Tracking the development of top prospect T.J. Brodie has been one of the more fascinating elements of watching an Abbotsford Heat game over the past two seasons.
At his dashing best, the mobile blueliner looks like a player who should be on the next flight to Calgary, a No. 29 Flames jersey awaiting him in a locker at the Saddledome.
Then there are times where you’re reminded that in spite of his flashy skill set, Brodie is still a 21-year-old youngster with lots to learn.
Sometimes, those moments are juxtaposed on back-to-back nights. On Oct. 21, Brodie’s play was pivotal in a 2-1 shootout victory over the Milwaukee Admirals – he scored the Heat’s lone goal during regulation time with a lethal top-corner snipe in the first period, and head coach Troy Ward leaned on him to help kill off a crucial five-on-three shorthanded situation in the second period.
On Oct. 22, against those same Admirals, Brodie was terrific through two periods as the Heat built a 1-0 lead. But in the final frame, he was on the ice for two Milwaukee goals and was in the penalty box for the other as the Admirals skated away with a 3-1 win.
“Part of what has to happen with him, as with a lot of young players in the American League, is he has to go through the maturation process,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said last week, reflecting on the ups and downs of Brodie’s development.
“He seems to make you happy because of what he’s doing offensively. But if you look at certain defensive situations over the last four home games, there’s been things defensively where he doesn’t make you happy at all.”
Brodie cemented his status as a blue-chipper last fall, when he cracked the Flames’ opening-night lineup. He only lasted three games in Calgary before being reassigned to the Heat, but he turned in a very good season in Abbotsford – he was named to the AHL all-star game while finishing second in team scoring with 34 points in 68 games.
Along the way, though, his defensive play drew occasional criticism from former head coach Jim Playfair. New bench boss Ward, clearly, is of a similar mind.
This fall, Brodie didn’t have a great start to the preseason – he struggled at times at the Penticton Young Stars Tournament, and was an early cut at Flames training camp.
But by and large, Brodie has been excellent since arriving in Abbotsford. As with many of his teammates, the offensive numbers have been slow to materialize – he’s got just a goal and an assist in nine games. But with his tremendous skating ability, Brodie has been dominant at times, and he’s got a team-best +3 rating. Ward rides him like a thoroughbred – during a four-game homestand in mid-October, Brodie led the Heat in ice time three of the four nights.
“After (Flames) training camp, I just tried to simplify my game,” explained Brodie, who forms the Heat’s go-to defensive pairing along with Joe Piskula. “I just sort of relaxed and tried to let the game happen – not force anything. It’s been a big key for me to change things around, and hopefully I can keep getting better every game.
“I’ve definitely got a little bit of confidence coming back (to the AHL), knowing what to expect. I know what the league’s like, what the season’s like, what some of the guys you’re playing against are like. That definitely helps.”
Ward’s earlier critique of Brodie’s defensive play notwithstanding, he says he’s been very pleased with the rate of the Chatham, Ont. native’s development. The area for growth for Brodie, Ward said, has to do with when to press the gas pedal and when to ease off.
In the aforementioned Oct. 22 game against the Admirals, for instance, Ward was perfectly happy with Brodie pushing the pace in the first two periods. But in the third, with the Heat protecting a one-goal lead, Ward wanted to see him dial it back.
“As a 21-year-old, he just plays the same way the whole game,” Ward noted with a chuckle. “But I’m happy with what he’s doing for us, I’m happy for what he brings. I’m just anxious to see his maturation process.”