The AHL regular season doesn’t open until Oct. 12, but one of the Abbotsford Heat’s most intense games of the year runs a week earlier.
Head coach Troy Ward will preside over the Red and Black Game, an intrasquad scrimmage, on Oct. 5. (The opening faceoff is at 7 p.m. at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, and yes, fans are welcome.)
The game, coming as it does on the eighth full day of training camp, will be a pivotal moment – at least in the short term – in some players’ careers. Ward anticipates making his first and only round of cuts the next morning, and barring injury, he’d like to keep a relatively lean roster of 13 forwards, eight defencemen and two goalies.
In light of the extra bodies assigned to Abbotsford during the NHL lockout, simply cracking the roster is going to be a tall order. Members of the Calgary Flames braintrust – general manager Jay Feaster, assistant GM John Weisbrod and head coach Bob Hartley – will be watching from the stands, and there won’t be any other exhibition games for players to make an impression. There’s plenty on the line.
“I expect it’ll be a little bit of a donnybrook, so to speak,” Ward said, looking ahead to the Red and Black Game. “This is such a tough business, and there’s some good players coming into this camp.
“The level of competition is going to be stiff. There’s a lot of guys vying for very few spots. That’s going to require, obviously, some big decisions by us. But the decisions become a little bit easier based on how the next few days go.”
Training camp officially opens this Friday, and in anticipation, we’ve broken down the position-by-position roster battles.
Let’s put ourselves in Ward’s shoes and sketch out some potential forward lines.
Let’s leave intact the unit of Krys Kolanos, Paul Byron and Dustin Sylvester that had so much success together at the tail end of last season. The second line, then, would start with centre Ben Walter, and we’ll flank him with free agent signee Ben Street (27 goals with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last year) and rookie Sven Baertschi, one of the top offensive prospects in hockey.
We still haven’t found spots for a trio of players who suited up for NHL games with the Flames last season – Lance Bouma, Roman Horak and Greg Nemisz (pictured right). So we’ll put them together on the third line.
Heat captain Quintin Laing and physical winger Akim Aliu formed an effective checking-line partnership last season, so we’ll keep them together and slot in rambunctious youngster Carter Bancks on the other wing.
That’s four solid lines, and we still haven’t made room for a couple of highly touted rookies (Max Reinhart and Michael Ferland), several members of the Heat’s supporting cast last season (Adam Estoclet and Ryan Howse, among others), or former highly touted prospects aiming to re-establish themselves (Mitch Wahl and Bryan Cameron).
It could certainly be argued Reinhart deserves a spot in our hypothetical lineup after his strong playoff performance with the Heat last spring. But who do you take out?
Considering Ward plans to keep just 13 forwards, the battles will be fascinating.
The Heat bench boss is evaluating forwards based on three criteria – work ethic, consistency, and the ability to slot into certain roles.
“We’ve got to find guys who fit the right positions, who can play to their capabilities within a role, consistently,” he explained. “It becomes more of a slotting thing.”
While the forward corps boasts plenty of depth and versatile parts, the same can’t be said of the defence.
With mobile blueliners Clay Wilson and Brian Connelly having found new hockey homes in the off-season, only one D-man under contract – smooth-skating third-year pro T.J. Brodie – has a track record of point production at the AHL level. And if not for the NHL lockout, he likely wouldn’t even be here.
Beyond Brodie, the Heat have three other defencemen with significant AHL experience – returnees Chris Breen and Joe Piskula (pictured right), and Joe Callahan, a free agent signee who spent last season with the Hamilton Bulldogs. Each of those players fits the classic stay-at-home mould.
Battling to get into the lineup are returnees James Martin and Nick Tuzzolino; Brady Lamb, who signed with the Flames out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth last spring; and Zach McKelvie, a free agent addition who played 39 games with the AHL’s Providence Bruins last season as a rookie pro.
Perhaps the most interesting name on the Heat’s training camp roster is Steve McCarthy. The Trail, B.C. native has 302 NHL games on his resumé with the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver Canucks and Atlanta Thrashers, and he’s coming in on a professional tryout contract after spending last season with Zurich of the Swiss A League. McCarthy has a history with new Flames coach Hartley, having played for him in both Atlanta and Zurich.
A big part of Ward’s focus on the blueline is forging effective partnerships.
“A lot of D stuff is based on partner success,” he said. “It’s a relationship between two players.
“Whatever the talent may be or whatever the situation may be, we have to try and find people that can play together.”
Leland Irving was the last remaining member of the Heat’s original 2009-10 roster, but the Flames elected not to send him to Abbotsford this fall because they didn’t want to risk losing him on waivers.
The Heat should be fine in goal, though, with Danny Taylor and Barry Brust.
Taylor (pictured right) was phenomenal after joining the Heat in early December of last season. The journeyman keeper posted the eighth-best goals against average in the league (2.29) to go with a 22-13-3 record and a .924 save percentage, and he earned the starting gig in the playoffs.
Brust has a track record of AHL success. In 2010-11 with the Binghamton Senators, he went 29-19-1-2 with seven shutouts, a 2.53 goals against average and a .925 save percentage during the regular season. The Senators would go on to win the Calder Cup, but Brust saw limited action in the playoffs as top prospect Robin Lehner took over as Binghamton’s No. 1 keeper.
Brust, who spent last season in Germany with the Straubing Tigers, signed a one-year AHL contract with the Heat in August.
Ward is looking for one of the goalies to seize control of the No. 1 job, but he noted the top spot on the depth chart could fluctuate throughout the season.
“I think it’s just the ebb and flow of a tough league,” he explained. “It’ll be merit-based.”
To view the Heat’s complete training camp roster, click here.