The Calgary Flames had the hard hat, and this year, the South Carolina Stingrays have the giant foam cowboy hat. It’s an amusing sight, but the point of the tradition is serious — to reward hard work within the team.
The rules are the same for the 20-gallon red cowboy hat as the Flames original. Following each win, the player who currently holds the hat presents it to the player he deems worthy. A new tradition for the Stingrays this year, it was instituted by some of the leaders on the team.
"It’s not just the most valuable player, but it’s the guy who does the most for the team, or is most committed on the ice," Stingrays head coach Cail MacLean explained. "It’s a great honor. That to me is worth much more than a first star.
"It’s a good way for the guys to show appreciation to their teammates and it’s also a fun exercise."
Most of the Capitals five prospects with the Stingrays have had a turn to inscribe their number on the bill of the hat already this season.
Braden Holtby, G
4th round, 98th overall, 2008
Holtby has had, by most objective measures, quite a rookie year already. He’s put up good numbers at both the ECHL and AHL levels, and even got a dream call-up to the NHL. But MacLean noted that it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses.
"It’s been a tough year for him so far, because he’s bounced up and down several times now," MacLean said. "He’s been at three different levels and it’s hard to adjust as a goaltender, but he’s played very well for us. Not only does he stop the puck, but he plays the puck very well. His work habits are second to none. He’s really professional in that he’s doing everything he can to move to the next level — not being discouraged by being down in the East Coast league, just keeping his head up and doing his best."
His professionalism is noticable. Holtby does little things like give warning to his partner in warmups that he’s going to be ready to switch off after a few more saves.
Holtby, who just turned 20 in September, played for the WHL Saskatoon Blades the last three seasons, and is well-regarded as a prospect.
"This is a good test for someone in his position," MacLean said. "It’s easy for a young player, who maybe expected more, to get discouraged. But his fortitude now will pay off someday."
MacLean said that Holtby bounces back well after bad games, and regarding his consistency, "It hasn’t been bad, but there’s always room for improvement. There’s been a few games he’d like back, so obviously every little improvement in that area is a positive."
With a 7-2-1-2 record, the 6’1 Holtby has a .911 save percentage and 2.95 GAA with the Stingrays. His save percentage is sixth in the league.
Joe Finley, D
1st round, 27th overall, 2005
A smooth skater for his 6’7 height, Finley is solid defensively and has some offensive upside too. With a hard, accurate shot, he played on the power play right away as a 22-year-old rookie. The Capitals experimented with him at forward during camp, but he’s now back to his natural defense. From there, he has put up four points and 43 penalty minutes in 17 games for the Stingrays and is +1.
In late November, Finley suffered a soft-tissue injury to his hand which required surgery and will keep him out a couple months.
"He had a good start, was playing solid D and getting a lot of minutes, starting to use his skill," MacLean said, "but unfortunately that injury is going to set him back a little ways and he’ll have a lot of hard work to do to return up to speed."
It’s the second year in a row Finley has had a serious injury. Last year with the University of North Dakota a concussion kept him out half of the year.
While a fine skater for this level, long term in order to move up, Finley will need to improve on his skating. Referring to both Finley and Jake Hauswirth, MacLean said, "Both skate pretty well, but both need to work on their foot speed, definitely."
MacLean is bullish on Finley despite the setback that the hand injury is causing.
"With his long reach, defensively he’s effective because he can maintain position," MacLean said. "He’s got good puck skills for being that size. He’s got a good future."
Josh Godfrey, D
2nd round, 34th overall, 2007
Godfrey has made considerable improvement from last season, his rookie pro year, when he looked lost in the defensive zone.
"I think it’s taken him a while this year to get things in gear and then he ran into an injury (missing six games)," MacLean said. "But of late, before his injury and now the last few weeks, he’s really skating well and he’s got as much skill with the puck as anyone on our team — he’s very talented. It’s good to see him getting that confidence to use it, and learning to be consistent in his defensive zone because that has been a bit of an issue, but he’s working on that. His upside is very big, so it’s exciting to see him working hard and progressing."
Godfrey sees a lot of power-play time and has seven points and a +2 in 16 games. The 6’1 210-pounder will be 22 in January.
Jake Hauswirth, C/LW
Free agent signee, 2009
Playing on the third line, mostly at left wing but also at center, Hauswirth isn’t yet seeing a lot of ice time as a rookie. He’s still a very raw prospect, but every once in a while you see a flash of skill. Other times, the right idea is there but the execution isn’t. What you don’t see much of is costly gaffes as he generally keeps things simple.
"It’s a big step coming out of the USHL, and I think he’s adapting to it well," MacLean said. "He’s eager to learn and works very hard. He learns quickly. He went through an injury already and worked very hard to get through it and came out of it right where he left off."
Hauswirth injured his shoulder on Nov. 8, and missed eight games. After his fifth game back, he said he still felt a little behind. Hauswirth also admitted that he’d had shoulder problems in the past as well — AC joint separations, shoulder separations and rotator cuff problems. He’s never required surgery yet, however. Currently feeling 100 percent, he’s still slowly adjusting to the pro game.
"I’ve still got some more learning to do, every day I’m learning something," he said.
One thing that’s new for him is not being the tallest guy on the team. Finley has Hauswirth beat by two inches, 6’7 to 6’5.
"Yeah, that’s a first for a while," Hauswirth laughed.
Charleston’s location on the east coast brought another first for the Minnesota native. When he was assigned down this fall, he went to the beach and touched the ocean for the first time.
"I don’t do much traveling except for hockey," he explained.
And he’s definitely enjoying the milder weather after playing the last two years in Omaha, Nebraska.
"Oh God, yeah," he said. "I’m so used to stepping outside and it being below zero, and back home there’s always a lot of snow. Down in the south it’s kind of nice, no snow and it’s comfortable."
Hauswirth was a goal scorer in junior, many of them coming from the slot, but has just two goals on the year so far, along with nine points in 16 games. But his +9 is tied for the team lead.
"It’s harder to score in pro hockey, that’s what it comes down to," he said. "I’ve got to start shooting the puck and eventually it’ll go in."
Hauswirth is not seeing much special teams time right now, but MacLean said he would be worked in as he learns the systems and the pro game more. More ice time can only help develop Hauswirth more quickly.
Trevor Bruess, RW
Free agent signee, 2009
On Friday, Bruess played his first game with the Stingrays, having been sent down from Hershey. He played on the second line with Matt Fornataro and Gregg Johnson. There were some hiccups. In the first period, Bruess took an offensive zone hooking penalty, and then had to make the skate of shame back to the bench when Gwinnett scored on the ensuing power play. Later, he got into a scuffle at the net which led to a fight with Jamie Fritsch, which the 6’0 192-pounder didn’t win.
But MacLean had nice things to say about Bruess from a longer-term perspective.
"One thing that stands out, and I’ve seen him in training camp and Hershey, is that he does not stop working," MacLean said. "That’s going to bode well for him. He can play our style of game, he’ll hold onto the puck and he’s got very quick feet down low so he can make things happen with the puck. He’s learning the pro game so he has some things to learn in terms of positioning, but he’s eager to learn, you can see that."
Bruess, who will be 24 in January, is scoreless in two games with the Stingrays, but shows a bit of skill with the occasional dipsy-doodle. But he’s got a real size disadvantage for the agitating checking role he wants to carve out for himself and will face an uphill battle.
As far as how long he’ll be with the Stingrays, MacLean said he didn’t expect it would be long, but you never know.
"We’ll be happy to have him as long as we do. It could be a week, it could be a month."