ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - The Abbotsford Heat enter their second American Hockey League campaign looking to improve on a 39-win season and a lengthy injury record.
Those injuries opened the door to younger talent and as many as six forwards who were given looks last year could be on Abbotsford’s opening day roster this season.
"I don't think I was delusional about what was going on," head coach Jim Playfair said of last season’s injuries. "When you have kids who can step in and play and give your team a chance to win each and every night in the playoffs—the toughest time of the year to play—I think that’s good for the entire organization.
"I think those injuries to our older guys really allowed our younger kids to step up and be effective players."
The Calgary Flames' farm team opens the regular season Friday in Grand Rapids, the start of a three-game road trip.
Lance Bouma, Mitch Wahl and Carter Bancks are among the rookie forwards for the Heat. They join veterans Kris Chucko, Cam Cunning and John Armstrong who will collectively be relied on to fill the offensive void left by Jason Jaffray (Anaheim), David Van Der Gulik (Colorado) and Mikael Backlund, who earned a roster spot with the Flames.
"We look good, lots of speed and we're really young," said Chucko, who missed 52 games last season with a concussion. "We have lots of young legs so we shouldn't be outskated any night. I don't think we’re losing anything from last year so I think we should be better."
Gaelan Patterson, Greg Nemisz and Bryan Cameron round out the rookies up front for Abbotsford, which will be significantly younger than last season.
Offsetting the amount of new faces among the forwards is the number of familiar names returning both on defence and in goal.
John Negrin, Keith Seabrook, Gord Baldwin, Matt Pelech, Josh Meyers and Staffan Kronwall are all back on the blue-line for the Heat.
"We've got a lot of skilled players and a couple new guys that have been around the game for a while so it's going to be exciting," said Negrin, who missed nearly half of last season with knee and wrist injuries. "We're all going to be competing, but we all get along and it’s a good atmosphere."
It's the same situation in goal for Abbotsford this season as both Leland Irving (14-17-2-1) and Matt Keetley (10-7-1-2) will battle it out for the starter's role.
Both Flames' draft picks battled inconsistency last season, spending time in the ECHL with the Victoria Salmon Kings.
"I think (both) of them have to lay it on the line," Playfair said. "The big thing for me now is we need a No. 3 goaltender in Calgary—obviously Miikka (Kiprusoff) and (Henrik) Karlsson are clearly defined as one and two—someone’s got to step up and be the number three."
"Someone's got to step up early, often and win games for us and define themselves as a No. 1 goaltender."
Abbotsford also needs to improve its discipline. The Heat were the most penalized team in the league last season, which did not help a penalty kill unit that ranked 25th.
Still Playfair likes the look of his squad.
"I like our young group," said Playfair. "I think they've got lots of energy, they're going to need lots of direction, but they're going to want to work hard."
The Heat made it to the North Division final last season, losing to the Hamilton Bulldogs in six games. Prior to that, Abbotsford rallied from a 3-1 deficit to oust Rochester.