As the Abbotsford Heat head into the off-season, head coach Troy Ward believes the roster just needs a tune-up, rather than a complete overhaul.
But if he were submitting a shopping list on behalf of the AHL club to Calgary Flames management, who handle the Heat’s personnel matters, he’d ask them to target goal-scorers when the free agent market opens on July 1.
The Heat mustered 200 goals in 76 games last season, which left them 24th out of 30 teams in the AHL. And they needed a late scoring surge to finish that high – as recently as Game 67 of the regular season, they were last in the league in terms of goals per game.
Abbotsford had an elite sniper in Krys Kolanos, but Ward believes having more finishers in place would help promote the development of younger players.
“If you’re going to be a team of some substance and hopefully play a while (in the playoffs) at this level, I would say you have to have goal-scoring at this level,” he noted.
“I think there are some players that have played a lot of games for us this season that would have said, ‘It would be nice to have a little more finish around me.’ We might go out and look to purchase more finishing.
“(But) our needs are just to fine-tune some things around here. It isn’t like we need to change the footprint of how we do our business or how we built this hockey team this year.”
IRVING EAGER TO RETURN TO ORGANIZATION
Among the Heat’s free-agents-to-be, both goalies are without contracts for next year. Leland Irving is a restricted free agent, while Danny Taylor is unrestricted.
Irving’s 2011-12 season was quite a ride. He was stellar in the first half, backstopping the Heat to one of the best records in the AHL. Then in early December, a knee injury to Flames backup Henrik Karlsson opened the door for Irving to make his NHL debut. He performed well enough in limited action behind Miikka Kiprusoff that the Flames recalled him on several occasions to make spot starts even after Karlsson returned to health.
But Irving hit a rough patch in March, as the travel grind of bouncing between Calgary and Abbotsford took its toll.
On April 5, he experienced another major highlight, as he and his wife Ashley welcomed their first child – daughter Halle Annie – into the world. But during that time, Irving was away from the team for three games, and Taylor got on a hot streak and ended up starting seven of the Heat’s eight playoff games.
“It was a real exciting season, with a few ups and downs along the way,” Irving said. “But it felt like I accomplished a lot.”
Irving conceded that watching from the bench during the playoffs was “tough,” but he took no issue with Ward’s decision.
“Like any athlete, I wanted to be in there,” noted Irving, whose lone post-season start was a 4-1 loss to the Toronto Marlies in Game 3 of the second round. “But Danny played great. He got on a hot streak at the right time, and he played really well. You can’t fault the coaches for wanting to play him.
“The only person I can blame is myself. I could have went in there and played better – obviously I would have liked to. But it was just an adjustment, coming back from Calgary to readjust to the speed, and it took me a little while to find my game. I eventually did get it back together, but we were too far into playoffs by that point. You just had to keep rolling with Danny.”
Last summer, after the Flames signed Karlsson to a two-year, one-way contract, Irving considered playing in Europe since it seemed his path to NHL playing time was blocked.
The situation is far different, if murkier, heading into 2012-13. It’s hard to know what Calgary plans to do with Karlsson after using Irving as the de facto No. 2 goalie in the organization during the second half. Taylor also performed well enough in Abbotsford to earn a new contract.
Irving noted his fate is in the hands of the Flames at this point, contract-wise, but said he loves playing in the organization.
“I love Abbotsford, love Calgary, and obviously this is where I want to be,” he said.
MANY FREE AGENT DECISIONS TO BE MADE
The Heat have a core of potential returnees under contract for 2012-13, including the likes of Kolanos, Ben Walter, Quintin Laing, Greg Nemisz and Clay Wilson.
But there are decisions to be made on a number of key veterans who will be free agents. Forwards Jon Rheault, Dustin Sylvester, Guillaume Desbiens, Hugh Jessiman and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond are among the regulars set to hit the unrestricted free agent market, along with high-scoring blueliner Brian Connelly.
The following is a list of the contract statuses of Heat players.
Under contract for next season
• Two-way deals (NHL/AHL)
Joni Ortio (will play in Finland next season for IFK Helsinki)
• AHL contract
• One-way NHL contracts
Restricted free agents
Unrestricted free agents
Jon Rheault (pictured right)
J.P. Testwuide (had been on loan from Chicago Wolves)