I was lucky enough to talk to the Heat’s play-by-play man Ryan Pinder** recently. He shared some observations and insight about the team and some of the Flames prospects, including Greg Nemisz, Leland Irving and TJ Brodie. I also asked him about Abbotsford’s impressive record so far this year and the influence of rookie head coach Troy Ward.
Kent Wilson: TJ Brodie has made quite an impression during his brief stint with the Flames and has even moved up to the second pairing in the absence of Mark Giordano recently Given what you had seen of him in Abbotsford this year is that more surprising or expected?
Ryan Pinder: TJ played a big role with the Heat before his call up. He and Joe Piskula were paired together (as they were to close out last season) and ate big minutes, playing against top competition. Having watched TJ minimally prior to this season (Penticton tournament twice over and a touch of Flames Training Camp), I had a expectation of seeing more of a ‘gambler’ than I saw when I arrived in Abbotsford this season; he just didn’t seem to get caught up and out of position as much as I thought he would.
Having made the Flames out of camp last season, and being a later round (4th) pick, he’s shown a propensity to adapt quickly, and has beaten time-tables placed on his development quite regularly. With that in mind I’m not terribly surprised with the bigger role with the Flames. It’s safe to say skating North, he’s probably been NHL ready for awhile, while it’s his play in his own end and deciding when to ‘jump’ is what I would suggest has been the biggest difference this season.
– Leland Irving got the call when Henrik Karlsson was felled by a knee injury the other day. Irving’s started a vast majority of the Heat’s games so far and is bound to get a few starts this month given the Flames schedule. How close to NHL ready is he would you say?
Leland was the Heat’s MVP last season and led the league in minutes played. This year he still holds AHL best marks in Wins, Minutes Played, Shutouts, SO Wins; and has stopped 16/18 shootout attempts against (which is just not fair to opponents – the Heat are 4-0 in the contest for the extra point.)
Making matters more impressive, the 23-year-old Albertan started 23 of the Heat’s first 24 games heading into last Sunday’s win in Chicago, when new ‘tender Danny Taylor got the nod (it was the 3rd game in 48 hours). When he’s on his game, he’s the best in the AHL – I’ve heard many an opposing AHL coach say it – if that doesn’t indicate that irving is ready for his FIRST regular season looksie in the NHL, I don’t what would.
Is he going to beat out Kipprusoff for the starters job? Likely not any time soon, amigos! Will he best Henrik Karlsson for a back-up position? I don’t know enough about Karlsson to suggest an answer to that. Is he going to play well in his first start? Pass the Magic-8 Ball. Has he earned this opportunity? Absolutely. Just a few weeks ago Irving put on a show in a 1-0 Shootout win over the Houston Aeros, the goalie he bested that night was Matt Hackett who won a few nights ago for Minnesota. Ditto for oft-called up Jacob Markstrom (FLA), and numerous other goalie with NHL pedigree that he has out-shone this season.
– The Heat are off to a strong start this year with a 16-8-1 record so far, good for 33-points (second most in the Western Conference). How much of that is the addition of veterans like Kolanos, Wilson, Piskula and Walter? How much would you credit to new coach Troy Ward?
You can’t remove one to measure the other. Both the coaching and experience quotient have been instrumental in changing the identity of the team. Last season the Heat had just a single ‘veteran’ in their line-up before adding Quintin Laing (32-year-old favorite of Bruce Boudreau from Hershey/Washington prior to his arrival) to the mix.
This season Laing returns and was one of six veterans (plus Mikkelson and Desbiens, who are on the cusp of veteran status) before Joe Piskula got called up (they’re back to 5 now). The club is much more experienced and as a result it has pushed more young organizational talent into the ECHL. Ready and armed with NHL experience here are: Brendan Mikkelson, Clay Wilson, Guillaume Desbiens, Ben Walter, Krys Kolanos and Jordan Henry among others. Meanwhile John Armstrong, Logan MacMillan, Mitch Wahl (now reassigned to Hamilton), Justin Dowling, Bryan Cameron, and John Negrin have spent time in Utah, where last year they were much more central pieces to the puzzle in Abbotsford. It’s not a slight on those players, but a reflection of depth that the NHL ready veterans have provided.
Ward has contrasted what Jim Playfair was in many ways, as they are quite different coaches, and – as noted – he does have a much different group to work with. Numerous times the players have stated on the record that while both coaches demand a lot from the team, Troy’s approach has the player more willing to give all they can for him. He’s well respected and liked as a teacher and detail-oriented leader. Troy also benefited from a year working alongside Jim, where he could observe what did or didn’t seem to work. The team has also enjoyed more on-ice success which I’m sure helps coaches messages get heard. There might not be a harder working coaching staff in the AHL. It doesn’t hurt either that this season’s team is pursuing the puck more aggressively and is scoring more.
– Outside of Irving and Brodie, Greg Nemisz seems to be the only other Flames prospect performing at a notable level on the farm right now (7 goals, 18 points). What role does he play for the club?
Nemisz has been a reliable and productive second line centre since the Nov 10 call-up of Paul Byron – who was his centre at the time. While he played on the wing until that point, he’s now Byron’s pivot, but no matter who he has been lined up with or what position he has played, Nemisz has been dependable for the club – and has put up some nice hot streaks offensively, too.
I’m constantly impressed at his smarts on the ice. He uses his big frame to protect pucks, he puts pucks in the right places more that I’d expect from a 21-year-old, and has the poise of a grizzled veteran, never showing signs of being in game situations that are too big for him. While he isn’t incredibly physical, he does use his size to take pucks and keep pucks away, and on occasion he’ll drill an enemy player (he almost put a Lake Erie Monster into his own bench in the team’s opening weekend). He also scrapped Kyle Beach (Chicago prospect), who isn’t known for being shy, earlier this season. I really enjoy watching him play.
– How would you rank the rest of the Flames futures? Lance Bouma, Ryan Howse, Gaelan Patterson, Paul Byron, Chris Breen?
Funny, when I look at the list, most, if not all the names, have been playing IMO their best hockey of the season recently. All have improved as things have progressed. One thing you’ll hear a lot in the AHL is developing consistency, that’s one major purpose the AHL serves in grooming talent. Players here learn how to play their best game – or something close to it – with regularity. It’s not easy to do, and when most of the ‘prospects’ in this league can figure it out, they’re ready for the NHL.
The difference is that small. Most AHL prospects’ best game is probably ready for the NHL, it’s their off games that aren’t. One other item of note is that Breen has also found that he’s pretty good at cleaning clocks. That 6’7" reach really puts foes in a dangerous place in scraps. He decisively won two tilts (his first two of the season) in the last week. I’m not suggesting he’s an enforcer, but I think he’s better at it that many would have thought.
– Finally, what is Ward doing with all those fighters the Flames keep sending down?
The team sits in a tie for 5th in majors this season and the latest wrecking ball trio thrown together has been Ivanans and PL3 centered by Gaelan Patterson – who could suddenly stop playing with pads with that kind of muscle on each wing. The line has been very productive and given energy to the team since being assembled for a few contests.