To call Justin Kirkland’s 2021-22 season an “improvement” would be a huge understatement.
The 25-year-old winger has become an offensive cornerstone for the 45–16–7 Stockton Heat this year, finishing third on the team – behind only the top tier forwards. Matthew Phillips and Jacques Pelletier — with 25 goals in 66 games. His 48 points rank him fourth behind Phillips, Pelletier and Glenn Gawdin.
Prior to this season, Kirkland had scored just 33 goals in his 267-game American Hockey League career. Only eight of those goals came in the 69 games he played in his first two campaigns with the Heat.
Kirkland’s shooting percentage in 2021-22 wasn’t unusually high – 11.4%, certainly a slight increase for him but not a figure that jumps off the page. He remained a fixture on both special teams, as he has since joining the Heat in 2019.
What has changed then?
“When you turn pro, it’s hard to find that translation of your junior game,” Kirkland said. “I always thought maybe my shooting was one of my strengths, and it was just to find the confidence to do it as a pro.
“At the start of the year, I met with the coaching staff, going over what was expected of me for the team,” Kirkland added. “That was one of the goals that they really set for me, maybe hitting a certain number of shots per game, just being a little more straightforward in my game.
“Obviously that translated into the puck going into the back of the net, which was fantastic. »
No kidding. Kirkland nearly doubled his career AHL goal tally this season and was even better in the 2022 Calder Cup playoffs, scoring five goals and seven points in seven games to help the Heat reach the Conference Finals. from West.
Kirkland is a great man. He’s listed by the AHL at 6’3″ and 205 pounds, and he wastes none of that when he comes down for a shot.
Again, to simply call his shot “one of his strengths” is an understatement: Kirkland can absolutely Fire the washer. Just ask the guy who faces him every day in practice.
“He has a quick release. He can put it behind you pretty quickly,” said Dustin Wolf, the bright star from Stockton between the posts who was recently named AHL Goaltender of the Year. “Obviously we’ve seen that in the last few games. It’s really nice to have a guy like that by your side.
Stockton beat the Colorado Eagles three games to one in the AHL’s Pacific Division Finals best-of-five. Wolf has posted three shutouts in the series, with Kirkland scoring the game-winning goal in Stockton’s three wins.
Two of those game-winning goals – including the series winner in Game 4, pictured below – were also the game of the game only pointing. Kirkland and Wolf propelled the Heat to 1-0 wins in Games 2 and 4.
“If you can avoid overtime as much as possible, that’s the ideal scenario,” Wolf said with a smile. “We just kind of have luck on our side right now, and hopefully we can both keep doing what we’re doing.
“He works hard every day.”
BOOM 🔥 pic.twitter.com/kXeLEEjqUs
— y — Stockton Heat (@AHLHeat) May 30, 2022
Even in his difficult 2020-21 season, in which he played just 16 of Stockton’s 30 games and scored just seven points, Kirkland consistently put his howitzer in one shot in full display – but not nearly at the same rate as this year.
In his first two seasons with the Heat, Kirkland took 179 shots in 69 games. That equates to around 2.59 shots per game, which is a pretty good rate.
Unfortunately, Kirkland only scored on 4.5% of those shots. That’s an oddly low conversion number for someone who can hammer the puck with such conviction.
Now, let’s take another look at Kirkland’s 2021-2022 campaign. Here’s the full list of players from across the American Hockey League who took more shots than Kirkland during the regular season:
- Stefan Noesen (Chicago) — 254 shots in 70 games
- Antoine Greco (Hartford) — 248 shots in 66 games
- Kiefer Sherwood (Colorado) — 240 shots in 57 games
- sam anas (Springfield) — 230 shots in 75 games
- JJ Peterka (Rochester) — 223 shots in 70 games
Kirkland ranked sixth in the league — and first on the Heat, by a mile — with 219 shots in 66 games this year. He averaged 3.32 shots per game in 2021–22, second only in Heat history to Derek Grant in 2015–16 (165 shots in 36 games, or 4.58 per game).
It’s hard to imagine the cadre of the Heat’s coaching staff this top of a shots-per-game benchmark for Kirkland heading into the season. Consider this goal achieved.
Kirky, short side.
We like. pic.twitter.com/9Mz4Tbuncf
— y — Stockton Heat (@AHLHeat) May 25, 2022
Noesen, Greco and Anas are all 29 years old. Peterka went 34th overall for the Buffalo Sabers in 2020. Sherwood is 27 and was just named to the 2021-22 AHL Second Team All-Star.
Unlike the five players listed above, Kirkland appears to be on a late bloomer path.
Kirkland was a decent scorer in the Western Hockey League, good enough to be selected by the Nashville Predators with the No. 62 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Even so, he only topped 25 single-season goals once in his three full seasons with the Kelowna Rockets.
As a 19-year-old with Kelowna in 2015-16, Kirkland has 31 goals and 67 points in 69 games. He turned pro the following season with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, but never quite found his footing as a Nashville prospect.
In June 2019, the Predators made qualifying offers to pending restricted free agents Colton Sissons and Rocco Grimaldileaving Kirkland homeless for the first time in his professional career.
Luckily for Kirkland, a team from his home province quickly came calling. The Camrose product signed a one-year contract to join the Calgary Flames on July 2, 2019, remaining with the organization year after year since.
“From the very first day I signed here and had a relationship with the Flames, I’ve [had] only good things to say. They treated me and my wife like family, which means a lot to us,” Kirkland said. “Everything has been first class. It was very special for me.
Kirkland is an unrestricted free agent on hold, though it’s easy to imagine the Flames trying to bring him back for another season or two after his breakthrough performance in 2021-22.
The Flames’ fourth line has room for a big winger with soft hands and a deadly shot. Kirkland probably won’t get a huge salary, and Calgary isn’t too far from where he laid most of his roots growing up.
“I was born in Winnipeg, lived there until I was four, then moved with my family to Camrose,” Kirkland said. “That’s probably where a lot of my closest friends are.
“I went to Vikings games and grew up a die-hard Kodiaks fan, so Camrose is still a very special place for me.”
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