A six-hour drive up the I-5 from the city of Hawthorne in Southern California, where 55 years ago Brian Wilson got his band together, a pair of talented hockey players are making a name for themselves in Northern California.
Highly touted prospects Rasmus Andersson (second round) and Andrew Mangiapane (sixth round) were both drafted by Calgary in 2015 from the same team -- the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. Both turned pro in September, they found an apartment together, and three months into their rookie seasons with the Stockton Heat, their impressive starts have helped the Flames' American Hockey League affiliate to its best start in years.
You could say, or sing, that the two offensively-gifted 20-year-olds are (oom bop, bop) providing fans with excitations.
"They haven't just dipped their toe in the water, they've stepped right in and been impact guys," raves Brad Pascall, Flames assistant general manager and GM for Stockton. "We're really happy with their progress."
Going into action on Tuesday and buoyed by the play of Mangiapane and Andersson, the Heat are second in the Pacific Division at 16-7-3. They are just the tiniest of percentage points behind the Tucson Roadrunners (14-6-3). Not unlike the Pacific Division in the NHL, the AHL's version is proving to be very competitive also.
"Our division is so tough, every game is a difficult game to play in and it makes it a real challenge," says Huska, age 41. "If you take a night off, you're going to lose ground because everyone seems to always find a way to win."
That was the case Monday night when Stockton fell to second in the division despite picking up a point in an overtime loss in San Jose. Despite finishing with a very respectable 4-2-1 mark in a stretch of seven consecutive road games, a Roadrunners victory inched them into top spot.
"There isn't really a team that has separated itself all that much from the pack. That makes it a challenging year for us and one where you almost feel like you don't get an opportunity to breathe because every game is that important."
"Andrew was a guy that had two 100-point seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and I didn't think it would be a benefit to him to start him on a third or fourth line role because that's not one of his strengths," says Huska. "So we wanted to give him an opportunity at the beginning of the year to see if he could fit in one of our top roles."
It's certainly worked. Through 25 games, Mangiapane has racked up 20 points (7 goals, 13 assists), which puts him solidly in the top 10 in rookie scoring.
"From the first game that we put him with those guys, he wasn't intimidated, he made plays, he showed a lot of confidence in his ability and that group generated early on," says Huska.
This isn't a case of the 5-foot-10 Mangiapane riding the coattails of the other two either.
Small Stature, Big Impact
"He's a real important part of that line," insists Huska. "Where he does a lot of the work is to get pucks. He's got a quiet skill level about him where it's not a fancy skill level, he's efficient with the plays that he makes."
|Andrew Mangiapane (Photo by Jack Lima, courtesy of Stockton Heat)|
"He's shown right from the beginning of the year, he's not afraid to get into the hard areas," he says. "When he goes into a one-on-one battle for a puck, he's often a guy that comes out with it.
"Maybe because he's a little bit smaller, his centre of gravity -- if you want to call it that -- is a little bit lower, he does a great job of getting control of the puck in those hard areas and then he has a skill set where he's able to make the right play from that point."
Where the veteran linemates have helped is sheltering him from the pressure that can come with making the jump from junior to the pro ranks. Vey, 25, who leads the team in scoring and Frattin, 28, have played over 700 pro games combined between the AHL and NHL.
"That's what is so important about having a good group of older guys. They're there to take the pressure off the younger player. When that responsibility isn't so high on a younger, first-year guy, it allows them to settle in and breathe and learn how to play the game instead of feeling that pressure that I've got to score every night," Huska says. "When you have guys that have played in the NHL, when you have guys that are quality people like those two are, they bring a comfort level for Andrew."
Early Success Bred Confidence
With an assist in the season opener, a goal and an assist in the next game, then another goal and an assist in game No. 4, that early success is what has distinguished Mangiapane's season from the trials and tribulations that Morgan Klimchuk went through a year ago when he first turned pro.
Eight games into the season, Mangiapane already had 10 points, which was more than Klimchuk accrued in the 55 games he played in his rookie season. In his first dozen games, Klimchuk failed to pick up a point.
"They weren't brought along all that different. The difference we saw was Morgan had a tough time generating any sort of offence last year and I don't think he had a high level of confidence at the beginning of the year," says Huska. "The points just weren't there early on and it becomes heavy and hard on a young player because that's what they've done their entire life.
"For Andrew, he found confidence early in the year that has allowed him to get going on the pace that he's currently on."
It's been a slower ramp-up for Andersson but that said, still a pretty rapid ascent considering playing defence is inherently that much more difficult.
"With Ras, the one knock on him along the way has been his conditioning and being a little bit heavier than what he should be at," says Huska. "He's down 7-8 pounds right now from where he was at the beginning of the year and he's doing that while living on his own so I've got to give him a lot of credit for how he's approached his off-ice habits."
In the Flames organization, the emphasis on eating properly is engrained in players starting at July development camp where their off-ice instruction includes cooking lessons. That focus has continued at Stockton for both Mangiapane and Andersson.
"Our strength guy, Alan Selby, has done an unreal job with the two of them," Huska says. "He's put them into cooking classes. He's taken them shopping to teach them the types of food that they should be putting in their body, the types of things they need in the kitchen. We've really gone the extra mile with those guys in regards to trying to help them get over the hump in their first year."
Feel Good, Play Good
Huska says the emphasis on that part of the game has come along way from when he played pro hockey 20 years ago.
|Rasmus Andersson (Photo by Jack Lima, courtesy of Stockton Heat)|
"We're trying to get them to be educated on if you want to be at the very best of your abilities, you have to fuel yourself the right way and there is a ton of priority put on that."
It's a bit unusual for the two rookies to be roommates but the circumstances of where they live made the Flames brass OK with the arrangement.
"We were a little bit leery of those two living together because you do like to have an older guy around to help them out, but they ended up getting an apartment in the same complex as a lot of our older players and a lot of the team for that matter, so there are a lot of people around."
Plus, it seems that Mangiapane's Italian heritage is coming through. Rumours are that he's turning into the head chef.
"If you were to ask Andrew, he makes a mean chicken parm," says Huska. "But I don't know what else they make."
There is also an option to have meal selections that guys sign up for and they're brought right to the rink so after practice they are ready for them to eat right away.
"There's a lot of different things that you have at the player's disposal now if they choose to use them," says Huska.
Offence on the Rise
Where Mangiapane's offence has slowed down lately, having been blanked in his last three games, Andersson's game is just starting to flourish. With 17 points (2 goals, 15 assists) in 26 games, he is fifth in scoring among rookie defencemen, He's also a plus-14, which is second among all rookies and leads first-year defencemen. In fact, of all defencemen in the league, only Tyler Wotherspoon (+16) has been better in that category.
Most impressive with that is we're talking about a D pairing in Andersson and Wotherspoon and/or Brett Kulak that have been utilized as Stockton's top pairing.
"They've been our No. 1 defensive pair and we match them up against top lines against other teams," praises Huska. "Early in the year, I think Ras was a little bit careful on the offensive side of the game. He didn't want to make a mistake and he was learning how to play with more pace in his game. But we've seen over the last little while where he's jumping into the play a lot more now."
The result has been the type of production he was known for in the OHL.
"He's such a smart player, there are lots of times where you think he's in trouble but he always ends up being in the right spot at the right time, or he's got an ability to suck a defenceman in and make the proper pass to an open man where we get out of our zone quickly. He's got that uncanny ability to read and understand the game," Huska says.
He just has to always monitor his conditioning.
"But if he can really hammer down on it and make it a priority for him, then the sky's the limit for him."
"We're very pleased with the progression of our players down there in a short period of time," Pascall says. "If you look at our guys and how they've performed in the gym, how they've produced offensively, how they've worked defensively. The first year guys, how they've adjusted to the pro lifestyle, it's been real positive so far."
Pascall also applauded the leadership from older veterans like captain Mike Angelidis, Brandon Bollig and Keith Aulie. In all cases, he knows the players are trying to kickstart their own careers, but the Flames expectations of them are also made clear.
|Celebration Time (photo by Jack Lima, courtesy Stockton Heat)|
Those leaders have delivered too.
"You're always looking for who are the right guys. Mike Angelidis is a tremendous leader and an excellent face-off guy, and how he mentors our young guys including Jankowski at practice and working with him on the faceoffs and what have you. So when you look to sign guys with high character, those are guys that you want to bring into the organization for that purpose.
"Obviously they want to do well as a player for their own resume and they want to win as a team, but the most important thing for us under development is progressing our guys that we are investing in and they've really taken that to heart."
Perhaps what's most exciting is the knowledge that some of the best development can come in May and June by going on a long AHL playoff run. Look at the roster of the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals team that won the Calder Cup and you see a bunch of players that are regular NHLers now such as Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik and Radko Gudas.
Also on that squad, and perhaps by no coincidence, were Angelidis and Aulie. Who knows, perhaps some future NHLers are being groomed as we speak and maybe it's the Barrie Boys, who for now, will continue to have fun, fun, fun in California.
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.
Recent Flames Reading:
- Ho Ho Ho! Eight Presents For Flames Fans Found Under this Year's Christmas Tree - I examine eight gifts fans received that came from a variety of people including Eric Staal, Glen Gulutzan, Dave Cameron, Garnet Hathaway, Jim Benning and others. (December 24, 2016)
- FF80F Podcast: Episode 10 - World Junior Championships Edition with Aaron Vickers - Talking Flames prospects at the WJC with NHL.com's Calgary correspondent. Also revisited recent drafts from a Flames perspective and tackled reader questions. (December 23, 2016)
- Not the Solution, But Beats the Alternatives: My Perspective on Garnet Hathaway - For a fourth line player that plays 8-10 minutes per night, Hathaway always seems to make an impact. In fact, Calgary is 12-3-1 in games in which he plays. (December, 21, 2016)
- Picking up the Pieces: Goaltending Much Better After Being Blown Up - Determined to get better and deeper, Flames moved on from five goalies with NHL experience last summer and brought in five replacements -- and it's worked. (December 19, 2016)