As the Heat hit the 20-game mark, I want to provide a look back at the season to date, some comparisons to last year’s squad, some position grades, and a look forward in our quest for the Calder Cup.
The Heat currently reside in second place in the Pacific Division with a record of 12-6-0-2 for a .650 winning percentage (Texas and San Antonio play a 76-game schedule in comparison to the 68 games played by everyone else). After 20 games last year the Heat were 13-5-1-1. The road records are about the same as well, with the 2017 team going 4-3-0-2, as opposed to 4-4-0-0 last year.
But these two teams are different in many ways.
Last year, the team was pretty much set. Garnet Hathaway was up with the big club and Hunter Shinkaruk had only played nine games with the Heat. Other than those two, the Heat were mostly intact.
This year’s club has seen Mark Jankowski depart after six games for the Flames, Hathaway has now joined him, both Jon Gillies and David Rittich have spent time in Calgary, and Rasmus Andersson has played a game up north. In return we have received Eddie Lack and Tanner Glass. Hmmmm… not the best of trades. But that is the main purpose of the Stockton Heat: to develop talent for the Flames in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup!
Here are my grades to date for positions.
CENTER: Grade: B-
Last year’s team was solid up the middle, with Jankowski, Linden Vey, Mike Angelidis, Mikkel Aagaard, and Daniel Pribyl all taking turns at center. You know where Jankowski is. Vey is in the KHL, Angelidis is in Italy, Aagaard is playing for Springfield (Florida Panthers AHL), and Pribyl is currently on the Flames IR.
When the season started, the Heat had four solid centers: Jankowski, Marek Hrivik, Brett Findlay, and Rod Pelley. Throw Ryan Lomberg into this mix, as it seems like the organization is converting him from winger to center.
With Janko’s promotion, the club failed to fill his spot and now only has three real centers. Hrivik has impressed and is now third on the team in scoring. He was on the top line, but seems more comfortable as second line center, and the results prove that. Findlay took over on the top line when Jankowski was called up. He has meshed well with that top line.
As third line center, Lomberg is still a work in progress. His game has changed from last year, as he does not seem as fast, which is to be expected as a playmaker, and he seems to be overthinking the role. He is more concerned on feeding his teammates instead of letting his natural ability kick in. He has hardly dropped the gloves, which was a huge part of his game last year. I can think of only twice that he has fought someone this year.
Pelley fills the Angelidis role as fourth line center. He will not bring that much production, as that is what you get with a 33-year-old AHL journeyman.
Right before this road trip started, Pelley was scratched with an injury and has not played since. Findlay also did not play in the Bakersfield series, which left the Heat with one true center (Hrivik), a center in training (Lomberg), and two fill-ins (Joseph Cramarossa and Brett Pollock). I hope help is on the way.
Summary: It is hard to provide a grade when there is so much flux in this position. This team is in dire need for centermen. Lomberg should be moved back to wing to allow him to continue to regain his spark from last year that earned him a two-year contract. I am surprised there has not been either call-ups from Kansas City or someone being sent down (I will trade you an Andrew Mangiapane for a Curtis Lazar or a Freddie Hamilton). It would also be nice to see Glenn Gawdin make an appearance in Stockton since he is now signed, and move Lomberg back to the wing.
WINGER: Grade B
This group stayed intact for the most part from last year’s squad. The three defections are Matt Frattin, who took his 36 points (18-18) and joined Vey in the KHL; Brandon Bollig (11-11-22), who took the bus 90 minutes southwest to the hated Barracuda; and Jamie Devane (4-9-13), who headed south down Highway 99 to play for the Ontario Reign.
In their place, the Heat signed Cramarossa, Spencer Foo, Luke Gazdic, and Glass.
Mangiapane leads the team in scoring (9-13-22) and was named the Player of the Month for October in the AHL. He is playing with more confidence this year and is going to the net more. Even after losing his two line mates, he has still has anchored the top line.
Morgan Klimchuk had a slow start but has turned it on of late. He is now fourth on the team in scoring (9-5-14) while heading the second line. Emile Poirier has blossomed since joining Klimchuk and Hrivik on that line (2-9-11).
Like in Calgary, the bottom six need to get going. Foo has been disappointing, only finding the back of the net once. He shoots a lot, which is good, but he needs to shoot the puck with a purpose, not just haphazardly. Shinkaruk has been erratic and needs to balance his game. He has looked great on a few nights but most often looks scattered. Cramarossa has played well on the penalty kill and has a few key goals to his name. The remaining players (Glass, Pelley, Gazdic, Austin Carroll) have combined for a goal and three assists.
Summary: The forward group is solid, but I can only see Mangiapane, Klimchuk, or Poirier being considered as a call-up, in that order. The remaining players need to start showing some consistency in their game. This group needs to stop making the ill-advised (and often telegraphed) cross-ice pass. They need to keep it simple and make the smart play, not the high-risk, highlight reel play. Dirty goals count just as much as those pretty between-the-legs goals (nice one Janko!). One interesting note: based on the Heat roster, only three of the 10 forward positions are listed as right wing, which have accounted for a total of three goals.
DEFENSE: Grade A
There are only minor changes from the 2016 team to this year’s group. Brett Kulak graduated to Calgary. Kenney Morrison has skated off to the Chicago Wolves. Keegan Kanzig, who spent a lot of time in the ECHL, was dealt to Carolina in the Lack trade.
Joining the Heat are Cody Goloubef, Colby Robak (for his second stint with the club), and Oleg Yevenko.
Andersson and Tyler Wotherspoon have anchored the top pair while tied for fifth on the team in scoring (2-10-12). Andersson has accomplished those numbers in three fewer games. They work so well together, knowing where each one will be, pinching down in the offensive zone when needed, and clearing the zone effectively. They play on both sides of special teams.
The second pair of Oliver Kylington and Goloubef has also been solid. The longer they play together the more comfortable they are with each other. Like Andersson and Wotherspoon, they now know each other’s games. They circle around and cover the point when the other drives deep in the offensive zone. Even though Kylington is more offensively minded, it is Goloubef who leads all defensemen with three goals.
The bottom two have been a hodgepodge of combinations, with Josh Healey, Adam Ollas-Mattsson, and Robak seeing the most action, with Yevenko only dressing for five games.
At the beginning of the year, there were games where Mrs. Finest and I (4th Finest) did not even realize Healey was on the ice. In the past few home games, he has started throwing his body around and taking players out. AOM is not afraid to go to the boards to lay a body on someone. He also is good at moving opposing players out of the crease to give his goalie a good look at shots. He played on the top line for three games when Andersson went north of the border. Robak’s game reminds me of Kulak’s as he quietly goes about his business and provides a workman-like performance. Yevenko still looks like he is learning, even though he has spent the past four years in the AHL. He needs to work on his speed and ice awareness.
Summary: This is the core of the team. Calgary is pretty set for the next few years as these kids grow. I can see either or both Andersson and Wotherspoon in Calgary this year. Kylington needs the remainder of this year to solidify his game and he will be pushing for a spot at next year’s training camp. Goloubef is a solid defensemen with a sneaky shot. I can see him being an emergency call-up if pressed. The bottom four defensemen need at least two years here to be ready for the NHL.
GOALIE: Grade B+
The Heat brought back the same two netminders, Jon Gillies and David Rittich (pronounce Da-vid, with a soft “a”, like a baby saying da da for dad). Both will give you solid games with the occasional gaff. Gillies tends to rely on kick saves with the potential big rebound while Rittich controls his rebounds better. Gillies is not as active as Rittich. As I have written in the past, Gillies tends to be beaten top shelf, mostly on the glove side. If I had to fathom an educated guess, Rittich’s soft spot tends to be low glove.
I have not seen Lack in net, so I cannot formulate an opinion on him yet. But from the things I have heard during the two games on this road trip, he is finding his game. I will say that neither Gillies nor Lack are good in shootouts. Gillies gave up three of four shots in San Diego earlier this year while Lack stopped only one of three in Bakersfield on Friday.
Summary: Gillies, Lack, and Rittich (if he comes back) just need to tighten up their games and continue to make the big stops when called upon.
COACHING: Grade C+
It always presents an issue for the coach when top line players are called up. Ryan Huska has done a good job in filling lines when those players leave. But some of the line combinations leave me scratching my head.
To begin the year, he put Poirier on the third line with Lomberg and Shinkaruk. OK, I get that. Poirier was coming back from his issues last year and you wanted to surround him with players he knows. But then he moved him to the fourth line with Pelley and Gazdic? To Poirier’s credit, he continued to play hard and was rewarded with second line minutes. After three games, when he produced seven points, he moved him back with Gazdic and Cramarossa. What the heck?
It took Huska six weeks before he finally moved an unproductive Foo from the second line to the third after sitting him a game. I believe the last few games he has spent time on both the third and fourth lines.
He played with five and, according to the roster, seven left wings while fielding only three right wings on most occasions. That fourth right wing should be reserved for Carroll, who in six games has failed to register a point. I have written this before and I will write it again: something is up with Huska, Carroll, and the Flames organization. I do not see him lasting the year here. Everyone mentions adding a prospect in any future potential deal; here he is.
He constantly changes the bottom pair on defense. It is hard to build consistency when you play one game and sit the next two.
You can definitely tell that Huska has been told that Gillies is the chosen one. He gets the majority of starts, even in back-to-back games. This has changed a bit since the arrival of Lack. I will be interested to see who gets the start in San Jose on Wednesday, since Lack started in Bakersfield on Friday.
Summary: Huska needs to keep lines together when they perform and make the in-game adjustments when players are struggling. He needs to dump that stupid power play drop pass to the trailing player and allow players to skate the puck into the zone. He needs to convince his team to take the shot instead of over-passing the puck. Please get players in front of the opposing crease when in the offensive zone and on the power play.
This team can be better and go further than last year’s team. They need to focus on each game, period, and shift and not get down. They have fought back twice now from three-goal deficits on the road to tie games and gain a point (ultimately losing in shootouts). I do not recall a time last year when they did that. Those points are character points, as last year’s team would have just laid down for the remainder of the game.
There are the obvious areas that need to be mentioned: the Heat spend way too much time in the sin bin, they need to improve their power play and penalty kills, they need to get better shots, blah blah blah.
I believe the remainder of this month will set the tone for the rest of the year and a push for the Calder Cup playoffs. Currently, the Heat are 2-2-0-1 on this six-game road trip. They come home for a single game before hitting the road again for seven more. These are the two longest road trips of the year for Stockton. They face no more than a three-game roadie for the remainder of the year. Most of January and March is spent at the friendly, albeit cavernous, confines of Stockton Arena.
If they can finish the year in a playoff position, and avoid a lengthy losing streak (like last year’s 10-game slide), there will be more April and May hockey in the Central Valley of California.
Go Heat Go!