Last season, the Calgary Flames went into training camp with the majority of their roster spots spoken for. But between a laundry list of injuries and some under-performance by established players, the parent club of the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat went to the farm for players very, very often.
All-told, the 2011-12 season saw two major things happen: 16 different players spent time with both Calgary and Abbotsford, and the Heat learned that they can compete in the AHL even while missing their best players due to call-ups and injuries. Both of these factors will play into the run-up to the 2012-13 campaign.
First-off, the Heat collectively are hungry. After missing the playoffs the season prior, Abbotsford bounced back with their best regular season record to date, finishing second in the West Division and earning home ice in the opening round against Milwaukee. The team likely feels they let a huge opportunity slip away in their second round series against Toronto, in which the Marlies beat the Heat in five hard-fought games.
Secondly, the Heat individually are hungry. The “meritocracy” instituted by Calgary general manager Jay Feaster, along with the Flames’ flagging playoff hopes down the stretch, saw lengthy big-league auditions for numerous Heat players – notably forwards Lance Bouma, Greg Nemisz, Paul Byron and Roman Horak, defender T.J. Brodie, and goalie Leland Irving. While Bouma and Brodie likely earned full-time jobs in Calgary with their performances, the call-ups also gave several Heat players confidence that they can hack it in the NHL given the opportunity.
Third, the Heat are now a much deeper club than they were a year ago.
- Most of the Heat’s best players from last season are back, including Greg Nemisz, Paul Byron and Krys Kolanos. (Although the club will be without Clay Wilson, who signed in the KHL, and veterans Jon Rheault and Hugh Jessiman, who signed with Florida and Ottawa respectively.)
- The additions of Jiri Hudler, Roman Cervenka and Dennis Wideman, along with the likelihood that both of Leland Irving and Sven Baertschi will be fighting for NHL jobs at Flames camp, means that players that normally would’ve challenged for spots in Calgary will be pushed down to the AHL, at least in theory.
- Highly-touted prospects like Brady Lamb, Max Reinhart and Michael Ferland are turning pro and likely starting their apprenticeships with the Heat.
- The team’s overall deepness aside, the club will likely be a bit shallower on defense, with sizable roles for AHL signees Joe Callahan, Zach McKelvie and Nick Tuzzolino, as they complement Lamb, James Martin, Joe Piskula and Chris Breen, along with whichever one-way contracted defender the Flames can send down. The promotion of Derek Smith and T.J. Brodie, along with the departure of Wilson, leave the Heat with a weaker blueline group.
Overall, the Flames organization has 51 players (four goaltenders, 16 defensemen, 31 forwards) under either NHL or AHL contracts for next season. With 23 spots in Calgary, that leaves roughly 28 players duking it out for roughly 23 or 24 AHL berths.
The largest factor in choosing the Heat roster in the fall may be the AHL’s ever-present development rule, requiring teams to dress 12 skaters who have played 260 (or fewer) pro games and 1 that has played 320 games or less. The rule effectively limits the “veteran” players on AHL rosters to five per game. Luckily for the Heat, only six potential players have played more than 320 pro games – defensemen Brett Carson, Derek Smith, Joe Piskula and Joe Callahan, and forwards Ben Walter and Quintin Laing. Given Smith’s new one-way deal in Calgary, there’s a chance that the Heat can dress every veteran on their roster and not have to sit anybody. Unless, of course, one of the youngsters out-plays an established vet.
All-in-all, it could be a very interesting (and competitive) season in the Lower Mainland.