Season preview: Great expectations for Heat

Last season, on an Abbotsford Heat team laden with rookies, Quintin Laing was considered a veritable Methuselah at the ripe old age of 31.

Quintin Laing (left) battles for a loose puck with Mitch Wahl during a recent Heat practice. The Heat open the regular season on the road against the Lake Erie Monsters on Friday.

Last season, on an Abbotsford Heat team laden with rookies, Quintin Laing was considered a veritable Methuselah at the ripe old age of 31.

This season, the veteran forward finds himself as less of an outlier, both in terms of age and experience. The Heat are a more seasoned bunch – the product of the NHL parent Calgary Flames signing a series of battle-tested AHLers over the summer, and the experience accrued by last year’s rookie crop.

“Last year, it seemed like I was on a little bit of an island with the age gap,” Laing noted with a chuckle on Tuesday, as his team prepared to hit the road for their first games of the regular season, Friday and Saturday against the Lake Erie Monsters.

“This year, there’s a lot more help surrounding – a lot more veteran guys to swap ideas with. It is good to have a few more older guys to lean on.”

Hope springs eternal for every hockey team in the preseason, but the Heat have some legit reasons for optimism heading into the 2011-12 campaign. Chief among them is the fact the roster – the AHL’s youngest to start last season – has received the aforementioned injection of veterans.

After missing the Calder Cup playoffs last season, there’s every reason to believe the Heat have the horses to return to the post-season.

Head coach Troy Ward echoed the optimism, but cautioned that the talent level must be paired with a consistent work ethic.

“The players, in general, are really excited about what they can be,” Ward said. “And that excites me. I think they feel like they have another year of maturity under them, and they’ve been joined by some parts where they feel like those guys are positive parts to the equation.

“But I do know that it takes a lot of work to be a good team. Right now, we’re trying to establish the work ethic that it takes for us to be a good team, night in and night out. I’m not interested in peaks. I’m not interested in valleys. I’m interested in a consistent push throughout the year.”

FORWARDS

Scoring goals was like drawing blood from a stone for the Heat last season, as they finished with a league-low 186 tallies.

That shouldn’t be the case this time around – the talent level up front has been upgraded, and Ward is installing an up-tempo system to goose the offence.

Newcomers Ben Walter and Paul Byron give the Heat a terrific one-two punch at centre. Last year, with Lake Erie, Walter was the AHL’s ninth-leading scorer with 23 goals and 40 assists in 70 games. Byron posted 26 goals and 27 assists in 67 contests with the Portland Pirates.

At Tuesday’s practice, the apparent top two lines featured Walter between second-year man Greg Nemisz (14 goals, 19 assists in 68 games played) and Dustin Sylvester, who led Freiburg of the German second division in scoring last season. Byron was flanked by returnee Jon Rheault (12g, 22a, 79gp) and Guillaume Desbiens, a veteran power forward who gave the Heat fits as a member of the Manitoba Moose the past two seasons.

Laing centered Lance Bouma and Stefan Meyer on a rugged checking line, while Mitch Wahl skated with a rotating cast of wingers, including returnees Gaelan Patterson and Logan MacMillan, and rookie Ryan Howse, who racked up 51 goals as a member of the WHL’s Chilliwack Bruins last year.

DEFENCE

Part of the solution to the Heat’s offensive issues last season figure to come from the blueline brigade, which is loaded with offensive catalysts.

Sophomore pro T.J. Brodie was the Heat’s representative at the AHL all-star game last season, and his scoring numbers (5g, 29a, 68 gp) were all the more impressive in light of the Heat’s offensive struggles.

Clay Wilson, Brendan Mikkelson and Jordan Henry (expected to be re-assigned to the Heat after being placed on waivers by the Flames Tuesday) are also proficient puckmovers – particularly Wilson, who was the AHL’s second-leading scorer among defencemen two seasons ago (14g, 46a, 75gp) with the Rochester Americans.

Returnees Chris Breen and Joe Piskula are solid defensive-minded players, while John Negrin seeks to get back on track after two injury-riddled seasons. James Martin, the lone rookie of the group, landed a contract after a successful training camp tryout.

GOAL

The Heat have a proven veteran to carry the load in Leland Irving, who earned team MVP honours last season.

After enduring an ECHL stint during a difficult 2009-10 campaign, Irving bounced back in a big way, racking up an AHL-best eight shutouts to go with a 2.30 goals against average and a .913 save percentage.

“The word that sums up his year, for me, is he was consistent,” said Ward, who confirmed Irving will start Friday’s season-opener.

Backing up Irving are Joni Ortio and David Brown. Ortio was Team Finland’s starting goalie at the past two World Junior Championships, and he’s had an up-and-down preseason as he makes the adjustment to the North American game.

Brown is on a two-way AHL/ECHL contract, and Ward said he essentially fills the No. 3 role that J.P. Lamoureux handled last season.

In brief:

• Forwards Carter Bancks and Krys Kolanos are currently sidelined due to injury. Ward did not specify what those particular injuries were, other than to say they didn’t appear to be long-term issues.

Kolanos is on a tryout with the Heat after after missing a season and a half due to microfracture hip surgery.

“It has nothing to do with his hip,” Ward said. “A lot of it, I think, has to do with just getting his body back to game-ready. He’s in great shape . . . He just has a little tweak, and we’re just being precautionary.

“At the same time, it’s kind of out of my control what they (the Flames) want to do with him. I’m not sure where he stands in the whole picture.”

• Laing will reprise his role as Heat captain, at least for opening weekend. Ward said Laing will wear the ‘C’ at Lake Erie, with Piskula and Meyer serving as assistants. Next week, the players and coaches will vote on permanent captains.

“I don’t think it’s fair to put it on a new guy, because it stipulates that maybe he’s the guy,” Ward said. “We’ve got enough guys that can wear those letters right now.”

Laing said that wearing the ‘C’ is “a huge honour.”

“It’s a big responsibility,” he added. “I take a lot of pride in the fact I get to wear that.”

Heat defenceman Brendan Mikkelson (left) tries to chase down teammate Clay Wilson during the team’s Red vs. White intra-squad game last Friday.

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