CALGARY – While Saturday’s opening day of Calgary Flames training camp was about getting the players back into the routine of up-tempo practices, Sunday’s Day 2 was focused on installing forechecking and defensive-zone systems.
Between on-ice sessions, The News checked in with four players who could play key roles with the Abbotsford Heat this season.
When Ben Walter inked a two-way contract with the Flames/Heat in early July, he had no idea he’d be potentially working for his dad.
But just over a month after Ben signed on the dotted line, his father Ryan was named president and CEO of the Heat. The younger Walter said his dad’s arrival in the organization was a pleasant surprise.
“After I signed, maybe that first week or so, he was talking to me and mentioned that they were thinking about offering him that job,” Ben related with a grin. “Just before they announced it, he came to me and said, ‘Is this okay? Do you have a problem with this?’
“And obviously I don’t. He’s the right guy for the job there, and I think he’s going to do a great job. He’s a great guy in the community, and he’s a great hockey guy.”
Ben Walter has proven to be a great hockey guy in his own right – the 27-year-old centre finished ninth in AHL scoring last year, racking up 70 points (23 goals, 47 assists) in 77 games with the Lake Erie Monsters, the Colorado Avalanche’s affiliate.
Should he wind up in Abbotsford with his dad, Walter would give the Heat something they sorely lacked last season – an elite No. 1 centre.
But this week, his focus is on making an impression with the NHL club.
“It’s exciting, because I’ve never been a part of a Canadian team before,” Walter said, reflecting on his transition to the Flames organization. “There’s definitely some added excitement, and more interest from the media.
“I think it’s going well for me. I’ve just got to keep trying to learn as fast as I can, and demonstrate what kind of player I am. I want to put something in their head – maybe have someone look at me and realize there’s a different part of my game that they didn’t know about before. I want to show them I can be more than just an AHL player, or more than just a call-up guy.”
ORTIO’S LEARNING CURVE
Perhaps the hardest-working individual at training camp to this point has been goalie Joni Ortio.
With three separate training groups requiring two goalies each, and only five netminders in camp, the Finnish rookie has been tabbed for double duty with both Group B and Group C.
Factor in that Ortio started all three games at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton last week, plus Friday night’s exhibition game between the Flames prospects and the University of Calgary Dinos, and the 20-year-old has gotten as much hockey as he can handle.
Ortio has welcomed the workload, though. He’s facing a steep learning curve, having to adjust his angles and positioning to account for the smaller North American ice surface.
“The first game was a struggle, for sure,” Ortio said, alluding to being on the receiving end of a 6-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks prospects in Penticton last Sunday.
“I felt I was off of my angles on pretty much every shot. It was an adjustment to come to a smaller rink, but I think the process isn’t that long. I felt pretty good, pretty quick. Now I can really enjoy hockey, because I don’t have to think about my angles and positioning that much.
“It’s crucial for me to get adjusted, to play all those games, and I’m happy that the organization has provided me that opportunity.”
It’s been a special thrill for Ortio to skate with Flames starter Miikka Kiprusoff in Group B. Both goalies hail from Turku, Finland.
“When I first saw I was in the same group as him, it felt unreal,” Ortio acknowledged. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve looked up to him and watched him play in my hometown.”
Ortio, projected to be the Heat’s backup goalie behind Leland Irving this season, marveled at the level of calmness Kiprusoff exudes between the pipes.
“He doesn’t do any extra moves,” Ortio said. “He always knows exactly what he’s doing out there, and that’s the biggest thing that makes him so good.
“We’ve been talking quite a bit, and it’s nice to have a buddy to talk Finnish with around here.”
ARMSTRONG’S SECOND CHANCE
When the Calgary Flames declined to make John Armstrong a qualifying offer in June, he thought his days in the organization were done.
Two days later, though, the Calgary brass contacted Armstrong’s agent and offered a one-year contract. It’s not the two-way NHL deal Armstrong had in seasons past – rather, it’s an AHL contract with Abbotsford.
Heading into training camp this week, the 23-year-old centre is looking to make a point.
“I’m just trying to prove they made a mistake, not qualifying me,” said Armstrong, who posted nine goals and eight assists in 78 games with the Heat last season.
“I’m trying to make a good impression, and hopefully I’ll be on their mind and have a good season. Hopefully halfway through the season or next year, I’ll get back on that NHL contract.”
Multiple shoulder surgeries have played a major role in slowing the development of Armstrong, a third-round draft choice in 2006. He was finally given a clean bill of health last fall, but it took him a while to work the muscles around the joint back into shape.
“I pretty much had to start over from zero, strength-wise,” he noted. “But I feel great now. My shoulder feels great, and I’ve had a whole summer where I didn’t get injured. It feels good that I can prepare my body and be ready for camp.”
Armstrong knows a little something about strong training camps. Back in 2007, he very nearly made the Flames’ opening-night roster with a spirited preseason showing. He’s hoping to draw on that experience this week.
“I’ve done it before,” he said. “And now I feel like I’m bigger, faster, stronger. I don’t see why I can’t do it again.”
This time last year, Dustin Sylvester was packing his bags for Germany after domestic contract offers failed to materialize.
On Sunday, he was skating between established NHLers Lee Stempniak and Curtis Glencross at Flames training camp.
“They’re smart players, and I had a lot of fun out there,” Sylvester said afterward. “It’s different, going to main camp and skating with guys like that. It’s a big step. Those guys have played many years in the NHL, and for myself, I’ve just got to keep my feet moving out there and try and keep up.”
Sylvester was a prolific scorer during his junior days with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice, racking up 93 points in 68 games in 2009-10. But there wasn’t much interest on this side of the pond in the diminutive (5’8″) centre, so he signed with Freiburg in the German second division.
Sylvester lit it up in Germany, leading his team in scoring with 60 points (34 goals, 26 assists) in 48 games. That performance landed him an AHL contract with the Heat, which he signed just over a week ago.
“I was told by my agent that if I went over there (to Germany) and had a good year, put up some decent numbers, stuff would come up over here,” Sylvester said. “I did that last year, I thought, and I got an opportunity here and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
In spite of his stature, the stocky Sylvester uses his 180 pounds to full advantage in the corners. He scored a goal at the Young Stars event in Penticton last week.
“I like to move my feet and play down low, spin off guys and use my speed to get to the net,” he said, describing his game. “I like going to the corners.”