Sunday, June 05, 2016

Prospect Check-In: Huska Evaluates the Cast of Blueline Prospects and if They're All Alright

Hanging out, down the street.
The same old thing, we did last week.

Sung by Cheap Trick, these words from the theme song for That '70s Show could also double as the sentiment for guys stuck playing pro hockey at remote AHL and ECHL outposts similar to the fictional town of Point Place, Wisconsin. For guys in the Flames organization, that consisted last year of Stockton, California, and Glens Falls, New York.

Not a thing to do, but talk to you.
Not a thing to do, out in the street.

The boring guy, the foreign kid, the sought-after guy, the funny guy and the old man.

While it sounds like a description of the cast from the Fox hit show that aired for eight seasons, rather than teenagers living in the 70s, I'm referring to defence prospects (mostly) born in the 90s that spent much, if not all, of last season playing in the minors.

In a continuation of my off-season evaluation of Calgary's prospects that began May 28 with this review of the Flames trio of first round picks at forward, this time Stockton Heat coach Ryan Huska assessed the 2015-16 seasons for Tyler Wotherspoon, Oliver Kylington, Kenney Morrison, Ryan Culkin and Jakub Nakladal.

Tyler Wotherspoon (as Eric)

Best of the rest. Next in line. For the last couple years, Wotherspoon has been the lead character among the Flames blueline prospects.

But then that started to change.

First confirmation he had been passed on the depth chart, at least temporarily, was when the 2011 second rounder was demoted prior to the start of last season with Brett Kulak getting the final spot on Calgary's season-opening NHL roster.

Back in the AHL for a third season, Wotherspoon's play started out alright, but was nothing special -- and blending in isn't going to get you a call-up, you need to stand out.

In Huska's eyes, the turning point in his season came in mid-January after he was benched.

"We healthy scratched him in Iowa. He was playing OK but the urgency and the push that we wanted to see with him just wasn't where it should be and what he was capable of," says Huska. "It was a tell-tale time of his year in regards to how he would handle it and he handled it the right away by making himself better because of it."

Noticeable Difference

"From that point, he was a lot more dialed in. He was a lot more engaged. I think it was just a reminder of how hard he needed to play and work every day."

Moving forward, he got back to being a relied-upon Stockton defender. Not flashy, but dependable.

"From that point on, he was a difficult guy to play against," says Huska. "He had more urgency to his play and because of that, he earned that call-up and from that point on, he played well."

Wotherspoon showed very well in his 11 games with Calgary before being returned to the AHL not for performance reasons, but because he was up on an emergency recall and that emergency roster situation ended.

The key now for Wotherspoon, 22, who is three months older than Dougie Hamilton, is to pick up where he left off this September in what will be his fourth training camp with the big club.

"It's now up to him," says Huska. "There's opportunity, but it's what he does with it now. There's a lot of guys fighting for a few jobs and he has to find a way to put himself at the top of that list.

"That's really now his big challenge and push over the summer is to make sure that he's really confident in his ability going into camp, he's really happy with what he's done over the summer and he needs to make sure that he's not letting anybody steal a job from him."

Oliver Kylington (as Fez)

You know his story by now. Once considered a top-five pick, Kylington was on the verge of falling into round 3 at the 2015 NHL Draft when Calgary general manager Brad Treliving couldn't stand pat any longer and swung a deal with Arizona to move up and grab the Swede at No. 60.

After much debate about whether the 18-year-old would be better off playing for Brandon in the WHL, who owned his rights, or playing in the AHL, a very rare thing to do for a player of his age, it was off to California where he remained for the season except for a brief call-up.

Becoming the first (and only other) defenceman since legendary Al MacInnis to appear in an NHL game for Calgary at age 18 (see the full list of 18-year-old Calgary debuts), Kylington played in the Flames season finale in Minnesota.

"He had a good year. You can't deny the talent that he does have. He has that elite skating ability that you see all the time. He handles the puck well," says Huska.

"Our big objective with Oliver was to try and help him become a better defender and that happens in all three zones on the ice. We were really trying to help him stay offensive but make less high-risk plays that allow him to be a guy that can play against anybody."

Huska confirms that strides were taken in this area.

"Over the course of the year, we saw significant improvement in how he defended. He does have a long way to go, of course, before he's a trustworthy guy that can do it on a day-to-day basis in the NHL but we did see a lot of improvements in that area and that was something that we were really happy with, out of him, because he committed to making some changes."

Solid North America Debut

Considering everything that comes with arriving in North America to play hockey for the first time, it was a solid season.

"For an 18-year-old guy that came a long way to play hockey, who didn't know anybody here. I thought he did a very good job for a young man."

Not wanting Kylington to be living on his own, he lived with longtime minor leaguer Blair Riley.

"When it came to looking for housing or a place, we wanted have someone around him and Blair Riley, one of our older guys, stepped up and said he's going to live with me," says Huska. "The other guy over the course of our year, that could sense when maybe some homesick was setting in or if he knew that he was feeling a little bit off, would take him under his wing, was Aaron Johnson."

Johnson, 33, a great guy and veteran of nearly 300 NHL games and over 400 AHL games, was also the team captain.

"Aaron would have him over for dinner a lot. He made sure that they flew together when they went back to Texas during our break. There were all sorts of things that I think Aaron stepped up and did a good job with with Oliver."

Held to just one goal and three points over the final 25 games -- a stretch interrupted by a six-week absence due to a concussion, it's not the type of totals one might expect from an offensive-oriented defenceman but he still managed five goals and 12 points on the season in 48 games and considering he was one of the youngest players in the league, it's not bad. And you'd expect those totals to only grow as he matures.

Kenney Morrison (as Kelso)

Much like Ashton Kutcher's character, Morrison was a 'hot' commodity coming out of college last spring, who attracted a lot of interest although in this case it was from NHL scouts. After three years at Western Michigan, the Lloydminster native chose to sign with Calgary in March 2015 because it looked like a great spot for a young defenceman.

Although the Flames depth chart got packed in no time.

Hamilton was brought in via trade, Nakladal signed from Europe, then the Flames used their first two picks in the 2015 draft on defencemen. As a result of the influx of bodies into the organization, Morrison ended up as the extra in the early part of the AHL season and was frequently a healthy scratch.

"It was probably a frustrating season for him, for sure," says Huska. "He got off to a slower start this year starting in Penticton and it took him a fairly lengthy period of time before he gained some of his confidence back and I think that's why we saw a lot of inconsistencies with him."

Struggled to Build on His Initial Success

The slow start was unexpected as he had come in the previous year at the end of his NCAA season and really impressed with six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in a 10-game amateur try-out. Last season, he was limited to 13 points (3 goals, 10 assists) in 44 games.

The good news for the coveted right-shooting defenceman is as the season went on, the playing time increased and by the end of the year, his production was on the rise.

"He's got a lot of tools, he's what everybody looks for and now it's up to him to maybe be a little more assertive and demand more ice time," says Huska. "That really was our message to him is that he needs to have a great summer of work and come back assertive and confident in his ability to be a go-to dynamic guy for us."

Huska knows he has it in him.

"There were stretches towards the end of the year where we felt his game was really starting to come along."

Ryan Culkin (as Hyde)

Known for his good sense of humour, last season was no laughing matter for the fifth round pick from 2012.

For the dynamic puck-moving defenceman, first you need to rewind to his gruesome wrist injury suffered in February 2015 that ended that season.

Anxious to finally get back at it, Culkin then suffered a major shoulder injury last year in the second game of the rookie tournament in Penticton. That sidelined him for another couple months.

Having not played a regular season game in over nine months and with an excess of healthy bodies on the blueline in Stockton, the easy decision was made to ship Culkin to the ECHL once he was finally healthy to give him a chance to find his game again.

"He had a tough year because of injuries. He was sent down to get some ice time and when he came back up here, I don't think his confidence was all that great and it took him a while to get to the point where I think he was happy with his game, which was probably the last 4-5 games of the season."

Culkin had eight points (0 goals, 8 assists) in 33 games with the Adirondack Thunder. In 27 games with Stockton, he was limited to two points (1 goal, 1 assist), which was a long way off his totals of 18 points in 37 games in his rookie season.

Major Injuries a Major Setback

The injury issues really were unfortunate for Culkin, who had quickly worked his way up to playing top pairing minutes before getting hurt the first time.

"I think he's looking forward to having a good summer of work," says Huska. "The message he had for us is he wants to come back with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and use this year as a learning situation for him and make sure he's better next year because of that."

By better next year, that's not waiting until September either, that will begin with development camp in July.

"It starts right away from when he steps off that plane and with the swagger that he shows up with, a lot of which will come from confidence that he can develop in himself from how hard he's working from now until that time," says Huska.

"His first time on the ice. I think you have to make people take notice, you have to step up and make sure people know that hey, look at Ryan Culkin this year, he's got some swagger."

Jakub Nakladal (as Red)

Nakladal left Europe to come to North America for the first time to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL. He achieved that too, although it took a lot longer than expected.

After nearly making the team to start the season, he reported to Stockton, not realizing it would take over four months before he would finally become a regular for the Flames.

"He handled it really, really well," says Huska. "Here's a guy that's played pro for a lot of years. He came over expecting to play for the Flames. He came down here without any sort of hidden agenda or baggage.

"He came down do to try to learn to play the North American style of game and he worked very hard -- practices, games, he was an awesome, awesome person for us down here."

Nakladal admitted after the season that it was around the time of his 28th birthday in late December that he started to get frustrated.

"They sent me down at the start of the season. At that time, I wasn't mad or frustrated, I just said to myself to be patient, you never know what happens and after a couple weeks, you could be back," said Nakladal.

But that's not how it played out. He did get called up at one point but never got into a game, spending all four games as a healthy scratch.

"To be honest, around Christmas time, I was feeling frustrated because nothing was happening and I really believed I can play in the NHL."

Never Let His Frustration Show

But as a true pro, he didn't let that affect his game, something that impressed Huska.

"He ended up being here a lot longer than he probably hoped but you didn't really see it. I think maybe at the end, maybe you saw a little bit of frustration, but he would come in and he would talk to you," says Huska. "That was the best part about Nak. He didn't hide the fact that he wanted to be in Calgary but at the same time, you knew that he was going to give you his all every time he came to the rink and that's the beauty of him. I think he made our players better while he was here and he was a great, great person around our room. The guys really loved him."

A pending UFA, Nakladal was recently named as one of the additions to Team Czech Republic for the World Cup. That will only reaffirm his own belief that he can play in the NHL.

"I don't like to say something about me but I hope I showed that I can be here full-time and I really enjoyed my time here so I hope I stay here," said Nakladal, who had five points (2 goals, 3 assists) in 27 NHL games. That came after amassing 14 points (2 goals, 12 assists) in 35 AHL games.

He would be an ideal third pairing defenceman for the Flames if they're able to re-sign him. He'd be relatively cheap, he showed that he can play, and his cannon of a shot would be a nice addition to the power play. But there's a lot of bodies on the blue-line at the moment so unless they can create some room for him, he might be looking elsewhere because next year, he wants to spend the entire season in the NHL and will be looking for that type of situation.

Final Word

Add in Kulak, Patrick Sieloff, and with hotshot OHL first team all-star Rasmus Andersson on the way also, there are plenty of defencemen in the system with a shot at being NHL regulars in the future. What's unknown at this point is whether it's possible for that future to be right now, as in this season.

If you look at the blueline, you have the big three of Mark Giordano, TJ Brodie and Dougie Hamilton. Two more locks are young Finn Jyrki Jokipakka and steady Deryk Engelland, coming off his most consistent NHL season. Then you have veterans Dennis Wideman or Ladislav Smid. That gives you seven, which is the number of defencemen you'd expect Calgary to open the season with.

But could there be a spot or spots opened up this summer? Smid's injury status is an unknown. It was a rocky season for Wideman and a trade or buyout possibility looms.

Looking ahead to a year from now, there will definitely be openings with Wideman, Smid and Engelland contracts all expiring on July 1, 2017.

Part of the equation is will some of the current cast of prospects show that they're ready for full-time NHL employment and steal a job this September. The caveat with defence, of course, is that development can take a long time, typically longer than the learning curve for forwards.

"Defencemen are the guys that when you look at it are typically under the most pressure so for them to learn how to handle that pressure at a young age, they make mistakes, their confidence takes a hit and it does take longer for guys to mature and develop on the back end," cautions Huska.

But based on what we saw late last season, it sure looks like the Foremans are ready -- both Eric and Red. As both Wotherspoon and Nakladal might say if singing some Cheap Trick.

We're all alright.
We're all alright.
Hello Alberta!

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  1. The irony in this piece is that "In The Street" was a Cheap Trick cover of a group called Big Star, who probably should have been.

    1. Well played. I did do some research and noticed that it was a Cheap Trick cover, which is why I was careful to say the words "sung" by them and not written by them! Full disclosure: I have never heard of Big Star. Is their frontman Jesper Mattsson? Bryan Deasley? Niklas Sundblad? Ironic is right.

  2. An excellent, overlooked band that was a touchstone for a lot of subsequent acts. Give a listen.

  3. You're awesome Darren. These articles are fun, creative, and thoughtful! Thank you!

    1. That's very flattering feedback that isn't necessary but is appreciated. Cheers.

    2. That's very flattering feedback that isn't necessary but is appreciated. Cheers.