As everyone around here no doubt knows by now, the Abbotsford Heat played the Chicago Wolves on Saturday and the game was televised live and in living color by Sportsnet. That gave myself and others an opportunity to watch the team closely for the first time this year and share our thoughts in the game thread that day.
For those who don’t want to click on the thread and read through 80+, comments here is a summation of my observations that night:
Again, the kid was dynamite. Baertschi turned 20 years old in September and this is his first season as a pro, but is already playing on the Heat’s top forward unit and easily resembles one of the best players on the ice. Sven does almost everything at an above average level – he battles for the puck tenaciously, tracks the puck and anticipates its movements, is creative in tight spaces and is patient enough to make plays under pressure. Anyone looking for a negative could say sometimes he attempts risky moves/dekes when a simpler play is available, but this is true of just about every high-end offensive player you can name.
Most surprising was Baertschi’s strength on his skates and battle level along the boards. He didn’t once hesitate to engage in rough stuff when the puck was in doubt (even garnering a charging penalty at one point) and was never noticably overcome by larger players. In fact, Baertschi was challenged by the notably larger Zack Kassian in the neutral zone at one point in the third and Sven one-armed the Canucks propsect to the ice while still carrying the puck.
One of the few concerns about Baertschi when he was picked was his size – 5’11", 185 pounds – but Saturday night’s performance should disabuse most people of that notion. There was zero indication Sven is "not big enough" for pro hockey.
I realize Im gushing in embarrassing fashion, but what the hell…Flames fans don’t get to be this excited about a forward prospect very often.
Brodie wasn’t quite as obviously noticeable, but like Baertschi the 21 year old blueliner is already one of the best on the team at his position. Partnered with Piskula and Breen throughout the night, Brodie was the club’s #1 defender and flashed many of the skills he’s becoming known for in town: good mobility, poise and clean outlet passes. It was also his decision to purposely fire the puck wide that lead to the Baertschi goal.
It’s been a nice start to the year for Horak who made surprisingly made the Flames out of camp last year, but struggled to put up points at both the NHL and AHL levels nonetheless. He’s riding a hot streak right now with four goals in in four games, but he looks good in other aspects of thr game as well. He’s mostly skating on the wing with Max Reinhart at even strength, but time on the PP is paying off as well. He and Ben Walter have an effective little set play with the man advantage where Walter sets up on the wall and Horak coasts into the soft coverage at the top of the slot. Walter rifles a hard pass through coverage and instead of accepting the pass or trying to one-time it, Horak simply re-directs it at the net. He scored his third goal of the season in this fashion and they attempted it a couple of more times on the PP during the game in question.
Horak isn’t going to score on every second shot he takes all year, but it will be interesting to see how he fares when the hot streak goes away (and guys like Byron and Nemisz make their way back onto the roster).
Max wasn’t quite as impactful at even strength/on offense as some of the other guys already mentioned. There were times when it was clear he still needs a bit more time to get up to speed at the pro level. His skating, for instance, while not bad, still needs a bit of work in terms of agility and first step quickness. He hesitated a bit too long when it came to making quick decisions with the puck in certain areas on the ice as well.
That said, more than once Reainhart displayed the high-end thinking and defensive prowess which are his primary strengths. Twice on the PK, Reinhart gained the puck in the offensive zone and ragged it along boards against heavy competition, killing off valuable time. Another time, he plucked a floating clearing shot from the air in the neutral zone, creating a partial break/scoring chance out of nothing.
Reinhart will need to ripen on the vine a bit more in the AHL for sure, but he doesn’t look totally overwhlemed either.
– Akim Aliu had himself a pretty good game, and I am generally less impressed with Aliu than most other Flames/Heat fans these days. Aliu was able to bulldoze his way to the scoring area more than once and his skating didn’t look as choppy and awkward as it did in the NHL. I’m still not convinced there’s NHL upside there, but he was noticeable in a good way on Saturday.
– Veterans like Ben Walter and Ben Street are pretty good top-six forwards for the club (although Street missed a glorious ten-bell chance set-up by Baertschi on the PP). Walter in particular seems like a high functioning, all situations AHL forward.
– Carter Bancks is scrappy and quick, a nice depth option for the club who will apparently go to the wall for just about any reason. Jim Playfair claimed a Bancks injury in 2010-11 is a main reason the team missed thge playoffs, which of course is a gross exaggeration (if Bancks was that good, he’d be an NHLer), but you can see why the coach had so much esteem for the player.
Another guy Playfair was once very high on was free agent signing Chris Breen. I have never fully understood why (although Corey Pronman has assured me in the past Breen had a very good season in 2010-11). Although the Heat carried the play for most of the game on Saturday, a lot of things went pear-shaped in the first period and it was frequently with Breen on the ice. The towering 6’7" defender bears all the positives and negatives that kind of size implies: reach, strength and imposing physicality, but also immobility, awkwardness and poor coordination with the puck.
When Breen’s weaknesses overcome his strengths, things gone wrong in a big hurry. There were a couple Chinese fire drills with Breen on the ice because he has a hard time playing the puck under pressure or recovering from any sort of mistake or misread.
Defensive Depth in General
One of the other issues for the Heat is Breen is in the club’s top-four rotation because there just isn’t much there beyond him. What was a strength for a team that boasted Clay Wilson, TJ Brodie, John Negrin, Brett Carson and Brian Connelly at times last year has suddenly become an area of weakness. The addition of former NHLer Steve McCarty helps and Joe Piskula is a capable enough AHLer, but guys like Zach McKelvie and Joe Callahhan looked scary in a bad way at times on Saturday.
Free agent college signing Brady Lamb was suppsoed to step right in at the AHL level, but Ward has only dressed him once in the first four games. After that, the team is waiting for guys like John ramage and Tyler Wotherspoon to turn pro in a year or so, although it’s currently unknown how useful they will be as pros.
In contrast to the back-end, it’s going to get very crowded up front once Paul Byron and Greg Nemisz get out of the infirmary. You can probably bump Tyler Ruesegger from the top-6 without much issue, but other guys like Baertschi, Street, Walter and Sylvester have been excelling there.
The competition for offensive ice time isn’t a bad thing for the team as a whole, of course, but it does present challenges for guys like Nemisz and Byron who are running out of runway to prove to the organization they are NHLers.