Three months ago, Curtis Billsten
was a man without a team.
Now, he leads the ECHL with a plus-23 rating.
The 22-year-old rookie -- who was cut by the Idaho Steelheads on Oct. 26 -- is thriving under coach Mark Morrison
and the Victoria Salmon Kings at both ends of the ice. In 37 games for the Salmon Kings, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound right wing has 11 goals and 16 assists to along with that remarkable plus-23.
"I couldn't ask for a whole lot more here," Billsten told NHL.com. "It's my first year in the league. Mark's been amazing. He's given me a lot of opportunities for a first-year guy. To put up the numbers I have, it's exciting -- along with the team's play."
Billsten isn't the lone member of the team doing well, evidenced by Victoria's 29-12-4 record. Even with Wednesday night's 2-0 loss to the Stockton Thunder, the Salmon Kings are 11 points ahead of the Alaska Aces in the West Division.
"Everybody's got to be pretty excited here," Billsten said. "It seems like the team is really jelling and everything's just kind of falling our way right now. It's exciting to think to the future a little bit."
It was a long road for Billsten to reach this point. The Calgary native spent four seasons in the Western Hockey League, and then spent last season with the University of British Columbia. In his one campaign with the school, Billsten had 14 goals, 11 assists and 59 penalty minutes in just 27 games.
"Last summer I went to the Ottawa Senators
' rookie camp," Billsten said. "I had offers to go to an American League camp and sign an (ECHL) deal, but I wasn't quite sure if my heart was set on that right away. I decided with nothing really finalized, I just decided to go the school route first."
It was at UBC where Morrison got his first look at Billsten. His son, Lance Morrison, was a senior on the club last season.
"He's been a great addition," Morrison said. "He's a big guy and he's strong. He's got a real good set of hands on him and he's got a real good shot. He's smart. With his league-leading plus/minus, he's smart in his own end. He's smart defensively. I think he's just finding the pro game. When he gets into openings to get his shot away, it's always a good scoring attempt."
Even though he could have tackled the pro game last season and played in the ECHL, Billsten has no regrets about going the college route. From his perspective, the only negative was the short college season. He's already appeared in 13 more games in 2008-09 than he did all of the last campaign.
"It was probably one of the funnest years of my life; I don't regret it at all," Billsten said. "It was nice to get a full year of school under my belt. If I want to go back, nobody could take that away from me. It was just that a 28-game schedule didn't scratch that hockey itch. When the year's finished, you're not even really fatigued. I just wanted to keep going. It's almost heartbreaking when the season ends."
Billsten participated in an American Hockey League camp last September, when he skated with the Peoria Rivermen. Unfortunately, a groin injury ruined any real chance of making an impact. He tried to play through the injury with the Steelheads, but lasted just two games before being told his services were no longer required.
"I came into camp injured," Billsten said of his time in Idaho. "There's not really much to say. I spent about two weeks there trying to regroup from my groin injury. I tried to come back and play through it, but it just wasn't there yet. Everything happens for a reason. Everything's been fantastic in Victoria and I couldn't be happier."
It certainly appears to be a good match. Morrison admitted he is surprised by just how responsible the rookie forward has been in his own end of the ice.
"I never really thought about that, but yeah," Morrison said. "He's smart. He obviously has had some good coaching down the line. He's real strong on his stick. It's all about stick battles for pucks. He wins most of the ones he gets in. He's also on our No. 1 penalty-kill unit."
"Everybody wants that chance to move on up. For now, I've got the goal in mind with the team here. Hopefully, everything else kind of falls into place later." -- Curtis Billsten
Billsten hasn't received an AHL promotion this season, but the power forward seems quite content with continuing to work on his game before reaching the Triple-A level. Like most players in the ECHL, Billsten believes he needs to improve his skating before making the jump.
"Being a big guy, the skating needs to improve a little bit," Billsten said. "It's something I've worked on my whole life. I don't think I'm a terrible skater, but the faster you can get, the better you look."
Morrison agreed. Nonetheless, the coach is impressed with just how quickly Billsten has adjusted to the pro game.
"I would say his skating probably needs the most work," Morrison said. "He's smart and he's probably learned to find his way around the rink. He's got a rocket; it's just the smarts to get open. He's just come a long way in three months in pro hockey. He's got a lot of upside, for sure."
One day, Billsten hopes to show an AHL club what he can bring to the table. After all, hulking forwards with plus-23 ratings don't exactly grow on trees.
"That's the goal," Billsten said of a chance to play in the AHL. "You try to do your best. Everybody knows when you play for a winning team, everybody's going to get noticed on it. That's definitely the goal. Everybody wants that chance to move on up. For now, I've got the goal in mind with the team here. Hopefully, everything else kind of falls into place later."
Contact Brian Compton at firstname.lastname@example.org.