At the Christmas break, the Flames American Hockey League affiliate had played only 22 games. That was the fewest of all 30 teams. But the calm that had been the first two-and-a-half months of the AHL season ended Saturday night when Stockton began a hectic stretch of eight games in 14 days.
For these players I saw a lot of during development camp in July, at the Penticton rookie tournament in September, then at Flames main training camp, it was an opportunity to hear how the season has gone for them since they headed south to California.
I'm breaking this update into two parts:
- Defence - Today
- Forwards - Coming on Tuesday
Breaking Down the Blueline
In the off-season, trades, free agent signings and the 2015 NHL Draft collaborated to improve the depth on the Flames blueline. As you'll recall, this was an area general manager Brad Treliving had identified going into last summer as an organizational weakness he wanted to address.
There have been eight regular defencemen in Stockton. This excludes:
- Keegan Kanzig - Was scratched five of six games before being returned to the Calgary Hitmen (WHL).
- Ladislav Smid - Appeared in one game during a brief conditioning stint before returning to the Flames.
- Ryan Culkin - After his gruesome season-ending wrist injury last February, he suffered another major injury when he hurt his shoulder in September at the rookie tournament. When finally healthy in mid-November, Culkin was assigned to Adirondack (ECHL) where he remains.
That leaves the following eight fighting for six spots on the blue-line:
2 - Brett Kulak, 21* (L)
45 - Aaron Johnson, 32 (L)
^ Turns 28 on Dec. 30
With Aaron Johnson, the veteran of over 700 AHL games, loaned to Canada's team at the Spengler Cup for the next couple weeks, that leaves the Heat with seven healthy defencemen.
While losing a team leader like Johnson -- Stockton's captain -- is never a good thing. It's also not necessarily a bad thing for Huska, forced to deal with having too many defencemen on the roster during both his seasons in the AHL.
"Hockey Canada wanted Aaron for the Spengler and it is such a terrific experience. We are excited for him about this cool opportunity," Huska said. "This will allow the other seven defencemen a little more playing time although Aaron was often the guy that was out of our line-up.
"We are busy after Christmas so we will really need to lean on the seven guys we currently have to play a lot of hockey in a short period of time."
Kulak - 19 gm, 0-4-4, minus-4, 26 shots
"He's had a stretch where we felt he's played very well and he's had a few nights too where he's trying to force things a little bit too much. The challenge for all players and Brett included is to make sure that they're doing everything every day on the ice to be consistent with their effort so when there is an injury or if there is a situation where Calgary needs someone, he's the first guy on the list."
His greatest attributes are his NHL-calibre skating and offensive abilities. Huska says those skills are very much still on display and it's not uncommon to see Kylington deep in the offensize zone.
It's his defensive game that remains a work in progress although Huska notes that there has been progress.
No doubt it weighed on his mind a bit. After getting in 14 games at the end of the 2013-14 season, bigger things were expected from the 2011 second round draft pick. Instead, last year was rife with disappointment for the young man, who was recalled multiple times by the Flames but only got into one regular season game.
While some discouraged fans are wanting to dismiss him, his 130 career AHL games is still equal to less than two full seasons and there are plenty of NHL defence regulars that played a lot longer in the AHL before arriving for good in the NHL.
Also, don't forget that he played six playoff games last year. While he didn't play a lot of minutes, suiting up for six games is indicative that he's still in the organization's plans.
As a young man smitten over a young lady in his life, it's not a stretch to think that this can be a distraction. You wonder if one doesn't see further improvement in his play as the games get going again now that the ring is on her finger and no longer in his pocket.
Morrison - 10 gm, 0-3-3, minus-5, 18 shots
free agent signing from last March.
Huska is looking for the first-year pro, who played three NCAA seasons for Andy Murray at Western Michigan, to get himself more involved.
You know he's got talent as he was sought after by multiple NHL teams when he chose to leave school and sign with Calgary after three NCAA seasons.
"The AHL is a great league but let's face it, it's not where the guys want to be. They want to be playing in the NHL. So really getting them to understand their strengths and how they have to bring a little bit more to the table in order to get themselves that opportunity, that's my job."
There hasn't been much opportunity in Calgary this season. But with Kris Russell a pending UFA, a trade over the next two months involving him is certainly possible. You also never know when injuries will strike either. Given their commitment to blocking shots, the Flames could suddenly lose a couple blueliners in the span of a week.
When that next call-up happens, you want to be the prospect that is playing the best because it's often that, and not your credentials, that will get you that visit to the coaches office and a plane ticket to Calgary.
Recent Flames Reading:
- Joe Who? After Adjusting for Era, Gaudreau Tops List of Best Career Starts - After Johnny Gaudreau's 100th point, the top 25 fastest Flames to 100 points as well as how many games it would have taken had they played in Joe Nieuwendyk's era. (Dec. 22, 2015)
- Question Should not be 'Why Jonathan Bernier?' It Should be 'Why Not?' - Even with the improved play recently of Karri Ramo, trying to acquire Jonathan Bernier would be the shrewd thing to do if you are Flames GM Brad Treliving and here's why. (Dec. 17, 2015)
- Eight From 80 Feet: Reflecting on a Sixth Straight Flames Victory - Topic include the impact TJ Brodie's return has had, the resurgence of both Dougie Hamilton and Kris Russell, and the hole left behind by Michael Frolik and what comes next. (Dec. 16, 2015)
- Eight From 80 Feet: Eight Things We Learned About the Flames Last Homestand - Coming off a perfect homestand and having won nine in a row on home ice for the second time since 1991, I look at eight things we've learned about the Calgary Flames. (Dec. 14, 2015)