There’s a minor problem with the Flames’ minor prospects. The Stockton Heat just aren’t winning games (although they did last night by a big margin, after this article was written).
That’s putting it lightly, because they’ve only scored 15 goals in their last 10 games. That doesn’t sound too bad, but 11 of those goals happened in only three of those games. They’ve been shut out four times in 2017 alone. The team that scored four or more goals in 12 games from October to December has only done that four times in January and February. They’re below .500, near the bottom of their division despite an awesome start, and are probably not going to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. They stink.
The Flames have had a not great AHL team for a while now. The last time their AHL affiliate made the playoffs, it was 2013-14. This year is surprising however, as the team has not had major injury problems and the big team hasn’t had to gut them for players. There’s nothing to say except that they’re bad.
It all raises an important question: why do they suck?
The bottom fell out
Here’s a chart of the Heat players’ NHLe’s throughout the season (not including last night’s 5-1 win, though all other stats do):
As you can see, the entire team in general has been slowly falling since a great start to the season (if you need raw numbers, you can check them out here).
For the forwards, numbers dried up all around. Early in the year, players were shooting something like 20%, or in the case of Morgan Klimchuk, 30%. Of course those numbers weren’t going to last forever, and we’re witnessing the effects of the bubble bursting now.
Those most affected are Andrew Mangiapane, Klimchuk, and Linden Vey (and Matt Frattin, although I haven’t been tracking his numbers). Although incredibly important players earlier in the year, the offence for all of these players has dried up. Mangiapane has three points in 2017 while Vey has five. Klimchuk has mostly been holding his own, but has fallen behind his linemates Mark Jankowski and Hunter Shinkaruk.
Speaking of such, those are the only two skaters who have kept their heads above water in this dark period, which is promising. Since Shinkaruk returned from injury on Jan. 20, each of them have scored eight points in the 12 games since. That’s pretty good, but still a far cry from the PPG players they once were.
The goalies have also been responsible for this dip, though they’re keeping up their end of the bargain in these tough times. Earlier in the season, David Rittich was a .940 goalie and Jon Gillies a .920 goalie. They’ve fallen to under .920 and around .906 respectively. Now, those numbers have steadied out over the past few games, which is incredibly important considering how often and how much the Heat get outshot (more on that in a second).
But here’s one more concerning trend. If you look at that graph, the further we get along, the steadier the numbers get. Prospect-stats has their PDO at 100.33, which suggests that the Heat are getting bounces both ways. Together, all this may point to the conclusion that…
They actually suck
Here’s a not fun option to consider: maybe the Heat are just bad.
They’re currently 20th in the AHL for shot differential, 17th in estimated Fenwick close%, and 15th in goal differential. Since the new year, they’ve lost the shot battle 5-12 and two of those wins can be attributed to score effects.
But here’s another thing: they’re eighth league wide in 5v5 goal differential and 5v5 GF%.
A few of Stockton’s struggles can be pinned on anemic special teams. Despite being top 10 in discipline, the PK is middle of the road. The powerplay is disastrous, too. The team is both 27th league-wide at drawing penalties and converting on them. All in all, their special team goal differential is -11, nearly wiping out the 5v5 goodwill.
The Heat, for all their success at 5v5, are unable to support that with their special teams. The team is also seeing the flow of play going against them more often than not recently, which will probably cause those 5v5 differential stats to fall even further.
So fire the coach?
Shout out to the comments sections.
Many people have been calling for the head of Ryan Huska, which seems fair giving the diminishing returns in the AHL standings. But that’s not a good reason to terminate him, because that’s not his job. In the grand scheme of things, winning is secondary for Huska. His primary job is to develop the youth of the Flames, which he has accomplished with mixed success.
On the positive side, he’s pushed low percentage guys like Brett Kulak, Micheal Ferland, and Garnet Hathaway to the NHL. On the negative, there have been complaints that he has stunted the growth of once promising players like Emile Poirier and Tyler Wotherspoon.
Determining how successful Huska has been is like trying to tell the dancer from the dance. There’s a lot of prospects who simply, regardless of draft position, won’t make it and it would be not entirely correct or honest to associate failure of a prospect with failure of a coach. There’s very little Huska, or any other coach, can do to change that path.
You can take both sides in the argument. For example, Poirier was once a very promising player who even got NHL ice time in his first professional season. However, there’s nothing Huska can do to keep a player shooting at 17%. Wotherspoon was once the number one defensive prospect, but perhaps that’s only because the prospect pool was so weak a crease-clearer could be considered the best.
Huska’s real test is right now, when he has been handed the cream of the crop for the Flames. He’s been trusted with developing kids who the franchise believes are sure things, such as Jankowski, Shinkaruk, Mangiapane, Oliver Kylington, and Rasmus Andersson. I’m sure the org is mostly satisfied with the early returns, and they’re probably going to brush off some of the negatives because…
Perhaps they’re just kids
Here’s another thing that could explain Stockton’s struggles: they’re the youngest team in the AHL. At an average age of 23.56, they’re a full year younger than their competition, with the league average being 24.62.
There’s youth and inexperience everywhere you look. They have four players who qualify as rookies (Jankowski, Mangiapane, Andersson, Gillies), six second year players (Klimchuk, Kylington, Hunter Smith, Kenney Morrison, Austin Carroll, and non-Flame Ryan Lomberg), and two North American rookies (Rittich, Daniel Pribyl). Of course they’re going to have a rough time.
This is, of course, not the sole reason for them sucking, but it’s a very important factor and one that any coach would have difficulty overcoming.
And in the end, it’s actually quite acceptable for them to be young and crappy. It was quite clear when the organization cleared out almost the entire AHL roster last summer. The team had a large number of young players that were eligible for the Heat, and they wanted to give them professional time. There’s going to be a lot of struggling and losing involved, no matter how promising the prospects are.
They probably knew what they were sacrificing by cutting good and old AHLers and implanting unproven and growing talent. As it is around all of hockey, the more ice time you give the younger and inexperienced, you will be less likely to win. Conversely, it also gives prospects actual ice time and a chance to get better. At the AHL level, one of those things is more important than the other.