The Abbotsford Heat are embarking on the 2013-14 American Hockey League regular season with what will surely be one of the league’s youngest teams, and local fans could be forgiven if they felt they’d seen this movie before.
Back in 2010-11, the franchise’s second season in Abbotsford, the Heat went with an extremely youthful roster under then-coach Jim Playfair. The team managed to stay in the playoff race until the final week of the regular season, but they finished dead last in AHL goal-scoring as youngsters being counted on to produce – remember Bryan Cameron? – didn’t.
This season, peach fuzz is once again predominant at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, but there’s a greater sense of optimism. The NHL parent Calgary Flames are rebuilding, and the consensus is, the quality of prospects in Abbotsford this fall is far higher than in 2010-11.
“This is a much deeper group, for sure,” said Heat head coach Troy Ward, who was an assistant under Playfair in 2010-11. “This is good as we’ve felt with our young players.”
The burning question facing the Heat this season is, who’s going to put the puck in the net?
Over the summer, the team waved goodbye to their franchise leaders in goals (Krys Kolanos) and assists/points (Ben Walter), and they were not replaced by similarly seasoned players with track records of point production in pro hockey.
It’s worth noting, though, that even with the likes of Walter and Kolanos in the lineup last season, the Heat still struggled to score – their 171 goals ranked 29th out of 30 AHL teams. So there’s really not a lot of downside in seeing what the youngsters are capable of.
“This is definitely a different group than a year ago, and I think our scoring, hopefully early, will be by committee,” Ward said. “We might have four lines who can score.”
At Tuesday’s practice, the Heat’s de facto top line featured centre Max Reinhart flanked by speedsters Paul Byron and Roman Horak (pictured right).
All three have offensive ability. But none of them, during their tenures with the Heat, have proven to be the type of bellwether scorers who can carry a team offensively over the course of a season.
Horak, for instance, was white-hot out the gate last fall, scoring 10 goals in the Heat’s first nine games, but he mustered just six more over the next 50 games.
The third-year pro from the Czech Republic is still just 22 years old, but he’s cognizant that on this young squad, he’ll be looked upon as one of the key catalysts.
“I’ve got to produce – I’ve got to bring something more than I brought last year,” he acknowledged.
“To be consistent, you’ve just got to bring it every night. It’s not just my problem – there are a bunch of guys who one game they’re awesome, and the second game you can’t even see if they’re on the ice.
“It’s something you learn with age and experience, and obviously this is my third year – the last year of my entry-level contract – and I need to show what I can do. If it’s here or in Calgary, I’m going to bring it every night and be my best.”
There’s a large group of forwards heading into the first full pro seasons – including Corban Knight, Michael Ferland, Josh Jooris, Ben Hanowski and Markus Granlund (currently injured) – and it will be fascinating to see which of them take advantage of the opportunities they will surely be presented with.
“I’m hoping we get some good, timely goals out of the young group, and that we get some consistency out of the Byrons and Horaks and (Carter) Banckses,” Ward said.
The Heat’s defensive corps – potentially the team’s greatest strength – is an intriguing mix of experience and potential.
As for the former, Mark Cundari and newcomer Chad Billins have proven to be proficient point-producers at the AHL level, while Abbotsford native Dean Arsene (who is on a 25-game professional tryout contract) supplies a nice blend of grit and leadership – the 33-year-old has captained four previous AHL clubs.
Additionally, Chris Breen, the Heat’s all-time leader in games played (204), will further bolster the blueline brigade when he returns from shoulder surgery.
But how the Heat fare on the back end will ultimately rest on how quickly a trio of prized rookies – Patrick Sieloff, Tyler Wotherspoon and John Ramage – adjust to the pro game.
“Our job is to make sure these three young kids play all the time . . . and they will,” Ward said.
“It’s a good group by committee, but we’re young. When the live bullets fly, there’s going to be some mistakes by the bottom three.
“I would like our D-corps a little bit more if we had Breen. If I can throw Breen out there with Billins . . . it lessens the load on everybody else. We’re missing that big, stable guy. If it’s not Chris Breen, it’s got to be somebody else. If it’s Dean Arsene, it’s Dean Arsene.”
Sieloff, who lasted in Calgary Flames training camp until the bitter end, will be one of the youngest players in the AHL at age 19.
“I’ve got to just keep playing like I was playing up in camp with the Flames – just have that ‘no friends’ mentality (on the ice) and come in every day to get better,” he said. “Hopefully in the end it pays off.”
The Heat’s crease situation is unique in that both their goalies are Europeans trying to really establish themselves on this side of the pond for the first time.
Reto Berra, a 26-year-old from Switzerland whose rights were obtained by the Flames last spring in the Jay Bouwmeester trade, was regarded as one of the top goalies in the Swiss-A league last season, when he posted a 3.01 goals against average and a .906 save percentage with Biel.
Joni Ortio, a 22-year-old Finn, struggled during an abbreviated stint with the Heat in 2011-12, but is coming off a terrific 2012-13 campaign with HIFK Helsinki in the SM-liiga, Finland’s top pro league.
Berra, who lasted until the final day of Flames training camp before being assigned to the Heat, will get the start in the season opener on Friday vs. the Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland.
Ward noted that with the organization’s goalie depth chart still very much a work in progress, there’s plenty for Berra and Ortio to compete for.
“We’ll go with Berra on Friday, and then we’ll see,” he said. “I’d like to get both goalies in this weekend.”
NEWS AND NOTES
• As has been their pattern the previous two seasons under Ward, the Heat will enter the season without a captain in order to give the team time to get acquainted and allow leaders to emerge. Three players – Bancks, Byron and Greg Nemisz – will wear A’s on their jerseys this weekend.
“I think we’ll go through a road weekend and a home weekend, and then maybe look at the voting (on captains) after that,” Ward said.
• The Heat’s injured list to start the season includes three players: Granlund, Steve Begin and Zach McKelvie. All three have lower-body injuries, and McKelvie is the closest to returning to game action. Begin, a 35-year-old centre signed in late August to add some veteran leadership, is “a long way” from returning, Ward said.
• The Heat’s road games on Friday (4:30 p.m. Pacific time) and Saturday (3 p.m. Pacific) vs. Lake Erie can be heard on CIVL 101.7 FM and teamradio.ca. The first home games at the AESC are next weekend, when the Milwaukee Admirals visit for a two-game set (Oct. 11-12, 7 p.m. both nights).