Three hundred and forty-eight days is a long time to go between hockey games.
The number 348 is where the Heat offseason counter will peak prior to the puck hitting the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome Sunday in a historic game for the Stockton Heat in the Canadian Division, the first clash with their new divisional counterparts since COVID-19 travel complications forced the team across the border for the shortened 2020-21 season.
“The first thing that comes to mind is patience,” said Heat head coach Cail MacLean on expectations for his squad heading into this season. “Although we have a roster who’s been through a training camp, they have not been in meaningful games. We want them to come flying out of the gates, but the intensity, the battle level, the physicality, those are hard to replicate until you have an opponent.”
‘THE GOAL IS UNCHANGED’
First up for the Heat will be the Toronto Marlies, the first all-time meeting between the clubs. While the Heat will be clearing the cobwebs and shaking off the rust, they’ll be battling against a team who will already have found its footing to the tune of four games with the Manitoba Moose.
Among a myriad of differences this season from those prior, a glaring one comes, at least for now, at the end. With a playoff format yet to be determined, how much weight do the standings hold? Turns out, even with the possible difference in rewarding a successful season, the end goal for MacLean and his players – development – remains consistent.
“Based on our recipe, (the goal) is relatively unchanged,” said MacLean. “Our end goal, from the get-go, is making sure we develop. When we put players into a winning environment and a winning culture, it’s going to do wonders for their development. It’s that much more important that we develop and play the right way because we have fewer games. It’s not that our focus has changed, it’s even more laser-pointed.
“We have ‘X’ number of regular season games on the slate right now. We have to make them count and we have to push these players to understand that regardless of what format we’re looking at this year, regardless of what it might look like for or against playoffs, you have to really make the most of these games.”
‘IT’S GOING TO COME DOWN TO EXECUTION’
The Heat became the first team in a decade to lead the AHL on both the power play and penalty kill a year ago, with special teams stepping up to guide Stockton to the center of a tight Pacific Division playoff race.
With some familiar faces poised to appear on both units, such as high-scoring forwards Matthew Phillips and Luke Philp or key kill personnel like blue-liner Alexander Yelesin and netminder Artyom Zagidulin, could it again be the man-advantage that paces an explosive Stockton attack, and could a stingy penalty kill limit opponent scoring opportunities?
“We’ve put in a fair amount of work on both groups,” said MacLean. “(Domenic) Pittis and Joe Cirella are in charge of those groups again, respectively, with the power play and the ‘PK.’ I like what we’ve done to prepare here, and now it’s a matter of working on making sure we have a good, calm feel of what we want to do. It’s going to come down to the execution from there.”
Bringing the systems to success this year will be different than years prior, at even strength or not, with the simple fact that the sweaters on the other end of the ice are different. In the Heat’s five-year AHL tenure, Stockton has never crossed paths with Toronto, Laval or Belleville. The top developmental affiliate of the Calgary Flames has only clashed with that of the Winnipeg Jets 12 times in the half-decade of Calgary’s AHL club being in California.
It’s a challenge and a treat for the Heat bench boss.
“It’s not so much a singular opponent, it’s more of a style of play. When you go to Toronto, or when you go to Laval or Belleville, we haven’t seen that. The hockey in the Eastern Conference of the AHL, it’s just different. It can be a little tighter. It can be different for our players. That’s one of the things I’m really excited about, the cities over there that we’re going to go into and the opportunity to expose our players to a little bit of a different brand of hockey.
“We can evolve our game based on the success and failures in different aspects of that. We’ll have some challenges with great coaching and great players from each of these teams we’ll be going against. It’s going to be fun.”
It was a two-man show between the pipes for Stockton last season, with North American newcomer Zagidulin splitting reps with long-time Heat backstop Jon Gillies. An impressive debut for the Russian netminder led to him re-upping with Calgary on a one-year, two-way deal, and he’ll look to continue building on his strong campaign in 2019-20.
It’s been the details, says MacLean, and the extra work that will help ‘Zag’ this time out. He put in offseason work with Goalie Development Coach Thomas Speer. He’s invested in learning more English to improve his on-ice communication.
“He had a unique ability to find a way to get wins with us last year,” said MacLean. “His record early was tremendous. He’s a goalie that guys really like to play in front of. He’s a really ‘game’ goalie. For Zagidulin, using this window to combine what he’s done away from the game and to translate that into a step forward toward being a bona fide top-level AHL goalie, it’s a big year for him.”
The supporting cast, for now, features highly-touted Flames prospect Dustin Wolf until the WHL’s Everett Silvertips return to the ice, Garret Sparks, who has won a Calder Cup and started the year hot with the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears, as well as tryout goalies in rookies Hayden Lavigne and Max Paddock.
Flames fans got an introduction last year to Alexander Yelesin, who racked up multiple call-ups in his first season in America. He was rewarded with four NHL games a year ago, with the defensive-minded defenseman scoring a goal and adding four assists in 38 games with Stockton.
AHL contracted defensemen Zac Leslie, who appeared on the power play last season and wore the ‘A,’ as well as Rob Hamilton, round out the returning faces for a group that welcomes young defensemen into the mix in addition to veteran Alex Petrovic, who’s knocking on 200 career AHL games and is already well past the 300 professional game plateau.
“I think the group has prepared well overall,” said MacLean on his blue line’s readiness for puck drop. “We’ve had some really strong additions to the group. (Colton) Poolman, who’s been playing alongside Yelesin recently, they seem to have a good fit together. Petrovic, a veteran ‘D,’ can play at the NHL level and has done so a lot in his career. He gives us a good presence in terms of leadership, and he’s got a wide range in the game that he plays. He brings a lot to the table there.
“C.J. Lerby is a player coming in, a mobile-style, Swedish defenseman. He’s got a good head for the game, feels the offense really well. You start to sprinkle them in around the guys that we’ve had – Zac Leslie, Rob Hamilton – and the rest of the newcomers, and all of a sudden you’ve got a really good mix. Top to bottom, we’re confident in the group we have.”
Stockton lit up its opponents a year ago, finishing second in the AHL in offensive output with 3.53 goals per game. Second-year forwards Glenn Gawdin and Matthew Phillips made significant strides while rookie Luke Philp emphatically announced his presence, pacing Heat newcomers with and finishing tied for sixth among first-year AHLers 19 goals.
Veterans Byron Froese and Buddy Robinson enjoyed strong campaigns, each currently with the big club, while youngsters Adam Ruzicka and Eetu Tuulola also enjoyed solid seasons. Tenured forwards Justin Kirkland and Alex Gallant each were on career-best paces, and newcomer Martin Pospisil closed out the year with a point in five of the last seven games.
“I feel good about our forward group,” said MacLean. “We’re a young group at the moment, but we’re a talented and speedy group. We need to utilize that pace and possess the puck so we can maximize our skill level. We can’t expect the perfect game right off the bat – we have a lot of young guys coming into this situation for the first time. We’re going to be patient, but I think the rookies really have ability.”
Young, yes. Talented, oh yeah. For the start of the year at least, the Heat will have Flames’ 2020 first-rounder Connor Zary while WHL Kamloops awaits the start of its season. Emilio Pettersen, who clicked just shy of a point-per-game during a two-year NCAA career at the University of Denver, is joining the mix, as is Dmitry Zavgorodniy a seventh-round pick in 2018 who turned in a strong season with 67 points in 40 games last season, finishing third in scoring with the Rimouski Oceanic.
‘THE MOST IMPORTANT THING’
What will it take to be successful, however that’s defined, this season?
Developing the next talent infusion for the Flames is always at the top of the agenda. Winning games, that’s up there too.
The unknown before the season – if the Heat do X, they’ll be successful.
Asked to fill in the blank, directly, MacLean responds:
“We have to play to our strength, which is our speed. We absolutely have to play that way. It’s going to be a tight season, and we have to understand who we are as a team and push that.”
“But it’s a two-part answer. We need to take care of ourselves in the community, period. That’s the most important thing for us to have success this year, we need to respect the situation that we’re in. Wear our masks. Stay distant from each other. Be smart. We need players to play games and we need to take care of the community around us.”