Given clean slate, Heat coming together quickly

Photo: Colorado Eagles

📝 by Patrick Williams

To find some of the roots for the successful start that the Stockton Heat have authored this season, go back to the 2019 NHL Draft.

That event’s first day, a Friday night at Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver, the Calgary Flames dipped into the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to land Moncton Wildcats sniper Jakob Pelletier as the 26th pick.

Then came Saturday as one round after another came and went until the event finally had wound down to its final few picks. There, in the seventh round, Calgary took a chance a little closer to home in the Western Hockey League and chose Everett Silvertips goaltender Dustin Wolf. That pick, the 214th choice, came just three picks before the event ended and executives across the NHL headed out of town.

Two years later, Pelletier and Wolf each have made themselves top prospects in the Calgary system for a Stockton club battling to wrestle away first place in the Western Conference.

But plenty happened in between that summer weekend in Vancouver back in 2019 and this fall.

Every American Hockey League team had a tough go of it last season. But the Heat may have had a particularly tough time. For one thing, they could not even call their usual California home, well, home. Eight days before the 2020-21 AHL season began, the Flames temporarily relocated the Heat north to Alberta to play out of Scotiabank Saddledome as a member of the brand-new Canadian Division.

In their season opener three weeks later, they ran into the Toronto Marlies and lost a 7-1 matinee. While they eventually rallied with an eight-game winning streak, extensive cross-country travel and the loss of several key players eventually slowed the Heat. They closed out the season with three wins in their final 20 games.

Then Cail MacLean, Stockton head coach since 2018, earned a promotion to join the Calgary coaching staff in the offseason. So this summer the Flames turned to Mitch Love to guide the Heat. Long-time head coach Don Nachbaur came to Stockton as well as part of a made-over AHL staff.

This season is something different for the Heat. Now they are back in California and playing out of Stockton Arena once again. Back in the Pacific Division with all of its familiar rivalries, too.

One of those rivals is the Ontario Reign, who split a two-game series with the Heat at Toyota Arena on Nov. 21-22.

Sitting atop the Pacific Division at 11-2-2-0 (.800), the Heat will welcome the San Diego Gulls to Stockton for back-to-back games beginning Friday. The Gulls are on their own run with five consecutive wins.

“We’ve been able to come together quite quickly as a group,” the often understated Love began.

“It is a clean slate. I think each and every year at this level it is that way. Every year is different, and I think [a clean slate is] exactly it. New coaching staff here, for example. I mean, that’s a different voice.”

Just take a look at the numbers. The Heat rank eighth in the AHL on the power play at 21.7 percent (13-for-60). Their penalty kill holds down third place at a stout 86.9 percent (53-for-61). Offensively, Stockton’s 3.33 goals per game are tied for seventh in the AHL. On the other side of the puck, the Heat have allowed just 2.53 goals per game, tying them for second-best in the league.

This weekend against San Diego will allow Love to push a key message to his players once again.

“The one thing that I’ve really come to understand about this level is just how hard it is to win, what it takes out of your group to find wins each and every night.”

Calgary assistant general manager Brad Pascall engineered a strong offseason in which the organization brought in experienced blueline help via Nick DeSimone, Kevin Gravel, and Andy Welinski to bring along a still-developing group that features 19-year-old 2020 second-round pick Yan Kuznetsov along with second-year faces Connor Mackey and Colton Poolman among its members.

So the Heat continue to win, with Pelletier and Wolf playing major roles while a veteran cast flanks them.

Photo: Colorado Eagles

Having put himself fourth in rookie scoring with 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in his first 15 pro games, the 20-year-old Pelletier occupies a spot on Stockton’s top line with center Glenn Gawdin and right wing Luke Philp. That stat line also has Pelletier tied for sixth overall in scoring among some of the AHL’s top offensive talents.

But coachability and trust might well be Pelletier’s biggest accomplishments this fall in Stockton.

“I think the biggest thing is he’s found the trust of the coaching stuff,” Love stated.

“He’s very coachable. He’s got a high level of hockey IQ. He’s got a big heart, a passion for the game. A passion for big moments. I mean, you’ve seen that in his game-winning goals. He’s a part of a lot of game-winning situations for us (a league-high four game-winning goals). I think that’s driven his early success here in his confidence that he can play at this level as an undersized player (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) as well.

“And he’s just brings a ton of energy to our dressing room and our practices. It’s been contagious to our group. It’s a long hockey season. He’ll have his ups and downs, but he’s been doing a great job for us so far.”

As for Wolf, the 20-year-old has taken nine out of 15 starts in a tandem with established pro Adam Werner, an offseason signing from the Colorado Avalanche organization. Wolf, who played three AHL games last season before returning to junior, came on quickly this season in earning an opening weekend split with the Tucson Roadrunners on 35- and 34-save performances.

Now Wolf is looking like a potential steal from that 2019 Draft. In his first post-draft season, he went 34-10-2 in 46 regular-season games for Everett, notching a 1.88 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. That run earned him Goaltender of the Year honors for the entire Canadian Hockey League.

Last season, just before he reported to the Heat, Wolf helped the United States win a gold medal at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. After his return to the Silvertips, he hammered out an 18-3-0 mark to go with his 1.80 GAA and .940 save percentage.

Even at a much high level of competition, Wolf’s numbers have not dipped much with Stockton. So far he is 7-0-2 with a 2.19 GAA and .932 save percentage in those nine starts. That save percentage ranks second only to Utica Comets first-year netminder Akira Schmid’s .951, and the GAA is sixth in the league.

Love, familiar with Wolf from their WHL days, has seen this sort of performance before.

“I’d like to say that I’m surprised, but I’m not, in his early success,” Love said of Wolf. “Just because he’s so competitive. It starts in his practice habits. It starts in his preparation away from the rink, at the rink, in the gym. His demeanor. He’s very even-keeled.

“He’s a young pro in a very tough, demanding position. He’s going to have his ups and downs, there’s no doubt about that. But to this point, he’s been as advertised for us in a sense that we just want to make sure that he’s making the saves he’s supposed to make. We’re limiting secondary opportunities around his net as a group in front of them. He’s given us a chance to win each and every night, and that’s all you can ask of your goaltenders.”

Pelletier, Wolf, and the rest of the Heat still have 53 games to go in the regular season, which will mean plenty of tests from older, more playoff-tested Pacific Division foes. But so far Love is happy as he makes his own way through the test of being a first-year AHL head coach.

“I just credit the players,” Love said. “They’re the ones that have to go through it. They’re the ones that have the pressures of going through each and every day of being a good, consistent pro. And my hat’s off to them to this point on our start.

“We know it’s a long hockey season, and teams are getting better. So we’ve got to make sure that we’re staying up with our play as well.”