Jessiman relishes fresh start with Heat

It's a rarity for an AHL team's leading goal-scorer to hit the free agent market in mid-season.

Hugh Jessiman signed with the Abbotsford Heat on Monday.

Hugh Jessiman signed with the Abbotsford Heat on Monday.

It’s a rarity for an AHL team’s leading goal-scorer to hit the free agent market in mid-season.

But that’s precisely the situation Hugh Jessiman found himself in last Sunday, when he parted ways with the Lake Erie Monsters following the expiration of his player tryout (PTO) contract.

The 27-year-old power forward didn’t have to wait long to find employment – less than 24 hours later, he put pen to paper on a fresh AHL contract with the Abbotsford Heat for the balance of the 2011-12 campaign.

Following his first practice with his new squad on Wednesday at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, Jessiman said that his split with the Monsters was amicable. It was a situation where he learned he had little to no chance of landing a two-way NHL/AHL contract from the Colorado Avalanche, Lake Erie’s parent club, so the Monsters turned him loose to find a better opportunity.

“When I came in, I was there to sort of fill in for (Patrick) Rissmiller and (Greg) Mauldin, a couple of veteran guys who were injured at the time,” said Jessiman, who completed two 25-game PTOs with Lake Erie. “In the past week, it became apparent that Colorado wasn’t really interested in me (long-term).

“One thing I respect about the coaches there, they were very honest with me. Rather than selfishly keeping me around with false promises, they were honest. I really appreciate that, because it got me here (to Abbotsford). It seemed like I’d have more of an opportunity here, and perhaps up there (in Calgary) at some point.”

When the Monsters released him from his PTO, Jessiman said that interest from other teams was initially slow to materialize.

“I think a lot of teams didn’t really know the situation with me and Lake Erie; I feel like they were a little wary of stealing a guy from another team,” he said with a wry grin.

“But I did the research, and Abbotsford seemed like a good spot.”

Indeed, Jessiman figures to fit like a glove for a Heat team that’s starving for size, scoring and depth up front. At 6’6″, 231 pounds, he certainly fits the size criteria, and he led Lake Erie with 20 goals in 43 games prior to his release.

His arrival is particularly timely for an Abbotsford club that’s currently missing forwards Krys Kolanos, Lance Bouma, Paul Byron and Roman Horak. Those four are up with the Calgary Flames, serving as injury replacements.

On Wednesday, Jessiman practiced on the Heat’s top line, with Jon Rheault on the left wing and Ben Walter at centre.

“You just look at him, and you know about the size,” Rheault said with a chuckle. “But it’s more than that – he has skill, and he can score goals. Just being out there with him in practice, you can see he brings a lot of tools.

“I think he’ll open up a lot of space for us.”

The Heat are the sixth AHL stop for Jessiman, a former first-round draft choice by the New York Rangers back in 2003. He said his first couple days in Abbotsford have been smoother than he might have expected.

“I’ve played on a few teams, to say the least, in this league, and I feel like this was probably the best first day I’ve had in terms of transition,” said Jessiman.

“Everybody’s very open, and it seems like a great group of guys. I think I’d met everyone within the first five minutes, and I think with some teams, it can take guys a little while to warm up to you. That’s a really good sign, and just knowing the potential and talent and type of team we have here, it’s exciting for me.”

• Jessiman and the Heat host the Houston Aeros on Friday and Saturday (7 p.m. both nights, AESC).