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Heat ready to take the next step in 2016-17

by Torie Peterson @ToriePeterson / CalgaryFlames.com

A year older, a year wiser.

Such is true for many of the youngsters under the charge of Stockton Heat head coach Ryan Huska and his assistants, Todd Gill and Dominic Pittis.

The American Hockey League squad, which acts as Calgary's primary development team, has plenty of players heading into their second and third professional seasons.

Forwards Morgan Klimchuk, Emile Poirier, Garnet Hathaway, Hunter Shinkaruk, Austin Carroll, and Hunter Smith and defencemen Oliver Kylington, Kenney Morrison, Ryan Culkin and Tyler Wotherspoon have all gained ample experience over the course of the past few seasons, particularly in 2015-16.

Huska didn't shy away from placing his players in any situation, tasking them with a heavy workload and arming them with plenty of responsibilities to aid in their progression.

While the Heat didn't end up in the playoffs last spring, they ended the year with a respectable 32-32-4 record and ended up having 14 players earn NHL recalls.

Not bad for the inaugural season of the Flames affiliate franchise.

"We had our stretches of good times, we had our stretches of challenges this year," Huska summarized at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season.

"But I think when you go back and look at our season, we had a lot of players who had the opportunity to play in Calgary. It's something that we're proud of, that we've been able to put the guys in the position where they were counted on and used a lot up top. That's something that we're happy with."

Now, it is time to take the next step.

Development, ultimately, is the main goal but being able to push for a playoff spot until last the handful of games last year has been a motivating factor for the team.

They don't want to be on the outside looking in this spring. They want to be Calder Cup contenders all season long, and that quest starts on Oct. 15 when the Heat open their season at home against their divisional rivals, the San Jose Barracuda.

Huska has had a couple of opportunities to evaluate his crew heading into the 2016-17 season, with the Heat playing in a pair of pre-season games last week.

In their opening match-up against Tuscon on Friday, the Heat outshot the Roadrunners 37-21 and collected a 3-2 victory at the Stockton Arena. Mark Jankowski handled all of the scoring, netting a hat trick in the win while goaltender Jon Gillies made 19 saves.

Stockton held the edge in shots once again Saturday in Bakersfield, outshooting the Condors 38-22, but fell 3-1. Mason McDonald, who has since being assigned to the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL, made 19 stops on 21 shots. 

"The two games, I thought our players worked hard," Huska assessed.

"I thought they tried to apply a lot of the systems they learned in Calgary and what we've tried mirror or follow up with here.

"Record-wise, we finished .500 in our two-game exhibition stretch, but I felt the players worked. I thought they were committed to playing hard for each other. That's a very important thing that we continue to see.

"The challenge for us is that we've had a lot of shots in these last couple games, but we've got to find a way to bury our opportunities."

Finding that offence could come from the likes of a handful of fresh-faced rookies.

The Heat will have forwards Jankowski, Brett Pollock, Andrew Mangiapane and defenceman Rasmus Andersson in their ranks - all players who have plenty of offensive upside to their game. 

Success, according to Huska, hinges on their ability to adapt.

"A lot of it has to do with them understanding what it takes to be a pro," he mused. "I think that's the biggest thing for them. 

"There's going to be some challenges moving forward; there's no doubt about that. They're used to playing in key situations and at times in junior, being better than those they're playing against.

"This is new, in regards to having to really make sure they're playing at a high level every shift and knowing it's going to be a learning experience."

In net, the Heat will start the year with Gillies and David Rittich, who signed a one-year, two-way contract with the organization in June. 

Gillies was limited to just seven games last year after dealing with injuries and ultimately undergoing hip surgery in December. He went 2-3-1 in his rookie season, posting a 2.31 GAA, a .920 save percentage and one shutout.

Rittich has spent the majority of the last month in Calgary, getting into one period of pre-season action. In his 20 minutes of exhibition play, he made six saves in the Flames' 3-0 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Sept. 27.

This is the 24-year-old's first season in North America after spending his entire career in his home country, the Czech Republic. Last year, with BK Mlada Boleslav, he recorded a 2.50 GAA and a .919 save percentage in 48 games played.

"We want them to push each other," Huska stated. "Fight for his net, fight for his time. It will be good for the guys.

"That's what we want to see because, at the end of the day, it's going to make them better."

CURRENT HEAT CAMP ROSTER

FORWARDS

Mikkel Aagaard

Mike Angelidis

Matt Bailey

Austin Carroll

Jamie Devane

Matt Frattin

Garnet Hathaway

Mark Jankowski

Morgan Klimchuk

Ryan Lomberg

Andrew Mangiapane

Emile Poirier

Brett Pollock

Hunter Shinkaruk

Hunter Smith 

DEFENCE

Rasmus Andersson

Ryan Culkin

Kayle Doetzel

Roman Dyukov

Mikhail Grigorev

Keegan Kanzig

Oliver Kylington

Kenney Morrison

Colby Robak

Tyler Wotherspoon

GOALTENDERS

Jon Gillies

David Rittich

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