Well, that sucked.
On their way to the best season in Stockton Heat history, someone had to make tainted bat stew and the world stopped. Two months later, the AHL decided the cancel the remainder of the season. The last game for the Heat was a Tuesday night loss to the San Jose Barracuda by the score of 7-4 (side note: the Heat went 0-2 on Tuesday games). The 2016-17 season will remain as the best Stockton Heat team with 77 points and a playoff berth.
The Heat ended the season with a 30-17-4-4- record, good for 68 points and third in the Pacific Division. The Heat were one of the best teams in 2019, posting a 19-6-2-3 record. In 2020, the Heat cooled off, going 11-11-2-1. With 13 games remaining, the Heat had an excellent shot at qualifying for their second Calder Cup playoffs, likely matching up with the Colorado Eagles in the first round. But instead of extra hockey, Heat players and fans were left to dream of what might have been.
For the better part of the season, the Heat were a top five team in the league (percentage wise). Unfortunately, they spent the season chasing a white-hot Tucson club, eventually sliding to eighth in the league with a .618 winning percentage to end the season.
The Heat topped the league in both Power Play (25.6%) and Penalty Kill (87.6%) effectiveness. Stockton scored 194 goals in 55 games, good for ninth in the league while playing the least amount of games of anyone in the top 10 (most played 60+ games). They allowed 170 goals, good for seventh best.
The Heat found distant ice better than the Stockton sheet of ice. They tied with Milwaukee for the top stop in the Western Conference with a .667 away winning percentage (16-7-1-3) while posting a .571% on home ice 14-10-3-1, good for seventh in the West.
All-star Glenn Gawdin led the team in points, ending the season with 47 in 53 games. The title of Mr. Helper goes to Alan Quine with 32 assists in 38 games. Captain Byron Froese and rookie Luke Philp led the lamp lighting category, finding the back of the net 19 times. Quine led the team with 1.21 points per game, while Rob Hamilton topped the plus/minus at +14. Philp led all yearlings with 31 points.
Players that are under NHL contracts who will be back in Stockton next season: Philp, Matthew Phillips, Adam Ruzicka, Eetu Tuulola, and Martin Pospisil. Gawdin and Justin Kirkland are restricted free agents, Kirkland with arbitration rights. I think both will be re-signed.
The list of NHL unrestricted free agents includes Froese, Quine, Austin Czarnik, Buddy Robinson, and Ryan Lomberg. I think Froese and Lomberg get another year; Froese for leadership and Lomberg because he is Lomberg (fan favorite, hustle, grit). Czarnik is a sure bet to be gone while Quine and Robinson will only return on NHL two-way league minimum contract at best.
Next season’s Heat newcomers with NHL contracts include Emilio Pettersen and possibly Dmitri Zavgorodny (he turns 20 in August).
In my opinion, any forward on an AHL or PTO contract will not be back, as no one from this group stood out enough to warrant another year. There are always an abundance of forwards available for a one-year AHL contract to fill the gaps.
Back end review
There are only two defensemen that should be resigned from this year’s group: Zac Leslie and Corey Schueneman. Leslie will fill the defensive leadership role vacated when Brandon Davidson was jettisoned at the deadline. He could easily wear Davidson’s “A” next season. He posted career numbers in points (28) and assists (23) while tying his goal production (5) in only 50 games. Schueneman provided offense (3-18-21) in his freshman year while still being sound defensively. He led all Heat blueliners with 83 shots on goal. He was sent to Kansas City in November before returning for good on Nov. 15. He posted three points (2-1-3) in four games while wearing Maverick gear.
Next year’s blue line will look completely different, as Calgary has been busy signing defensemen recently. The Flames have inked Colton Poolman, Connor Mackay and Johannes Kinnvall to NHL contracts (Kinnvall will be in Sweden), while Greg Moro, Noah King, and Koletrane Wilson have new AHL deals. At least one of Alexander Yelesin, Carl-Johan Lerby, and/or Juuso Valimaki will join this group.
The masked ones
There are no netminders under contract for next season. Three are RFAs while Jon Gillies is a Group 6 UFA.
Artyom Zagidulin proved he can handle the workload of being a top AHL goalie. He led the team in wins and shutouts while appearing in 30 games. His GAA and save percentage were not as good as Gillies, but the team appeared more comfortable with him in net. He has arbitration rights and should head into the 2020-21 season as the #1 goalie.
Tyler Parsons is set up to back up Zagidulin in Stockton. Based on this season’s goalie usage by Coach Cail MacLean, he should get between 28 and 30 starts next season. The 22-year-old went 11-9-2 with a 3.03 GAA and a .911 SV% in 25 games with the Mavericks. His injury history is concerning, only playing in 27 AHL games the past three years. He did not see the net in Stockton in the 2019-20 season.
Nick Schneider may be signed for Kansas City duty and back up in Stockton. Every time he dons Heat gear he has performed well. That alone may warrant a one-year AHL deal as back up in case Parsons gets hurt again.
Gillies has seen his last days in Stockton, in my opinion. A Group 6 UFA, his has failed to make a solid argument for the Flames to re-sign him. His numbers improved last season to a respectable 14-10-4-1 record and .907 SV% and 2.69 GAA. Those numbers sound decent, but not for a $750K one-way deal. He needs a change of scenery, hopefully somewhere on the East Coast away from Stockton.
Behind the bench
Cail MacLean appeared more comfortable in his second season as the Heat coach. The returning players knew the system which helped the newcomers adjust quicker. Naming a captain (Froese) at the start of the season seemed to settle the group. Rotating goalies every game, with a few exceptions, kept them fresh. He kept the lines together for the most part, adjusting for injuries and call ups. He employed a five-forward power play when faced with a shortage of power play experienced defensemen. He mixed experienced players with rookies to help them in their development. He let his goalies battle until it was apparent a hook was required. He called timeouts regularly, something he failed to do last season. If this season was another building block in his approach, next season should be even better.
Coming into the season I had tempered expectations. It looked like a good team that would compete, but I thought the 2018-19 team was a playoff shoo-in and that never materialized. It took until the end of October to realize this team was special. Winning games in the last minute, coming back from two and three goal deficits to win games, having a lethal power play, and seeing an improved blueline and puck stoppers turned around my outlook around for the season. The 2019-20 group had a flair for the dramatic, scoring in the final minute of play four times to either win or send a game to overtime. Even in defeat, this team was fun to watch.
An early November 7-6 road loss in Tucson captured the season in a nutshell. Coming off a 3-2 shootout loss the night before where the Heat had a 2-0 lead heading into the third period, the Heat looked to bounce back against a first place Roadrunners team. Tucson jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, including goals 29 seconds apart, forcing Cail MacLean to yank Zagidulin less than 15 minutes into the game. Instead of phoning it in and getting out of town, Stockton turned up the heat and played inspired hockey. Dillon Dube started the scoring four minutes into the second frame. Jon Gillies allowed a short-handed and power play goal within two minutes, extending the Roadrunners lead to 5-1. Stockton battled back, cutting the lead to 5-4 with a pair of goals by Oliver Kylington and another one from Matthew Phillips. A late Tucson goal gave them a two-goal cushion heading into the third. Kylington capped off his night with a hat trick goal a minute into the third. After that, the teams traded goals in the first half of the third. Stockton continued to fire rubber at their net but could never find the equalizer. While they left Tucson with one of four possible points, it appeared to instill confidence in this group. Stockton went on to win six of the next eight games to close out November.
The other highlights of the season include Kirkland scoring with 17 seconds left to beat San Jose, Kirkland’s tying tally with 42 seconds left in Colorado before Philp potting home a shot in overtime to win the game, and watching Zagidulin pitch a shutout in person on Saturday and then allowing only a single tally the next day in a 2-1 weekend sweep of the Barracuda in January.
It’s a wrap
I feel like Sheldon Cooper of Big Bang Theory when his girlfriend, Amy, is conducting an experiment on how people react when they cannot complete a game or task. Unlike Sheldon, who recreated and completed everything when Amy left, I am left with just an empty feeling of an unfinished season. Hopefully the NHL returns with playoffs so I get a sense of closure from watching the end of a season.
Mrs. Finest and I are guaranteed at least one more season of Heat hockey if things return to normal and we can attend games in person again. While discussions with Calgary and Stockton remain open (I am told), there has been no word on an extension past the 2020-21 season. With the shutdown, the Flames and City of Stockton have bigger things to address. With word that the City of Manteca (about 15 miles south of Stockton) is in the initial exploratory phase for building a 5,000-seat ice arena that the Heat could use as a practice facility, maybe the future of the Flames farm team will remain in Northern California.