Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ryan Huska and the AHL: Making Sure Players are NHL-Ready Both On and Off the Ice

Johnny Gaudreau looks like he's ready. Markus Granlund says he's ready. Sam Bennett thinks he's ready.

But what, exactly, makes you ready to play in the National Hockey League?

Ryan Huska, who has been the head man behind the bench for the Flames prospects games, points out that there is much more to a prospect being ready to play hockey at the highest level than just their abilities on the ice.

As the new head coach of Calgary's American Hockey League team in Adirondack, Huska is in the preparation business. It will be his job to make sure the young men under his watch are ready not just as hockey players, but also ready as people.

"Part of our job is to make sure they're given everything that they need to have success and that doesn't just mean how it's going on-the-ice. We have to have a pretty good handle on how they are off the ice as well," says Huska. "There's so much more than the on-ice -- players practicing or teaching them to handle different systems. You have to teach them to really grow up and mature."

Kids Mature at Different Ages

When it comes to maturity, there is no set formula for when it occurs. It is very much an equation that consists of variables and not absolutes.

"Everybody matures differently. Some guys it might be at 22 years old, others it could be at 24 or 25," says Huska. "Our job is to make sure we're patient with them and really work to help them understand how to prepare to play nightly, but take care of themselves when they're away from the rink as well."

One example is around nutrition.

"When they're living their own for the first time, it's easy for a guy to go to McDonalds and have lunch. It's a little tougher for them to think about what they're putting in their body. That's just one of the small, little things that you have to help them along with," says Huska, who spent the past seven seasons as head coach of the WHL's Kelowna Rockets so has plenty of experience with dealing with these same situations, only with younger clientele.

Sean Monahan last season is a great example.

Last year, the 19-year-old demonstrated throughout Flames training camp and into the first couple weeks of the regular season that on the ice, he was ready. But what about off it? As Huska alluded to, also factoring into a hockey club's decision to keep a teenager in the NHL is whether or not he is ready and mature enough off the ice. Now in Monahan's case, that was not a concern. Frequently lauded for his serious, focused approach to the game and for his preparation, it was clear that Monahan was ready in that regard, although staying in the NHL came with a caveat.

The Flames had a stipulation that in order to stay with the big club, he was not allowed to live on his own.  After lining up a billet, the decision was eventually made that Monahan's mom would come out to Calgary to live with him instead.

Under-appreciating the Calibre and Role of the AHL

Listen to NHL coaches and general managers and they'll rave about the AHL and how it's a great stepping stone or development level for the NHL in terms of the calibre and quality of the hockey.

Yet, it seems every year, there are players -- especially younger players, that don't fully appreciate that point until they get there and experience it for themselves.

Michael Ferland learned this for himself in 2012-13 when he began the season with Abbotsford. A dominant player in the WHL the year before with 47 goals and 96 points, Ferland found himself in and out of the line-up in the AHL and eventually Calgary returned him to Brandon and he completed the year in the WHL.

Now "maturity" as Huska referred to it and when that occurs, would have factored into that decision as well. In speaking with the Abbotsford News last year, Heat coach Troy Ward summed up Ferland's situation back in 2012, like this: 

"He was basically a 20-year-old that was living like a 17-year-old. When you try to do that in this room and this environment, it becomes very difficult. That's not a knock against Michael – that's just where he was in his development process."

Nonetheless, Ferland headed back to the WHL with a greater appreciation for what to expect at that next level.

"In the American Hockey League, you're playing against men, you're not playing against kids like you are in the WHL," says Ferland. "I went back down with a lot of confidence after playing up at that level. Obviously, I wanted stay up there and play but it wasn't working out," 

Markus Granlund came over from Finland a year ago. After spending most of his first pro season in North America in the AHL, he speaks to the benefits.

"For sure, the AHL helped me. They play more games than I was used to and it helped me adjust to the smaller rink," says Granlund, who after a slow start finished strong to end up with 46 points (25 goals, 21 assists) in 52 games with the Heat. "Everybody down there is trying to go to the NHL so they're all working hard. It's a good league and it was good for me."

The Big Jump From College to the NHL

Last season was also the first year in the AHL for right-winger Josh Jooris. He spent the entire season in the AHL after leaving top ranked Union College after three seasons and signing with the Flames.

Making the jump to pro after three NCAA seasons is the exact scenario facing Johnny Gaudreau. Granted, they're two different players on the ice, obviously, but the factors off the ice still apply.

"It's a huge jump. Honestly, as a college player coming into it, I had a great camp and I was on a real high and I underestimated the development curve," said Jooris, who had 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in 73 games. "It takes some time. Working hard down there and learning the game, but it's going to go a long way."

Jooris says he learned lots from Troy Ward and his coaching staff.

"I was really pleased with my first year as a pro. It was obviously an adjustment at first but a great coaching staff really helped me out along the way. Coming into this year, I'm really looking forward to having that experience under my belt."

Benefit of Playing With/Against Older Players

Another player, who has had the chance to sample the AHL for a total of 14 games is defenceman Brett Kulak, who joined Abbotsford after each of his last two WHL seasons wrapped up.

He says the difference between playing strong kids and strong adults is significant.

"The phrase that gets thrown around is 'man strength'. Everyone up there, I feel, has really developed physically. Some of the guys talk about how there are hidden tough guys always, throughout the league, you never know who's going to pack the strength."

Kulak also singled out the AHL's veteran rules as another useful component.

After a certain number of games/year, players are deemed veterans. Teams are only allowed to have a certain number of veterans. This ensures playing time for younger prospects but also ensures teams have the ability to have veteran players on their team that can lead by example.

"It's the right amount of older guys, who are playing games down there. They may be guys coming back from the NHL, who have played years in the NHL. I got to be around Shane O'Brien and you see how guys like that play. Down there, I realize that he could really control the play, he didn't have to over-rush things, move the puck too fast. He just slowed it down to the pace you wanted and he made good plays."

Different Voices, Different Results

Another factor not to be discounted, when you go to the AHL or any new league, is you end up with new coaches and new teammates and that comes with new/different ways to learn.

Defenceman John Ramage began last year in Abbotsford but late in the season, he was sent down to Alaska in the ECHL.

"Obviously, any time you get sent down, you're not too happy about it but at the same time, I went down with a positive mindset and tried to make the most of the situation and I was fortunate to go down to a team in Alaska that was coached by Rob Murray."

Murray, who was on the coaching staff for eight years in the AHL with Providence -- the last three as head coach, was a new and fresh voice for Ramage and it just clicked for Ramage.

"It was a big step for me in my development. I was able to play in lots of different situations and had a lot of ice time and I was able to find my game," said Ramage. "Every place you go, you're going to have different coaches and different personnel and basically it's up to you to try and make the most out of every opportunity and try to use your resources like the coaching staff and the players around you to try and make yourself better."

It's All a Matter of Perspective

Over the next couple weeks as Calgary Flames main training camp unfolds, there will be Flames prospects that when you watch them play in exhibition games, they will look ready for taking that next step and being on the NHL roster. Hey, that rookie at age 20 is a better player than that other guy at age 27. However, realize that there's more to the decision and there are risks involved.

There are plenty of examples where rushing a player to the NHL has set back a player's development. One could argue that being in the NHL too early has played a big role in where Sven at today or more so, where he isn't at.

Starting a player in the AHL, which may be the case for Gaudreau, or returning him there for a second season (or at least to start) as might be the case for Granlund, would not harm either player's development. It's the same thing with returning Bennett to the OHL for a third season.

What we really need to do is change our perspective and heed the learnings of the many players that have reluctantly gone to the AHL only to have their eyes opened to the high level of play. It's not a landing area for NHL rejects, it's a development grounds for future NHL greats. Players need to remember that and so do the fans.


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  1. Again... awesome job. I would like to get your thoughts about something. I think Huska will be a great fit for this organization.
    Troy was a great coach and helped a lot, but I have the impression that he is already in a position to try a jump to NHL. Maybe as an assistant coach.
    Huska is a new guy just starting in a pro league. Our AHL team will have a very young core this year. It is nice to have a coach used to work with kids and that will not mind to follow Flames orientations about how to set up the team to match with the big club. What do you think?

    1. Ryan Huska is a real nice addition to this organization. He could be here a while, until the NHL comes knocking.