Stockton Heat off to hot start after many disappointing years

Vancouver Canucks' Michael Chaput, left, is checked by Calgary Flames' Mark Jankowski, during a pre-season NHL game in September 2016. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Success at the American Hockey League level has been elusive in recent years for the Calgary Flames, both in player development and on-ice accomplishments.

The Flames went through four AHL affiliates in a decade before landing with the Stockton Heat to start the 2015-2016 season, a year they went 32-32-2-2 and failed to qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs. It was the seventh time in 11 seasons that a Calgary AHL affiliate had failed to reach the postseason.

The issues went far beyond on-ice success. Flames management had a trail of top picks – Matt Pelech, Greg Nemisz, Mitch Wahl, and Leland Irving, most notably – stall at the AHL level. That failure to develop top picks went on to hamper the organization at the NHL level.

That, however, has changed this season.

Much like their parent club in Calgary, the Heat have emerged as an impressive early-season story. They lead the Pacific Division with a 14-6-1-1 record as they continue this month’s seven-game road trip with a pair of games against the San Diego Gulls this weekend.

And the Heat are putting up that winning record with a crop of young talent that could eventually contribute in Calgary. They have three Flames first-round picks in their line-up — forwards Mark Jankowski, Morgan Klimchuk, and Emile Poirier, plus forward Hunter Shinkaruk, the Vancouver Canucks’ first-round selection in 2013 before he was sent to Calgary in a trade last season.

They are fourth in the AHL with 3.50 goals per game despite not having a player among the top 20 AHL scorers. However, they have a blend of veterans and prospects at forward that brings balanced scoring. Rookie Andrew Mangiapane’s 19 points tie him with Linden Vey, a sixth-round pick by the Flames in 2015 that arrived in Stockton this season fresh off a 106-point season for the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts.

Calgary’s first-round pick in 2012, 22-year-old Jankowski, is 5-12-17 and sits second in team scoring. Klimchuk, a 2013 first-rounder, is 8-8-16 after finishing his rookie AHL season with three goals in 55 games. Poirier is 4-9-13; he had 19 goals as an AHL rookie in 2014-15 before sliding back to 12 tallies last season.

Veterans Brandon Bollig and Matt Frattin each have chipped in six goals while Shinkaruk has five goals in 11 games. In all, the Heat have 11 players with 10 or more points through 22 games.

Last season the Heat cycled through seven goaltenders, but that has not been an issue this season. Undrafted Czech goaltender David Rittich has been on one of the best early stories in the AHL this season. The 24-year-old signed a one-year deal with Calgary after his first full season in the Czech Extraliga and has created a crease competition with prospect Jon Gillies, who missed most of last season with a hip injury.

Rittich’s .941 save percentage and 1.65 goals-against average each lead the AHL. Stockton’s 2.45 goals allowed per game is tied for second-best in the league, and they have been relatively stingy in front of the Gillies-Rittich tandem, ranking 14th with 29.0 shots-against per game.

The Heat have the third-best penalty kill in the AHL (86.0 percent), and their power play has come alive recently, picking up four goals on their past 17 man-advantage opportunities.

Behind their bench is third-year head coach Ryan Huska. He arrived in the AHL with an impressive Western Hockey League resume, winning a Memorial Cup as an assistant coach with the Kelowna Rockets and then taking the same team as a head coach to a Memorial Cup final. He has also won a silver and a bronze medal with Team Canada in World Junior Hockey Championship competition.

The Heat do face an upcoming challenge, however.

Nineteen-year-old defenceman Oliver Kylington will be missing from the Stockton blue line as he heads to the World Junior Championship to compete for Sweden. A second-round pick by Calgary in the 2015 NHL Draft, he has emerged as a key part of the team’s defence corps after his rookie season was interrupted by injury. He has 4-7-11 in 22 games, placing him second in team scoring among defencemen behind fellow Swede Rasmus Andersson. The 19-year-old Andersson, another 2015 second-round pick by the Flames, is 2-13-15 for the Heat in his first pro season.

But this season, the Pacific Division is increasingly looking like a free-for-all. The Ontario Reign have been without goaltender Peter Budaj, and the Tucson Roadrunners have slowed down after a torrid start.

If the Heat can navigate through the remainder of this road trip successfully, they would set themselves up well for a stretch of seven of 11 games at home.

POWER 5

1. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (17-5-3-0, 37 points) – The Penguins lead the AHL with 37 points, and rookie forward Jake Guentzel is back from his stint with the NHL club and leads all AHL rookies with 23 points (10-13-23). Their penalty kill places first at a robust 90.1 percent. Defenceman Derrick Pouliot has bounced between Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, but the AHL roster has otherwise been notably stable. With several games in the next three weeks against some of the Eastern Conference’s weaker teams — the Binghamton Senators and Hartford Wolf Pack — the AHL Penguins, who have allowed an AHL-best 2.08 goals per game, could pile up points.

2. Milwaukee Admirals (15-5-2-1, 33 points) – Even a near-daily crush of player movement to and from the parent Nashville Predators has not slowed down the Admirals. Goaltenders Marek Mazenec and Juuse Saros have taken turns moving between the NHL and AHL. Saros has posted a 1.76 GAA and .938 save percentage and is currently with the Predators, while Mazenec, who has struggled with an .886 save percentage, is currently with Milwaukee.

3. Lehigh Valley Phantoms (18-7-1-0, 37 points) – Tied with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at a league-best 37 points, Lehigh Valley is 7-3-0-0 in its past 10 games and put up eight goals in a win against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers at a home win Wednesday. They rank second with 3.69 goals per game, their power play is fifth (24.4 percent), and their penalty kill is eighth (84.4 percent). Goaltender Anthony Stolarz is still on recall with the Philadelphia Flyers, but rookie Alex Lyon has taken over the Lehigh Valley crease and been solid.

4. Hershey Bears (15-5-4-1, 35 points) – The Calder Cup finalist from last season is back with another deep roster. What the Bears may lack in the high-end firepower that Lehigh Valley and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton possess, they more than make up for it with impressive depth at forward and on the blue line. This has helped them to overcome several injuries, and 12 players have 10 or more points so far. Forward Paul Carey has a 15-game point streak, and the Bears have survived the loss of Jakub Vrana to the Washington Capitals with the addition of forward Zach Sanford from the NHL club.

5. Grand Rapids Griffins (15-7-1-2, 33 points) – A deadly power play has propelled Grand Rapids. They had a run of 13 consecutive games with a power-play goal during which they went 21-for-63. Their second-ranked power play is cruising at 26.7 percent. In net Jared Coreau has a 2.26 GAA and a .922 save percentage.

AWAITING THE CALL

Very little has gone right this season for the Binghamton Senators, who occupy 28th place in the AHL despite a four-game point streak (3-0-1-0). Binghamton’s offence is in a three-way tie for last place at 2.24 goals per game.

However, second-year forward Casey Bailey has been a bright spot. Bailey signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs as an NCAA free agent after three seasons at Penn State. Midway through his first pro season with the Toronto Marlies, he was shipped to the Ottawa Senators in the Dion Phaneuf deal. Limited in opportunities with the Marlies because of a deep roster around him, Bailey blossomed with last-place Binghamton in the final two months of the 2015-16 season, producing seven goals in 30 games.

This season Bailey is tied for the Binghamton team lead with veteran Phil Varone at 14 points, and his nine goals lead the team. Bailey, 25, brings size (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) and a willingness to shoot the puck with a team-leading 81 shots.

THE BIG GAME

The Bakersfield Condors have a six-game point streak (4-0-2-0), but they still are in tough inside the Pacific Division. The affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers sits sixth in the Pacific Division with a 10-8-2-0 mark through 20 games.

They start a run of five consecutive road games and six of eight contests away from home ice Friday at Ontario. From there they head northward for a date Saturday with the San Jose Barracuda. Bakersfield is chasing the fifth-place Barracuda. The task grew more complicated Thursday with the recall of forward Taylor Beck to the Oilers. Beck’s 30 points (9-21-30) lead the AHL and he had back-to-back three-point efforts prior to his recall.

However, the Condors did receive forward Anton Slepyshev, who had 13 goals in 49 AHL games last season. Bakersfield’s blue line also added David Musil and Dillon Simpson from the Oilers this week. Centre Anton Lander has gone 6-5-11 in six games since his assignment to Bakersfield.

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