After ups and downs, Rees thankful for chance with B-Sens

Photo: Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

A player’s path through the AHL is rarely an easy one.

But few players embody the ups and downs quite like Jamieson Rees, a fourth-year forward now with the Belleville Senators in the most trying season yet of his pro career.

It’s not supposed to be easy, but at just 23 years old, Rees is fighting both to revive his AHL career as well as to position himself for NHL opportunities later. His path has included high expectations, considerable success, plenty of change and challenges, and now a chance to find his game again.

He’s someone who came into the AHL as a well-regarded prospect and quickly became a Calder Cup champion, after all. Selected by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round of the 2019 NHL Draft, Rees had shown considerable promise while with Sarnia of the Ontario Hockey League and competing internationally for Canada. But like so many players, the COVID-19 pandemic kept him out of game action for nearly a calendar year.

Still, he got back on track in his first pro season with the Chicago Wolves in the AHL’s abbreviated 2020-21 season, contributing 14 points in 29 games. Rees then played a key role with the Wolves when they won the Calder Cup in 2022, scoring a pair of game-winning goals during the postseason. And next came what looked like a breakout performance last season, one in which he supplied 42 points (14 goals, 28 assists) in 65 games for Chicago.

This year, though, has been different. To start, the Hurricanes went without a full AHL affiliation this year, which meant scattering their prospects. Rees was assigned to the Springfield Thunderbirds, where he would be skating alongside St. Louis Blues prospects. A new coaching staff, new systems, and considerable change.

And Rees struggled, managing just three assists in 30 games as he was in and out of the Springfield lineup. The simple reality is that Blues prospects had to play in Springfield.

“It was understandable,” Rees said. “It was a tough situation for both sides. That just kind of affected my game as a whole. My whole game started going downhill a little bit.”

So what went astray? Which parts of his game started to elude him?

“I felt like my puck touches probably weren’t where they needed to be, because I felt like my puck touches last year were the best they had ever been,” Rees explained. Before, he had been able to corral a loose puck along the boards, control it, and use his body to protect the puck.

He also found himself getting pinned too often by opposing defenders. Now going into the corners, he wants to make contact first with opponents. Buy himself an extra second or two of time to win a loose puck. Rees is listed a 5-foot-11, 172 pounds, but he had always played a feisty, initiating style.

And when a player is struggling, those problems can spiral. Rees acknowledges that he found himself starting to play with more hesitation in his game. Hockey is not a game that lends itself to hesitation, especially for an instinctive player like Rees.

“I didn’t trust my instincts,” said Rees, whose game relies on his strong sense of puck poise. “I was trying to think too much whereas last year I would just go out and play.”

A change was needed. On Feb. 26, the Hurricanes reassigned Rees to the Charlotte, the Florida Panthers’ AHL affiliate. Again, a new coaching staff, new systems, and considerable change.

But the move showed promise for Rees.

“I think [it] was a good change for me,” Rees explained. “As much as I was there for a short period of time, it was really good for me to get back on the road I need. They knew I had to do something differently. I saw that as a new opportunity, too, and I wanted to make the most of it.”

Rees’s time in Charlotte lasted all of seven games. Carolina dealt Rees to the Ottawa Senators on Mar. 15.

This latest move meant leaving the NHL organization that had drafted him and with which he had won a Calder Cup, but it also represented a badly needed fresh start. Once again it was time to pack his bags, hustle off to a new city, and join a team on the fly.

With the move coming after the NHL trade deadline, Rees admits that it did catch him off-guard.

“I was in shock,” Rees said. “It was definitely a weird day.”

But the upheaval might be worth it. Rees is back to being a prospect playing for his own NHL organization’s affiliate. And the Belleville Senators certainly need him. They find themselves locked in an ongoing struggle with Rochester, Toronto, Laval and Utica for playoff positioning in the North Division.

A Hamilton, Ont., native, Rees is already finding himself a role in Belleville. Off the ice, he found a place to live. He is picking up head coach David Bell’s systems. And Bell is committed to being a part of Rees getting his game back to a good place.

“He’s trying to understand what the difference is for me from last year to this year,” Rees said.

“Which I’ve been trying to figure out all year.”

This season has not been what Rees either wanted or expected. But it’s not over. Go on a good run, help the B-Sens lock down a playoff berth, and then continue that in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Do that and the season absolutely can be salvaged.

“I’m happy to get a new opportunity and a change,” Rees said. “I needed a change. This year definitely wasn’t going the way that I wanted to. I wanted to build off what I had last year and what I did.

“It wasn’t going that way, so I needed a change.”