The AHL regular season is nearly upon us, and the Abbotsford Heat are as ready as they’ll ever be.
The Heat host the Peoria Rivermen in a Friday-Saturday set this weekend (7 p.m. both nights, Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre), and they do so without the benefit of any exhibition games.
The Heat, due to their far-flung location relative to the rest of the league, didn’t schedule any preseason contests, though they did hold an intrasquad scrimmage last Friday. The Rivermen, one of five teams in close proximity in the Illinois-Wisconsin-Michigan region, have three proper exhibition games under their belt.
The challenge for the Heat, then, is to find their rhythm in a hurry.
“It might take us 20 minutes to get the level of ‘hard’ we want, because we’re not used to going against somebody else,” Heat head coach Troy Ward acknowledged. “But I think we’re ready.
“I feel more comfortable than I did a year ago, because we laid a foundation last year. We have some new guys who are trying to learn and pick up the language and things like that, but for the most part, I feel really good about where our team is at.
“The things we’ve been able to control over the last 12 days, I think we’ve controlled them very well. I like our effort, I like our organization, I like our attention to detail, I like the attitudes of the guys.”
Veteran centre Quintin Laing noted that a dearth of exhibition games isn’t a foreign concept to the Heat. They had just one against UBC last fall, but they swept the Lake Erie Monsters on the road on opening weekend.
“We do the best we can in practice to simulate those game-like situations,” Laing said. “But we know we’ve got to raise our intensity (on Friday) and get into it right away – make sure we take care of business at home.”
The Rivermen, like the Heat, boast greater roster depth due to the NHL lockout.
Top prospect Jaden Schwartz, Canada’s captain at last year’s World Junior Championship, is heading into his first full pro season, while defenceman Ian Cole, the Blues’ first-rounder in 2007, has played 52 NHL games over the past two campaigns.
Peoria, furthermore, has a new head coach in Dave Allison, who replaces former Heat assistant Jared Bednar at the helm.
Add up all the off-season change, and Ward said he has a rather limited knowledge of the Rivermen heading into opening weekend.
“Obviously I recognize some players,” Ward noted. “But it’s a new coach, so it’s an open door. You don’t know what you’re going to get.
“We’re more concerned about where we’re at.”
MISSION TRIP A CHANGE OF SCENERY
After nearly two weeks of training camp at the AESC, Ward took his charges across the Fraser River on Wednesday to practice at the Mission Leisure Centre.
“I just felt like to get our focus raised a little higher, we needed to practice somewhere else, rather than doing the same monotonous thing,” Ward explained. “So we changed the environment.
“It was just a chance for us to to get our heads around how we want to perform this weekend, and a little bit of creating our own identity.”
ROSTER WILL REMAIN INTACT
The Heat are currently carrying a bloated 28-man roster – 18 forwards, seven defencemen and three goalies – and Calgary Flames assistant general manager John Weisbrod said there likely won’t be any more moves prior to the weekend games.
Two key forwards, Greg Nemisz and Paul Byron, are injured. Beyond that, the amount of NHL lockout-induced depth has complicated matters.
“We have many more players still in-house than we would normally have this time of year,” Weisbrod noted. “But we try to be an organization of merit, and we want to make sure that the guys who deserve to be here, are here. We’re sort of taking it slow and taking time to evaluate.”
With the signing of Steve McCarthy last weekend, the Heat have a veteran logjam on their hands.
According to the AHL’s development rule, teams are allowed to dress no more than five players who have played more than 320 professional games. The Heat have six such players – forwards Laing, Krys Kolanos and Ben Walter, and defencemen McCarthy, Joe Piskula and Joe Callahan. There’s no slouches in that cohort.
“There’s going to be guys sitting out who are very good players,” Laing noted. “But last year, we had nine vets at times. We’ve gone through a lot worse and gotten through it.
“This year, we’ve already talked amongst the vets. It’s a good group of guys, and we’re all pulling for each other. We’re going to handle it as best we can and go from there.”
GOALIE SITUATION WILL BE CLARIFIED
Ward said that, as of Thursday morning, he hadn’t settled on a starting goalie for Friday.
But the opening-night lineup will bring some clarity to the Heat’s netminding situation, which features three experienced keepers – Leland Irving, Danny Taylor and Barry Brust – battling for two roster spots. Ward intimated that the lineup will be reflective of the depth chart at that point.
“The bigger question is, who’s in the stands,” he said. “That sends the message.”
CAPTAIN TO BE NAMED LATER
Ward said the Heat will go without a captain this weekend. Instead, three players will wear an ‘A’ against Peoria – probably Laing and Piskula, both members of last season’s leadership group, and another experienced player Ward hasn’t decided on yet.
Ward’s plan is for the Heat to go captainless through the first three weeks of the season, until the players have their first road trip under their belts. At that point, they’ll hold a vote to bestow the letters permanently.
“I just don’t think you inherit something,” Ward explained. “Every year you come back as a coach, and it’s like being a teacher at school. A teacher doesn’t take a new class every year and pick up where she left off. You have to go back to ground zero. It’s the same thing here. We have to find out who our leaders are.”
After broadcasting their games on Country 107.1 the past three seasons, the Heat have struck multiple partnerships for 2012-13.
• Every Heat game will be broadcast online at TeamRadio.ca and Abbotsfordheat.com. Team 1040, Team 1410, and TeamRadio.ca will all have consistent Heat content and news throughout the season.
• With the cancellation of NHL games through Oct. 24, Sirius/XM Satellite Radio is broadcasting AHL games. The first four Heat games of the season will be broadcast on Sirius/XM.
• Sportsnet 960 The Fan in Calgary, the official radio broadcast partner of the Calgary Flames, will also carry Heat games throughout the 2012-13 season.
• Sportsnet One’s AHL TV coverage begins with a trio of live, national Saturday night games this month. Among them is the Heat’s Oct. 20 home game vs. the Chicago Wolves, the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate.