The way Ben Street has played this season, Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward says it seems like he doesn’t want to be here.
Ward means it as a compliment. Street, a 25-year-old centre from Coquitlam, has been an two-way catalyst for the Heat, and he’s leading the AHL in shots on goal with 94 in 24 games.
That puts him just ahead of Adirondack Phantoms centre Brayden Schenn (90) and Rochester Americans defenceman T.J. Brennan (87) on the league-wide list, and his shot volume is 62 per cent more than his closest pursuer on the Heat, Roman Horak (58).
“It tells me he doesn’t want to be here – it’s like, ‘I want to score goals, I want to get to somewhere, I’m not an AHL player,'” Ward said, indicating that Street would be pushing for an NHL job this season if not for the lockout.
“There’s a little bit of selfishness to this business, and you’ll find that players who aren’t really dynamic offensively, they always share at the wrong times and they don’t get shots off.
“It tells me he wants to be special.”
As has been his custom, Street paced the Heat in the shots department in both games of their recent road trip. He fired seven pucks on net and scored once vs. the Toronto Marlies last Sunday, and tied Tyler Ruegsegger for team-high honours with four shots on Tuesday vs. Rochester.
“A lot of good things usually happen when you put pucks on net,” Street said, echoing age-old hockey wisdom. “You hear people saying that all the way growing up, and I have no problem doing that.
“I work on my shot a lot, and I like to think I have a good release and I get pucks through. In this league, guys are pretty good at blocking shots, and you’ve got to be able to get it around guys and through guys. I think maybe that’s why more of mine have gone on net.”
While he’s the Heat’s top point-getter with 18, only six of Street’s points have been goals. But as numbers go, he’s less concerned with his shooting percentage (6.4 per cent, as it happens) than his scoring chances, a stat tracked by the Heat coaching staff.
“Coach Ward focuses on the chances you generate vs. the chances that you give up,” said Street, who has partnered with Quintin Laing and Brett Olson to form Abbotsford’s most consistent forward unit this season. “That’s something I’ve really taken to heart and focused on, tried to improve.
“I’ve actually got a few assists off of shots on goal, generating rebounds.”
HEAT NEED MORE ‘INTERNAL FUEL’: WARD
Ward’s kind words about Street’s play notwithstanding, he said following Thursday’s practice that he’s not pleased with the competitiveness level of the squad as a whole.
“Our team structure, that’s all fine,” he clarified. “It’s just our individuals within the team structure that have to improve . . . It’s the whole team. No one’s driving the numbers I believe they’re capable of.
“I think we have some individuals who aren’t pulling their weight, and that concerns me.”
Offensive production has been problematic for the Heat of late – they’ve averaged just 1.70 goals per game over their last 10, after scoring 3.29 per game over their first 14.
Ward addressed the intensity issue with his players following Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Rochester Americans, and he explains it in automotive terminology. Coaches can provide what he calls external fuel – a kick in the pants – but it’s internal fuel that sustains a player’s production over the long term.
“External fuel doesn’t work very long, and that’s what I’m finding out,” he said. “I want to find internal fuel, where guys are pissed off they’re not turning the numbers they should to help their team, or to help their own career.”
HEAT HOST TEXAS
The Heat take on the Texas Stars this weekend in a Friday-Saturday set (7 p.m. both nights, Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre).
The two teams have clashed once before this season – Abbotsford claimed a 1-0 road win over the Dallas Stars’ affiliate on Nov. 23, with Chris Breen scoring the winner eight seconds into overtime.
“Their goalie played really, really well,” Street recalled, speaking of Stars keeper Cristopher Nilstorp, who made 28 saves that night.
“They have some big D who are tough to play against, and they play a responsible game. I don’t remember what the shots were or anything like that, but I do remember being kind of frustrated against them. I’m not sure whether that’s their style or just how they play against us, but there wasn’t a whole lot of room.
“We definitely need to generate more against them, and be able to play against their big guys down low.”
The Stars (12-8-3) don’t produce a lot of goals – at 2.52 per game, they rank 25th in the AHL, and their power play (22nd) and penalty kill (27th) are below average. But they are seventh-best in the goals-against department, allowing 2.70 per game.
Cody Eakin, a former Washington Capitals prospect who joined the Stars in an off-season trade for Mike Ribeiro, is Texas’s top scorer with seven goals and eight assists in 23 games, and Nilstorp’s 2.25 goals against average is seventh-best in the league.
KOLANOS, ALIU POISED TO RETURN
The AESC ice surface was a little more crowded on Thursday with the return of four forwards from injury.
Krys Kolanos (three games missed), Akim Aliu (15), David Eddy (19) and Michael Ferland (eight) were full participants in practice, but Ward indicated that only Kolanos and Aliu are likely candidates to play this weekend.
The Heat bench boss noted he needs to take vastly different approaches with Kolanos and Aliu (pictured right) to get them successfully re-integrated into the lineup. With Kolanos, it’s a matter of drawing out the necessary intensity so he can make maximum use of his pure scoring skills. With Aliu, a naturally rambunctious sort, the opposite is true – particularly when the player’s adrenaline is flowing after being out of the lineup for an extended period.
“He’s got to be smart about how he plays and how he goes about his business,” Ward said of Aliu, who – at 6’3″, 225 pounds – would add an element of size up front the Heat have been lacking of late.
“The size helps us and the speed helps us, if we can keep him in the zone and he’s not running around like a wild card. That’s my job.”
Heat forwards Sven Baertschi, Lance Bouma and Ryan Howse are still sidelined.
POWER PLAY DICHOTOMY
One of the Heat’s statistical quirks over the past two seasons under Ward is their sharp home vs. road power play splits.
In 2011-12, the Heat struggled on the man advantage at the AESC, converting just 14.1 per cent of the time for the second-worst home rate in the league. But they were seventh-best on the road (19.5%).
This season, the script has flipped – Abbotsford boasts the third-best power play in the league at home (26.2%), and the second-worst on the road (7.3%). Overall, they sit ninth (18.6%), owing to the fact they’ve played 14 of 24 games at the AESC.
Ward believes the dichotomy, both last season and this season, is schedule-based. In 2011-12, the Heat found their comfort zone on the road early, as 17 of their first 25 games were away. This fall, they had a chance to settle in at the AESC, with 10 of their first 13 on home ice.
“It’s all part of the natural process,” Ward analyzed. “What would concern me eventually would be a ton of scoring chances at home, and none on the road. Then it’s an issue. But we’re getting enough on the road where I’m satisfied. There’s nights where I’m not, but in general, I’m pretty satisfied.”
The Heat will soon have an opportunity to build up some reps on the road. After this weekend’s home games, they embark on a six-game jaunt, with the Christmas break smack in the middle of it.
The players and hockey staff disperse for the holidays following a Saturday, Dec. 22 game at the Rockford IceHogs, and they reconvene on Thursday, Dec. 27 in Chicago, two days prior to a date with the Wolves.
TEDDY BEAR TOSS
The Heat’s annual teddy bear toss, where fans throw stuffed animals onto the ice following the home team’s first goal for donation to the Abbotsford Christmas Bureau, is on Friday.
It will mark the third teddy bear toss the Heat have been a part of already this season – they were the guests for similar events at the San Antonio Rampage on Nov. 24 and at the Toronto Marlies on Dec. 9.
“We were kind of laughing about that,” Street said with a grin. “It’s kind of like, ‘Oh great,’ when they score and the teddy bears start flying over the boards.”
This time, though, the fur will fly in celebration of a Heat goal. Street said there’s been no trash talk or friendly wagering in the locker room as to who will score the teddy bear goal.
“Not yet, anyway,” he clarified with a chuckle. “I don’t know if there will be. But it’s kind of a fun thing anyway.”