The sheer number of bodies at Abbotsford Heat training camp is a sure sign there’s little room for complacency.
As of Thursday, there were 39 players in camp – enough to fill both the home and visitors locker rooms at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
Defenceman John Negrin, who has been around for Heat training camp each of the past three seasons, says the competitive atmosphere has gone to another level this time around.
“Going to camp in Calgary, hearing from the management, you knew there were some changes going on,” he said. “They told us from the start, if you’re not playing well, someone’s going to be taking your spot.
“All the guys here are really skilled, competitive players, and it makes for a tough camp.”
The plethora of players in Heat camp is a product of a desire to build greater organizational depth through their ECHL affiliate, the Utah Grizzlies. The Heat have been hard-hit by injuries the past two seasons, and have had to scramble at times to find ECHL call-ups to fill in.
“We just didn’t have the depth a year ago,” Heat head coach Troy Ward noted. “We’re going to probably afford them (the Grizzlies) more players this year.
“That’s not to the liking of the men in the room, though. That’s not what they want to hear. Last year, we were saddled here with sometimes 26 or 27 players with all the injuries. This year we’re going to saddle up with 23 or 24. That’s all that will be around on a full-time basis, because I think too many people just breeds complacency.”
Ward said that if the Heat keep 24 players, the breakdown would be 14 forwards, eight defencemen and two goalies.
Of the 39 players in Heat camp, 25 are on two-way (NHL/AHL) or AHL contracts. The rest are either under contract with Utah, or in camp on a tryout basis.
With the NHL parent Calgary Flames currently carrying 31 players, more will be sent to Abbotsford in the coming week, which is sure to ramp up the intensity even further.
“There’s two battles going on,” Ward analyzed. “There’s a battle going on throughout the team right now to stay here, and then there’s going to be a battle for maximum ice time. Some guys who played 18 minutes on last year’s team might only play 12.”
One of the more interesting competitions is shaping up on the blueline, where four returnees – Negrin, T.J. Brodie, Chris Breen and Joe Piskula – join newcomers Clay Wilson, Brendan Mikkelson and James Martin in Heat camp.
Factor in that Jordan Henry and Derek Smith are still in Flames camp, but are on two-way contracts, and that adds up to potentially nine defencemen for eight spots, providing Calgary’s seven blueliners on one-way NHL contracts stay healthy.
That numbers game is not lost on Negrin, who is facing a pivotal campaign after a recurring knee injury sidelined him for big chunks of the past two seasons.
“From the start of camp, I knew there were a lot of guys here,” the 22-year-old West Vancouver native noted. “But I think if you get too caught up in that stuff, if you’re worrying about it, it can affect your game as well. You’ve just got to wake up in the morning, be happy, enjoy what you do, work hard, and good things will happen from that.”