“Pace and competitiveness.”
There was no hesitation when Cail MacLean was asked what would define the second iteration of the Stockton Heat under his guidance.
“That would be it. The puck pace and the foot speed that we have, and that we aspire to, is something that our team is going to be known for.”
Hockey fans in Stockton should have grown accustomed to high-octane hockey after a 2018-19 campaign that saw video-game-type scoring nearly every time the Heat hit the ice, an average of seven goals-per-game between Stockton and opponents.
This season, the Heat are seeking to push the pace while taking away space for opposing teams – forcing discomfort and manufacturing mistakes.
It’s a style of play that should play into the team’s strengths as the roster is constructed. ‘Mobility’ was a word that came up several times when MacLean described assets he had to utilize with his contingent.
There’s a mix of familiar faces and newcomers, players poised to take the next step and emerge as leaders mixed with solid depth at all positions.
It’s a crowded crease in Stockton this season with Jon Gillies, Tyler Parsons and Artyom Zagidulin competing for ice time and a chance to earn a shot in Calgary. An iron-sharpens-iron approach could pay dividends as each member of the trio gets pushed.
Gillies put together a very solid second half for the Heat last season, a key contributor as the Heat made a late run in pushing for the playoffs. Parsons, a former second-round selection and World Junior champion with Team USA, has been somewhat snake-bitten by injuries in his young career but has shown flashes of brilliance, including setting the Heat’s single-game saves record not once but twice in the 2018-19 campaign. Zagidulin is an intriguing prospect as well, entering his first year of hockey in North America after posting impressive marks of 1.96 Goals Against Average and .924 Save Percentage with Russia’s Mettalurg Magnitogorsk last season.
“Goaltending will be a battle,” said MacLean. “These guys will obviously push each other, which is an excellent situation to have for young pros aspiring for the National Hockey League. It’s a great opportunity for those guys to compete. As the season goes on, lots of things happen.”
The kicker in that quote has unfortunately already reared its head, with Nick Schneider getting recalled from ECHL Kansas City to Stockton on Thursday after injuries to Gillies and Parsons. Schneider performed admirably in a similar spot a year ago, going 6-3 with a 2.45 GAA and .922 SVP.
Regardless of who’s occupying the blue paint, with how the situation currently stands the Heat should be in good shape.
Arguably the unit that improved the most over the course of the season a year ago, the defense has been retooled with additions Zac Leslie, Brandon Davidson, Alexander Yelesin and Jacob Christiansen.
Heading into the season, MacLean sees plenty of room for optimism in the new-look defense.
“Rob Hamilton has progressed from when he arrived with us in Colorado last year,” said MacLean. “He’s looking good as a returner. Andrew Nielsen had a good summer, he’s looking good out there and it’s exciting to see that.”
“On the flip side, we’ve got guys coming in who are great hockey players. Alexander Yelesin, very hungry, very explosive, defenseively in your face. Brandon Davidson is another one. I think it’s going to be exciting – I could keep going down the list and name all of them.”
The common theme shouldn’t surprise – mobility and puck-handling. Responsible breakouts, strong skating and an ability to contribute on both ends of the ice up and down the roster – it’s no shock that defense is an area where the Heat could be comfortable.
What was already an intriguing group was bolstered by late additions Dillon Dube and Alan Quine, last season’s team Rookie of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year, respectively.
The Heat finished the 2018-19 campaign fourth in the AHL in scoring at 3.46 goals per game, and eight of the team’s top 12 scorers are back in Stockton to start the year. Even in the preseason the scoring touch was evident and on display on Sunday as the Heat hung seven on divisional rival Bakersfield.
“Our forward group is younger than we had last year, a little bit of a different makeup,” said MacLean. “We have good depth there, some strong forwards. With some young players in the lineup, we have to make sure that offense is important but we also have to be really good defensively.”
While preaching the two-way game, MacLean brought up veteran center Byron Froese, an offseason signee by the Calgary Flames who suited up for Laval and Lehigh Valley a year ago. The 28-year-old has also emerged as a vocal leader in the room, earning some praise from the bench boss.
“The way he carries himself, he earns respect just by being himself,” said MacLean. “He’s got a really good presence and he’s an exciting addition to our leadership group.”
Of course, the Heat will also lean on returners Buddy Robinson and Ryan Lomberg, Glenn Gawdin and Matthew Phillips to stay stout as the club looks to keep its explosive pace from a year ago. The corps will only be bolstered by newcomers including Eetu Tuulola, Justin Kirkland, Martin Pospisil and company.
There’s a comfort in getting the first season out of the way – even more so when the team shows significant growth in the second half. A furious rally fell just short as the Heat clawed their way late into playoff contention, but year two of the current coaching staff shows promise.
After nearly a month around the players, MacLean is comfortable with the 2019-20 campaign set to begin Friday night in Loveland.
“Everyone, including myself, having a year together and moving forward, we feel better about where we’re at,” he said. “We feel like we’ve gotten to know the Calgary system really well, we’ve had a great month up there with the Calgary staff, and having worked under Bill Peters and his staff now for a full year and getting to get back at it in training camp, that’s something that’ll really help the group. Not just coaches, but the players – I think everyone is really optimistic at this point, as they should be.
Now we need to put it into effect.”