The Stockton Heat began their training camp on Monday.
The camp roster featured the usual suspects of players dealing with the let-down of being assigned to the AHL club from an NHL camp along with fringe pros trying their best to catch on with a new club and keep their dreams of ice hockey stardom alive.
And then there’s a small group of players that entered camp without uncertainty, owing to the fact that because they’re on American Hockey League contracts with the Heat, they’re virtually guaranteed to stick around that team for the season.
I chatted with two of them last week at Flames main camp.
Last season, the Flames brought in a veteran goalie to apprentice Joni Ortio in the form of Brad Thiessen. At 28-years-old, Thiessen’s hopes of playing in the NHL were diminishing and he was three seasons separated from his 5-games with the Pittsburgh Penguins when he reported to Flames camp.
This year’s aspiring minor league back-up is Kent Simpson. A 2010 pick (58th overall) by the Chicago Blackhawks, Simpson’s just 23-years-old and not too far separated from his impressive junior career with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips. He admits it’s a bit different being outside of the NHL contract system this season.
“It’s a bit of a
different feel for me on an AHL deal, but it kind of lights my life,
makes you want it that much more,” said Simpson. “It was something in the off-season
where it was a good opportunity I felt like to come to Calgary, such
a good organization, and if I put the work in and make the steps that
I need to make, maybe there’s an opportunity somewhere.”
If nothing else, stability might be the thing that appeals to Simpson. Since turning pro in 2012-13, he’s been on the move endlessly – having stints with the Rockford Ice Hogs, Toledo Walleye, Chicago Blackhawks, Colorado Eagles, Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Stockton Thunder. His last three stops last season were after a pre-season from Chicago to the New York Islanders, with the hope of getting him away from the goaltending traffic jam in the Blackhawks organization.
It didn’t really turn out that way, but Simpson’s stints in Calgary’s old ECHL outpost (Colorado) and their future AHL home (Stockton) seemed to pave the way for a chance for him this season with the Flames.
“I just wanted to
get an opportunity somewhere,” shared Simpson. “And when you look at the Calgary Flames
organization, they give guys opportunities if you work hard and do
the right thing every day and just work on honing your craft – they
reward you for that. So I think that was one of the big things this
summer; I was looking for an opportunity and I think it’s a good
place to be.”
Simpson may not be a blue-chip NHL prospect, but at just 23, I don’t think you can necessarily write him off just yet. If nothing else, he’s a story to keep an eye on in the minors this season.
If Kent Simpson is a player coming to the Stockton Heat looking to change things up and revitalize his game, Dustin Stevenson is looking to keep things rolling along the way they were.
A product of the La Ronge Ice Wolves in Saskatchewan’s SJHL, Stevenson never played in the WHL and played four years of junior A before making the jump to pro. He four seasons largely bouncing around the ECHL (South Carolina, Reading and Wheeling) with a brief stint with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Stevenson got tapped by the Flames organization with an AHL contract last summer and proceeded to have easily his best pro season. He put up 11 points in 45 games as a role player on the Adirondack Flames and spent his first full season in the AHL. He was even brought up to the NHL during the playoffs as a “black ace” – something usually reserved for players with two-way NHL contracts. That led to him continuing on with his AHL deal with the Stockton Heat this season.
“When I was up here
black acing at the end of the season, they gave me the notion that
they wanted to re-sign me, I just tried to have a good summer and I’m
happy to be back in this organization,” said Stevenson.
At 26-years-old and entering his fifth pro season, the clock may be ticking a bit on Stevenson’s NHL dreams. That said, speaking with him he seemed acutely aware of his role on the Baby Flames blueline. He’s very much a “bridge” player; he’s not quite as old as NHL veteran Aaron Johnson but he’s quite a bit older than Calgary’s blueline prospects, so he’s in a unique position as one of the team’s leaders.
“Last year we
talked quite a bit about what my role is on the team,” said Stevenson of his chats with Stockton coach Ryan Huska regarding his niche on the team. “So I kinda know
going into this year what is expected of me and I’m just gonna have
to make sure that I play my role to the best of my abilities. Like I
said, a physical, shutdown game, strong on the penalty kill, and
hopefully go from there.”
Don’t be surprised if Stevenson is part of a small group of Stockton players wearing a letter on the farm this season.