Blueliner Breen bucks sophomore slump

Coming off a revelatory 2010-11 campaign with the Abbotsford Heat, Chris Breen had high hopes heading into this season.

Heat defenceman Chris Breen uses his 6’7” frame to separate an Oklahoma City Barons opponent from the puck.

Heat defenceman Chris Breen uses his 6’7” frame to separate an Oklahoma City Barons opponent from the puck.

Coming off a revelatory 2010-11 campaign with the Abbotsford Heat, Chris Breen had high hopes heading into this season.

But the towering 6’7” defenceman – whose potential to play in the NHL one day had been strongly touted by former Heat head coach Jim Playfair – stumbled out of the gates.

Breen struggled at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton in September, compounding matters by pulling his groin midway through the prospect showcase event. Then he fought the puck at Calgary Flames training camp, and was reassigned to the Heat without tasting so much as a single exhibition game.

In Abbotsford, he continued to flounder – he was scratched from the lineup twice in the first month of the regular season.

Breen has been looking more like himself lately, though. He’s been moving the puck with more confidence, and has reasserted his role as a key cog on the Heat’s terrific penalty-killing unit.

Looking back on his wobbly start, Breen can speak eloquently about what was going wrong, but he can’t quite put his finger on why.

“It was weird,” he mused. “I don’t know why it happened, but it wasn’t the start I was looking for.

“I think it was maybe how things went in Penticton, and it just snowballed. Mentally, it was weighing on me, and after training camp I guess I got a little down on myself. But I just needed a little confidence to turn it around.”

Breen, who signed as a free agent with the Flames organization in 2010 after wrapping up his junior career with the Ontario Hockey League’s Peterborough Petes, came from out of nowhere to rocket up the Heat’s defensive depth chart last season.

He was a victim of the dreaded sophomore slump in the early going, though, failing to register a point while posting a -9 rating during the months of October and November. But he’s notched four points (one goal, three assists) and a +5 rating in the 25 games since then. Simplicity, he says, has been the key.

“I’m playing a steady defensive game – making simple plays and simple passes, and seeing the game a lot better,” he analyzed. “The coaches stayed on me and helped me out, my teammates helped me out, and I’ve been able to turn things back around.”

For a stay-at-home blueliner, Breen doesn’t play an overly physical game, but when he’s right, he’s using his go-go-gadget reach to disrupt the opposition’s offensive flow. That skill is particularly useful on the penalty kill – the Heat’s man-disavantage unit is third-best in the AHL, snuffing 86.2 per cent of opposing power plays.

Heat head coach Troy Ward feels Breen is following a similar track to last year – playing better as the season wears on.

“He’s a big part of our penalty kill, for sure, and he’s always been able to make plays to get us out of our end,” Ward said.

“Right now, he’s working on his game, and he’s like anybody – he has his good days and his bad days. He’s going through the process of maturing.”

Heat defenceman Chris Breen tangles in the corner with a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs.