In the three years since he joined the organization, back when the Flames’ top farm team was still based in Adirondack, N.Y., Ryan Huska reckons this shapes up as the most NHL-ready group of players he’s worked with.
“There’s not just one or two examples right now,” the head coach of the AHL Stockton Heat is saying, during a layover at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas en route to a game in Tucson. “I think we have different guys here at the moment who when called upon could go up and contribute.
“Whether it’s a Garnet (Hathaway), who’s done well in the past when given the opportunity, or someone looking for a first chance, like (Andrew) Mangiapane.
“We’re at the point where we do have some younger, talented players who are very close. That’s exciting for everybody.
“The challenge for all of us down here is to make sure we continue to get this push, to demand more, to develop guys that can really be relied upon up in Calgary – whether it’s this year, next year or the year after.”
Czech goaltender David Rittich, who made his NHL debut Saturday in Denver in a 3-2 win over the Avs, represents only the latest example of the pipeline from Northern California to Western Canada.
Freshman centre Mark Jankowski already seems a fixture at centre following a blue-chip rookie pro season at Stockton.
He was called up on Oct. 23 and the former first-round pick has become a mainstay in the lineup.
Steady D-man Brett Kulak is finding success this season, having played 14 games for the big club since being summoned.
Shifty Mangiapane was tied for third in AHL scoring at 21 points entering Friday’s game at Tucson against the Roadrunners. Rambunctious right-winger Hathaway has 41 big-league starts over parts of three seasons with the Flames.
Then there’s fractious Ryan Lomberg, defencemen Rasmus Andersson and Oliver Kylington, highly-thought-of goalie Jon Gillies. Etc.,etc.
A wealth of options on the farm.
The success-story examples are there in plain sight. Micheal Ferland, a part of Calgary’s No.-1 line now, spent 32 games in Adirondack. Michael Backlund needed minor-league prep.
The list goes on.
The conception, implementation and building of a first-rate feeder system takes time.
“When we went into Adirondack and then into Stockton,” explains Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving, “the results lagged behind the process. But they always do, because you have to go out and get the players, draft them, turn them pro and allow them to growing as pros.
“Now we’re getting to the stage where the players we selected are maturing, finding their feet and pushing for opportunities.
“This is how we envisioned the plan moving forward. But you have to be patient.
“Our policy has been to draft your own, grow your own and develop your own.
“Even the process of moving and setting up shop in Stockton, putting the required infrastructure in place there … you don’t just snap your fingers and it all magically happens.
“A lot of people have put a lot of hard work into this.
“Now we’re starting to see the fruits of that labour.”
Calgary assistant GM Brad Pascall has become the most consistent conduit, spending roughly seven to 10 days a month hanging around the Heat.
Pascall and Huska speak to each other a minimum of once a day whether he’s actually in Stockton, travelling with the club, or not.
“For me, it’s important to have a presence around the guys, and our coaches,” Pascall emphasizes. “If only to sit down, say hello and ask them if they have anything they feel the need to talk over. They have to feel we’re interested in them, looking out for them and want to see them succeed.
“Brian Burke likes to come down at least once a month. Brad makes appearances, our player development staff makes appearances, our skating coach comes once a month and a mental skills guy once a month, too.
“We try to stagger the visits. We like to have as constant a presence as possible. What you don’t want is the players there thinking they’re forgotten souls – ‘Hey, I’m in Stockton. Do they even watch the games?’
“Ever since Brad joined the organization, he’s made development a priority, so you put the time into it.”
The eye-catching performances of both Jankowski and Kulak over an extended period up top this season, stresses Huska, are essential in reinforcing the message of tangible opportunity.
“They’re important for us in a lot of different ways,” he estimates. “One: It helps reinforce that what we – Brad Treliving, Brad Pascal, Craig Conroy – are going in the right direction in how the organization wants some of its young assets brought along.
“That’s a big thing for us, to see results, players going up and being able to contribute right away. We take pride in that.
“The other important aspect for us is that it shows the other guys here that the NHL is not too far away; that if they go on a run themselves or continue to improve, they might be the next one to get that opportunity.
“And who knows where that opportunity might lead them?
“Development at this level, success as a group and individually, also puts the players in Calgary on alert. They know there are people capable of pushing for spots.
“That benefits everybody.”
Accumulating depth in the organization’s second cut is now being seen in results at the minor-league level.
After a tremendous late-season run to reach the playoffs a year ago and then taking heavily-favoured San Jose to the brink in their first-round series, heading into the weekend the Heat found themselves only two points out of the Pacific Division lead, trailing Tucson.
“If we can keep having success on the ice,” says Huska, “that helps in teaching these younger guys the importance of winning, of competing hard day-in and day-out, which accelerates growth, not only how to improve as an individual but succeed as a team.
“Which, of course, benefits Calgary, too. Because this is a results-based business and if they can learn how to win here, they carry that on to the next level, whenever they might get there. It becomes ingrained in them.
“Last year was the first year of my three in the organization where I felt were really made a dent in creating that sort of culture and that’s only grown so far this season.
“We were exhausted for a couple years there, it as difficult getting guys to catch on to what we wanted. As last season went on, they started to understand, we saw more success on the ice, saw more guys reach the point of being ready if they got the call-up.
“We’ve been able to carry on with that this year. We want to continue that blueprint, make Stockton a place where guys want to be, where teams coming in to play against us know they’re in for a difficult night, which is part of learning how to win.”
What can be really demoralizing for players so eager to make that proverbial next step is a lack of movement between levels.
“We felt that a bit last season,” Huska admits. “We had more guys ready to make the jump, in my mind, but both of our teams were very healthy so there was little movement. At least compared to my first two years in the organization.
“That can start to play on a player’s mind. They’re wondering if they’re ever going to get that chance – it’s only human nature, everyone has dreams and ambitions – and can wind up affecting their game.
“So when they do see guys receiving opportunities, like Brett and Janko this year, and taking advantage of them, it allows all the players that hope that ‘Hey, it might be me next. It does happen. And if I do things right the way, I’m going to get a chance to play.'”
More and more are.
Even more will.
“That,” repeats Treliving, “is the time issue I always talk about. Mark Jankowski takes time. Brett Kulak takes time.
“So now you’re got guys who’ve been down there a year or two and are closer than ever. That’s what I mean about getting into the cycle of pushing.
“Guys develop at different stages. That’s the internal push I’m always talking about in becoming a high-functioning operation: There’s a push from within, where people here in Calgary are competing for opportunity, ice time and roles and then you’ve got the bottom push, guys down below who are nipping at everybody’s heels, ready to not only come up and play but come up and win.
“That’s the blueprint. That’s the goal. That’s how you develop players, how you build an organization. As I said, it takes time. But we’re getting there.”