By Brandon Kisker | AHL On The Beat
It’s a question that’s followed Heat forward Morgan Klimchuk around for years: What exactly happened in his first year with Stockton?
“I wouldn’t say it annoys me; it’s a fair question to ask,” Klimchuk said of constantly answering that question. “If you look at the year, offensively I didn’t have the success I wanted to have but for some guys that’s the learning curve. You come into the league and you have to learn.
“Ultimately it takes some guys a little longer than others and I think that was the case for me.”
Head coach Ryan Huska had a similar response when asked about Klimchuk’s first season.
“He did a lot of great things that first year so if someone were to ask that question and I were Morgan, I’d say nothing,” Huska said. “I’d say I became a better player that first year and I’m going to continue to grow.
“That’s how I’d respond.”
After an illustrious junior career in the Western Hockey League with Regina and Brandon, the first-round selection in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft entered his first season as a pro in 2015-16. In that first season, he skated in 55 games and recorded three goals and nine points — quite a drop-off in production from Klimchuk’s final season in juniors, where the forward recorded 34 goals and 80 points.
But it’s a whole new game when you step on an ice with professional players.
“I think it’s tough for guys coming out of junior to transfer to pro,” Heat assistant coach Domenic Pittis said. “Guys are faster and stronger and you have to make plays a little quicker, so there’s an adjustment that has to take place.
“I don’t think you can underestimate the jump from junior to pro and I also don’t think it’s out of the ordinary to see that adjustment across the board.”
As Klimchuk later learned, the big difference is learning how you have to produce in professional hockey, something he can now reflect on and appreciate.
“I’m not going to say you need to create it on your own but junior players make a lot of unforced errors and mistakes you can capitalize on,” Klimchuk explained. “Coming into the league I was capitalizing on a lot of people’s unforced mistakes in junior quite a bit compared to here, where everyone’s pretty structurally sound and make good plays. If you aren’t countering that with a good play of your own or trying to beat someone, you’re not going to produce.
“Here, you have to force someone’s hand or ultimately beat them to create, so that was a big adjustment for me.”
And while nine points for a player used to producing 70-plus points in junior every season might make it seem like doom and gloom, his first season pro was anything but.
Klimchuk recognized that if he wasn’t contributing offensively, he needed to find another way to contribute on the team. He developed into one of the best defensive players on the team, consistently finding himself on the ice in key defensive zone faceoffs and on the top unit of the penalty kill. He was frequently used as a “shut-down” forward who was able to hold the opposing team’s best players off the scoresheet.
“I tried to find a place in the lineup with a role that I can contribute to the team’s success and I tried to stick with that the entire season,” Klimchuk said. “It was things that were more defensively minded. Those are things that coaches like and I think that’s helped build me into the player I am now.
“It has allowed the coaching staff to trust me when I’m on the ice. At the end of the day, you need to be trusted across the ice if you want to play at the next level and that’s where I want to get to. If the coach can’t put you on the ice, you can’t score, so you have to be trusted defensively first.”
It’s something his head coach says dominated conversations across the early days of Klimchuk’s career.
“He’s put in the work to be a real solid, trustworthy guy away from the puck, in particular in all key defensive situations,” Huska said. “The work he’s put in has allowed him to trust that he can do things offensively which we’ve now seen for a while, where he has confidence now to not only make smart defensive decisions, but also score big goals for us or make key plays offensively.
“He’s a great example in that sometimes the road is bumpy and winding, but if you stick with it and keep the belief in yourself, you’re going to see positive results.”
Those results came early in year two, and it wasn’t as if we were seeing a brand-new player on the ice.
Same ol’ Morgan.
And just six games into his season this year, Klimchuk has already matched his previous season’s point total.
All those conversations, meetings and video sessions he had with the coaches, all the times the staff, and even teammates said to keep doing the things he was doing and eventually the goals would come, finally came to fruition.
“We told him if he stuck with it and put in the extra work, things would fall for him,” Huska said. “Everyone wants their journey to be a sprint when in reality a lot of times it’s a marathon. If you’re willing to put the work in and believe in yourself, eventually, it will lead to more and more opportunity and chances.
“We saw that play out in year two with Morgan.”
It’s not the journey any player envisions for himself, but one that Morgan is now grateful for.
“If you said to me that I’d have only have three goals at the end of my first year I’d think, ‘No, I expect a little more from myself.’ But that’s the way it goes sometimes,” Klimchuk said. “You learn. It’s part of adapting and part of becoming a better player and person, and when you go through something like that you have to learn to play in all situations and it’s something I took pride in.
“It’s cliche, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Third on the Heat in 2016-17 in goals (19), assists (24) and points (43) with a solid plus-9 rating, Klimchuk was a more confident player, one whose adjustment to the pro game was now completed, and someone who should’ve turned a lot of heads with his production.
There’s one last adjustment Klimchuk hopes to make — the one from AHL hockey to NHL hockey. It might not be an overnight change, but the work he’s putting into his game, and the results he’s producing is reinforcing why he was a 28th overall pick.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and everyone has different path to get them where they want to go to,” Klimchuk said. “I’m happy with where I’m at as a player and as a person and I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t go through the struggles in the first year… My story isn’t finished yet, we’re still writing chapters every day.
“Hopefully that chapter book involves me playing at the NHL level. That’s what I’ve set my sights on, so I’m excited for the next chapter.”