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Photo Credit: Stockton Heat

There’s lots to like about Ryan Huska’s AHL tenure

Speculation suggests there’s a decent chance the Flames will add Ryan Huska to Bill Peters’ coaching staff in the near future.

Knowing that, I thought now would be a good time to take a look at Huska’s tenure with the organization. In his four years as head coach of Calgary’s American League affiliate, Huska’s work has been largely positive, especially in one key area.

Assessing a minor league coach is a little bit of a different exercise than doing so at the highest level. By and large, the primary measure of success for an NHL coach is results, whereas wins and losses are only part of the evaluation in Huska’s case. Just as important for an AHL coach is the job they do developing players for the next level, which is where I believe Huska has done his best work.

RESULTS

On the one hand, Huska’s teams in Adirondack and Stockton have never finished below .500 in his four years behind the bench. On the other, Huska has coached a team to the playoffs only once; the Heat went out in the first round of the 2017 postseason.

Season Team W L OT PCT
2014-15 Adirondack 35 33 8 0.513
2015-16 Stockton 32 32 4 0.500
2016-17 Stockton 34 25 9 0.566
2017-18 Stockton 34 28 6 0.544
Totals 135 118 27 0.530

Discussing AHL results is really interesting. If you talk to anyone with the Flames, they’ll tell you how important winning is in creating a positive culture up and down the organization. I agree with the premise, because there’s value in young players getting meaningful game experience, even at the minor league level.

Conversely, American League success can be fleeting. With cyclical and ever changing rosters, it can be difficult to post consistent results without loading up on veteran minor leaguers. That model is employed by AHL teams like Hershey, Chicago, and Wilkes-Barre, and it’s why those groups make the playoffs on a perennial basis.

Calgary’s model with their affiliate is a little different, as they prioritize development spots for younger players over more capable minor league veterans. That’s why it’s important to take results into context when evaluating Huska’s time with the Flames. I’m far more okay with a competitive, but not spectacular, win-loss record knowing how the organization has structured their top affiliate.

DEVELOPMENT

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

As stated, Calgary has placed more weight on using their AHL affiliate to prepare players for the big team. This is the area where Huska has done his best work, as we’ve seen numerous players effectively step into roles with the Flames without a huge learning curve.

We had an immediate example of that in Huska’s first season, as a ton of players made their NHL debut during Calgary’s surprising 2014-15. Seeing as how everything that year was seemingly a misnomer, though, I wouldn’t use it as an accurate barometer. Instead, I look at the last few years since the team has moved to Stockton and some of the players we’ve seen graduate.

Mark Jankowski. The gentleman pictured above spent a full AHL season under Huska before making the jump to the Flames this year. While there were certainly dips in Jankowski’s rookie NHL campaign, he still finished with 17 goals in 72 games playing the hardest forward position the entire way.

Garnet Hathaway. While there are conflicting schools of thought on how effective a player Hathaway is, you can’t deny he’s developed as a player. After spending his first three pro seasons largely under Huska in the AHL, Hathaway played 59 games in Calgary this season and showed flashes of being effective beyond buzz words like banging, crashing, grit, and energy.

Brett Kulak. Kulak is a real development success story for the Flames. The 2012 fourth round pick started his professional career the same time Huska started his tenure and has taken meaningful strides every single year. This past season was Kulak’s first spent entirely in the NHL after a slow but deliberate development curve helmed by Huska the entire way.

Rasmus Andersson. In just two seasons with the Heat, Andersson has shown huge signs of growth and now looks ready to crack Calgary’s NHL roster full time. In two AHL seasons under Huska, Andersson jumped from 22 to 39 points and played some of the most important minutes on the team. And, in 10 games with the Flames, he showed plenty of signs he’s ready for prime time.

Of course, it’s hard to truly gauge how much impact a coach has in developing any one player because so much of it based on the individual. However, Huska’s role can’t be totally dismissed either and that’s why I think he’s done a solid job accomplishing his goal of readying players for the next level.

CONCLUSION

After seven successful seasons as head coach of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, Huska was ready to make the jump to professional hockey. Four years later, I think his AHL resume in Stockton and Adirondack suggests he’s probably ready for another step. If he’s indeed in the mix to be an assistant with the Flames, I think it would be a solid choice for the organization.

  • BringtheFire 2.0

    Nuanced explanation of evaluation at the AHL level. Excellent article.

    Huska is the perfect choice for assistant, and graduating him to the NHL would be an excellent message to send to the rest of the team.

    Huska has earned it.

  • The Fall

    I tend to like coaches who adapt to both their players’ strengths and the changing game. Huska did very well with a stacked team in Kelowna. AHL success is so finicky.

    Does he do the forwards or the D-men?

  • JMK

    How were Stocktons special teams the last few years?? And does Huska get AC’s in Stockton? Would love Stockton Finest’s take on this. And WW’s for entertainment value.

    • Bean-counting cowboy

      Runs in my mind that Stockton’s Finest is not a huge Huska fan. At least towards the end of the season.

      I for one don’t mind the idea of him being there as an assistant, given his connection with many of the young players.

    • Stockton's Finest

      Last year both PK and PP ranked 23rd. If by AC you mean Assistant Coaches, yes. Stockton has Dominic Pittis coaching forwards, Cail MacLain for defense, and Colin Zulianello as goalie coach.

  • Cheeky

    I hope if Huska is considered for an AC position, he gets it based in merit and not just because he has been a good soldier for the organization. Considering our last assistants and his familiarity with the young guys / prospects, I’m game…

    • Trevy

      I agree, this is a crucial part of Tre’s tenure as GM. He really needs to make sure he hires the right AC’s based on their merit. I’m sure he’ll start to feel the heat if he makes the wrong decisions going forward

  • cjc

    The main reason I like this – it implies the Flames will look for solutions from their youth, rather than going after FAs or mediocre trades. Hopefully that means Mangiapane and Andersson get full time jobs. It’s more likely that Valimaki, Dube or Phillips will make the team if an assistant like Huska is on staff.

        • Baalzamon

          I mean if you’re going mathematically it has to be at least 20%. One of five years. And if you think about it it’s more like 33% since he spent 78 games in the AHL compared to 148 games in the NCAA (that’s over half).

          Do you really want to bandy about meaningless numbers on an equally meaningless argument?

          • class1div1

            No i don’t.But i disagree that it’s a meaningless argument.Most player’s stepping up to the Pro level have deficiency’s in their defensive game,as well as a lack of experience in playing Full time.Janko’s defensive game was there from the start.All he had too learn was a system and learn to play 80 games.Not a lot to do with Huska

          • The Real Slim Brodie

            So class basically your saying huska did a great job because his job was to teach jankowski the system and he stepped into a full time position with the flames?

  • Stockton's Finest

    Reading this makes me wonder why I continue to plop down money for my season tickets to watch Stockton play. I want to see a winner, a team that makes the playoffs while still continuing to develop players for the next step, not just a team whose sole purpose is development only.

    This makes the article I am writing that much more pertinent to this conversation.

    BTW, those who have pointed out that I am not a huge fan of Huska, you are correct, as a head coach. But as an assistant and in charge of one aspect, he may be a good fit. It should leave Cail MacLain as the head coach down here, unless they want to try someone like Marco Sturm.

    • piscera.infada

      (No disrespect to you, or the fine season’s ticket holders in Stockton intended).

      With cyclical and ever changing rosters, it can be difficult to post consistent results without loading up on veteran minor leaguers. That model is employed by AHL teams like Hershey, Chicago, and Wilkes-Barre, and it’s why those groups make the playoffs on a perennial basis.

      Calgary’s model with their affiliate is a little different, as they prioritize development spots for younger players over more capable minor league veterans.

      I post that excerpt because I’ve been arguing this on this board for the better part of two years now. The Stockton Heat serve a purpose for the Calgary Flames. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of the situation. The teams that perennially contend in the AHL are exactly those veteran-heavy rosters.

      While certainly not necessarily mutually exclusive, there is no actual corollary between successful AHL clubs and successful NHL clubs, at least as far as prospect development goes. It sounds nice to say “a team that contends every year, and develops players”, but that’s not always a realistic standard. For an organization (like the Flames) trying to fill out their roster with internal options (as I assume they hope to), that means prioritizing those young, mistake-prone, still-learning propsects with prime icetime and opportunity.

      There were a number of posts last offseason trying to negatively compare Huska to his predecessor Troy Ward. The teams at those respective periods served drastically different purposes (although, that was likely in large part due to mismanagement than choice). Ward’s teams were full of players who were either AHL only vets, or AHL level reclamation projects (Kris Kolanos, Akim Aliu, Chad Billions, etc.), among the few “noteworthy” (I use that term loosely) prospects the Flames had at the time. Huska’s teams on the other hand, are filled with a number of players trying to figure out the pro-game in either the first or second years of professional hockey. As such, the organizational philosophy of such a club has to be inherently different.

      Finally, to those arguing “prospect stagnation”, I would just like to point out standard attrition rates for NHL prospects. I haven’t put the leg work in by any means, but I don’t think I’d be entirely off-base in assuming (anecdotally) that the Flames are actually doing a pretty good job in developing NHL players–at least league average, if not in the top third (although, I’ll happily be proven incorrect on that if someone does have data showing otherwise).

    • Stu Gotz

      SF..you say you would support Huska as an assistant in charge of one aspect? What aspect is that? What is Huska’s proven area of expertise? As you know the Flames require an offensive coach preferably a PP specialist. If Huska doesn’t fit that gap then he is not a fit? Perhaps on defence but I do not now Huska’s background well enough to comment. Personally on defence I am in favour of an established veteran with a proven coaching track record. I like the job Steve Smith had done with Carolina’s young defence. He has also coached in Calgary in the past…..

    • freethe flames

      As I pointed out a while back a good organization figures out a way to do both. This year the Flames have 4 high end prospects coming on board; Dube, Phillips, Gawdin and Valimaki; those along with 3 nearly ready prospects in Kylington, Foo and Mangiapane. I am suggesting that Andersson is already NHL ready. That is 7 skating prospects out of 24 skaters they are likely to carry. These guys are better suited to be playing with guys who enhance their skill set rather than trying to carry the team themselves. Then if they resign their late bloomers they have 3 more in Poirier, Klimchuk and Shinkaruk; add Pollock and you not have 11 skaters. You need to add a tweeners and some solid AHLers. Learning to win in the AHL is an important step to learning to win in the NHL. Surely there a re enough good AHLer’s/exNHLers who can do that. You deserve to see both and the kids need to be taught that winning is part of there development. Last year all 3 teams in the organization failed to make the playoffs; how did that help in their development.

      • piscera.infada

        4 high end prospects… Gawdin

        Really? This is part of the problem. I think people need to take a step back, have a deep breath, and truly evaluate what “high-end” actually means.

        • Stockton's Finest

          I am almost done with an article that will provide a counterpoint to these points. It is too long to post as a response. I have been “fact checking” the past few weeks to ensure an accurate response.

          • HAL MacInnis

            Give ’em hell, Finest. This whole “developing players while losing is a good thing” mentality has got to stop.

            Anybody who has ever coached any sport knows that winning breeds confidence and trust among players and staff… which only leads to better things all around. The only time player development trumps winning is in minor sports.

            I feel really sorry for all those Vegas players who are suffering developmentally while going to the Stanley Cup final.

          • piscera.infada

            Oh come on now. No one is advocating “developing players while losing is a good thing”. No one. I mean, I can understand how you couldn’t understand the point through your witticism…

          • HAL MacInnis

            “I can understand how you couldn’t understand the point through your witticism…”

            Huh?

            “(No disrespect to you, or the fine season’s ticket holders in Stockton intended).”

            Really?

            I understand you’re pro player development and that Stockton losing doesn’t bother you as much as the average Joe, but let me have my pitchfork on this one, okay? Jeez.

        • freethe flames

          Let me rephrase it then; the Flames top for players leaving the CHL and likely playing in the AHL are; Dube, Phillips, Valimaki and Gawdin. Regardless of the wording it still means the same thing in regards to the argument about what the Heat need to be more than just about player development. If you are only adding 4/5 prospects(skaters) a year you need to have other guys in your organization in different stages of development. 4/5 1st years, 4/5 second years, 4/5 late bloomers(guys could be in year 3-5), 3-5 tweeners( your insurance guys) and 4-6 AHL vets/xNHL vets. Hopefully some of your 2nd year guys and late bloomers are NHL ready(Mangiapane/Foo/Kylington) and would be your first recalls.

  • BlueMoonNigel

    While I agree with Steinberg that Huska has earned a promotion to the NHL, I don’t share his opinion about Huska’s solidity to the org. Huska would be a sort of fresh voice having never been an NHL assistant coach, but he still carries the stink from Hartley and Gully. My sense is that if Huska is not invited to be a Flames assistant this year, he should fulfill his contract obligations with the Heat and move on.

    I also wonder what happens if Billy wants to hire his own assistants and Tre concurs so long as one of them is Huska. (To that list, Gelinas and Sigalet might be two and three.)

  • DMac

    I listened with interest to the drive home show yesterday where you and Rob Kerr were speculating on the assistant coach line up. You had posed the question about a ‘recently retired’ former Flame that might fit the bill. What about Joel Otto? He’s been an assistant with the Hitmen for some time. He was an incredible on face-offs and a terrific defensive forward. He has coaching experience, although not at the NHL level. He has Calgary ties. Perhaps just moving ‘down the hall’ would benefit both parties. . .