Heat young guns quickly evolving

by Dave Sheldon || AHL On The Beat Archive

This season, the Abbotsford Heat, like any other club in many other leagues, has rookie players join their team. But unlike any other league, the AHL’s rookies are all accomplished players who have led their previous teams and have the potential of becoming stars not just at the AHL level, but on the ultimate hockey stage, the NHL.

Ryley Grantham, Keith Aulie, Keith Seabrook, John Negrin and Mikael Backlund are the freshman class in this inaugural season of Heat hockey. As the season progresses towards the halfway point, each player has taken steps towards achieving that ultimate goal.

“We look at all of our rookies as accomplished players, otherwise they would not be here,” states Heat head coach Jim Playfair. “In the early part of the season, we ask our veterans to shoulder more of the load. As the season progresses, the line between a rookie and a veteran should become invisible. These rookies should all just be considered players and relied on in the same way we would rely on any player on the team.”

In every player’s case, their role is defined by their skill set.

Grantham, for example, is a big, strong, tough winger who has shown at the Western Hockey League level that he can fight with anybody, hold his own along the boards and also score a few goals. In the AHL, in order for Grantham to succeed, he has to do more than that and has done so already.

Grantham leads the Heat with eight major penalties so far this season, but his skating has allowed him to compete and be a more complete player. Grantham’s ability to use his size along the boards to dig out pucks, his ability to get back defensively to read plays, and his low panic level in making a pass to support the play out his own zone may seem like a revelation to anyone who has watched the Hanna, Alta., product in other leagues.

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To the Heat coaching staff, it is an expectation that all the players contribute. Grantham sees a regular shift and his play keeps him in the lineup, as he has dressed for all but one of the Heat’s first 32 games.

For defensemen Aulie, Negrin and Seabrook, the AHL is a vital cog in their development. In junior hockey, all three players were relied upon for heavy minutes and key situations. In the AHL, already these players are being relied upon for the same things, but the skill level they face is higher, making mistakes more evident.

“You can already see the progression of all of our defense, not just the first year players,” states assistant coach Jared Bednar. “The best part about teaching the young guys is two-fold. First, they are all smart enough that they are picking up what we are trying to put in place from a team level, which is helpful to everyone. Second, we have asked our existing players to step up and be leaders.

Brett Palin, Gord Baldwin, Matt Pelech and Brad Cole have all helped in the first-year players’ development by talking to the guys on and off the ice, but also leading by example.”

For Backlund, the expectations are high. In the Calgary Flames’ first exhibition game, Backlund started on a line with NHL superstar and Flames captain Jarome Iginla. The Vasteras, Sweden, native is a first-round pick with a skill set that will most certainly give him a look in the NHL. What he needs now is time to develop at the pro level.

“Backlund has some tremendous skill,” stated fellow forward and Heat leading scorer Jason Jaffray earlier this season. “He now has to adjust his game to play against bigger, stronger and faster players. He has already shown he can do this, but he has to do it well every night.”

It always comes down to that: consistency. But also it comes down to opportunity. Every Heat player hopes that one day the coach will call him in and let him know that it is his turn to go to the NHL. The drive until that call is made is to make sure you give the coaches a reason to make that call.