The coming season for the Calgary Flames AHL affiliate is one of improved hope and interest thanks to an infusion of young talent from the graduating class of the 2008 entry draft. Amongst the new pros are first rounder Greg Nemisz, second rounder Mitch Wahl and third rounder Lance Bouma. Recent free agent signing and leading OHL goal scorer Bryan Cameron will also add an infusion of offense while training camp stand-out T.J. Brodie may or may not eventually join a fairly deep blue line.
The Heat battled significant injury problems last season as well as a lackluster offensive attack, but still managed to make it into the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs thanks to some notable contributions from late season additions like Mikael Backlund and Jonathan Rheault. This year, the Heat will be younger but more skilled and will look to build on their post-season efforts.
With Backlund a lock to make the parent club out of camp, the Heat will be looking toward Nemisz, Wahl, Cameron and the surprising Rheault to pace the attack up front. Of those four, Wahl and Rheault had the most impressive performances in training camp, particularly Rheault who was one of the final cuts. It also remains to be seen if new-comer Logan MacMillan will start the year in the AHL or ECHL. The former Ducks first rounder was injured during the entirety of the Flames camp and was unable to make a case for a job. There’s a chance he’ll start the year at the lower level in order to get back into game shape.
Being the Flames are currently afflicted by numerous injuries, the immediate futures of veterans Brett Sutter, Stefan Meyer and Ryan Stone are up in the air. All three players currently remain with the parent team and are vying to fill in for the injured David Moss, Ales Kotalik, Daymond Langkow and Matt Stajan who are on the shelf “indefinitely”. As such, there’s a good chance that each hopeful will at least start the season with the Flames, assuming Darryl Sutter doesn’t import someone like Brendan Morrison before puck drop. Each guy will eventually filter back down to the Heat once the regulars get back on their feet and should form a core of strong, two-way play that will help the younger guys find their feet at the professional level. First round disappointment Kris Chucko will also fill that role for the Heat this season, perhaps his last in the Flames organization after being one of the first guys to be cut from main camp this year.
Rounding out the forward corps will be Cam Cunning, John Armstrong (assuming he can stay healthy), tough guys JD Watt and Ryley Grantham, as well as Hugo Carpentier and the aforementioned Lance Bouma. Veteran Matt Keith was also signed to an AHL contract by the organization recently. The 27 year-old has numerous pro seasons on his resume and was a 21 goal scorer for the Rockford IceHogs last year. He’ll be a capable fill-in while guys like Meyer and Sutter remain with the Flames.
The Heat’s blue line situation remains murky with Steffan Kronwall and T.J. Brodie still vying for a place on the parent roster. Kronwall was waived by the Flames to start the season and may end up traded or loaned to Europe. Brodie is the final youngster standing from training camp, while Pelech struggled to stand out amongst the hopefuls and was cut by the club at the conclusion of the exhibition season.
In addition to Pelech, Keith Seabrook, John Negrin, Gord Baldwin and veteran Josh Meyers are the returning defenders. Newcomers Chris Breen and Giffen Nyren will fill out the bottom end of the rotation, with the former providing physicality and the latter another weapon on the power-play. Pelech, Seabrook, Negrin, Brodie (depending) and Meyers will likely form the nucleus of the Heat’s defense with the rest of the brigade fighting for ice time.
Leland Irving and Matt Keetley will again be battling with a free agent signing (JP Lamoureux) for the starters position. The pair lost out to David Shantz by the end of the season last year and will be looking to redeem themselves in the eyes of the organization this time around.
Irving is the odds-on favourite to get the longest look in the crease given his draft pedigree, but Jim Playfair was not shy about going with the hot hand previously and won’t hesitate to try either Keetley or Lamoureux should Irving stumble again.
Former Flames coach Jim Playfair will again head-up the Abottsford Heat. He’ll be assisted by Steve O’Rourke, previously the operations manager of the Okanagan hockey school, as well as Troy Ward, who was an assistant for the AHL Houston Aeros last year.
The story of camp this year was T.J. Brodie. A fourth round pick in 2008, Brodie made huge strides after his draft year during his OHL career and arrived in Calgary with a bit of a buzz. The 20 year-old dominated the prospect tournament in Penticton and continued to open eyes in main camp by scoring four goals and averaging over 20 minutes of ice in each of his appearances. Although not big at 6’1 and 180 pounds, Brodie didn’t look out of place against NHL competition thanks to his blend of mobility, vision and offensive awareness. He showed poise with the puck beyond his years and probably had the most notable training camp by a 20 year-old since Dion Phaneuf.
Matt Pelech, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as noticeable. He only appeared in three games didn’t average much more than 15 minutes a night. Pelech also struggled at times with his decision making, forcing passes and trying to be overly aggressive. The former first round pick remains a prospect with good tools (size, strength, aggression and decent mobility for a big man), but at 23 is rapidly approaching the phase of his career where he’ll become a perpetual AHL ‘tweener if he can’t take the next step soon.
At forward, Mitch Wahl seemed to acclimate to the big league a bit better than fellow rookies Bryan Cameron and Greg Nemisz. Wahl’s most notable performance came in Vancouver against a Canucks split squad where the Matt Stajan injury thrust him into the deep end of the pool. Wahl ended the night with two assists thanks to his above average passing ability and vision. As for Cameron, he seemed to struggle with the speed and size of NHL opponents while Nemisz – who actually lasted longer in camp than the other two – was frequently tentative and uninvolved. All three will be well served by some seasoning in the minors.
One of the more pleasant surprises at camp was free agent Jonathan Rheault. A late season addition to the Heat last year thanks to injury problems, the 24 year-old led the team in goals during the playoffs. Although not very big at 5’11 and 200 pounds, Rheault used his quickness and speed to outlast a majority of the other hopefuls during training camp and will likely be a top-six contributor for the Heat going forward.
Free-agent Stefan Meyer was also able to open eyes with his tenacity and capable two-way game. Watch for him to center the Flames fourth line while Langkow, Stajan and Moss remain on the sidelines.