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Photo Credit: Graphic by Mike Gould.

2020-21 Stockton Heat season preview — part I: forwards

You asked for it, and here it is: welcome to The Heat Beat, your source for information and updates about the American Hockey League affiliate of the Calgary Flames.

The Stockton Heat enjoyed a very successful 2019-20 season before the AHL suspended play in March due to COVID-19. That same pandemic still persists to this day and it has caused the Heat to temporarily relocate across the Canada—U.S. border.

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In many ways, the Flames and Heat now resemble siblings sharing a bedroom. Both teams will be practising and playing home games out of the Scotiabank Saddledome and, in some cases, the Heat might use some of the Flames’ hand-me-downs.

2019-20 Heat captain Byron Froese is currently plying his trade on the Flames’ fourth line. Former Heat mainstays Buddy Robinson and Zac Rinaldo currently occupy spots on the NHL taxi squad. With those players potentially out of the picture for the Heat, some prospects (and, potentially, some former Flames regulars) might get increased roles on the farm this year.

There will be a lot of moving parts and trends to follow, and your comments requesting in-depth Heat coverage have not been ignored. The Heat Beat will be a very regular feature on FlamesNation for this entire Stockton/Calgary Heat season, bringing you all the latest news and game analysis on location from the Scotiabank Saddledome. 

For now, let’s set the stage for what’s to come with a two-part positional breakdown of the 2020-21 Stockton Heat. Today, we’re focusing on the team’s crop of forwards—a second part, featuring the defensemen and goaltenders, is coming later this week.

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Building the Heat’s three top forward lines

Alan Quine signed with the Oilers. Austin Czarnik trekked over to Long Island. Ryan Lomberg is now a Florida Panther. Robinson, Froese, and Rinaldo all reside either on the main NHL roster or the taxi squad.

Last year, the Heat finished with a 30-17-8 record, but they lost a great deal oftheir forward depth and scoring talent in the subsequent off-season. Some familiar faces still remain from the top of the 2019-20 lineup; they’ll be counted on more than ever to lead the charge on offense and facilitate the acclimation of the organization’s first-year professionals.

It feels weird to refer to Glenn Gawdin as an elder statesman, but the right-handed centre led the Heat in scoring last season and will turn 24 in March. The Flames signed Gawdin on Nov. 16, 2017 after he attended the team’s development camp in July of that year.

The Swift Current Broncos alumnus was in the midst of a revelatory WHL season when he put pen to paper on his entry-level contract. He finished the 2017-18 season in Speedy Creek with 125 points in 67 regular season games before joining the Heat in 2018-19.

Gawdin scored 38 points in 64 games in his first year of professional hockey and followed that up with 47 points in 53 games last year. He’s a versatile 6’1″ forward with two-way intellect and a quick release that could prove useful in his transition to the NHL.

It looks reasonably likely that Gawdin will continue to form a partnership with Matthew Phillips in Stockton. Despite only turning 23 in April, Phillips made the full-time jump from the WHL to Stockton at the same time as Gawdin. Phillips is another right-handed forward who can play either centre or right wing and who scored at nearly a point-per-game clip in 2019-20

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The 5’7″ Phillips scored an impressive 33 points in 38 AHL games as a 21-year-old before fracturing his kneecap on Dec. 28, 2019. The injury required surgery and prematurely ended Phillips’ promising sophomore season. As a junior, Phillips recorded 50 goals for the Victoria Royals in 2016-17 and led the team with 112 points in 2017-18.

The Flames selected Phillips in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, 166th overall, and could allow the dynamic speedster the opportunity to make his debut with the big club in 2020-21. Another Heat returnee searching for that first Flames chance is 25-year-old centre Luke Philp.

Like fellow U of A Golden Bear alumnus Derek Ryan, Philp is right-handed and, at 5’10”, a bit undersized. The Flames signed the 2019 U SPORTS Player of the Year two off-seasons ago and he made his professional debut with the Heat last season.

Philp battled through adversity to begin his AHL career, failing to record a single point until his 11th game. From there, the tides quickly changed: Philp recorded 13 goals in his next 14 games and shot up the team’s scoring leaderboard, eventually tying for the team lead with 19 goals (to go along with 12 assists) in 52 games. Now 25 and a pending RFA, this will likely be a make-or-break year for Philp.

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Adam Ruzicka might be Philp’s polar opposite. He’s only 21 and won’t have another birthday until mid-May. The Slovakian pivot is listed as being 6’4″ and at 202 pounds. The Flames selected Ruzicka 109th overall in 2017 and he subsequently put together two more solid OHL seasons in Sarnia and Sudbury before making the jump to Stockton in 2019.

If anyone on the Heat can take a big step forward, it’s Ruzicka. He debuted well in 2019-20, posting 10 goals and 27 points in 54 games primarily as the team’s third-line centre. With Quine gone and Froese currently with the Flames, it looks like Ruzicka might be in line for a top-six role. If he clicks, his production could pop off and he could earn a look in Calgary.

Another Heat sophomore is the bulky winger Eetu Tuulola. The right-shot Finn turns 23 in exactly a month and was a sixth-round pick of the Flames back in 2016; after spending a year with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, Tuulola returned to his home country and spent two years with the Liiga’s HPK Hameenlinna. He came back to North America and joined the Heat for 2019-20.

Tuulola is listed at 6’2″ and 224 pounds. He posted disappointing numbers in Everett and was used in a depth role but he acquitted himself well with HPK, scoring 62 points in 111 games. His first go-round with the Heat was fine, if uninspiring, and he contributed 10 goals and 23 points in 50 contests.

Funny enough, of all the players listed above, Ruzicka is the only lefty. Norwegian Emilio Pettersen is new to the Heat this year and will join Ruzicka in Stockton’s contingent of southpaws, although he might end up being the shortest member of the group.

Pettersen is one of the Flames’ most exciting young prospects. Snagged at the 167th spot in the 2018 Draft, Pettersen proceeded to torch his opposition while playing at the University of Denver. He spent the last two seasons as a Pioneer and racked up 19 goals and 65 points in 76 games before opting to sign an entry-level deal with the Flames last April. The 5’10” Pettersen has played centre before but will likely start as a winger for the Heat.

FlamesNation editor Ryan Pike likes to call Dmitry Zavgorodniy “Russian Andrew Mangiapane.” The Flames picked Zavgorodniy right after Pettersen in 2018, taking him 198th overall, and his play with the Rimouski Oceanic over the following two years helped his pedigree to rise well above that of a typical seventh-rounder. Of course, Zavgorodniy often played with Alexis Lafrenière in Rimouski but he showed himself to be more than capable of keeping up with the eventual first-overall pick in the 2020 Draft.

Zavgorodniy, another short right-handed winger, has impressed away from Lafrenière in international competition. He led the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup with 10 points in five games and, more recently, scored five points (again, the most of anyone) in the two-game 2019 CIBC Canada/Russia Series. Playing with the Heat will be Zavgorodniy’s first exposure to North American professional hockey; he played six games with the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg earlier this year, recording three assists.

Martin Pospisil is another big left-handed Slovakian forward, but that’s where the similarities between him and Ruzicka end. Ruzicka seldom uses his big frame to its full physical advantage; Pospisil, meanwhile, never shies away from a fight. Some scouts have criticized Ruzicka for not being “consistently engaged,” whereas Pospisil seldom fails to make an impact on the scoresheet in some way.

Believe it or not, at 105th overall, Pospisil was actually the Flames’ first selection in the 2018 Draft (the team had traded its first three selections to acquire Travis Hamonic and Mike Smith). He played one more successful year with the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers after being drafted—spending a fair amount of time with Pettersen’s future college linemate, Bobby Brink—before making the jump to Stockton last year.

Pospisil missed 30 games as a rookie after being knocked out by the late Colby Cave in a fight. Up until his injury, Pospisil had failed to record a point in six AHL games; following his return, he scored three goals and 10 points in 20 contests before the season prematurely ended. Pospisil will likely be one of the most game-ready members of the Heat, having already played in 22 contests with the Slovakian club Kosice HC earlier this year: he recorded nine goals, eight assists, and 102 penalty minutes.

The final player to slot into the Heat’s top-nine, at least temporarily, might be 2020 first-round pick Connor Zary. It is definitely unusual for a player to go directly from the Western Hockey League to the AHL right after being drafted, but this year is certainly unlike any other. With the start date not yet set for Zary’s Kamloops Blazers, the left-handed centre will skate for the Heat in the interim.

Zary likely projects as a winger on this iteration of the Heat, particularly with some combination of Gawdin, Froese, Ruzicka, and Philp ahead of him on that positional depth chart. The 6′, 180-pound forward was already one of the oldest members of his draft class and his relatively advanced age (he turns 20 in September) could make him more suited to quickly adjust to professional hockey.

With all this being said, here is an educated guess about what Stockton’s top-nine up front could look like:

This image features a projected top-nine forwards list for the Stockton Heat. The projected roster is as follows: the first line features Glenn Gawdin at centre, Emilio Pettersen on his left, and Matthew Phillips on his right. The second line has Adam Ruzicka at centre, Connor Zary at left wing, and Dmitry Zavgorodniy on the right. The third line features Luke Philp at centre, Martin Pospisil on the left, and Eetu Tuulola on the right.
Projecting the top three forward lines for the 2020-21 Stockton Heat. Graphic by Mike Gould.

Beyond these top lines, what do the Heat look like? Here’s a rundown of their other options, including brief mentions of those currently on the big club.

  • Byron Froese served as team captain in 2019-20 and would provide a huge boost to the Heat if re-assigned. Froese is a big, bulky right-shot centre with a long history of being a productive AHL player at both ends of the rink; however, as an NHL option, he’s basically a known commodity at this point. With Derek Ryan currently on the Flames’ long-term injured reserve, Froese will likely continue to show his worth in the NHL for the time being.
  • Buddy Robinson is another player who would likely slot into the top-nine if returned to the Heat. Johnny Gaudreau’s enormous childhood pal has been a great AHL scorer for years and has amassed 74 points in his 110 games with the Heat. He’s a surprisingly good skater for being 6’6″.
  • Zac Rinaldo is likely a fourth-liner both in Stockton and Calgary. It’s the role he’s best-suited to play. The 5’10” Rinaldo has made an impressive living out of being a Tie Domi-sized agitator with a fraction of the scoring ability. 371 NHL games into his NHL career, the 30-year-old Rinaldo is a team guy who provides largely intangible “sparks” while doing little to actually serve as a positive influence on his team’s hockey playing.
  • Brett Ritchie will be an interesting player to watch if he ever suits up for the Heat. The big 27-year-old right wing spent much of the last six seasons with the Dallas Stars and Boston Bruins, seldom finding himself assigned to the AHL. Aside from a largely PDO-fuelled 16-goal year in 2016-17, Ritchie has not proven to be much of a difference-maker in the big leagues. His results in the minors paint a different picture: he has 55 goals and 105 points in 153 AHL games.
  • Justin Kirkland is nearly a year younger than Luke Philp but has yet to establish himself as much more than a bottom-sixer in the AHL. Kirkland plays a less physical style than his 6’3″, 183-pound frame might suggest but he’s chippy and reasonably productive as a fourth-line playmaker. The former Predators third-round pick from 2014 scored six goals and 28 points in 53 games last year for the Heat; he’s on a one-year contract with the Flames and will be a restricted free agent this summer.
  • Mark Simpson (AHL contract) is big. How big? He’s 6’6″ big and 210 pounds big. He’s also another U SPORTS product, having spent the last four seasons in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference with the University of New Brunswick Reds. He produced some reasonably big numbers with the Reds, finishing 11th on last year’s team with 21 points in 24 games, but his value to the Heat will likely come from his frame. Simpson was a trusted penalty-killer for the Reds and could see some of the same deployment for the Heat.
  • Alex Gallant (AHL contract) has been around in the minors for a long time. The 28-year-old product of Summerside, PEI is entering his sixth AHL season and his second with the Heat, having played 45 games in Stockton last season. Gallant set AHL career-highs in 2019-20 with five goals, three assists, and eight points; he also recorded 102 penalty minutes and got into six fights.
  • Giorgio Estephan (AHL contract) has been assigned to the ECHL’s Kansas City Mavericks to begin the year but could make his way up to the Heat down the line. Estephan is a 24-year-old right-shot centre with limited AHL experience, but he’s already put together three tremendous seasons in the East Coast league and is currently at a point-per-game pace through 22 games with the Mavericks. The former Sabres sixth-rounder has four points in 17 career AHL games.
  • Colton Beck (PTO) is attending Heat camp on a tryout. The 30-year-old forward has been a bottom-six AHL forward for the vast majority of his professional career and scored four goals and 11 assists in 47 games last season with the Iowa Wild.
  • Finally, Rory Kerins (ATO) will also be attending Heat camp on a tryout. The Flames selected Kerins 174th overall in the 2020 Draft and will get a chance to see the 18-year-old left wing in action against older competition. Kerins scored 30 goals on a mediocre Soo Greyhounds team last season and could soon be in line for an entry-level contract if he continues on his rising trajectory.

The Heat will open their season on Sunday, Feb. 21 at home against the Toronto Marlies. The 2:00 PM matinee game will be broadcast for free on AHL TV and will be live-tweeted, along with other Heat news and updates, at @miketgould.

As of right now, only four Heat games have been scheduled—all at home against the Marlies to close out February—but more dates are sure to come. Stay tuned to the Heat Beat here on FlamesNation and on Twitter for all the latest updates.

Part two of our Heat season preview will be released on Thursday and will cover the team’s defensemen and goaltenders.