Justin Kirkland is capping off his breakout year with a terrific playoff performance
Photo credit:Photo courtesy the Stockton Heat
By Mike Gould1 year ago
To call Justin Kirkland’s 2021–22 season an “improvement” would be a massive understatement.
The 25-year-old winger emerged as an offensive cornerstone for the 45–16–7 Stockton Heat this year, finishing third on the team — behind only top-line forwards @Matthew Phillips and @Jakob Pelletier — with 25 goals in 66 games. His 48 points ranked fourth behind Phillips, Pelletier, and @Glenn Gawdin.
Prior to this season, Kirkland had scored just 33 goals in his entire 267-game American Hockey League career. Only eight of those goals came in the 69 games he played during his first two campaigns with the Heat.
Kirkland’s shooting percentage in 2021–22 wasn’t abnormally high — 11.4%, definitely an uptick for him but not a figure that leaps off the page. He remained a fixture on both special teams, as has been the case since he joined the Heat in 2019.
What changed, then?
“When you turn pro, it’s hard to find that translation from your junior game,” Kirkland said. “I was always thinking that my shot was maybe one of my strengths, and it was just finding that confidence to do it in pro.
“At the start of the year, I met with the coaching staff, going over what was expected of me to do for the team,” Kirkland added. “That was one of the goals that they really set out for me, to maybe hit a certain amount of shots per game, just being a little bit more simple in my game.
“Obviously, it’s translated to the puck going in the back of the net, which has been fantastic.”
No kidding. Kirkland almost doubled his AHL career goal total this season and has been even better in the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs, scoring five goals and seven points in seven games to help the Heat reach the Western Conference Final.
Kirkland is a big man. He’s listed by the AHL at 6’3″ and 205 pounds, and he doesn’t put any of that to waste when he winds up for a shot.
Once again, merely calling his shot “one of his strengths” is an understatement: Kirkland can absolutely fire the puck. Just ask the guy who faces him every day in practice.
“He’s got a quick release. He can put it behind you pretty quick,” said Dustin Wolf, Stockton’s shining star between the pipes who was recently named AHL goaltender of the year. “Obviously, we’ve seen that in the past few games. It’s definitely nice to have a guy like that on your side.”
Stockton defeated the Colorado Eagles three games to one in the best-of-five AHL Pacific Division Final. Wolf posted three shutouts in the series, with Kirkland scoring the winning goal in all three of Stockton’s victories.
Two of those deciding goals — including the series-winner in Game 4, shown below — also stood as the game’s only tally. Kirkland and Wolf powered the Heat to 1–0 victories in Games 2 and 4.
“If you can avoid overtime as much as possible, that’s the ideal scenario,” Wolf said with a smile. “We’ve just kind of got the luck on our side right now, and hopefully both of us can continue doing what we’re doing.
“He works his butt off every day.”
Even during his difficult 2020–21 season, during which he appeared in only 16 of Stockton’s 30 games and scored just seven points, Kirkland regularly put his howitzer of a shot on full display — albeit not nearly at the same rate as he has this year.
During his first two seasons with the Heat, Kirkland took 179 shots in 69 games. That works out to approximately 2.59 shots per game, which is a pretty good rate.
Unfortunately, Kirkland scored on only 4.5 percent of those shots. That’s a bizarrely low conversion figure for someone who can hammer the puck with such conviction.
Now, let’s take another look at Kirkland’s 2021–22 campaign. Here’s the full list of players from the entire American Hockey League who took more shots than Kirkland during the regular season:
- Stefan Noesen (Chicago) — 254 shots in 70 games
- Anthony Greco (Hartford) — 248 shots in 66 games
- Kiefer Sherwood (Colorado) — 240 shots in 57 games
- Sam Anas (Springfield) — 230 shots in 75 games
- JJ Peterka (Rochester) — 223 shots in 70 games
Kirkland ranked sixth in the league — and first on the Heat, by a mile — with 219 shots in 66 games this year. He averaged 3.32 shots per game in 2021–22, second only in Heat history to Derek Grant in 2015–16 (165 shots in 36 games, or 4.58 per game).
It’s hard to imagine the Heat coaching staff setting that high of a shots-per-game benchmark for Kirkland prior to the season. Consider that goal achieved.
Noesen, Greco, and Anas are all 29 years old. Peterka went 34th overall to the Buffalo Sabres in 2020. Sherwood is 27 and was just named to the AHL’s 2021–22 Second All-Star Team.
Unlike the five players listed above, Kirkland looks like he might be on the track of a late bloomer.
Kirkland was a decent scorer in the Western Hockey League, good enough to be selected by the Nashville Predators with the No. 62 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Even so, he surpassed 25 goals in a single season only once during his three full seasons with the Kelowna Rockets.
As a 19-year-old with Kelowna in 2015–16, Kirkland amassed 31 goals and 67 points in 69 games. He turned pro the next season with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals but never found much of a footing in his time as a Nashville prospect.
In June 2019, the Predators tendered qualifying offers to pending restricted free agents @Colton Sissons and @Rocco Grimaldi, leaving Kirkland without a home for the first time in his professional career.
Fortunately for Kirkland, a team in his home province quickly came calling. The Camrose product signed a one-year deal to join the Calgary Flames on July 2, 2019, remaining in the organization on a year-to-year basis ever since.
“Since the very first day that I signed here and had a relationship with the Flames, I have [had] nothing but good things to say. They have treated me and my wife like family, which means a lot to us,” Kirkland said. “Everything’s been first class. It has been very special to me.”
Kirkland is a pending unrestricted free agent, although it’s easy to imagine the Flames attempting to bring him back for another season or two after his breakthrough performance in 2021–22.
The Flames’ fourth line absolutely has room for a big winger with soft hands and a lethal shot. Kirkland likely won’t command a massive payday, and Calgary isn’t very far from the spot where he put down most of his roots growing up.
“I was born in Winnipeg, lived there until I was four years old, and then moved with my family to Camrose,” Kirkland said. “It’s probably where a lot of my closest friends are.
“I went to Vikings games and I grew up a die-hard Kodiaks fan, so Camrose is still a very special place to me.”
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