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Heat open AHL season with crowd in goal crease

The Canadian Press

10/11/2012 12:50:08 PM

ABBOTSFORD, B.C. -- The Abbotsford Heat will have one of three goaltenders with NHL experience on the ice when they kick off their American Hockey League season.

Trying to decide which one will start is a problem Heat head coach Troy Ward doesn't mind dealing with.

Ward has the choice of Leland Irving, Danny Taylor or Barry Brust

when the Calgary Flames' AHL affiliate hosts the Peoria Rivermen on Friday. He also has to figure out which goalie is going to be a healthy scratch.

"I beg that the better question is who's sitting in the stands," Ward said. "It is a good problem to have."

Irving, who played seven games with Calgary last season and was poised to back up Miikka Kiprusoff this year, is back in Abbotsford due to the NHL lockout.

Taylor returns after he unseated Irving as the starting goaltender late last season. The Heat went with Taylor, who has just 20 minutes of NHL experience under his belt, throughout the playoffs despite the fact Irving is the franchise's top goaltending prospect.

Brust signed in the summer, further complicating the issue.

"Barry was brought in to battle for the starting job," Ward said. "He's won a lot of games for me in the past."

Brust played last season in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, Germany's top league, but jumped at a chance to return to North America. His familiarity with Abbotsford and with the coaching staff gave him incentive to get back on the track, in hope of returning to the NHL. He played 11 games in 2006-07 for the Los Angeles Kings.

"It was six years ago I lucked into a situation to play in the NHL," Brust said. "A lot's changed in six years. I've grown a lot as a goaltender and as a person. I'm still kind of holding on to things and with a break here and there, who knows what'll happen."

Irving says that there's no animosity between the three goaltenders.

"We kind of leave it all on the ice," he said. "Off the ice we all get along great."

Another player returning to North America after a season in Europe is Trail, B.C. native Steve McCarthy. The veteran of 302 NHL games played with Flames' new coach Bob Hartley last year for Zurich and earned a contract after a solid camp in Abbotsford.

"It's my NHL starting Friday," McCarthy said. "That's how I approach it and the great thing is everybody in that room and the coaches approach it the same way."

Ben Walter, who was second on the team in scoring last season with 59 points, says the NHL lockout could lead to a better chance to get noticed by the Flames' coaching staff.

"For an older guy like me, maybe they wouldn't have watch our group of guys as much, if they had their own team to worry about," Walter said.

However, even the rookies are feeling extra pressure with otherwise NHL-bound players competing for jobs in the AHL.

"It made me want to bear down and take it very seriously," said Max Reinhart, a star with the Western Hockey League's Kootenay Ice last season. "Obviously there's no camp in Calgary, where everyone wants to be, but this is a pretty good league and it's not exactly a cakewalk to step onto this team and make it."

One of the difficulties in trying to make final cuts is that the Heat played no exhibition games. In contrast, Peoria went 2-1-0 in pre-season preparing for Friday's opener.

"I'm not sure we're competitively driven because we haven't had a scoreboard tell us we won or lost yet," Ward said.

The club is still carrying 18 forwards -- Paul Byron and Greg Nemisz are currently nursing injuries -- so more cuts are necessary.

One player who will certainly stick around is the Flames' 2011 first-round draft pick Sven Baertschi. After scoring three goals in five games during a callup to the Flames last year, as well as recording 94 points in 47 games in the WHL, the 20-year-old forward from Switzerland wasn't expected to come anywhere near the AHL.

"I was a little disappointed I wasn't at Calgary Flames' camp," Baertschi said. "But it's not hard for me to be happy to be where I am. I have a place to play, great teammates, and good coaches.

"Maybe it's just the right thing to do. It's good to start being a pro and learn little things here, and after we'll see what happens."

Last season Krys Kolanos provided the bulk of the Heat's offence last season, putting up 61 points in 47 games after 23 months away from hockey. But the offence was otherwise quiet, so the Heat will depend on Baertschi to produce.

"I threw myself under the bus when got called up and scored those goals," Baertschi said. "It's good to have a little pressure, when people expect things from you."

Other Heat members expected to get an crack with the Flames when the lockout ends include Byron, T.J. Brodie, Akim Aliu, Roman Horak and Lance Bouma, all of who played games in the NHL last year.

However, this may be the last chance for some players to prove they belong in the NHL.

"Bouma -- is he really an NHL player or is he not," said Ward. "If he wants to play (Edmonton AHL team Oklahoma City) and steal a puck off (Ryan) Nugent-Hopkins and steal it off of (Jordan) Eberle and he wants to make plays, then he's trying to tell everyone 'I deserve to play in the National Hockey League.'

"If you can't do that against some of these kinds of players, then are you really a National Hockey League player? I could say that about any player on our team."

NOTES: Last season Abbotsford finished second in the West Division with a record of 42-26-8. This season they will play in the North Division again. ... The team opens their schedule with 10 of their first 13 games at home.