Abbotsford Heat 2009-10 preview

By Kevin Forbes

For the third time in five years, the farm team for the Calgary Flames will start the season in a new market. After stops in Omaha, Nebraska and Moline, Illinois, the team will try its luck north of the border in Abbotsford, British Columbia as the newly-minted Abbotsford Heat. Though they have a new home, the team is welcoming back some familiar faces and hopes to start off on the right foot, after missing the playoffs by a single point last season in Quad City.

Forwards

Perhaps the biggest blow to the Heat’s forward corps is the most recent one. With the inaugural season on the cusp of starting in Abbotsford, the parent Flames have dealt the team’s top returning scorer away. Kyle Greentree‘s 39 goals and 76 points in 79 games for the Quad City Flames, led the team by a 16-point margin and with the burly forward heading to Rockford, his production will need to be replaced.

Much of that burden will fall upon veteran returning players like Carsen Germyn, Jamie Lundmark and David Van de Gulik. Together the trio put up 148 points in 202 combined games for the Quad City Flames. They will be expected to provide more of the same in Abbotsford.

Another returning face who should be asked to fill a larger role is Kris Chucko. Entering his fourth professional season, Chucko will be asked to build on a breakout year that saw him finish fourth on Quad City with 28 goals and 51 points, a remarkable 21-point increase over the previous year’s campaign. The Flames first-round selection in 2004, Chucko also made his NHL debut in 2008-09 and will likely be near the top of the list should Calgary come calling in 2009-10.

Perhaps the most exciting prospect in Abbotsford could be 20-year-old Mikael Backlund. One of the Flames top prospects, Backlund is beginning his professional career after a WHL championship and an appearance in the Memorial Cup finals as a member of the Kelowna Rockets. Joining the Rockets part-way through the year, the 24th overall selection in 2007 also appeared in a single game with Calgary. He’ll be looking to return to the NHL on a more permanent basis in the near future, but in the meantime, he could be a catalyst for the Heat’s attack.

Rounding out the forward corps are returning prospects Brett Sutter and John Armstrong. Sutter made his NHL debut in 2008-09 and that taste of the big leagues seemed to spark the young forward to a strong second half, posting 16 points in his final 35 games. He’ll be looking to build off that solid finish in 2009-10, as well as looking to return to the NHL. Coming off a steady rookie pro season, John Armstrong is also hoping to build off his modest results. Posting 20 points in 68 games for Quad City, the former OHL star needs to round out his game to earn a larger role.

Also in the mix in Abbotsford are returning veterans such as Cam Cunning and Peter Vandermeer and new faces like Colin Stuart, Riley Armstrong and Garth Murray. Prospect Hugo Carpentier will be aiming to spend more time with the Heat after playing the majority of 2008-09 in the ECHL, while rookie pro Ryley Grantham provides depth.


Defense

Already a young blue line when the team played in Quad City, the Heat’s defensive core will be marginally younger with three new faces joining the group directly from junior. Keith Aulie, one of the Flames top prospects, finished his time with the Brandon Wheat Kings by posting career numbers across the board. A member of Team Canada’s gold medal-winning entry at the 2009 World Junior Championship, Aulie’s size and skill are undeniable and big things are expected from him in the future.

Keith Seabrook is not as physically intimidating as Aulie; instead he takes after his older brother, Chicago Blackhawks defender Brent Seabrook. An offensive blue-liner, Seabrook finished his WHL career with 55 points in 64 regular season games as a member of the Calgary Hitmen, followed by 15 points in 18 playoff matches. The former Washington Capitals pick will need to continue to improve in his own zone.

John Negrin has already made his NHL debut, appearing in three games for the Flames when injuries decimated their lineup late in the 2008-09 season. A two-way defender, Negrin posted eight goals and 49 points in 63 games in his final WHL season, which was split between the Kootenay Ice and the Swift Current Broncos. If his first full season of professional hockey goes well, he could be returning to the Flames lineup in the near future.

In addition to the rookies, the returning players on defense for the Heat aren’t much older or more experienced. At 25, Brett Palin is the elder statesmen among Heat defenders and he’s also their top returning scorer with five goals and 15 points in 57 games. Twenty-two-year-old Brad Cole will also be back, although recent reports have him listed as being out indefinitely with a broken leg. Cole posted three goals and 11 points in 73 games last season for Quad City after splitting his rookie pro season between the AHL and the ECHL.

Making his NHL debut in 2008-09, former first-round pick Matt Pelech is the likely candidate to be the first call should the Flames require help on their blue line again in 2009-10. A steady stay-at-home type, Pelech appeared in five games for the Flames, posting three assists. Meanwhile, in his second season of professional hockey, he matched his first-year totals of three goals and nine points in 59 games, 18 fewer than his rookie outing.

Goaltenders

The duo between the pipes remains the same. Both Leland Irving and Matt Keetley are due to return.

Irving, a first rounder in 2006, was impressive in his first professional season. Posting a 24-18-0-2 record with a 2.23 GAA and a .912 save percentage, Irving was among the top rookie netminders in the AHL. He’ll be counted on to provide more of the same in his sophomore year and if he continues to deliver, he could soon be challenging for the backup role with the Flames.

Entering into his second year in 2008-09, Keetley was expected to build off a strong rookie campaign and split time with Irving in Quad City. Instead, the Alberta native saw his numbers sag and watched Irving snatch away the starting role as the season continued. Posting a record of 8-18-0-4, Keetley’s GAA rose from his rookie campaign of 2.33 to 2.85, while his save percentage dropped from .912 to .892. He even saw some time in the ECHL. Keetley will be asked to back up Irving in Abbotsford and with a lesser workload, his numbers should rebound.

Coaching

A familiar face for Flames fans will be at the helm of the Abbotsford Heat in their first year. Jim Playfair has been a member of the Flames organization for almost a decade. Starting out as the head coach of the Saint John Flames, Playfair won a Calder Cup with them before being promoted to the NHL partway through the 2002-03 season. He then served as a member of the Calgary coaching staff including spending the 2006-07 season as their head coach. Playfair should be able to fashion the Heat similar to their parent Flames, a style he is intimately familiar with, having served the past two seasons as one of Calgary’s assistant coaches under his successor as head coach, Mike Keenan.