Size and grit plentiful in Calgary Flames’ minor league system

By David Thicke

T.J. Brodie - Calgary Flames

Photo: T.J. Brodie was a leader on the Abbotsford Heat's defensive corps before he was called up to Calgary, where he has recently skated in the Flames' top-four. (courtesy of Bob Frid/Icon SMI)

The Abbotsford Heat finished comfortably in fourth place in the AHL Western Conference for the 2011-12 regular season, playing in the Calder Cup Playoffs after missing them in the previous year. The Heat swept through the first round but was beaten in five games by the Toronto Marlies in the second round of the playoffs. The team lost to a Marlies team that would end up playing for the Calder Cup.

This season, Abbotsford has a veteran team along with the addition of four rookies, two of the Calgary Flames' top prospects in Sven Baertschi and Max Reinhart along with NCAA players David Eddy and Brady Lamb. Since the start of the 2012-13 season, the Heat has been among the top teams in their conference – one of the best defensive teams but also one of the lower scoring teams in the AHL. Baertschi, Paul Byron, and Greg Nemisz have all missed time in the first half with injuries and Lance Bouma is out for the season.

With the NHL lockout settled, Abbotsford has lost two of its better players, Baertschi and T.J. Brodie to the Flames. This could reduce the Heat's offensive output but the other AHL teams will still have to deal with the team's tight defensive system. The Abbotsford Heat could be in for a fight to secure a playoff spot in the second half of the year if the remaining players cannot elevate the offensive games.

AHL

Akim Aliu, RW, 23

Aliu has struggled to stay healthy this season with the Heat. The big winger missed six weeks with an injury and has not played up to his standards of last season. He has been very inconsistent with his play and has struggled to generate scoring opportunities with his size. The physical forward has just one goal along with three assists and a minus-one rating in 20 AHL games.

There were thoughts that he might get the chance to play on the Flames' fourth line this season but it is not likely unless his overall game picks up in the second half of the year. Aliu has not found the form that he showed at the end of last season in Calgary and time could be running out on him.

Sven Baertschi, LW, 20

Baertschi was one of the Heat's best players before he suffered a neck injury in early December. The talented winger has shown flashes of his elite offensive playmaking skills in his short stay at the AHL level in Abbotsford. Through 21 games, he scored six goals along with 12 assists and a good plus-four rating while playing a good two-way game.

Baertschi was invited to the Flames' training camp after the NHL lockout ended and looks like he will stick with Calgary for the shortened NHL season. He has been sheltered by the coaching staff to start the NHL season as he learns the new system and adjusts to fighting for a line-up spot. The Flames management will take it slowly with their star prospect while attempting to ease the pressure on him to produce offensive numbers right away. His desire, passion, and excellent work ethic will be a big help for him to succeed at the NHL level and should be appreciated by his Calgary teammates. At present, Baertschi is considered week-to-week with a hip flexor injury suffered in practice.

Carter Bancks, LW, 23

Bancks has cooled off drastically in the offense department having not cracked the score sheet since November, a stretch of 21 games. Despite his lack of offense, he has stayed in the team's starting line-up due to his solid two-way play and excellent penalty killing. The tough, smallish winger is the heart of the Abbotsford team. He brings energy, passion, and is willing to do whatever it takes for his teammates.

Compared to the previous season, Bancks has played a more controlled game, but he can still spark his team when they really need it. If he can stay healthy for the whole season, then it is likely that the Heat will rely on him more heavily come playoff time.

Lance Bouma, LW, 22

Bouma played only three games at the AHL level for the Heat this season before going down with a sprained MCL and ACL injury on October 19th, 2012. He was supposed to have an opportunity to compete for an NHL roster spot when the lockout was settled. The tough winger was placed on the Flames long-term Injured Reserve list on January 7th, 2013 after having season ending knee surgery. He will likely have to wait until next season to make the Calgary Flames roster.

Christopher Breen, D, 23

Chris Breen has been one of the Heat's most reliable defenders and played a ton of important minutes in Abbotsford this season. His puckhandling, passing, and board play have improved as the year has moved along and there are glimpses of his offensive potential. Though 40 games, he has picked up three goals along with two assists and an even rating on the AHL's best defensive team.

The big blueliner is becoming a smarter player, difficult to beat one-on-one, and has been more intimidating to play against every night. He possesses a very hard shot and could see more power play time with T.J Brodie staying with the Flames. Breen impressed Calgary's management enough with his good play this season that he was invited to the NHL training camp when the lockout ended. If the hard working 23-year-old can continue his growth, there is a good chance that he could play at the NHL level in the very near future.

T. J Brodie, D, 22

Brodie was Abbotsford's best defenseman in his time at the AHL level before moving up to the NHL when the lockout was settled. His play at the AHL level showed just how much his overall game had improved and the team's management could not leave him in Abbotsford any longer. He collected 14 assists and held a plus-one rating over the last 28 games with the Heat.

Brodie has been kept in Calgary after the short training camp and has appeared in five of the team's six games to start the 2012-13 season. He has played solidly and contributed an assist along with an even rating despite the team's 1-3-2 record. It looks like the best thing for the 22-year-old is to continue his development at the NHL level on the Flames' defense corps. He opened the season with the opportunity to play on the power play unit and about 15 minutes per game, but has recently earned a spot in the top-four defenseman and averaged close to 20 minutes of ice time per game. With 62 games of NHL experience under his belt, Brodie is close to graduating from prospect status and getting an opportunity to play a prominent role in Calgary.

Paul Byron, C, 23

After starting the season with an upper body injury, Byron made his first appearance on November 9th with the Heat. In 31 AHL games, he has scored six goals (two on the power play) along with eight assists and a minus-four rating. The versatile forward has played all three of the forward positions and warranted a chance at trying for an NHL roster spot with the Flames.

Byron was one of the AHL players selected by Calgary's management to attend the short NHL training camp after the lockout was settled. He was not able to stick with the big team and was returned to Abbotsford, but he could still get a chance should the Flames need injury replacements. The speedy forward has played a similar system at the junior level and could fit into Calgary coach Bob Hartley's style of up-tempo play.

Roman Horak, C/LW, 21

Horak's offensive output cooled off drastically after his hot start to this season in Abbotsford. In his last 25 games, he has potted four goals along with six assists and a minus-13 rating on a defensive Heat team. The 21-year-old was moved to the wing position which seemed to increase his offense and minimize his defensive responsibilities but he seems to be a streaky scorer.

Horak showed enough to the Flames last season and the start of this year at the AHL level to get an invite to the NHL training camp in Calgary after the lockout ended. He stayed to play the first two games, scoring one assist, but was reassigned to Abbotsford when veteran NHL players returned to action. It is better for his overall development to be playing top line minutes with the Heat instead of sitting on the bench or in the stands at the NHL level. He needs to become a more consistent scorer and point producer to play on the Flames' top-nine forward group in the future.

Ryan Howse, LW, 21

After 16 games at the ECHL level in Utah, Howse was recalled to Abbotsford on December 3rd but has been held pointless in the nine games. He has struggled to stay in the team's starting line-up and needs to produce some points in order to stay at the AHL level. The offensive scorer has not exactly lit it up in the ECHL, having scored one goal along with six assists and a poor minus-six rating so far this season.

Howse needs to find his scoring touch from his junior days or improve the rest of his overall game in order to receive more playing time in Abbotsford. There are other Flames' prospects in the ECHL that have been scoring and improving their games that could push him aside if he cannot regain his offensive skills in the near future.

Brady Lamb, D, 24

Lamb has been an adequate depth defenseman at the AHL level for the Abbotsford Heat this season. He has been at times a healthy scratch as well as missed time with minor injuries, but the first year pro has not been sent down to the ECHL so far. The big defender scored his first professional goal on December 14th , earning a total of four points with a minus-two rating in 26 games.

Lamb needs to play his game and use his hard point shot when the opportunities are there for him. With the NHL season finally underway, he could see more time in the Heat's line-up if injury replacements are needed for the Flames.

Greg Nemisz, RW, 22

After missing the start of the 2012-13 season with a lower body injury, Nemisz made the first appearance of his third year with the Abbotsford Heat on November 30th, 2012. He will need to knock off about six months of rust from his game very quickly as this is an important year for the first round pick. The big forward needs to decide what kind of player he wants to be after having two sniffs at the NHL with the Flames over the last two seasons.

Nemisz has been an offensive player from as far back as his junior days with the Windsor Spitfires but his two opportunities in Calgary have seen him play a fourth line checking role. He has struggled to put up points since his return to the Heat's starting line-up, only collecting three assists and a minus-three rating in 26 games. If the 22-year-old wants to be a power forward at the NHL level then he really needs to step up his offensive game or the decision will be made for him by the Flames' management.

Max Reinhart, C, 21

If you were to just look at Reinhart's individual statistics then it would look like he is really struggling to score and is a big defensive liability to the Heat. The first year pro has scored three goals along with nine assists and a minus-16 rating in 44 games this season. His offensive numbers and plus/minus rating do not tell the real story of this two-way centerman's year on the second lowest-scoring AHL team. He has played the shutdown role against the opposition's best forwards and has been one of the Heats' best penalty killers.

Since the NHL lockout ended, Reinhart has moved up to the top-six forwards and has received more opportunities to play alongside better offensive players of the team. He has picked up seven points in the last nine games. The fact that the rookie has stayed in the Heat's line-up despite poor statistics early in the year tells what his coaches really think of his abilities and his contributions to the team. This has been good for the growth of one of the Flames' better prospects, and Reinhart might have a good chance to play at the NHL level next year if his offensive production can improve over the rest of this season.

ECHL

Bryan Cameron, RW, 23

Cameron has remained healthy so far this season at the ECHL level and ranks third on the Utah Grizzlies in scoring. He has collected 13 goals (six on the power play) along with 18 assists and a plus-one rating in 39 games. The third year pro is starting to regain his confidence and offensive game but has also been very responsible defensively on one of the lowest scoring teams in the ECHL.

Cameron needs to continue going hard to the net, producing on the offensive side, while also playing a good two-way game. He could get the chance to play again at the AHL level if there are any injuries to the scoring forwards in Abbotsford. Cameron's NHL entry level contract ends after this season so time is running out on the free agent winger's career with the Calgary Flames.

David Eddy, LW, 23

Eddy has been moving back and forth from the AHL Heat to the ECHL Grizzlies after missing most of the first half of the season with an injury. He has played six AHL games and eight ECHL games, collecting only three assists with the Grizzlies and a combined minus-six rating so far this year. The first year pro needs to remain healthy and produce some offense while playing his style of hockey in order to stay at the AHL level. Eddy has another year on his NHL entry level contract to prove his worth to the Flames’ organization.

James Martin, D, 21

Martin has played well at the ECHL level but missed four weeks with an injury. He has played a solid defensive game and moved the puck well up the ice from the back end. The second year pro has collected five assists and an excellent plus-five rating in 24 games so far this season. He needs to produce more offensively and use his hard point shot more often if he is going to get the chance to play at the AHL level even as an injury replacement this year.

After missing so much time with the thumb injury last season, Martin has to stay healthy the rest of the year and play big minutes for the Grizzlies in order to make up for his lost development time. He still has another year under contract to grow his overall game and move back up the Flames' depth chart.

Gaelan Patterson, C, 22

Patterson has not really put up big offensive numbers at the ECHL level this season and his strength, the defensive game, seems to be faltering as well. In his quest to produce more offense, he has neglected some of his defensive responsibilities. The third year pro has collected two goals along with 16 assists but a poor minus-13 rating in 43 games so far this season. Patterson could be finished with the Flames organization when his NHL entry level contract ends this year if he cannot finish up the season strong with the Grizzlies.

Mitch Wahl, C, 23

Wahl is starting to regain his junior form at the ECHL level and his offensive confidence is growing with each game. He leads the Grizzlies in points and has been the team's top playmaker. The third year pro has scored 14 goals along with 38 assists and a minus-three rating in 37 games. He has not picked up points in only seven games so far this season in Utah and has taken charge of the team's power play.

Wahl was called back up to the AHL level for three games as a replacement for the players sent to the NHL training camp but he failed to pick up any points. He needs to continue playing his game while collecting more points at the ECHL level and maybe he could see another call-up to Abbotsford this season. The Flames' 2008 second -round selection is finishing his NHL entry level contract this year and needs to impress the team's management if he wants to receive another contract.

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