For Stockton head coach Ryan Huska, there is a good chance the Heat will open up the 2016-17 season with the rare luxury of having a stacked group of forwards, at least on paper, anyway.
Barring a surprise at training camp, 2012 first rounder Mark Jankowski will be joined up front on the Flames AHL affiliate by a trio of first rounders from 2013.
Having already taken an in-depth look at Jankowski's inaugural eight-game stint in the AHL late last season, now it's time to check in on how the season went with the other three that were taken in a span of seven picks late in the first round of 2013.
Pick No. 28 - Morgan Klimchuk
The consternation is understandable.
Morgan Klimchuk, Calgary’s best hope of salvaging something tangible from the trading away of Jarome Iginla three years ago, finished his first season of pro hockey with just three goals and nine points. That's right, less than 10 points in 55 games.
"When you look at his stats, a lot of people from the outside will probably say it's not quite the year you hoped he would have had, but I thought he had an unreal year," Huska insists.
"A lot of the things he did away from pucks, learning how to compete against bigger people, went in the right direction all year to the point where by the end of the season, he was one of our top two penalty killers. If we were up, protecting a lead, he was always a guy that was on the ice."
Learning to be a Complete Player
It’s not the role we’re accustomed to seeing Klimchuk cast in. This is someone who scored 100 goals over his final three seasons of major junior and averaged 1.2 points per game over that span.
|Photo credit: Jack Lima|
"You don't win without people that understand the game and are willing to put themselves in roles that are maybe not the most glamorous such as penalty killing or playing in a checking role, but every day, Morgan was committed to making himself better," Huska says. "He has a very good understanding of the game and has turned himself into a much more complete player.
“Now that he understands, I think you're going to see some of those offensive totals increase next year and I do see a lot of positive things for him ahead because he really has a lot of fire and a lot of want and desire to play the game.”
That said, it wasn’t an easy season.
Dealing With the Frustration
|Photo credit: Jack Lima|
"He was generating more plays with his linemates and we were using him with more offensive players,” he said. “For us, we're just trying to make sure that he understands that he was going in the right direction and in my opinion, I think you'll see a significant change next year with him."
Pick No. 24 - Hunter Shinkaruk
Flames fans got to see Shinkaruk up close for seven games as once he got called up and inserted into the line-up in late March, his impressive play in which he scored twice and had three points kept him there for the duration of the season.
After coming over from Utica, the Canucks AHL affiliate, Huska had Shinkaruk for 17 games and he liked what he saw from the 21-year-old, who had six goals and 12 points for the Heat.
"The thing that we really liked about him and why we enjoyed having him around was he has a passion for the game,” says Huska. “He goes to the net hard, he was taking hits, he was giving hits, he plays the game with some fire."
That's consistent with the style of play he brought to Calgary when he got called up.
|Photo credit: Jack Lima|
In 62 AHL games last year, he lit the red light 27 times.
“He likes to score goals. He likes to be around the net and he has that understanding that that's where most of his goals are going to be scored from and if you're going to play in there, you're going to have to take licks every once and a while and in order to gain a little bit of respect, you're going to have to give some back," says Huska.
"That could be just a little stick to someone to let them know, hey, you can't do that to me, or hey, I don't care, I'm still going to go to this area. But that's why he's been able to score in junior and I think that's why he was able to score this year at our level and why he chipped in with some offence with Calgary as well."
Pick No. 22 - Emile Poirier
Lastly we come to the guy that was the first to be selected that year, Emile Poirier.
But his second pro season didn’t go nearly as well, finishing up with just 12 goals and 29 points in 60 games.
"If you were to ask Emile, he'd probably say he was unhappy with his year," says Huska. "He had a hard time getting going consistently.
"When I go back and look at his game last year compared to this year, there were a lot of similarities in regards to how he played. But last year if he would have five breakaways, he scored on three of them. This year if he would have five breakaways, he didn't score on any of them. It seemed to be one of those years where he still had his opportunities but he didn't have the same finish."
Inconsistent From the Start
Poirier's sophomore slump began right away with an unimpressive showing in September at the Young Stars tournament.
"He got off to a slow start in Penticton a little bit. It's probably a good learning lesson for him that every day, he's got to make sure he's prepared and focused to go," Huska explains. "You can't take anything for granted because there are always new people trying to push and steal your job. You have to respond and act accordingly. You have to make sure you're better than everybody else if you want to earn that full-time position."
|Photo credit: Jack Lima|
"He improved in a lot of areas away from pucks but now he has a real challenge and he has to use an inconsistent year as a motivating factor," says Huska. "He has to do more now in the summer. He's getting to the point where he's a guy that has to prove to everybody that he's worthy of playing on the Calgary Flames on a consistent basis."
In a surprise move last season but perhaps a calculated one by Flames GM Brad Treliving, Poirier was one of a handful of forwards called up by Calgary in late March. However, as proof of where his stock is at, it was Poirier and not Shinkaruk, who was shipped right back down again when the extra bodies were no longer needed.
Shinkaruk made an impact, Poirier did not. Shinkaruk stayed on the NHL roster, Poirier did not.
“Sometimes if you do have that success early, maybe you come back thinking it's going to be easy. I know how this is going to work, it's all good. But if that's your mindset, you're asking for trouble,” says Huska.
Hoping his NHL Call-up Rejuvenates Him
While it only lasted two games, Huska hopes that a couple flights on the luxurious team charter and a few nights at five-star hotels will serve as a reminder -- and more importantly a motivator -- for Poirier as to how close he is, but also how much work he still must do.
|Photo credit: Jack Lima|
“Also, it reinforces to them that they are close but they have to do more. It's not up to the team to give them the opportunity, it's the player that has to find a way to do more to get themselves there. That's really Emile's challenge at the end of the day. He has to have a really great summer, come back with a great attitude and mindset and he has to prove to everybody that his inconsistent year is in the past and he's ready to have a great year coming up."
The organizational depth chart is a fluid place. Every year that passes, where players were selected in the draft carries less and less clout and it's more a case of how are they performing. For Klimchuk, Shinkaruk or Poirier, more forwards are coming so it's time to step up or they're at serious risk of being passed.
Two new faces in particular that are probably bound for the AHL next year will be OHL scoring sensation Andrew Mangiapane and Stars 2014 second rounder Brett Pollock, acquired from Dallas in the Kris Russell trade. The 20-year-old centre led the WHL's Edmonton Oil Kings in scoring last season.
“There are always people coming now and while that's the tough part of the business, it's also the great part of the business. You have to make sure that you put in the time every day because there is someone else that is,” says Huska. “If you look at the great players in the game, I don't think you'll find a guy that works harder than Mark Giordano. Does he have to? No, but there's always someone coming from behind. That's why great players are great is the time that they put in.”
There should be a little bit of opportunity at forward in Calgary in 2016-17. There definitely will be in 2017-18. But we're not talking about four jobs, probably one or two.
And it no longer matters that you were a first round pick. If the sixth round pick -- e.g. Mangiapane -- is better, he's going to win that NHL roster spot.
While there is reason to be apprehensive about the development of some of these once highly-touted prospects from three years ago, the thing to remember is that these are still young players with plenty of upside. While the clock is ticking, the alarm hasn't gone off quite yet.
But at some point, you do stop being a prospect and become organizational depth so the time is now for these first rounders to show why they were so highly touted just three years ago.
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