A Matt-er of time

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

It's the fourth Calgary Flames training camp for Matt Pelech.

This one comes with a big challenge.

The club's 2005 first-round draft choice won't likely still be in Calgary when the NHL's regular season begins early next month, but expectations are high Pelech will make a strong push for the all-important shot at being the first AHL call-up on the back end.

With an overflowing crew of defencemen competing for time with the big club -- eight veterans are currently on the roster, although one is expected to be jettisoned to get the team under the salary cap -- there won't be a spot here for any rookie blueliners when the curtain is lifted on the 2008-09 season.

Rest assured, you can expect to see one rearguard called up when the injury bug strikes, and Pelech is very much expected to be in the hunt for that valuable spot.

"This is a really big camp for him in his development," said Quad City Flames head coach Ryan McGill. "Without putting undue pressure on him, I think he understands how important it is for him to come into camp, make a very good impression and push for a job."

It's a scenario the 6-foot-5, 220-lb., defender chosen 25th in the Sidney Crosby draft class understands, but the 21-year-old from Toronto is trying to keep his focus on what he must do for that honour instead of simply eying the end result.

"That's always in the back of my mind," Pelech said.

"The thing is, for me, I have to just worry about being a better player every day, and if I'm learning every day, I will get my opportunity.

"It's hard not to impress if you're slowly maturing into a better hockey player."

Besides, he's only a dozen months removed from his first pro experience, which meant big growing pains. Jumping from the junior ranks to the AHL can be a rough ride.

"There are a lot of great hockey players in that league, a lot of that have the ability to play in the National Hockey League and haven't got the chance, and I was a step behind them at the start of the year," Pelech said.

"I really had to play some catch-up, but the last couple months of the season I felt comfortable -- not like I didn't belong out there -- and felt I could play against the other team's best lines."

McGill concurred and said the improvements in Pelech's game were in key areas.

"At the end of the year, he wasn't running out of position to make the big hit, instead letting things come to him," McGill said. "Also reading the rush, reading the play as it was coming to him and reading the play in the defensive zone.

"Those things are huge improvements for defencemen."

Pelech displayed some of that during an outing against the Edmonton Oilers hopefuls in Camrose, laying a thunderous hit on Bryan Lerg.

It was the kind of hit that could be a statement to Flames brass, but Pelech admitted it was more of a boon to him.

"I was really struggling in the first period and a half," he said.

"That hit relieved a lot of pressure for me. I did something positive, took a step in the right direction and had a good third period. It helped me get the confidence back."


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