(Cam Tucker is the Abbotsford Heat beat writer and a freelance journalist. I have asked Cam to lend his insight into Calgary’s farm team from time to time. His first article is a look at young sophomore defender Chris Breen).
Chris Breen has all the physical tools an NHL team desires in a young defenceman.
He stands an impressive 6’7" and weighs in excess of 220 pounds. He can skate well for someone of his impressive stature and his play with the puck improved immensely during the course of last season compared to when he first arrived in Abbotsford fresh out of the Ontario Hockey League in April 2010.
Paired with fellow Abbotsford Heat rookie blue liner T.J. Brodie last season, Breen made it known that he was no longer a bumbling greenhorn who looked destined to be a fringe American Hockey League nobody, ultimately wasting his size that not many in the sport are blessed with. But now, as the 22-year-old Uxbridge, Ont., product tries to earn a spot on the Calgary Flames blue line, he’ll need to find yet another dimension to his vastly improving game.
"I think his level of compete has to go up,” said Heat head coach Troy Ward last week before Calgary Flames main camp started.
“As far as making plays and defending and playing in the American League, he settled himself into a pretty good defenceman for that level and now he’s trying to take the next step to the NHL.”
Perhaps the best way to describe Breen’s individual start to last season is tentative. A big body, his speed and footwork often legged behind, making him more of a defensive liability than anything else.
Slowly his game began to turn around, but maybe the biggest change in his on-ice performance came because of an off-ice event that called on the youngster to grow up – fast.
Breen and his girlfriend, Jamie-Lee Petkovich, welcomed little Skarlett Rose Breen into the world on Nov. 28, 2010. With new incentive, and frankly a new lease on life, Breen’s play post-Nov. 28 validated the notion that perhaps he wasn’t on the road to mediocrity, but that he could turn into an NHL player, and quicker than most would ever have imagined.
“That was probably the biggest maturing process I had to go through,” said Breen, who finished last season with four goals and 11 points in 73 games with the Heat.
“Not only having to look after myself but having to look after my girlfriend and most of all, the baby.”
It’s funny how things can work out.
Breen’s stock continued to rise, and while the Heat failed to make the playoffs after scoring a league worst 186 goals, their defensive duo of Brodie and Breen emerged as not only top players in Abbotsford, but as prospects destined for bigger things.
Nothing illustrated this better than a two-game series against former North Division rivals, the Hamilton Bulldogs on March 18 and 19. Breen scored an absolutely spectacular breakaway goal in the March 18 game, going high glove side on Bulldogs goaltender Drew MacIntyre, before absolutely devastating Hamilton forward Alexander Avtsin with a clean open-ice body check in the first period of the following evening.
Breen exploded on Avtsin, putting his right shoulder straight to the chest of his impending victim. Avtsin stayed down on the ice for several minutes, the wind knocked clear from his lungs, and needed to be helped to the dressing room.
Look out if Breen sticks to that thunderous style consistently this season. It’s exactly what Ward hopes – nay – demands to see from Breen this season.
“He’s a 6’7” defenceman who did a lot of good things for us,” said Ward, who was openly critical of Breen’s play as the Flames prospects opened the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton a week ago with a 6-1 loss to the Sharks prospects.
“But the reality is when you’re that big and with the position that he plays, I want him to play with a little bit more of an edge. Going forward it will be asked of Chris if he can play harder and play a little bit meaner.
“That will take some time because he’s blended himself into a pretty good player. But he’s going to have to play with more of an edge if he’s going to be an impact player.”