over the course of the summer is to make sure he’s doing all those little things to put him in a position where he can compete for a job. That means increasing the pace of play a little bit, making sure he’s taking care of his nutrition off the ice, making sure he comes into camp in great shape. If he can show Calgary that he’s made some strides in those areas, he’s another guy that could hopefully make some noise come the fall.
Your club had some newer faces on it at the end of the season, as Adam Ollas Mattsson, Dillon Dube, Matt Phillips and Tyler Parsons came in on amateur try-outs. What can you tell us about those youngsters?
Positive on all of them. Adam was the guy that played the most for us. He came over during the latter part of our regular season and he played quite a few games down the stretch for us and he did an excellent job. When you’re putting someone into a new situation where it’s a new team, you’re not quite sure how that will play out. But he showed a compete factor, he showed a willingness to pay a price for his new teammates, and he showed a lot of hockey sense, an ability to read the play and make good plays under pressure that is coming at him. The one area he has to continue to work on for sure is his skating, and he’s committed to doing, but overall first impressions for us and for his first stretch of games in North America, they were real positive.
Dillon Dube was just a quick one. He flew in, we got him into the game the next day and unfortunately we didn’t win that game. But for a young guy, I think you see what his game could be. His skating now fits with the way the NHL is. He’s an elite skater. I think he has good hockey sense. I think he’s going to have the ability to be a good 200-foot player. I don’t have much more on him because it was just a quick time that he spent with us.
Matty Phillips was with us for a little while, I think it was close to a month when it was all said and done, and he got into a few games for us, one in the regular season, a couple in the playoffs. I think having him around and the experience that he gained being around men, same thing that Ras has up top – how guys prepare, how hard they work, what they do in the gym, how they take care of their body – I think is invaluable. But for a smaller guy, he’s got the ability to I think position himself the right way to know where pucks are going to be, he knows how to use his body against bigger guys, and I think that’s something he learned probably through his minor hockey years, up through his junior years and eventually when he comes to be a professional player, I think because he’s had to survive as a smaller player, he learned how to use his body the right way and he’s learned how to read the game properly. And the one thing that you notice from him, too, are his habits: his habits were really good when he came here.
Parse was very quick in regards to his time as well. Wasn’t around for the longest time, but what you see from him in practice is what you get from him in games. So everything we saw in the summertime from him was the same as we saw from him in practice. Very competitive guy. Our guys loved to shoot on him because they knew he wasn’t giving up on any puck, and just a real good young man. I think when you look at the goaltending situation for the prospects that the Calgary Flames have, the guys that we ended the year with – and that doesn’t include Mason McDonald, who was with Glens Falls – young prospects that are around, I think there’s going to be some really great competition moving forward. I think there’s real quality goaltenders coming up the pipeline.
It’s probably always better to have too many goalies than not enough, right?
You even throw in Tommy McCollum, who had a really rough start with us, didn’t get a lot of playing time at all but made sure to put himself in a position to work hard in practice and eventually when he got loaned out to Charlotte he was really the reason why they got themselves into the playoffs so another guy that has the ability to play the game. There’s a lot of depth in the goaltending position with our prospects.
It seemed like adding Rittich and McCollum to the organization pushed everyone to be better.
Our goaltenders, that was one of the strengths of our team this year for sure. Those guys were excellent for us, they gave us a chance to win every night and I think they really pushed each other. There’s a dynamic where both guys wanted the net. I think Tommy being around was good mentor for both of them in regards to how he worked and prepared, even in a tough situation. But this year compared to the year prior, where I think we had 12 goaltenders in and out because of injuries and some call-ups and things like that, this was a nice year for us because these guys were reliable and trustworthy.
Word is that your contract is up after this season. Have you had any chats about a new deal, or is too early to really say much?
I think it’s too early still. There has been conversations, small conversations, and I’m hopeful to still be around for sure. I love my job and I love the responsibilities that I have down here and I really do believe in the group that I get a chance to work for and with every day. I’m hopeful everything works out and hopefully they see us as doing a pretty good job down here in regards to developing and winning, and hopefully we can continue down this path.
Emile Poirier’s been on personal leave for the last while. Are able to share anything about the situation or how he’s doing?
All I can say really about the situation is he’s doing really well right now, and that’s something that’s a real positive for us. And I have had conversations with him and he’s excited and looking forward to next year and that’s a real positive thing for us.