For Morgan Klimchuk, the past five days have been a bit of an emotional roller-coaster.
Last Friday evening, his Regina Pats fell 5-1 on the road to the Brandon Wheat Kings, bringing their first-round Western Hockey League playoff series to an unceremonious conclusion. The Pats were seeded No. 2 in the Eastern Conference after winning the East Division title, but suffered a stunning sweep at the hands of the No. 7-seeded Wheat Kings.
The disappointment was still fresh in his mind when Klimchuk fielded a call on Saturday morning from the Calgary Flames, who had drafted him in the first round (28th overall) in the 2013 NHL entry draft. If his body was feeling up to it, there was a roster spot waiting for him with the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat.
Klimchuk, who had signed his three-year entry-level contract with the Flames in mid-December, was elated, and he’ll make his pro hockey debut on Friday as the Heat host the Rockford IceHogs (7 p.m., Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre).
“We lost sooner than I would have liked,” said Klimchuk, reflecting on the end of his junior season. “But obviously I was very excited for this opportunity. I jumped on a plane to Calgary (on Saturday), spent a night there, then flew here on Sunday.
“I’m excited, for sure. I think this is a pretty big opportunity, and a pretty big challenge. The pace is going to be a lot faster and guys are going to be a lot bigger, and it’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.”
The 19-year-old left winger is known for his foot speed, which should ease his transition to the faster AHL game.
He’s coming off a terrific season with the Pats which saw him rack up 30 goals and 44 assists in 57 games, and Heat head coach Troy Ward said he plans to use the youngster in a top-six role on Friday. Klimchuk skated on a line with Corey Locke and Brett Olson at Wednesday’s practice.
“He’s a talented kid, and he had another good year in Regina,” noted Ward. “We’ll use him as a skill guy here – just throw him out there and see what he can do. That’s part of the whole process.”
Klimchuk won’t be able to play in the AHL on a full-time basis until 2015-16 – as per the agreement between the NHL and Canada’s major junior leagues, teenage prospects must be returned to junior unless they make an NHL roster. The 2014-15 campaign will be Klimchuk’s 19-year-old season.
Thus, this stint with the Heat could potentially be very meaningful to his development.
“Anything you can learn, any experience you can get from this is very beneficial,” he said. “You see what the pace is like, what it’s like to be professional, and what it takes to play in the AHL. I’m going to soak it all in and take advantage of my time here.
“I’m looking to contribute any way I can – be responsible (defensively) and try to keep up.”
CROWD OF PROSPECTS
Klimchuk is the highest-profile player among a crowd of newcomers who have joined the Heat in recent weeks.
Fellow WHLer Brett Kulak, a Vancouver Giants defenceman who was drafted by the Flames in the fourth round in 2012, signed two-way NHL deal last week, and Collin Valcourt, a Prince Albert Raiders forward, inked an AHL pact with the Heat.
Recent NCAA free agent signees include forwards Allan McPherson (Clarkson) and Garnet Hathaway (Brown), and D-man Zach Tolkinen (Quinnipiac).
With all the new faces, one could hardly blame Ward if he put hockey tape on the front of everyone’s helmets and wrote their first names in magic marker.
“It’s like trying to blend your ex-wife’s family with your current family and have a big, nice family lunch,” Ward said, reflecting on the challenge of forging cohesive chemistry amidst a personnel influx. “Usually it doesn’t work – it’s awkward.
“For me, my big thing in these two weeks we have at home is to get everybody on the same page – make sure everybody understands the systems, make sure everybody knows each other as people, make sure we know how to say hello to each other and talk to each other.
“So when the game goes on . . . a guy like Valcourt will actually want to lay down and block a shot for his teammates. And then his teammates go, ‘Collin, that’s a great job.'”
FOSTER RELEASED, JONES STILL ON SHELF
With the new arrivals in town, the Heat released forwards Brett Lyon and Kyle Ostrow on Monday, and Ward said that Adrian Foster had also been released Tuesday. Foster, signed out of the ECHL in late December, was sidelined with a lower-body injury for the vast majority of his tenure with the Heat.
Abbotsford’s current injured list includes forwards Blair Jones, Trevor Gillies and Jordan Kremyr. Jones did not travel with the Heat during their recent six-game road trip due to multiple unspecified injuries, and Ward doesn’t expect him to be in the lineup this weekend.
Ward didn’t reveal the nature of the injury to Kremyr, a Cloverdale native who scored his first career AHL goal last Saturday vs. the Utica Comets. But it’s worth noting that he absorbed a check to the head from Brad Staubitz during Sunday’s game at the Toronto Marlies.
SIELOFF ON ROAD TO RECOVERY
But after spending the last six months dealing with doctors in Calgary and then convalescing back home in Ann Arbour, Mich., he’s back in Abbotsford training.
Ward said he’s not sure at this point whether Sieloff will be able to return to game action this season, but the 19-year-old did skate with Jones and Gillies prior to Wednesday’s main practice.
“He’s making strides,” Ward reported. “He’s finally back and looking like a professional hockey player – physically and mentally.”
Corban Knight has been named the Heat’s IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award winner for his outstanding community contributions this season.
The rookie centre has represented the team in over 80 per cent of its community events, from hospital and school visits, guest coaching at hockey academies, anti-bullying rallies, and team signings.
Knight is now one of 30 finalists for the Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, which honours the AHL’s overall man of the year.
MORRISON MAKING APPEARANCE
Friday’s game will feature an autograph-signing appearance from longtime Vancouver Canuck Brendan Morrison, who is the latest guest in the Heat’s Legends of Hockey promotion.
Morrison took time to speak with The News earlier this week, and the article is posted at the Heat Central page at abbynews.com.
PLAYOFF TICKETS ON SALE
The Heat began selling playoff tickets on Tuesday, though the club has yet to officially punch its ticket to the Calder Cup post-season party.
It’s not a major step out on a limb, though – the top eight teams in the Western Conference make the playoffs, and with seven regular season games to go, the Heat (37-25-7, 81 points) sit in fifth place with a 10-point cushion on the ninth-place Oklahoma City Barons, who have one game in hand. According to the website sportsclubstats.com, Abbotsford has a 99.8 per cent chance of qualifying for the post-season.
Not that any of those numbers interest Ward in the least.
“I don’t even know where we are in the standings . . . I never look at it,” asserted Ward, who constantly touts the value of process over results. “If we finish every day 1-and-0, doesn’t that take care of itself?”