Brett Olson can tend to fly under the radar in terms of his contributions to the Abbotsford Heat.
He doesn’t boast the blue-chip prospect pedigree of a Sven Baertschi, a Markus Granlund or a Max Reinhart.
He doesn’t score at a point-per-game pace like fellow 26-year-olds Ben Street or Blair Jones – his offensive numbers (11 goals and 25 assists in 60 games) are good, but not jaw-dropping.
And unlike all of the aforementioned players, he doesn’t have an NHL contract – he attended Heat training camp in the fall of 2012 on a tryout basis and has played his way into AHL contracts each of the last two seasons.
But when head coach Troy Ward looks down his bench for a forward to send out in a key situation, his gaze often settles on the versatile Olson, who can play all three forward spots with some offensive bite while maintaining a conscientious posture defensively.
“He’s just a real useful tool to have,” Ward said. “He can play top six, he can play bottom six. He can play on the power play, he can play on the penalty Kill. Plus he’s a good pro – he trains hard, and he’s good off the ice.
“He’s been an overachiever his whole life.”
Ward is highly qualified to make that statement, as he’s been keeping tabs on Olson dating back to his junior hockey days with the Waterloo (Iowa) Black Hawks of the USHL.
Ward served as a scout and advisor for the Black Hawks, who are coached by his friend P.K. O’Handley, and also helped out at several hockey camps Olson was working at.
He’s watched Olson work for everything he’s gotten in the hockey world – most significantly, overcoming a shattered hand and a torn MCL during his junior season with the NCAA’s Michigan Tech Huskies to return and lead the team in scoring as a senior.
“I was never a slotted guy, knowing exactly where I was going to end up (each season),” Olson said, reflecting on his rise through the ranks. “I took a few extra years as an overager in junior before finding my way to college. Then it took me a couple years to fit in there.
“Usually for me, the first year (at a new level of hockey) is a feeling-out year, a learning-curve kind of mentality. Then I just try to take what I learn from the first year and excel from there.”
Olson’s AHL tenure has followed that very pattern.
His graduation from Michigan Tech in 2012 coincided with the NHL lockout, which meant pro hockey jobs were scarce. Against all odds, he managed to stick with the Heat out of training camp, and had a solid start to the season, registering 10 points in his first 18 games.
But while he maintained a role as a key penalty-killer and two-way presence, his point production slowed to a trickle – he posted just eight points in 52 games the rest of the way.
This season, he’s already doubled his point total (18 to 36) in 10 fewer games. And save for a 13-game pointless stretch bridging December and January, he’s been an offensive threat on a night-to-night basis.
“In general, he’s just been way more consistent,” Ward said. “Going through your first pro season, there are ups and downs, and mental things that make you tired. I think, in his second year in Abby, he’s learned to manage his life as a pro.”
Olson attributes his increased production to his linemates, which, given his versatility, has encompassed most of the forwards on the roster at different points of the season.
The Heat have had a talented group up front for the bulk of the campaign, but over the last few weeks, they’ve been decimated by injuries and NHL recalls, robbing them of the likes of Granlund, Reinhart and Baertschi.
That’s thrust Olson to the forefront to an even greater extent, and he’s excelled, notching 15 points in his last 18 games. He’s been swimming against the current, though, as the depleted Heat are on an eight-game losing streak.
“That type of stuff happens in the AHL – it’s a developmental league,” noted Olson, whose +10 rating is tops among players currently with the Heat. “The good thing is, there’s still time before the end of the season where we can get our group of guys back before the playoffs and get our winning edge back.
“We don’t have that panicked feeling right now.”
Ward believes that Olson has done enough to earn an NHL two-way contract for next season – whether an offer actually materializes, be it from the Calgary Flames or another organization, remains to be seen.
Olson, for his part, isn’t about to take anything for granted, nor will he be distracted thinking about the future.
“It’s something that you’re conscious about, but at the same time, it’s something that can stay in the back of your mind,” he said. “The season is what we need to focus on.
“We feel we have something special here (with the Heat).”