Corban's go-to is he has good skill. He has exceptional passing skills, he can score goals, he can shoot the puck. He's a great team guy. Those are his biggest assets. - Heat head coach Troy G. Ward on Corban Knight
ABBOTSFORD, BC -- The buzz within the fan base when Corban Knight was acquired last June was understandable. They knew what they were getting: a skilled right-handed centreman who had put up 145 points in 159 college games and was named a Hobey Baker Award finalist.
But how he would fare in the pro ranks remained to be seen.
Now, just over the half-way point of the regular season, the High River, Alberta native has cemented himself as one of the American league's top rookies. He's currently sixth in rookie scoring with 11 goals and 31 points in 45 games, is fifth on the Heat in scoring and sits just behind rookie defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon for the team lead in plus/minus.
Like most rookie pros fresh out of college, however, the 23-year-old hit a bit of a dry spell in January going pointless in eight of his ten games.
"I've been pretty happy with the first half," Knight reflected. "Obviously there are areas that need improvement and that's what I'm looking to do in the second half - improve in areas I need to.
"Playing so many games, especially coming from college, we've already played a full season in college. I think that's something where you just try to get used to that, but it's been a bit of a challenge so far. You've just got to try and find out what works for you and be able to find a good routine."
The North Dakota Fighting Sioux alumnus didn't start his professional career the way he had intended. After signing a two-year entry-level deal with the Flames, Knight came back to a flooded home in High River. However, he didn't let the disaster deter him from preparing for one of the biggest hockey seasons of his life.
While fan and management expectations of Knight were high, Heat bench boss Troy G. Ward admittedly didn't have much in the way of expectations of the rookie.
"My expectations weren't very high for him because at one point I didn't really expect to see him. I thought, 'Well, he's going to make the Flames.'
"Then they decided to keep Monahan," said Ward. "When they decided to keep Monahan, that changed it all for Reinhart, it changed it for Granlund and it changed it for Knight … Had that not happened and they sent Monahan back, then I think you might've saw Knight up there full-time … I think he can go up there and play games right now, myself. He won't be consistent, but he could play games and do fine."
Still, the former Okotoks Oiler acknowledges he has a lot of room for improvement and Ward has helped him pin point those areas of improvement to get his game to an NHL calibre level.
"He'll be rusher," explained the Heat's head coach.
"He'll be in a top-6 line [role]. He's got to learn to play on the wall too. He's got to add something else to his resume. Playing just centre isn't enough. I played him on the wing and he wasn't very good, so I need to find him some wing time. I want to make sure he's ready to play there a little bit too, otherwise he's a one-trick pony and there's only two slots. If he can play the wall, there's four. Otherwise, there's first or second line centre. If you don't make that, tough sledding. Now, he is smart enough to play third line centre, but he's probably not hard enough in a shift-to-shift basis and a third line centre plays really heavy. He's not a heavy player."
Knight's offensive production is evident. All throughout his career, the 6-foot-2 centreman has been able to put numbers on the board. To round out his game, Ward has given him options and has put him in situations that he perhaps hasn't been all that familiar with throughout his career and Knight has obliged.
In the Heat's two-game home set against the Hamilton Bulldogs, Knight put up two goals and an assist in the back-to-back wins. Away from the puck, he showed he could play a "heavy" game as he dished out hits and backchecked effectively.
"Corban's go-to is he has good skill. He has exceptional passing skills, he can score goals, he can shoot the puck. He's a great team guy. Those are his biggest assets.
"His growth has basically been the pace of his play and just a little bit more of a defensive awareness - awareness by way of posture and his awareness by way of hard. Those are things he didn't really have to do in North Dakota; he wasn't counted on to do those things. So instead of having a really good offensive zone in college, okay in the neutral zone and not much defensive zone, we've tried to balance him out."
With an already impressive rookie season under his belt - and still more to come - Knight is clearly in the passing lane on his way to sporting a flaming 'C'. Armed with an NHL-calibre shot and accuracy, a crafty ability to dish the puck and an astute mind for the game, the rookie's chance to skate on Saddledome ice could come sooner rather than later.