Thursday, March 4, 2021
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Thanks to temporary move, NHL feels oh-so-close for Baby Flames

Thanks to temporary move, NHL feels oh-so-close for Baby Flames
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They’re still down in the minors.

But now they’re just down the hall.

For the Calgary Flames’ farm-clubbers, typically based in Stockton, Calif., but relocated to the Saddledome for this season due to cross-border travel restrictions, the NHL has never seemed so close.

While they won’t need their flip-flops for off-days, there are plenty of perks of being under the same roof as the parent club.

“It’s definitely an adjustment for all of us but I think there’s a lot of excitement about being in the same facility the Flames are in. It gives guys that feel that they’re really connected to the whole thing,” said Stockton Heat coach Cail MacLean of this 1,600-km move north.

“With this close proximity, you’re under a watchful eye and you’re never more than a quick walk across the hall away. And I think that really resonates with the guys. Sometimes, when you’re further away, you’re still close to the NHL … But now, it just seems like it’s that much easier for them to get you up onto the taxi squad or onto the roster and into a game at the drop of a hat.

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“I think they feel that every day. Even though we’re not in at the same time as the Flames, you understand that you’re right in the mix. It’s good motivation.”

There is, of course, no better way to impress the brass than to shine during game action.

The Heat will get that opportunity — finally — during Sunday’s matinee against the Toronto Marlies at the Saddledome, the start of a four-game visit from the Maple Leafs’ top affiliate. For many of the Flames’ farmhands, this will mark their first meaningful matchup in 11-plus months.

While their full schedule has yet to be revealed, it’s expected the Heat will play 30-some games — all against the four other squads in the Canadian Division.

It seems unlikely there will be playoffs, but the AHL has always been as much or more about player development than the Calder Cup chase.

After all, the ultimate goal for each and every one of these guys — from on-the-cuspers like Glenn Gawdin and Matthew Phillips to just-turned-pros such as Emilio Pettersen and Colton Poolman — is to climb another rung and earn an NHL job.

The call-up candidates have been practicing at the Saddledome since attending camp with the Flames. They’ll be the last AHL team to hit the ice for their 2021 season-opener.

“We have seen a lot of gains and a lot of improvements, whether it’s strength or skating or skill-work. Just different parts of their makeup have improved in different ways, from all this work that so many people have put in with the players on behalf of the Flames and them on behalf of themselves,” MacLean said. “And I think that’s so important. But we’re here to develop players that can help the Calgary Flames win games, and in order to continue that process, you have to take all of those developed facets of your game and put them into action in a game scenario and make that count.

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“You can train separate areas all you want but until you put ’em all together and make progress in high-pressure, decision-making scenarios, then your development is only going to go so far. So for us to be able to get them into games, even if it’s a more limited amount of games this year, I think is huge. Because as they make their progress, they have to make sure that along the way, they’re implementing that into the game.”

Temporarily headquartered in the Hitmen locker-room (and adhering to the same strict pandemic protocols as the parent team), they don’t need to look far for proof of what’s possible.

The Flames’ current roster includes several dudes that were not so long ago in Stockton — Rasmus Andersson, Dillon Dube, Andrew Mangiapane, Juuso Valimaki and their captain last winter, Byron Froese.

“And a lot of the guys that you mentioned are in prominent roles,” MacLean reminded. “So it gives them that sense that not only is it possible but by doing the right things and creating the right mentality day after day, I have the chance to put myself in a position to be an NHL player for a long time, not just have a cup of coffee.

“Once they get to that level, then they have to learn how to make that happen. But it allows them to see beyond just the possibility of playing in the NHL. It allows them to see and to understand guys that were just in their shoes recently are now in positions that they have the opportunity to play for a long time and also have the pressure of being instrumental in how the Calgary Flames do, night-in and night-out. I think that’s a good leap for the guys to make from the old, ‘Oh, I’d love to play in the NHL’ to ‘What do I need to do today to make sure that when I get there, I stay there?’ ”

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THE WEEK AHEAD

Sunday — Marlies at Heat, 2 p.m. MT

Tuesday — Marlies at Heat, 6 p.m. MT

Wednesday — Marlies at Heat, 6 p.m. MT

Friday — Marlies at Heat, 2 p.m. MT

WHO’S HOT?

While most of these guys haven’t played in 11-plus months, Flames first-rounder Connor Zary knocked off the rust in seven appearances for Team Canada’s silver squad at the world juniors. The 19-year-old centre is eligible to hang with the Heat until his WHL team is back in action. Ditto for puck-stopping prospect and world-junior gold medallist Dustin Wolf, who was the backup for Team USA. The pro seasoning should be beneficial to both of ’em.

FAST FACT

When the 2019-20 campaign was paused due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Heat boasted the AHL’s best stats on both sides of special teams — leading the loop with a 25.6% success rate on the power-play and killing off 87.6% of their penalties, too. Seventeen different dudes, including 13 potential returnees, scored man-advantage markers for the Baby Flames last winter.

wgilbertson@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

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