Following a recent Abbotsford Heat practice, defenceman T.J. Brodie was quietly conducting an interview outside the locker room when his concentration was broken by teammate Jon Rheault’s best impression of a pro wrestling announcer.
“I’m Jon Rheault,” he growled, glaring into a video camera stationed just down the hallway. “Let’s make some noise! Go Heat go!”
Rheault was taping a promo to be played on the jumbotron at a future Heat home game, and his over-the-top delivery had Brodie cackling with laughter.
“I have a blast with that stuff,” Rheault said with a grin afterward. “Obviously I know I’m not good at it or anything, and I know it’s going to take me a million takes to get one thing right. But it’s fun.”
Fun has been the operative word for Rheault of late. After a painfully slow start to the season, the 24-year-old right winger racked up 14 points during a 15-game span bridging January and February.
That spurt of production more than doubled Rheault’s season output – he’d registered just 12 points over his first 38 games.
The early slump was particularly baffling in light of Rheault’s tremendous performances in last season’s AHL playoffs and during the 2010-11 preseason. He led the Heat with six goals in 13 post-season games last spring, and appeared poised to build on that after excelling at a prospects’ tournament and at Calgary Flames training camp in September.
“It was tough,” Rheault said, reflecting on his early struggles. “I knew I was capable of more, and it stinks that it took this long for it to happen.
“I could feel it coming, but I couldn’t really put the games together. I only had sections of games where I felt I was playing really well, getting chances.
“But right now, I feel so confident.”
Heat head coach Jim Playfair says that the speedy Rheault has “a lot of upside,” as evidenced by his recent streak of productive play, but consistency is his major area for growth.
“I think he plays a great game and then a good game,” Playfair said. “I’d like to see more consistent great games out of him, because I think he’s capable of it.”
Rheault doesn’t dispute the boss’s analysis. Consistency, though, is a difficult attribute for a young pro to learn.
“A lot of it, I think, has to do with how I start a game,” Rheault said. “If I don’t start the way I want to, I can sometimes let that interfere with my mental game.
“I’ve got to learn how to bench anything that’s going wrong and forget about it. Every shift is a new opportunity to start over.”
As Rheault has heated up, so too has his team. The 2010-11 edition of the Heat won’t be mistaken for the 1980s-era Edmonton Oilers in terms of scoring prowess, but they’re starting to show more confidence offensively while maintaining their attention to defensive detail. Six wins in eight games, heading into last weekend’s set against the Oklahoma City Barons, has been the upshot.
“It’s just a lot of people playing good hockey at the same time and feeding off each other,” Rheault explained. “One line gets going, and the next line says, ‘We can do that too.’
“It’s confidence not only in yourself, but in each other.”
Even during his less-productive games, Rheault has been able to make a contribution in the shootout. He’s tied with teammate Matt Keith for the AHL lead with seven goals in the skills competition (7-for-15 success rate), and has three shootout game-winners.
As for his recent individual success, Rheault said it’s been a product of focusing on breaking the game down mentally and playing to his strengths – speed and physicality – as opposed to putting pressure on himself to generate goals and assists.
“When you get confident, you can pretty much do what you want,” he said. “I’m starting to get in that same mental state I was in at the end of last year.
“It’s tough to describe. You’re very confident in every move that you’re making – the second a though comes into your head, you’re trusting it. When things are going wrong, you start to analyze each thought. I’ve been able to settle down and make plays.”