Stay the Course
It's a long road that ends in the blink of an eye, the hockey season, a freeway with only green lights.
Rare is the opportunity to stop and look around, assess the distance traveled and the progress made along the way, yet that's exactly what the Stockton Heat have now after taking three of a possible four points over the weekend against divisional foe Henderson.
Thirty-four games in the rear view, thirty-four to go, the first half has offered excellence, growth and optimism abound for the Calgary Flames' farm club.
"Overall, we're really pleased," said Flames Assistant General Manager Brad Pascall, who is tasked with overseeing the Heat. "Mitch Love and the coaching staff have done a really good job. Mitch is a guy we were really high on coming in, but he's a first-year coach, he's always learning, and he's done an exceptional job all around this year with preparation, philosophy, and every day keeping the team focused and motivated.
"Looking at our roster, we've had some really strong performances from all over our roster. In saying that, we're always looking for progression of players. That's what we've seen, not only solid performance but constant progression."
The easy way of judging a team is in the standings, so let's start there. First place, a 23-7-4 record, unblemished in bounce-back games following losses and a dominant 13-2-3 on home ice.
The complexity lies in taking the birds' eye view, diving into the core mission of the Heat. Winning games is great, getting players used to success a critical part of developing a championship culture up and down the system. Individual development is harder to gauge. Call-ups have been less common this year than in seasons past, partially due to solid play up top, partially due to a mostly-clean bill of health for the big club.
Just because the impact isn't immediately felt doesn't mean that Stockton takes a back seat.
"First and foremost, it's really important for us to have a development-focused but ultimately competitive team in Stockton," said Pascall. "They're definitely not a team or a group of players that are forgotten. I'm in Stockton on a regular basis. Don Maloney, Jordan Sigalet are down there on a regular basis. We're talking with players, getting to know players, meeting with them. Organizationally, the players down there, the Calgary Flames are watching them on a daily basis. It's important to us to develop players. It's important for us to continue their development and get them ready for when they're needed in Calgary."
It takes keen eyes and constant observation to see what's happening, and Pascall gave the rundown on some of the prospects working their way through the system.
Jakob Pelletier: "Any time you're a first-year player, there's always an adjustment there. It doesn't matter if you're a skilled, offensive player or a defensive defenseman. There are things you're going to learn. Some players take longer than others to transition into the pro game. For Jakob, it took two games. Other guys, it can take quite a bit longer. He's figured out what it takes to be successful not only scoring, but also to earn the coaches' trust, be successful on the PK, be successful in puck battles. In saying that, it just shows how smart of a player Jakob is, how he possesses a level of pace and speed that he can get onto pucks quickly and off of checks quickly, and obviously he's shown really good skill with his shot and puck-moving ability."
Dustin Wolf: "First and foremost, he's a talented goaltender that has had good success each year coming into pro. He has a great attitude and great preparation. In saying that, Jordan Sigalet and Thomas Speer are two people who share in his successes as an individual, making sure that he's prepared and in a good situation, making sure he has a level of comfort in a new situation. They've really helped Dustin out. But you look at Dustin, and he's such a smart player in terms of how he reads the game, how he tracks pucks, controls the flow of the game in a lot of cases. He's just a smart hockey player, and obviously talented."
Connor Mackey: "He's a well-rounded player that continues to grow his game. Since we signed him out of college, he got a taste of the pro game last year. The benefit of him playing in Stockton is he's on the ice in all situations. He's playing big minutes and continuing his development. When the call-up comes, he'll be able to help Calgary be successful. He's getting the reps, working with Joe Cirella and the coaches, making sure he continues to round out his game, continues to develop his overall skill set. He's a really reliable player for us who can play in all situations."
Matthew Phillips and Glenn Gawdin: "I wouldn't say anything is new with them because they play such a consistent style of game. They compete and they produce. They play a reliable game. They're players that can be thrown in any situation, and they're players who are more than capable of swinging momentum of a game through their overall play, offensively and defensively. They continue to be great leaders for us with our group, and quite frankly they're an extension of the coaching staff and players we rely on every day. They're top-end players in the American Hockey League."
Ilya Solovyov: "Early on, we were a team that had a lot of numbers on the back end, and Ilya was a player who was in and out of the lineup. In saying that, he's always had the right attitude. He knew there was a path for him. He knew there was a plan for him. He's worked hard every day. He's been a really solid player for us. He has good size, good reach, he's played pro hockey in Europe before and junior in North America, so his transition to the North American pro game was quick. He has a good shot. He's at his best when he's making simple plays with the puck. He has good ability with the puck as well. He uses his strength, can lean on players and play a firm game."
Of course, the success extends beyond just these players - you don't get to first in the division and third in the AHL without having contributions from all over the roster. As the attention starts to focus in on playoff berths and extending the season, it'll continue to take a team effort and steady attention to progression.
That's exactly what Pascall is expecting to see from the group.
"Probably the most important thing, as we head into the second half of the season a lot of things can happen. Our goal is to continue doing what we're doing. There's a lot of hockey left to be played, and it's important for our players to stay motivated every day. We've had team success early, but when we play against other teams we know they're going to bring their best game. It's a good challenge for our players.
"In saying that, the regular season is far from over. We have to stick to our game plan, keep a consistent game going forward. The thought of us continuing on the road we're on is exciting, and we hope we can continue the way we're going."
LAST WEEK'S RESULTS
Wednesday vs. San Diego - L, 3-2
Friday vs. Henderson - W, 3-1
Saturday vs. Henderson - OTL, 4-3
The Heat have six players with double-digit goals on the year, with Matthew Phillips (13), Glenn Gawdin and Jakob Pelletier (12), Byron Froese (10), Justin Kirkland (10) and Adam Ruzicka (10). No other team in the AHL has more than four.
Stockton is a perfect 10-for-10 bouncing back from losses this season.
With their goals in Saturday's game, Martin Pospisil and Justin Kirkland have set new career highs for goals in a season.
Johannes Kinnvall made his season debut on Friday after working his way back from a lower body injury, and he finished the game with the primary assist on the game-winning goal.
Jakob Pelletier's game-winner on Friday was his team-leading fifth GWG of the season, and he now has nine points on game-winning goals on the year.
THEY SAID IT
"Good teams have depth and get timely scoring from different individuals when certain guys don't have it going. That's what you've seen from our hockey club. Guys have stepped up in others' absences. That's what you want to see, is that internal competition to push everyone." - Mitch Love on Stockton's scoring depth
"It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. That's the case with any hockey player at this level. As an athlete you're always looking at the end goal. You want to get there as quickly as you can. For everybody that pace is different. It's our job as coaches to reinforce that message and continue to work with our athletes on a day-to-day basis to get better, no matter what's going on with the big club or lack thereof in terms of call-ups. When they're here it's a chance to get better, when they walk through the door at the start of their day until it's time to go home. Then you come back the next day and you get a chance to get better again. That's been our mindset from day one and that's not going to change as long as I'm the head coach of this team. Our staff makes sure that's reinforced each and every day." - Love on the emphasis of player development
"I think those first two games were actually good. I was so excited to play. I don't know if that factored into anything. I felt good. That first game, I felt a little better than the second game about how I played. But I was just excited to go out there and enjoy playing hockey again. It was a fun first two games, and hopefully I can do even better with playing more." - Johannes Kinnvall on his first taste of AHL competition
"I want to develop more in my defensive play. I'm just trying to figure it out a little bit more, how I'm supposed to play out there. It's a little bit different (than the European game), but it's the style of play I'm trying to develop. I know what I can do on the offensive end, but I'm working every day on my skating, getting faster, and how I play in the defensive end." - Kinnvall on his areas of focus in the second half of the season
"We've put ourselves in a good position up to this point, but the later it goes into the season, the tougher it is to win as teams get closer to making a playoff push and solidifying your spot in the standings. The team we have here is so close-knit. We have such a good group of guys. I think one of the most exciting things about our team is we all want to play for each other. That's a key component to having a championship-caliber team. Fortunately, we have that. We have guys who want to sacrifice, are willing to accept different roles and positions than they've had in previous years. We have everybody buying in. I think, if we can keep staying on the road we've been on, it would be fun to make a little run in the playoffs." - Justin Kirkland on the root of the team's success this year
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