Over the past 12 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced professional leagues all over the world to cancel, delay, or completely restructure their seasons. With teams located in both the United States and Canada, the AHL has followed the lead of the NHL and worked around strict cross-border restrictions by introducing an all-Canadian division. This means the Stockton Heat have relocated to the Stampede City and will play their home games out of the Scotiabank Saddledome for the 2020-21 campaign.
Heat Drop Lopsided Home Opener to the Marlies
After an incredible 348 days between games, the Heat finally dropped the puck Sunday night on their AHL season. After getting off to a great start and outshooting the Toronto Marlies 7-0 in the opening minutes, the baby buds took over the game by scoring a couple of quick goals midway through the first period and then completely dominating the second stanza with four more unanswered markers.
At age 19, Flames’ goalie prospect Dustin Wolf became the second-youngest netminder to play for the Heat in team history, but he received an exceptionally rude welcome in his professional debut. The young Wolf got shelled, surrendering five goals on 11 shots before being replaced midway through the second by veteran Garret Sparks, who stopped 15 of 17 shots. Stockton’s lone goal came in the third on a power play, with Luke Philp notching his 20th professional marker. Make the final a very forgettable 7-1 setback. The Heat and Marlies will face-off at the Saddledome again on Tuesday for the second meeting of their four-game set.
Delay to WHL Season Means Junior Prospects Get Valuable AHL Experience
While the WHL Kamloops Blazers await the start of their season, the Heat will have Flames’ first-rounder and recent World Juniors standout Connor Zary on the roster. Getting a few games of pro hockey experience under his belt will serve the 19-year-old well before he has to return to junior hockey. It’s also possible the center could see even more time playing for the Heat after the WHL wraps up the truncated 2020-21 season.
And, while Wolf’s first start in the AHL didn’t go exactly as planned on Sunday night, the Flames’ “goalie of the future” will definitely get more chances to develop his game at the professional level before his junior team, the Everett Silvertips, returns to the ice on March 19. Once he’s back in the dub, the 2019-20 WHL goalie of year is set to resume his quest to become the league’s all-time shutouts leader.
Along with Wolf and Zary, four more youngsters made their professional debut in the Heat’s season opener — Colton Poolman, C.J. Lerby, Dmitry Zavgorodniy, and Emilio Pettersen. Of these newcomers, keep your eye on Pettersen, who was almost a point-per-game player during his two-year stint at the University of Denver. Also look out for Zavgorodniy, a seventh-round pick in 2018 who had a particularly strong year with the Rimouski Oceanic, finishing with 67 points in 40 games last season.
With the Heat Playing in Calgary, the Flames’ Taxi Squad Becomes More Flexible
With the absence of AHL farm teams and the ongoing cross-border restrictions to start the season, the NHL introduced a “taxi squad” for the 2020-21 campaign. This made sure clubs had a stable of spare players that travel with the team and are available to call up in case of injury or COVID-19 cases. Now that the Heat are based out of Calgary, we should see a steady stream of roster moves between the Heat and the Flames’ reserve crew.
This is the first time the franchise has had a farm team play in the same city, so look for the team to take full advantage of this newfound flexibility. Defenceman Connor Mackey has already played three games with the big club, but he also made his Heat debut on Sunday night. We can expect plenty of other players who’ve spent time on the Flames’ roster or the taxi squad to skate with the Heat this season, including Glen Gawdin, Byron Froese, Buddy Robinson, Brett Richie and third-string goaltender Louis Domingue.
There are also a few obvious candidates on the Heat’s roster who will likely get a call up to the Flames or at least see time on the taxi squad. Leading that list is Matthew Phillips, who, aside from Gawdin, is probably the most NHL-ready forward on the Heat’s roster. Phillips had a red hot start to his 2019-20 season, notching 30 points in just 28 games for the Heat before an injury knocked him out of the lineup for almost two months.
Phillips struggled when he finally returned to the ice but only got in 10 games before COVID-19 canceled the remainder of the season. Defenceman Alexander Yelesin saw four NHL games a year ago and could be called up again. And don’t forget about veteran D-man Alex Petrovic, who has suited up for over 300 NHL games over eight years.
Big Questions Remain About Historic 2020-21 Season
- Because of the Flames’ six-man taxi squad and the influx of WHL players, the Heat have a jumbo-sized roster of 29 players this season. With AHL teams only allowed 18 skaters and two goalies, how will the team get everyone enough playing time and still meet the league requirements? It will definitely be a challenge to give everyone regular ice time while keeping enough players to cover for injuries or potential COVID-19 absences.
- Another big question is about the AHL playoff format. So far, that has yet to be determined, so how much weight will the final standings hold? That could play a big role in how the lineup is shaped and how much playing time is given to the youngsters to try and accelerate their development. With only 40 games on the docket this season, it will be very interesting to see how all of this plays out.
- In the Heat’s five-year history in Stockton, the club has never actually played against three of the five teams in the newly minted Canadian Division. While the Flames’ affiliate just faced the Marlies for the first time ever on Sunday night, the team has never crossed paths with the Laval Rocket or the Belleville Senators. And they’ve only squared off against the Manitoba Moose a dozen times in the half-decade of Calgary’s AHL club being in California. How will the team fare against such unknown entities?
This franchise has never faced such unprecedented challenges heading into a historic season. So everybody buckle up — I can guarantee it won’t be a boring 2020-21 AHL campaign for the Stockton Heat… (now in Celcius).