ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - With Leland Irving returning in net, a good mix of young and old up front and a number of experienced defencemen, the Abbotsford Heat are looking to shed their 2010-11 label of young and inexperienced for depth and maturity.
An assistant during the Jim Playfair regime, Troy Ward has been handed the reins to help make the transition for the Flames' top farm club, which went 38-32-10 and missed the playoffs.
"The guys that have a chance to come back and play here are more experienced," said Ward. "Our first-year guys, which we had so many of last year, they've got another year under their belt now."
Ward takes over from Playfair, who left to join the Phoenix Coyotes as an assistant coach.
"Every coach has his ways and runs a team differently, but I'm very excited," said defenceman John Negrin. "Wardo is a stand-up coach and he demands hard work. He shows us respect and it's really nice."
As the Heat prepared for their first road trip of the season this week in Lake Erie, Ohio, Ward made clear of what to expect for the coming season.
"A lot more pressure and that's maybe because we're a year older, more mature ? that doesn't mean that last year's (system) wasn't right or wrong," he said. "I've got my flavour, and (that's) a little more pressure oriented."
Defencemen Gord Baldwin and Matt Pelech along with forwards Matt Keith, Cam Cunning and Kris Chucko are no longer with the team.
Ben Walter and Guillaume Desbiens will add some much needed size and experience to a young core up front which includes sophomores Greg Nemisz, Lance Bouma and Mitch Wahl.
Depending on how the final cuts shake down in Calgary, Clay Wilson, Derek Smith and Jordan Henry could add depth to the blue-line, which includes T.J. Brodie, Chris Breen and Negrin all returning from last season.
Negrin, who is entering his third year as a pro, has appeared in just 69 games as a result of a nagging knee injury. The 22-year-old West Vancouver, B.C., native has plenty of motivation this season including the fact he's in the final year of his entry-level contract with the Flames.
"Right now, I haven't played much hockey so right now I'm really just trying to work hard and improve every day and get better," he said. "It is the last year of my entry-level contract, but I just look at it day by day right now."
Irving, a native of Swan Hills, Alta., returns after signing a one-year, two-way deal with the Flames in the off-season as a restricted free agent.
"I think what's certainly the next step for Leland is that he has to play well in the playoffs," said Ward. "We have to get ourselves in the playoffs for that to happen, (but) that's the next step in his development, if he can win in the playoffs."
The 23-year-old set career highs last season with 30 wins, eight shutouts and 61 games played. Irving's 30 wins were second among all goaltenders and his eight shutouts was a league-best.
In order to help Irving to the next level the organization has, for the first time, hired a full-time goalie coach to work with the Heat in Jordan Sigalet, who will remain with the team throughout the season.
"Jordan's a great goalie coach and he's detailed, but up-to-date with all the modern fundamentals of goaltending," Irving said. "He's very level-headed, he's not going to scream and yell at you, but everything he says makes sense."
Backing up Irving will be 20-year-old rookie Joni Ortio, a sixth-round selection of the Flames in 2009. The native of Finland joined the Heat late in the season last year making just one start.
An area of concern the team desperately needs to address is the their significant amount of injuries having lost well over 600 man games through their first two seasons.
The Heat believe part of it has to do with the travel schedule it endures being the furthest west coast team in the league, and has begun taking measures to fix the issue.
"We've looked at everything from a sleep doctor to how we travel and when we travel," said Ward. "We're at one of the farthest parts of the American Hockey League for travel so we've looked into a lot of issues.
"What the doctor is educating us on is (travel habits). We would get on a bus in certain cities because we finished on a certain night, we'd get on a bus and we'd travel.
"Some trips this year we're going to stay in the city we just played in and then travel the next day ????????? we won't travel at night to give them a little bit better rest."