GLENS FALLS, NY -- Every NHL prospect is a work in progress, but Ryan Culkin has taken extra long strides, both on and off the ice, in his advancement as a first-year pro.
Culkin leads the Adirondack Flames in assists (12) and his 13 points are fourth on the club, and tied for third in the league among rookie defencemen. More importantly, he’s gained the confidence of coach Ryan Huska for every situation, including power plays and penalty kills, in addition to regular shifts as a blueliner.
“I’m just working my butt off every game, every practice to try to get in the lineup,” said Culkin, of Montreal. “In juniors I was relied on for my offensive skills, but I’ve always been a shut-down guy. If I can bring those two parts of my game from juniors to this level that would be great. It will only help the team in the long run.
“We want to be a playoff team. If we continue working hard and outworking other teams then we’ll have a lot of success.”
Culkin, Calgary’s fifth-round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, had a career-high 42 assists (50 points) in his final year of juniors in 2013-14, a season split between the Quebec Ramparts and Drummondville Voltigeurs in the QMJHL.
Having just turned 21 on Dec. 15, his 6-foot-2, 201-pound frame is still filling out, which has been the focus of an intense off-ice regimen with help from Adirondack strength coach Mike Thompson.
“One of the things that goes back to summer camp is making sure that Ryan gets stronger,” said Brad Pascall, Calgary assistant general manager. “Even in-season we’ve got him on an off-ice conditioning program that’s helped him put on some extra muscle. That translates well onto the ice.
“For a first year pro, playing the number of games we do at this level against men is a transition,” Pascall said. “I think that Ryan has accepted the transition very well. He continues to work on his game with our coaches. Having Todd Gill, who’s played over 1,000 games in the NHL as an assistant coach, is really helpful for Ryan’s development. We’ve been really happy with his progression. He’s a definite prospect for us.”
At Adirondack, Culkin rooms with fellow Montreal native Emile Poirier, the Flames’ leading scorer (8 goals, 8 assists, 16 points). Culkin comes from an English-speaking part of Montreal, but having played juniors at Quebec City, he no trouble communicating with Poirier, whose primary language is French.
Montreal is only three hours north of Glens Falls, N.Y., where the Flames play.
“My mom, dad and sister have been coming down regularly to the games,” Culkin said. “That’s made the transition a lot of easier, considering it’s my first year living by myself.”
Gill, who works most closely with Adirondack’s defencemen, said Culkin has really stepped up his game of late.
“I thought he had a really good camp at Calgary last summer,” he said. “When we came back here to Adirondack I thought Ryan struggled a little bit with the pace and the strength of the game. Over the last three weeks he’s elevated to the point where he’s a very reliable guy. We have him on the ice in all situations now. He’s earned it. He’s worked hard at it. For a kid that just turned 21 he’s done a heck of a job.”
“Ryan’s a very good skater, he’s got a great stick, he’s a great passer and he can shoot the puck. You can see the dividends from the hard work.”
Culkin attributes his scoring output to good positioning, anticipation “and I guess a lot of luck, just putting it on the right guy’s stick.
“I’ve been fortunate to be producing that way and hopefully it will continue,” he said.
After this weekend, the Flames open a five-game homestand on New Year’s Eve. In fact, seven of their nine games in January are in Glens Falls, meaning Culkin will have plenty of time to hit the gym during the next few weeks.
“It’s more important what he does off the ice,” Gill said. “He has the talent. Most guys that are in this league have the talent to take the next step. It’s the know-how, the want and the drive that gives them the opportunity.
“It’s almost more important to do all your off-ice work and make sure your body is ready and capable of handling the rigors of every day getting banged, crashed and being able to bounce back the next day. That takes time.”
And work, which Culkin is willing to do.
Gill has also been impressed with Culkin’s demeanor, attitude and mental approach to the daily grind of practice, games, travel and training.
“He’s a fun-loving kid,” Gill said. “He loves to joke around. I think that’s a bonus for him because he lets a lot of stuff slide off his back instead of carrying it around. That’s just extra weight that he doesn’t need.”
The last time out, against Utica, Culkin was paired with defenceman Mark Cundari. However, Corey Potter has just come down to Adirondack from Calgary, giving Culkin another potential defensive partner on the ice. Culkin said it makes no difference who he’s paired with.
“No not at this level,” he said. “All of the guys are great to play with. I’m always comfortable with anyone who’s in the lineup. We have so much depth on the bench that any night you don’t know who you’re playing with. But you have so much confidence in that player, it’s not hard at all.”
With the season’s mid-point fast approaching, Culkin has been one of the Flames’ fastest learners. However, Huska said there is still lots more work to do.
“I think his confidence from the beginning of the year has been a big reason why his play has changed to the point where we now trust him against any line that he’s on the ice with,” Huska said. “He’s a guy that’s bringing some offence to the table for us. He’s also a guy we’re trusting against top lines. He’s become an important person to our back end.
“The big thing for Ryan is to just every day come to the rink to try to get better. That’s his challenge, to make sure he doesn’t get satisfied with what he’s done up to this point. He’s got to push himself to be better after Christmas.”
Culkin can’t wait to get started again this weekend. He describes his approach this way: “Just bring a smile to the rink and want to get better every day,” he said. “That’s about it.”