Off-season change a certainty for Heat

A sombre atmosphere permeated the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre on Tuesday. In the arena, just a few rapidly evaporating puddles remained on the concrete where the ice surface used to be.

The crop of Heat players who will become unrestricted free agents this summer includes captain Quintin Laing.

The crop of Heat players who will become unrestricted free agents this summer includes captain Quintin Laing.

A sombre atmosphere permeated the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre on Tuesday.

In the arena, just a few rapidly evaporating puddles remained on the concrete where the ice surface used to be.

In the bowels of the building, Abbotsford Heat players trickled in for scheduled exit meetings with head coach Jim Playfair, cleaning out their lockers on the way to their summer destinations.

The funereal Tuesday capped a playoff-less sophomore campaign for the Heat, who were eliminated from Calder Cup post-season contention on the second-last day of the regular season.

“We wanted the playoffs bad, and anytime you have to come in here and clean out the lockers, it’s a sad day,” forward Carter Bancks noted. “It’s a fact that not everyone’s going to back here next year. It’s a great group of guys, and you’ve kind of got to say your goodbyes to some guys you’ve built some strong friendships with.

“It’s not a day you like going through, but it’s something you’ve got to deal with.”

In many ways, it’s remarkable the Heat were able to stay alive in the playoff race as long as they did. The AHL’s youngest squad struggled mightily to score – their total of 186 goals was dead last in the league – as they battled through a litany of injuries. The Heat lost over 400 man games to injury in 2010-11, from Kris Chucko’s concussion in Game 3 to T.J. Brodie’s high ankle sprain in Game 75.

“The challenges we faced, I thought we handled well,” Heat captain Quintin Laing asserted. “But I wish we could have done more. You work to play in the playoffs, and to not be able to have that opportunity, you kind of get an empty feeling over it.

“There’s a number of games that we look back at where we should have won. Those are tough to swallow, knowing that if we’d won, we might have been in.”

FREE AGENTS APLENTY

Laing headlines a group of unrestricted free agents that also includes Matt Keith, Cam Cunning, Ryan Stone, Joe Piskula, Matt Keetley and J.P. Lamoureux.

Laing, for his part, said he’d love to be back.

“I liked the enthusiasm of the young group, and the relationships I made with the younger guys,” said Laing, who joined the Heat on a professional tryout contract in November and was installed as captain by Playfair just over a month later.

“I want to see guys like Brodie and (Lance) Bouma and (Greg) Nemisz develop and make it to the NHL. I want to lead them that way, and for myself, I think I still have a chance to help Calgary out if they need somebody.

“We went through a lot this year, and those kinds of challenges you face and overcome are good for development. For next year, I’d love to come back and improve with this team.”

KOTALIK READY TO MOVE ON

How Ales Kotalik’s future plays out will be an interesting summer subplot. He’s got one more year remaining on a one-way NHL contract that pays $3 million annually, but he spent the bulk of the second half of the season with the Heat after falling out of favour with the Calgary Flames.

There’s speculation the Flames might buy out Kotalik’s contract this summer, and the Czech forward suggested he’d welcome such a move.

“My chances of coming back are not very big,” said Kotalik, who posted 22 points in 25 games with the Heat. “Coming back to a team which was trying to kind of get rid of you a number of times and kind of gave up on you, I don’t think it would be healthy for both sides. There’s some things that can be done and should be done, and we’ll see how it’s going to play itself out.

“The situation for me, not just hockey-wise but life-wise, I need to move on and try to be in a place where I can still have fun playing.”

Though Kotalik’s AHL demotion wasn’t his ideal scenario, he spoke about his stint in Abbotsford in upbeat tones.

“I met some great guys down here, and I got a lot of minutes and a big role on the team, and that’s where I as a player can deliver,” he said. “I think I created some offence for the team, which was struggling scoring goals and creating chances.

“There’s a lot of young guys who have everything in front of them, and I was trying just to help them and give them guidance and be an example on the ice. Hopefully I did a good job of that.”

IRVING PLEASED WITH PERFORMANCE

As much as any player on the Heat roster, goalie Leland Irving helped his stock as a prospect. He put together a career year, leading the AHL in shutouts (eight) and minutes (3,437) while finishing second in wins (30).

“I’m just fortunate I was given a great opportunity and was able to get the confidence of my teammates and coaches,” Irving said Tuesday. “I was able to ride that, and it turned into a pretty good year.”

Just like last year, Irving will stay in Abbotsford over the summer, dedicating himself to training while his wife Ashley continues with her kinesiology degree at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Once again, he’ll work with Kelowna goalie coach Lyle Mast as he prepares to battle for the backup job in Calgary.

“I’d like to be able to work with more than just one guy – take things from different goalie coaches, apply it to my game and see what works for me,” Irving added.

“My goal is to play in the NHL in the future, and I did all I could on the ice (this year). I felt like I left it all out there. I’m not going to get too caught up in what happens off the ice, but I’m sure everything will take care of itself.”