Thursday, October 20, 2016

Sunny in California: Stockton Unbeaten Thanks to Strong Starts for Several Prospects

Hot and California often go together. But that wasn't the case for the Flames AHL affiliate in Stockton last season.

But after missing the playoffs the last two years, including the season prior when Calgary's primary minor league team was located in Adirondack, coach Ryan Huska and his band of merry prospects are off to a strong start winning their first two games.

On Wednesday night, they defeated the Texas Stars 5-1. That victory over Dallas' minor league affiliate comes on the heels of a 3-2 win in the season-opener on Saturday over the San Jose Barracuda, the minor league team for the Sharks.

I took some time late Wednesday night to watch the replay of the Heat's game and here are some observations from that game and on the season so far.

Thanks to Stockton's top-notch communications team of Brandon Kisker and Dustin Cowell for the quotes littered throughout.

1. 5 & 7 Looking Good on Blueline

Phew. Finally a good game from a Calgary top D pairing wearing No. 5 and No. 7.

OK, that's a bit cheeky, but honestly, Tuesday night's Flames game against Buffalo had to have been the roughest combined night at the office I recall ever seeing from Mark Giordano and TJ Brodie. Meanwhile, looking steady in matching sweater numbers for the Heat last night was top duo Tyler Wotherspoon and Kenney Morrison. They even line up in the right order with Wotherspoon (No. 5) on the left and Morrison (No. 7) on the right.

Two of the final defence cuts from training camp -- Wotherspoon having to clear waivers on his way down -- a strong season from both could help influence the decision process if there becomes an opportunity at some point, as there is less money remaining on their contracts, for general manager Brad Treliving to peddle pending UFAs Dennis Wideman and Deryk Engelland.

The other two pairings, and it was the same as it was in game one, were veteran Ryan Culkin with Rasmus Andersson and longtime AHLer Colby Robak, who was in Flames camp on a PTO, lining up beside 19-year-old Oliver Kylington.

“When you’re on your heels, those veteran guys have the ability to settle the game down. They tend to make the right plays and help the younger guys along. When you look at a guy like Colby Robak, he had a great game for us tonight and was probably our best defenseman," said Huska. "The older guys that we have this year have really been there for the younger guys and given us what we needed from them so far.”

2. Huge Sigh of Relief from Klimchuk

Calgary native Morgan Klimchuk missed the season-opener with a minor injury but he got back in Wednesday, playing the left side with Daniel Pribyl and Emile Poirier, and he got his season off to terrific start with a goal and an assist. Remember, this is a guy that was held to just three goals in 55 games last season and that included getting skunked in his final 33 games. It was a pretty rough go for the kid drafted in the same round as Sean Monahan three years ago.

With all that weight on his shoulders coming into his second pro season, it only took one shift to get off the snide. Scoring for the first time since Jan. 13, Klimchuk took a pass from Poirier, split the defence, and darted in alone where he scored five-hole. It got better too. Later, during a line change, it was Klimchuk's pass to Mark Jankowski that ultimately led to a goal for Hunter Shinkaruk and just like that, Klimchuk had his first multi-point game as a pro.

"It’s frustrating to have a lingering injury like that at the beginning of the season, but I’m fortunate to have only missed one game and be back to normal," Klimchuk said. "I felt good out there and I think I showed well.”

When I spoke with Huska about Klimchuk in this piece in September, and at the time he was supposed to play the wing with Jankowski and Matthew Tkachuk in Penticton before a groin injury forced him to miss all three games, he predicted a breakout season for him. Well, his confidence should certainly be at a high after an encouraging season debut.

3. Gillies is Great

It was another terrific start for the Flames top minor league prospect on Wednesday as Jon Gillies stopped 29 of 30 shots. After a 28-save performance in the opener, Gillies has stopped 57 of 60 shots for a .950 save percentage and is off to a fine start, reminiscent of a year ago.

The key difference is last season, his performance came with him in constant pain as he battled the hip injury that had bothered him since his second season at Providence College. That nagging issue shut his season less than a month after it began as he underwent surgery.

While the Flames NHL goaltending is set for this season with Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, the fact remains that they are both on one-year contracts. Typically, college goalies need at least three seasons in the AHL but there have been guys that got there quicker. Jonathan Quick, pardon the pun, would be one example of an exception. If Gillies continues to prove himself to be an elite goaltender in the AHL, we'll see how that might alter Calgary's short to medium-term organizational plan for between the pipes. Maybe his runway will be shorter than anticipated. Either way, it's a positive performance from a guy who is highly touted.

4. Holy Shinkaruk, This Kid can Score

With Calgary going with just one extra forward right now in Freddie Hamilton, the bumps and bruises will add up eventually and they'll need to make a phone call to Stockton and bring someone up. When that occurs, one of the guys that will surely be in the conversation to get that tap on the shoulder is Shinkaruk. Especially if the Flames are looking to fill a spot in the top nine.

This guy loves to score and this guy is good at scoring. Making it goals in consecutive games, the 22-year-old scored another beauty on Wednesday after a nifty little pass from Jankowki found him bursting up the middle with speed. He made a little juke to sidestep a Stars defender then lifted a slick backhand past the goaltender.

"I saw the defenceman had a pretty open stick, so I just wanted to try to put it through him and my move is usually to go backhand shelf and I was lucky enough to pull it off,” said Shinkaruk.

His goal in the opener was also pure skill as again he was set up nicely by Jankowski. This time off a turnover, he showed quick hands in burying the abbreviated breakaway.

"These are points that are huge in making the playoffs at the end of the year, so it’s good that we’re starting off with wins," said Shinkaruk. "There’s a few things we have to get better at, but it’s nice to get a couple wins despite that.”

5. Pribyl is a Big Dude

There's not a lot of size in the top nine in Stockton. Klimchuk, Matt Frattin and Linden Vey are listed at 6-foot-0 but that might be generous. Then there's Shinkaruk at 5-foot-11 and Andrew Mangiapane at 5-foot-10. While Jankowski stands out for one, the other guy that looks much bigger and it has to be his extra thickness is Czech free agent signing Daniel Pribyl.

A natural centre, the intention according to Treliving when they signed him in the spring was to use him on right wing as he is a right-shot and that was an organizational weakness. Plus, he played some wing last year in the Czech Republic. But he has started at centre both games with Poirier on his wing in both contests. He doesn't have blazing speed so you know what will be an area he has to work on but he is big and strong on the puck and appears to see the ice very well. It may take him a while to get back in top form after being out for six months after major knee surgery and missing all of training camp, but he's a guy to watch out for as the season goes on.

6. Wotherspoon Wears an 'A'

After spending a long time in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and the last couple years as the captain in Syracuse, Mike Angelidis was signed by the Heat to a a one-way deal to be a the necessary veteran leader for Stockton. Sure enough, he was given the 'C' with Frattin and Garnet Hathaway named the alternates.

However, Angelidis was handed a three-game suspension earlier in the week for a delivering a shot to the head of an opponent in the season opener, an infraction that went unpenalized at the time. In his absence on Wednesday, it was Tyler Wotherspoon that was sporting an 'A', which speaks to how valuable Huska views the most experienced of Calgary's 'young' blueline prospects.

7. Jankowski Centering the Top Line

Someone that continues to look good and does not look like a guy adjusting to a new league is Jankowski. Perhaps his comfort in the early going can be attributed to the eight games he got in last year after signing with the Flames. As you'll recall, his NHL contract did not start until this season and that permitted him to join Stockton on an amateur try-out where he went 2-4-6 in eight games.

Centering Stockton's No. 1 unit with Shinkaruk and Hathaway for the first two games, Jankowski had a goal and two assists on Wednesday to go with an assist in the opener. Four points in two games? Not bad. He's got lots of offensive tools and you can see the defensive awareness in his game that would have been drilled into him while playing for coach Nate Leaman in Providence. The more you watch Jankowski, service time in the NHL becomes less of an 'if' question and more of a 'when'.

For those of you keeping track, the bottom six forwards for Stockton on Wednesday were Mangiapane on left wing with Vey and Frattin as a third line. The fourth line or 'energy line' as goes the cliche, was Ryan Lomberg between Brandon Bollig and Hunter Smith.

8. Power Play Looking Good

The intention the way most NHL organizations run these days is for Huska in Stockton to mimic in Stockton in every way the system play being deployed in Calgary under Glen Gulutzan. This enables players to transition into the line-up seamlessly when they get recalled. This includes using the same terminology so again, there is no confusion to what Gulutzan wants an AHL call-up to do in certain scenarios as the advice being barked from behind the bench will be consistent with what Huska is saying.

That all said, one thing that looks vastly different from Calgary in the early going is the Stockton power play. After the Flames struggled mightily on Tuesday going 0-for-6, the Heat were moving the puck very crisply on Wednesday in going an efficient 2-for-5 with the extra man. While Calgary did try Kris Versteeg at the point briefly on Tuesday on one man advantage, going with just one natural defenceman and four forwards seems to be the modus operandi so far for Huska. With that single D often positioned at the top of an umbrella formation with his two nearest forward options one-third of the way down the wall on either side, it sure seemed to work well.

Mangiapane's slick wrist shot for his first goal came with Wotherspoon as the lone d-man and Jankowki's one-timer in the second came with Oliver Kylington manning the point. In both cases, the four forwards were the two rookies Jankowski and Mangiapane, joined by veterans Frattin and Vey. That unit appears to have some early chemistry and there's certainly no shortage of skill there.

The Heat are back in action on Friday night when they host Tucson. The AHL affiliate for Arizona is new this year to the Pacific Division.

By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Go there and do so now. It's just another way to be alerted to new Calgary Flames articles that I've written.


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