Ben Street felt like he belonged in the NHL during his season-opening stint with the Calgary Flames, but he wasn’t immune to a few ‘wow’ moments.
“It’s a little bit weird when you’re facing off and you’re talking to your winger, and he’s standing next to Jaromir Jagr,” Street said with a chuckle on Thursday, following his first practice with the Abbotsford Heat after being reassigned to the AHL affiliate earlier in the week.
“It’s like, ‘I’ve seen this guy before. I need to be careful around this guy.'”
Street’s hockey resumé can’t begin to compare to that of Jagr, the 41-year-old living legend currently plying his trade with the New Jersey Devils.
But the underdog narrative that the 26-year-old centre from Coquitlam has carved out over the past three-plus seasons is impressive in its own right.
Undrafted out of the University of Wisconsin, Street worked his way up from the ECHL to the AHL in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ system, then landed a two-way contract with the Flames in the summer of 2012.
He made his NHL debut last spring as the Flames played out the string during a playoff-free campaign, but a far more impressive accomplishment was cracking Calgary’s season-opening roster out of training camp this fall. Along the way, he beat out a series of more highly touted prospects, including current Heat teammates Max Reinhart, Corban Knight and Roman Horak.
Street started out centering the Flames’ fourth line, but injuries to Mike Cammalleri, Matt Stajan and David Jones soon thrust him into a top-six role. He didn’t generate much offensively, notching just one assist in eight games, but he earned plaudits for his mature two-way play as Calgary surprised many pundits by posting a 4-2-2 record during that stretch.
Street was sent back to Abby on Tuesday as Cammalleri, Stajan and Jones returned to health, and he said he’s a better player now than the last time Heat fans saw him.
“You learn a lot, playing minutes against other teams’ top lines that have some pretty skilled players on them,” he said. “You really learn defensively when you contain and when you attack and try to take the puck away. You just become real disciplined in your style. You can’t have any cheat in your game.”
While Street was pleased with his defensive performance, he felt he could have been more assertive on offence in Calgary.
“There are still times when you can take chances in the offensive zone to create chances,” he said. “I think I was kind of young in my NHL career, and I was maybe a little bit more hesitant to do that. I was deferring to the wingers a little bit more, just making sure I was playing safe. That might be part of the reason I’m not there anymore.”
Heat head coach Troy Ward said he was incredibly proud of Street’s recent NHL stint, in light of the improvements he’d made the previous season in two key areas: forcing turnovers on the forecheck, and maintaining possession when he had the puck.
“He’s become an honest player in all three zones, and it’s allowed him to play in the NHL,” Ward said.
Street’s arrival, along with the reassignments of Horak and Blair Jones from Calgary to Abbotsford this week, have the Heat boasting more depth up front than they’ve had all season.
Ward, though, was quick to note the trap that teams can fall into when they receive an influx of talent from the NHL parent club.
“When you get more guys down, everybody thinks they’re going to drive the bus,” he said. “But we can’t become back-seat-of-the-bus type guys.
“We have to put those guys, actually, that have been in the NHL in the back of the bus, and all the guys who have been here have to show them how to play.
“If we have that mentality and that’s how we play (Friday and Saturday) I think we’ll be in good shape. If we sit back and wait for those guys to do it all, I think it’ll be a long weekend.”
With Street/Jones/Horak in town, the Heat reassigned centre David Eddy and winger Brett Lyon to the ECHL – Eddy to the Alaska Aces, and Lyon to the Bakersfield Condors.
INJURIES ON D
Abby blueliner Mark Cundari suffered a lower-body injury during last Friday’s road game vs. the Oklahoma City Barons. He wasn’t on the ice with the main practice group on Thursday, and Ward said he won’t be available for the Heat’s weekend home games vs. the Lake Erie Monsters (Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. both nights).
He joins Patrick Sieloff and Steve Begin on the Heat’s injury list – both of those players are also nursing lower-body injuries. Ward said Sieloff, a prized 19-year-old defensive prospect, is still in Calgary receiving treatment from the Flames’ medical staff.
NEWCOMER SMITH AN IMPACT PLAYER
Defenceman Derek Smith, sent to Abbotsford by the Flames last Sunday, is set to make his Heat debut vs. the Monsters.
It’s been more than two years since Smith suited up for an AHL game – the last time was on June 7, 2011, when his Binghamton Senators beat the Houston Aeros 3-2 in Game 6 of the AHL final to capture the Calder Cup.
Smith signed a two-way deal with the Flames the following summer, and had managed to stick with the NHL club for two-plus seasons. He’s a proven offensive force at the AHL level – he racked up 10 goals and 44 assists in 71 regular season games with Binghamton back in 2010-11.
Ward expects a certain level of rust from Smith, given that he hasn’t played in the AHL in a couple of seasons and didn’t get into any games with the Flames this fall prior to being sent down.
“He’ll be rusty in some of the things we put him into, but we’ll trust that he’s a good pro and he’ll do the best he can,” Ward said. “The more experience and more ice time he gets here, the better off it’ll be for us.”
COURTING THE CAPTAINCY
The Heat will wait at least another week to vote on captains, a fact which Ward revealed with a trademark quip.
“It’s kind of like chasing your first girl – you’ve got to chase about five of them before you figure it out,” he said with a chuckle.
Carter Bancks, Paul Byron and Greg Nemisz have been serving as alternate captains to this point in the season, as Ward allows the team to gel before settling on a more permanent leadership group.