Abbotsford Heat
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Rookie centre Corban Knight has impressed with his offensive skill set with the Abbotsford Heat this season.
Clint Trahan / Abbotsford Heat

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Rookie centre Knight making major impact with Heat

From a thrilling spring to a traumatic summer to a tremendous fall, this year has already been one for the time capsule for Corban Knight.

One can only imagine what winter will bring – his NHL debut, perhaps? – but let’s focus on the present for the time being.

Knight, a 23-year-old centre, is off to a sizzling start to his first professional season – through 17 games with the Abbotsford Heat, he’s tied with veteran Blair Jones for the team lead in points with 16 (six goals, 10 assists). Two of his goals have been game-winners, and he also boasts a team-best +8 rating.

“Right now, in terms of his development, the sky is the limit,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said. “He can turn into a top-six forward (at the NHL level) over time.

“He’s got huge-end skill. He’s a prolific passer – he can move the puck really well, and he does it very subtly, very skillfully, very artfully. He can also shoot the puck very well – he shoots it better than most NHL players.”

In light of that string of superlatives, it’s remarkable that the Florida Panthers, who drafted him in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL entry draft, didn’t seem to hold Knight in such high esteem back in the spring.

Knight had wrapped up a stellar four-year run with the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux, fashioning a banner senior year with the perennial powerhouse NCAA program. He racked up 49 points (16 goals, 33 assists) in 41 games in 2012-13 and was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top college player in the United States.

But he wasn’t able to come to terms on a contract with the Panthers, and they allowed him to speak with other teams. He ended up choosing the Calgary Flames, who shipped a fourth-round pick to Florida in exchange for his rights and subsequently signed him.

“After my season ended in college, it just seemed like there wasn’t a lot of mutual interest,” Knight said, reflecting on the end of his tenure as a Panthers prospect. “They had a lot of young guys who were kind of in the same situation (in their careers) as me, and I looked around the league and I saw there was a lot of opportunity for a young centreman coming out of college.

“It was just one of those things where I don’t think we really saw eye to eye, and when it came down to it, we just knew it was time to part ways.”

Knight already had a certain level of familiarity with the Flames organization – his father Jack is a staff member with the Christian sports ministry Athletes in Action, and has served as a chaplain with the NHL club for several years.

Jack Knight didn’t lobby his son to join the Flames by any means, but the younger Knight did appreciate his father’s input.

“The fact that my dad spoke so highly of the management and the guys on the team made it a little bit easier, because you knew you were getting into a situation where it was a quality bunch of guys,” he said.

“But other than that, it was a thing where he respected my decision and he was going to support me no matter what.”

CATASTROPHIC FLOOD

Knight’s initial focus over the summer was getting himself into peak condition to challenge for a roster spot with the NHL club, but he and his family encountered some unexpected adversity.

On the morning of June 20, Knight drove from his home in High River, just south of Calgary, into the city for a workout session. When it ended, he glanced on his phone and saw he’d missed several calls from his mom and dad.

Over the previous two hours, the Highwood River had flooded its banks, causing massive devastation in the town of 13,000. The Knight family home, located just a stone’s throw from the river, was among the hardest hit.

“It literally happened in a couple hours, because I’d left that morning and everything was fine,” he said.

“We’d been there for 13 years. It was tough, just to see all the stuff you lose, all those family heirlooms and memories that you can’t really get back, and the kind of toll it takes on your parents.”

Once authorities allowed evacuated residents back into town, the Knights found that their house was still structurally sound.

“But both basements and the main floor were hit pretty hard, so we had to completely strip that,” he said. “We’re in the midst of the renovations right now. The plan is to be back in by Christmas, but we’ll see what happens.

“But everything happens for a reason – there’s been a lot of positives to come out of it. To see how our friends and family and people around Alberta and all over the country have rallied around High River, it’s been a pretty special thing to see. To say you were a part of that, you kind of take pride in it.”

ROOKIE GROWTH

Since arriving in Abbotsford this fall, Knight has put up numbers from the get-go, thriving both at centre and occasionally on the right wing with a variety of linemates.

Ward said that the growth area for the youngster is to learn to play a conscientious game in all three zones and to compete hard on a shift-to-shift, game-to-game basis.

“His progress . . . has been in his overall play, in the 200-foot scheme of things,” Ward said. “How does he handle the defensive zone, how does he handle the pace of a 200-foot pro game? Those are things he’s learning as he goes through the process, and he’s also learning how to be a more consistent player.

“But he’s doing a really, really good job. He’s made as many strides as any player we have here, in terms of growth areas he has.”

Knight acknowledged the that grind of the AHL, with its occasional three-games-in-three-days scheduling quirks, has been an adjustment.

“It can definitely take a toll on you mentally and physically,” he said. “Just trying to be the best you can be in those types of games, learning how to handle those situations, is extremely important.

“You’ve got to be very good in all three zones, and that’s something I pride myself on and want to get better at . . . it’s something I know I need to work on to get to the next level.”

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