As the Calgary Hitmen went to work this week following an 0-2 start to their preseason, they had to do so without seven of their veteran players.
NHL training camps and the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, B.C. swallowed up nearly one third of a projected starting lineup.
Team Canada World Junior representative from last season, defenceman Jake Bean, has missed the majority of training camp and the entire exhibition season with the Hitmen, as he has now moved onto training camp with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Nick Schneider is one of three Hitmen that will be taking part in the seventh annual Young Stars Tournament at the South Okanagan Events Centre. Schneider will suit up with the Calgary Flames, while fellow 20-year-old Jakob Stukel will don Vancouver Canuck colours. Defenceman Luke Coleman will also be in Penticton, playing with the other top prospects in the Edmonton Oilers system. The camp concludes Sept. 11 after each team plays three games.
Mark Kastelic received an invite as a free agent with the San Jose Sharks following their developmental camp earlier in the summer. He is headed south Sept. 6.
Hitmen leading scorer from last season, Matteo Gennaro, has headed east to attend training camp with the Ottawa Senators as a free agent invitee.
Beck Malenstyn is the only NHL hopeful still with the Hitmen. The fifth-round selection by the Washington Capitals in 2016 won’t depart camp until Sept. 13.
“We have a lot of guys that deserve the opportunity to showcase their talent up there and we are hoping for the best for all of them,” said Hitmen Assistant Coach Joel Otto. “We know that there are a few of them searching for contracts and we are in the business of sending kids to the next level, so we hope they have great camps. In the mean time, more guys are getting the opportunity to play more with those guys gone.”
With seven guys away at camp, the Hitmen have carried more players than usual this exhibition season.
Luke Prokop, 15, is the youngest player remaining in camp, after the Hitmen reassigned Ryder Korczak to the Yorkton Maulers of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League. The Hitmen also reassigned Devan Klassen, 16, to the minor midget Grande Prairie Storm.
Sharing the blue line with Prokop is the 16-year-old Bryce Bader.
Bader finished with one assist during the Hitmen’s 5-3 loss to the Red Deer Rebels Sept. 1 at Enmax Centrium. Justyn Gurney supplied a goal and assist, while other goals came from Hunter Campbell and Layne Toder. In net, Schneider allowed five goals on 32 shots.
Bader was unable to duplicate his performance in the second game of the weekend, when he finished with a minus-2 rating in the 2-1 loss to the Prince George Cougars Sept. 2 at the Enmax Centrium.
“We have a lot of new faces and young guys coming into camp, getting their feet wet. Afterwards, we had meetings with those young guys and to a man, they talked about consistency and not performing as well as they should of both nights. This is a big adjustment for a lot of these kids and we will help them work through it,” Otto said.
Not making things easier to help guide the 16- and 17-year-olds through the exhibition, is having the veteran core of the team away at NHL camps.
“It’s always nice to have the 20s around because they take the lead out there. With them gone, it falls onto the 19-year-olds like myself to try and help these guys out. I am enjoying the challenge so far,” said Jakob LaPointe, who has 11 points and 92 penalty minutes in 90 games on the Hitmen’s back end. “It’s nice to have guys listen to me.”
LaPointe was watching from the stands in the Hitmen’s first exhibition game when Rebels’ 27th overall pick from the Import Draft and son of former Calgary Flame Robert Reichel, Kritian Reichel torched the Hitmen for a hat trick.
“Red Deer looked controlled, they looked ready. We played a lot of our younger guys and we looked a little nervous as they tried to get a feel for the game,” said LaPointe. “We will see them again in the regular season and I’m looking forward to it. It’s always a good battle when the two teams get together.”
Also taking advantage of his playing time is Matthew Armitage.
Armitage is battling with Connor Dochuk for what possibly could be the backup role behind Schneider, if he returns from Flames camp. The two netminders have no previous WHL experience.
“All three of us are competitive guys and we wish the best for each other, but at the same time, I want to make this team. It would be an honour to suit up for the Hitmen this season,” said Armitage.
The Calgary-native Armitage appeared in 18 games with the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season and posted a 2.53 goals against average and .902 save percentage.
He made the most of his start against the Cougars, stopping 31 of 33 shots and played all three periods.
“It was great to get my first game under my belt. I am a little disappointed that we didn’t win, but I am making strides everyday to get better and those (wins) will come,” said Armitage.
Starters for the Hitmen’s next exhibition game have yet to be announced, when they get set to host a transitioning Edmonton Oil Kings squad to the WinSport Arena, Sept. 8 at 7 p.m.
All week, the team has continued to work on installing new head coach Dallas Ferguson’s ideas and systems. Otto mentioned that he wasn’t at all concerned about the power play unit that went one-for-nine in the first two games — the lone tally came off the stick of 17-year-old Zach Huber against the Cougars.
“There was no rhyme or reason to who was out there on the power play. We are still trying to establish the right positions for our guys,” said Otto. “We don’t care about the stats yet.”
The Hitmen will wrap up a home-and-home series with the Oil Kings Sept. 10 in their penultimate exhibition game at the Downtown Community Arena, when the Hitmen head north. The Calgary club will finish the preseason slate when they take on the Kootenay ICE Sept. 16 at Crowsnest Pass Arena.
From there, the Hitmen will take on the ICE in the season opener Sept. 22 at the Western Finical Place in Cranbrook. The Hitmen will then host the ICE during their home opener one night later (7 p.m.) at the Scotiabank Saddledome, potentially, with reinforcements having returned to the lineup by then.