Of all the position battles on the Abbotsford Heat roster, goaltending seemed to be the easiest to handicap as training camp approached.
When the local AHL club released its initial 44-man roster, the only two goalies on the list under contract with the Heat were returnee Danny Taylor and newcomer Barry Brust. With two spots on the final roster earmarked for puck-stoppers, all that was to be decided, it seemed, was who would handle the bulk of the work.
But last Thursday, on the eve of training camp, Leland Irving was added to the mix – a fascinating plot twist, to be sure. What looked to be fait accompli for Taylor and Brust is suddenly a tooth-and-nail scrap for a spot on the team.
QUALITY IN THE CREASE
The crease conundrum is all the more interesting since all three goalies are accomplished in their own right.
Irving essentially took over as the Calgary Flames’ backup during the second half of last season – the NHL parent club summoned him from Abbotsford on several occasions to make spot starts in relief of Miikka Kiprusoff. Armed with a new two-way contract, he’s a strong candidate to back up Kiprusoff this season, if/when the NHL lockout ends.
With Irving shuttling back and forth between Abby and Calgary, Taylor carried the load for the Heat and excelled (22-13-3 record, 2.29 goals against average, .924 save percentage). He maintained control of the No. 1 job even after Irving’s full-time return, and backstopped the team to the second round of the playoffs.
Then there’s Brust, who signed with the Heat in August. The Swan River, Man. native was a Calder Cup champ in 2010-11 with the Binghamton Senators. He spent last season in Germany with the Straubing Tigers, and helped a traditionally downtrodden team make its first-ever playoff appearance.
BRUST MAKING ADJUSTMENTS
“I had a lot more fun than I expected,” Brust said after Tuesday’s practice, reflecting on his hockey adventure across the pond. “It was something no one can ever take from me. I’m pretty proud of what we did over there . . . The city kind of rallied around us, and it was a great experience.”
Brust chose Abbotsford as the place to re-establish himself in North America because of his familiarity with the Heat coaching staff. Bench boss Troy Ward and assistant Luke Strand were on the staff with the Houston Aeros for three seasons when Brust was there (2007-10).
“I love the way they coach the game and the way they coach us as people,” he explained. “It’s a chance to become a better person and a better hockey player. They really do bring the best out in people.
“It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out (with the Heat roster). But at the very least, I know everyone will be upfront and honest with me, and that’s really all you can ask for.”
The challenge for Brust is to re-acclimatize himself to the North American game – in particular, the smaller ice surface.
“The smaller ice is a bit of an adjustment – just knowing where your net is, and the angles,” he said. “I know when I went over there, it took me a week or two to get used to it. But I really don’t have that luxury here, so I’ll do the best I can and hopefully it works out in the end.”
IRVING HAPPY TO BE BACK
The Flames elected not to send Irving to Abbotsford via the waiver route by the mid-September deadline, for fear he’d be snapped up by another team.
But with pro hockey jobs at a premium during the lockout, Irving wasn’t able to find alternative employment in Europe. Since he finished last season with the Heat, though, he was eligible to sign a professional tryout contract, and that’s what he did.
“The teams in Europe were waiting for the big-name guys – the Lundqvists, the Rinnes, the Bryzgalovs,” he explained. “This was kind of my last resort, and I was able to get a contract last-minute.”
Last resort though it may have been, Irving is excited at the prospect of playing in the AHL, in light of the lockout’s trickle-down effect.
“This league is going to be better than it’s ever been,” he predicted. “There’s a lot of talent coming down, a lot of young guys who should be in the NHL are going to be the superstars of this league. It’ll be a good test. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
Taylor, for his part, is approaching the roster crunch by putting on the metaphorical blinders.
“Coming into camp, I told myself I wouldn’t look at any other goalies other than myself,” he said. “I don’t know how the other guys are doing – for me, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got to do my thing, and I’ve got my own problems to worry about. I’ve just been focusing on what I’ve got to do out there.”
Taylor wore an unpainted white goalie mask after arriving in Abbotsford midway through last season, and he’s been rocking the dressed-down look during training camp as well. He’s got a freshly painted lid on the way, but he’s torn on whether or not to wear it.
“I don’t know if I want to change anything right now,” he said with a chuckle. “I feel like being the white ghost out there is my thing, so I might stick with it.”
• Heat training camp culminates with an intrasquad scrimmage on Friday. The puck drops at 7 p.m. at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. Fans are invited to attend free of charge, but are encouraged to make a donation to the Abbotsford Heat Foundation. Final cuts are expected on Saturday.