The Heat Beat #2 — Mar. 11, 2021

Epidemiologists are stunned: the Heat players all seem to have simultaneously developed an allergy to losing

Remember February 25? When this newsletter last published an issue? When we were all just four days away from the end of the year’s shortest month (and just one day away from the penultimate episode of WandaVision)?

It all seems so long ago. Much has changed, from this newsletter’s production schedule—it’s once every two weeks now, pals!—to the Calgary Flames’ coaching staff—Darryl Sutter? Why do I suddenly have an urge to listen to Simple Plan and Franz Ferdinand?—to Marvel’s TV miniseries du jour.

Still, as always, some things stay the same. Few things have remained as constant over the past two weeks as the second and third numbers in the Stockton Heat’s record.

The team began the year with an 0–2–0 line as a result of two consecutive blowout losses to the Toronto Marlies. Since then, the Heat have dispatched the Marlies on four occasions to go along with one win over the Belleville Senators and back-to-back victories over the Manitoba Moose.

Not all of these wins have come easy. Both wins in Winnipeg came in overtime, with Glenn Gawdin and Matthew Phillips playing heroic roles for the team this past Monday and Wednesday, respectively. Against Toronto on Mar. 6, the Heat surrendered two quick goals to open the third period and fell behind by a 3–2 score; they responded with back-to-back markers inside the final 2:30 of regulation time to eke out a 4-3 win.

Stockton’s roster has already evolved a great deal over the course of the season. Goaltender Dustin Wolf left the team after the four-game season-opening homestand against Toronto, returning to the WHL with two convincing professional wins in his pocket. After a brief stint with the Flames, Artyom Zagidulin has returned to Heat and is locked in a battle with Garret Sparks for the team’s number-one job in net.

Connor Zary is gone, too. The 19-year-old forward acquitted himself very well in his first nine games of AHL experience, posting three goals and seven points while meshing with Phillips and Adam Ruzicka on Stockton’s top line. The Flames assigned him to the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers on Thursday afternoon.

Heat head coach Cail MacLean made a notable in-game adjustment on Wednesday, sending Zary down to the team’s third line and promoting Emilio Pettersen in his stead. At that point, with one period remaining in regulation time, the Heat trailed 2–1 and had been dramatically outplayed in the middle frame. Pettersen had scored Stockton’s only goal and quickly made his mark on the top unit.

That is one high-level pass by Pettersen. Phillips, its beneficiary, scored the game-tying and game-winning goals on Thursday but reserved much of his post-game praise for his new linemate.

“Yeah, I think ‘Petey’ has done a pretty good job so far of adjusting, and we all know that he has great offensive talent,” said Phillips. “That’s something that he brought right away as soon as the season started.

“He’s figuring out more ways to get open and make plays happen, and [the goal] was a great example: it was right in my wheelhouse, he couldn’t have passed it any better,” Phillips added. “It’s good to see, and even the fact he gets put on the ice for a solid rotation in a tie game like that kind of says a lot. He’s earned it, he works really hard and he’s gaining the coaches’ trust.”

Talk about an endorsement from a quality source. Phillips ranks third among all AHL players, having contributed 13 points in just nine games, and looks overdue for a call-up.

Even then, it wasn’t long ago that “Matty Ice” looked to be on shaky ground at the pro level. While Pettersen has wasted no time in making an impact for the Heat, Phillips’ professional beginnings were less encouraging. The 5’7” forward recorded zero points in the first eight games of the 2018–19 season, his first campaign after graduating from the WHL’s Victoria Royals the year before.

Phillips managed to find a new gear as the season progressed and he wound up with 13 goals and 38 points in 65 games. For Pettersen, if and when the going gets tougher for him at this new level, he can find solace in knowing one of his most stylistically similar (and successful) teammates battled through adversity to start his journey at the professional level—and beyond.

“We have a lot of really skilled young guys, and I think that’s another way I feel I can help them out,” said Phillips. “I didn’t have the smoothest start to my pro career, so I know first-hand, some games aren’t going to be easy. They’re gonna be tough. You don’t want to get too down on yourself. But [Pettersen]’s done a great job this season and he’s earned his opportunities.”

Pettersen will turn 21 next month and has nine points (four goals, five assists) in his first nine AHL games. Perhaps, one day, he can make his case as Canada’s best ‘Petey.’

Who haven’t we met yet?

To this point, the Stockton Heat have dressed 21 skaters and started three goaltenders. Many more players have yet to play. Who have we overlooked?

Phillips, Pettersen, Gawdin, Ruzicka, Mackey… everybody knows about Stockton’s stars. Heck, two weeks ago, we ranked every player on the team based on their individual odds of being recalled by the Flames.

Think back, though… in issue #1, we only discussed seventeen players in any detail. The rest were all dismissed due to their AHL-only contract status. To put it mildly, Mark Simpson, Alex Gallant, Giorgio Estephan, Colton Beck, Zac Leslie, Rob Hamilton, Koletrane Wilson, Hayden Lavigne, Andrew Shortridge, and the others all got the shaft in that first newsletter.

That’s not fair! These are all talented hockey players with individual backstories. Some of them have already been key contributors on this Heat team; others have yet to suit up this season.

Let’s take a brief look at what some of them might have to offer.

Mark Simpson
Centre, #16 — three goals, four points in seven games

Simpson is a 6’6” defensive-minded centre with a gap-toothed smile and an interesting career path. He spent parts of four seasons in the QMJHL but only emerged as a regular in the league after 2013, his NHL draft year. In 2015–16, as an overager, he hit the 20-goal mark for the first time in his major junior career and recorded 59 points in 66 games.

In advance of the 2016–17 season, Simpson committed to go to school and continue his hockey career. No, not in the NCAA; instead, Simpson went to the University of New Brunswick and spent four years with the Reds, never ranking among the team’s top scorers but crafting a resume as a talented penalty-killer with the two-time University Cup champions. Simpson has been a vital cog in Stockton’s bottom-six this year and has even chipped in some timely offense when needed.

Colton Beck
Left wing, #44 — two assists in four games

Beck, 30, is the elder statesman on this very young Heat team. He’s been around the block a few times in this league, having spent the last five seasons as a regular with the Iowa Wild. He turned professional at the end of the 2013–14 campaign following a successful four-year collegiate career at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks.

With the Heat, Beck has played a finesse role on the fourth line in fill-in duty. At 5’11”, he is not particularly tall, but he’s thick (190 pounds). His most productive AHL season came back in 2015–16, when he contributed eight goals and 21 points in 52 games with the Wild.

Zac Leslie
Defense, #8 — two goals, four points in nine games

The Los Angeles Kings drafted Leslie out of the Ontario Hockey League in 2013. He never made the jump from the AHL’s Ontario Reign to the main squad and has moved around in the minors ever since. Leslie joined the Heat in advance of the 2019-20 season and established himself as a reliable two-way threat, posting five goals and 28 points in 50 games.

Leslie has served as CJ Lerby’s defensive partner since the 23-year-old Swede made the transition to North America. Neither player has shown any fear of jumping into the rush when needed.

Hayden Lavigne
Goaltender, #30 — backed up Sparks in three games

Not many players make it to the NHL after playing in the ECHL. Even fewer manage to make the journey to the big leagues from the Southern Professional Hockey League, but that’s where Heat goaltender Hayden Lavigne started out in 2020-21.

Much like Andrew D’Agostini, the Toronto Marlies goaltender who has stymied the Heat on multiple occasions this season (handing the team its only two losses in games one and two of the season), Lavigne has already made stops in both the SPHL and ECHL after leaving the University of Michigan following the 2019-20 campaign. The 24-year-old goaltender has yet to make his AHL debut but served as Garret Sparks’ backup for the three games immediately following Dustin Wolf’s departure.

Lavigne won both of the ECHL games he played for the Wichita Thunder this season, making 76 saves on 80 shots. His SPHL tenure was less consistent: he went 2-2-0 in four games with the Birmingham Bulls, allowing 14 goals against on 124 shots for an .887 save percentage.

Rob Hamilton
Defense, #42 — one assist in four games

The third Hamilton to make his way through the Flames’ system, Rob is of no relation to Freddie or Dougie and isn’t even on an NHL contract. But he’s been a useful option for Cail MacLean to have at his disposal and can fill in wherever he’s needed.

To elaborate on that last point: on Monday, the Heat used Hamilton in a role somewhat resembling that of a “rover” of yesteryear. On the scoresheet, it showed the Heat having dressed 11 forwards and seven defensemen, but MacLean often used Hamilton as a forward to help ease the load on the team’s bottom-six. Hamilton is in his third year with the Heat and has been counted on in the past for offensive production, scoring 29 and 18 points in his first two campaigns with Stockton.

Alex Gallant
Left wing, #20 — one goal in seven games

This is Gallant’s sixth AHL season. He recorded at least 100 penalty minutes in each of his first five campaigns in the league and is already up to 14 through seven games this year.

Gallant, who is on a one-year AHL deal, suffered an injury in Stockton’s 4-3 win over Toronto on Saturday and remains day-to-day. It’s unclear when he will make his return to the lineup.

“Alex is as tough as any hockey player I’ve met, in terms of what he’s willing to play through and what he can play through,” said MacLean after Monday’s game against Manitoba, which Gallant missed. “We’ll be saving him from himself. We’ll make sure he’s ready to go because he’s a true team player—he’d play as soon as he could.”

Giorgio Estephan
Centre, #22 — one assist in one game

With Zary’s departure, look for Estephan to play more of a role for the Heat down the stretch. The 24-year-old right-handed forward has proven to be an excellent scorer in the ECHL, posting 122 points (44 goals, 78 assists) in 135 games split between the Newfoundland Growlers and the Kansas City Mavericks.

A prolific scorer in the Western Hockey League, Estephan spent parts of six seasons with the Lethbridge Hurricanes before being dealt to the Swift Current Broncos late in the 2017–18 season. He thrice recorded 70 points in a season and managed 80 points on two occasions. The Buffalo Sabres selected him in the sixth round of the 2015 Draft but he never signed a contract with the team.

Estephan has yet to find a rhythm at the AHL level. He made his professional debut late in the 2015–16 season on a tryout with the Rochester Americans, scoring his first AHL goal (but no other points) in six games. The 6’, 196-pound forward never played another game in the Sabres’ system, joining the Toronto Maple Leafs’ organization for the 2018–19 seaon. He spent the next two years primarily skating for the Growlers but he managed to get into 11 games with the Marlies, scoring a goal and adding two assists.

It’s possible Estephan will fill Zary’s vacated spot on Stockton’s third line. The Edmonton product has played one game for the Heat this season, recording an assist on Zary’s goal in Stockton’s Mar. 6 win over the Marlies.

The best Heat goal and save since the last issue

Since this whole operation isn’t weekly anymore, we had to change the title of this section. Sorry! -Management

This issue’s “best goal” award goes to Emilio Pettersen, who torched the Toronto Marlies with this beautiful coast-to-coast effort on Mar. 6:

With Dustin Wolf and his elite lateral movement out of the picture, Garret Sparks and Artyom Zagidulin were in the running for this week’s “best save” distinction. Ultimately, Sparks stole the show with this breakaway robbery against Belleville’s Alex Formenton on Mar. 3.

Coming up…

The Heat will return to action this evening, taking on the Moose for the third of a four-game set at 5 p.m. MT. They’ll wrap up the series at the BellMTS Iceplex on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. MT before returning home.

After four days off, the team will return to action on Mar. 18 at the Scotiabank Saddledome to begin a four-game homestand against the Laval Rocket. The next issue of this newsletter will be released on Mar. 25; the following day, the Heat will start another road swing with a tilt against the Belleville Senators.

All games will be broadcast on AHL TV and live-tweeted at @miketgould. Continue to follow that account and @theheatbeat for all the latest Stockton Heat updates.

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