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Photo Credit: Mrs. Finest

A timeline for player development

Over the past few years, I have made the argument that a winning Stockton Heat team is good not only for the fans but also for the players. Most of the comments I receive are “Stockton is for player development” and winning is a secondary focus. While I still think winning should be included, let’s talk about the development side of the Stockton Heat.

In researching this topic starting at the 2014 draft, I found that most first round draft picks spend a year or less in the AHL. There are players that take longer like Julian Honka (three years), Kasperi Kapanen (two years), or Alexander Nylander (three years). There are others that have yet to crack a full season in the NHL like Nick Merkley, Gabriel Carlsson, or Morgan Klimchuk.

Players drafted in the third round or later typically take longer to develop for a few reasons: either injury, maturity, or their play in the minors or college. These players need two to three seasons in the AHL before being considered for call up. Most will end up as fringe players that round out an AHL roster and get an occasional one or two game injury replacement call up, where they get a pre-game skate on NHL ice and eat fresh popcorn.

The current Stockton Heat roster is void of a single first or second round pick. In fact, 10 of the 23 players that are in Stockton are undrafted. Here is the breakdown of the Heat players:

Player Draft Round Draft Year 1st AHL year
Byron Froese 4th 2009 2011
Buddy Robinson Undrafted 2012
Brandon Davidson 6th 2010 2012
Alan Quine 6th 2013 2013
Alex Gallant Undrafted 2015
Ryan Lomberg Undrafted 2015
Andrew Nielsen 3rd 2015 2015
Zac Leslie 6th 2013 2015
Rinat Valiev 3rd 2014 2015
Jon Gillies 3rd 2012 2015
Mitch Hults Undrafted 2016
Justin Kirkland 3rd 2014 2016
Rob Hamilton Undrafted 2017
Matthew Phillips 6th 2016 2018
Mason Morelli Undrafted 2018
Glenn Gawdin 4th 2015 2018
Corey Schueneman Undrafted 2018
Martin Pospisil 4th 2018 2019
Eetu Tuulola 6th 2016 2019
Adam Ruzicka 4th 2017 2019
Luke Philp Undrafted 2019
Alexander Yelesin Undrafted 2019
Artyom Zagidulin Undrafted 2019

The 2019-20 Flames have eight players who have skipped the AHL entirely and headed straight to the NHL. Six were first round picks (Sam Bennett, Michael Frolik, Noah Hanifin, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan and Matthew Tkachuk) with Milan Lucic (second round) and Johnny Gaudreau (fourth) the only ones outside of the top round.

For the remaining players on the roster, seven have spent a year or less in the bus league, while six, including captain Mark Giordano, spent two years on the farm. Only Oliver Kylington and Zac Rinaldo spent three or more seasons in the minors before hitting the bigs.

Of the eight players that made the jump from juniors to the Show, I want to focus on Sam Bennett, since he has been Calgary property since draft day.

Picked fourth overall in 2014, Bennett played the last game of the 2014-15 season, recorded an assist (and going minus-1) in that game. In the 2015 playoffs, he netted three with an apple in 11 playoff games. In the following 4-plus seasons, he has never tallied more than 36 points (his first year) and has never been a plus player (last year was his best with a -6). Since his four-goal performance against Florida on Jan. 13, 2016, he has recorded only four multiple goal games (Jan. 21, 2016 at Columbus, Mar. 28, 2016 at Arizona, Dec. 2, 2017 vs. Edmonton and Jan. 18, 2019 vs. Detroit). During his tenure with the Flames, he has had scoreless streaks of five or more games 19 times, including four streaks of 10 or more games. Bennett started the 2017-18 season on a personal worst 15-game scoring drought. These are not numbers that are expected with the fourth overall pick in the draft.

He is the best example of what a year spent with the Stockton Heat playing 20-plus minutes in all situations and top line duties could have done for a developing 19-year old coming straight from juniors – aside from the complications of the Canadian Hockey League’s agreement which limits teenagers to the NHL or juniors until their 20-year-old season. Bennett was rushed into an NHL spot with disregard for his development. His career mirrors that of Curtis Lazar in that both first rounders have been handled badly. The difference is that the Flames had full control to send Bennett down for experience beginning with the 2016-17 season but they chose to keep him up and put him in multiple positions where he did not fit. At least Lazar knew he needed help and asked to be assigned to Stockton last year, where he enjoyed the best stats in his pro career. [Editor’s note: By the time Bennett really struggled with consistency at the NHL level, he had played enough NHL games that he was waiver eligible and no longer able to go freely to the minors.]

In comparison to Bennett, Rasmus Andersson spent two seasons in Stockton working on his game. He went from 22 points (3-19) in his rookie season to 39 (9-30) in his final season before his call up for the final 10 Flames games. He has arguably passed everyone but Giordano on the Flames defensive depth chart, getting top pairing duties multiple times. Would that have happened without time spent with the Heat?

Developing Ras

Over the past few years, instead of players like Dillon Dube and Juuso Valimaki honing their craft in the AHL playing 20-plus minutes a game, the Flames rushed them into the NHL to play a solid eight minutes every other game. While it’s probably a coincidence that both were injured during their rookie year with the Flames, I still believe being pushed into the NHL stunted their development from juniors on their path to full-time NHL duty.

Dube feeling the Heat

This season Glenn Gawdin and Matthew Phillips are pacing the Heat in points through the first third of the 2019-20 campaign. The fourth and sixth round picks, respectfully, are only in their second year of pro hockey. Their ice time has increased this season with both playing penalty kill and power play minutes after playing bottom six minutes in their freshman season. Their development is on course to challenge for a full-time position on next season’s Flames roster.

Team points leader Phillips

Instead of letting them fully develop, there are numerous comments by FlamesNation posters to bring both of these players up “for a look”. Why? What happened to development for the future? I would argue that having these players go from bottom six to top six minutes, continuing to put up numbers, and leading their team to a Calder Cup playoff run is better to their development than to bring them up for eight games to practice with the team, get free press box tickets for most of those games, while missing out of valuable ice time playing in all situations in Stockton.

Unless there is a need to cover an injured Flame, yanking them from a Stockton Heat team “for a look” is counter-productive to their development. If you want to watch them play, buy a subscription to AHL TV or come to Stockton to see them play. There are plenty of good seats still available.

Good seats available

If the Heat are truly a development team, then let these players fully develop. It only helps the Flames in the long run.