Ales Kotalik’s first American Hockey League stint in eight seasons wasn’t exactly for the faint of heart.
Placed on waivers by the Calgary Flames on Jan. 27, Kotalik joined the Abbotsford Heat last week for a grueling five-games-in-six-nights gauntlet on the road.
The compressed portion of the schedule continues on Friday and Saturday, as the Heat host the Toronto Marlies for a two-game set at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. All told, that’s seven games in nine nights.
“It’s been physically demanding, I’ve got to tell you that,” Kotalik said with a chuckle, sipping a cup of coffee following Friday’s morning skate. “But it’s been the same for every guy in the room. I think we had a pretty good swing (on the road).”
Kotalik, a 32-year-old right winger, finds himself at a career crossroads. After making his name as a productive goal-scorer with the Buffalo Sabres, he signed a three-year, $9 million contract with the New York Rangers in 2009. Things didn’t work out on Broadway, and he was traded to the Flames last February with Chris Higgins, in a deal that saw Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust head the other way.
A preseason knee injury sidelined Kotalik for the first 26 games of the 2010-11 campaign, and upon returning, he posted just three points (all goals) and a -8 rating in 20 games with the Flames.
“When I got back, I didn’t really play in a role I need to be played in to be an offensive contributor on a consistent basis,” he analyzed. “All of a sudden you find yourself on the outside, and dealing with being sent down after all those years in the league.”
Asked what he feels he needs to prove to get back to the NHL, Kotalik said his track record speaks for itself.
“I don’t think I have anything to prove to anybody after 10 years in the league,” he said. “You either get the chance and the role, with the goal-scoring salary I’m having and which I earned with the four 20-goal seasons in the league.
“You either get the chance when things are happening, or you don’t, and you find yourself on the outside and being criticized. I think everybody knows what my game is, and it’s not going to change.
“Nobody can really say for sure what’s going to happen to me,” he added. “If I get the opportunity to get back there (to Calgary), it would be great. If not, it would probably be my last couple months in North American hockey.”
While Kotalik would obviously prefer to be in the NHL, his mindset is to make the most of his time in Abbotsford and serve as a mentor to the Heat’s young players.
“So far it’s been a good experience for me,” he said. “I’ve found a group of great young guys, caring guys. They work for each other, and for me, it’s all about stepping in and helping them develop a little bit . . . helping them find the right strides in their career, because I was in the same situation as they are right now.”
Heat head coach Jim Playfair said Kotalik has been “awesome” in every respect – energy-wise, commitment-wise, and how he handles himself in the dressing room.
“He’s been excellent,” Playfair enthused. “He’s been a real good character player to help our young kids with how to be a good pro, how to work hard on and off the ice.”
Kotalik has four assists in his first five games with the Heat, but he’s still looking for his first goal, despite firing 25 shots on net. He’s spent the bulk of his time on a line with Gaelen Patterson and Cam Cunning.
“I’m trying to shoot a lot – that’s my mentality,” said Kotalik, who had 10 shots against the Rockford IceHogs last Saturday. “It’s going to come pretty soon for me.”
• Second-year defenceman John Negrin, returning from knee surgery, was an energetic participant at morning skate on Friday.
“It’s starting to feel pretty good,” said Negrin, who rejoined the Heat on the road last week to skate with the team. “I’ve still got to get into some battle drills, but if I were to guess, I’d like to be back in a couple weeks.”
Negrin had surgery last March to repair a broken kneecap, but one of the screws broke over the summer, necessitating a second procedure to remove the screws and a bone fragment.
• The Heat posted a 5-4-0-1 record on their recent 10-game road trip, the longest jaunt of the season, and Playfair felt it could have easily been better.
“We put ourselves in a position where, in my mind, we could have gone 9-1 just as easily,” the Heat bench boss said, noting that a 5-3 loss at Manitoba on Jan. 23 was the only game that really got away from his team.
“We had a lead in every game.
“When you look at it, our team game’s come a long way, and our overall effort. We’re understanding what we have to do to win games . . . We’re scoring enough now that we’re giving ourselves a chance to win.”
• The weekend games against the Marlies are crucial divisional match-ups for the Heat. Abbotsford (25-22-2-5) and Toronto (25-20-0-7) are tied for fourth in the North Division with 57 points, though the Marlies have two games in hand. Both teams are just a single point back of the Lake Erie Monsters (25-22-3-5) for third.