Tyler Lowey

Restructured Hitmen look to build off last year’s playoff drive

Calgary Hitmen 2016-17 season: 30-32-8-2, 70 points, swept by the Regina Pats in the opening round of the playoffs 4-0.

It was an offseason of great turnover for the Calgary Hitmen this summer, on and off the ice.

In July, the Hitmen introduced a pair of personnel changes, with a new head coach, Dallas Ferguson, and new general manager Jeff Chynoweth.

Ferguson takes over for Mark French as the ninth coach in the club’s history. French spent three seasons with the Hitmen, going 117-80-0-11-8 and left as the fifth winningest bench boss.

Mike Moore was promoted to the vice president and alternate governor over the summer, opening the door for Chynoweth to slide in as GM.

Chynoweth spent 16 years with the Kootenay ICE as owner, president and general manager. Under his tenure, the ICE captured WHL titles in 2000, 2002 and 2011, winning the Memorial Cup in 2002.

One of the main reasons Chynoweth was lured to the Hitmen was the ability to only focus on the hockey aspect of the franchise.

Retooling doesn’t seem necessary this season, but perhaps some slight tinkering is in order, as all the pieces are already in place for the Hitmen to reach the playoffs for the seventh-straight season.

Like most WHL franchises, the Hitmen will only go as far as the veterans take them. And with so many players away at NHL camp, it is hard to nail down what a projected roster might look like.

The Hitmen sent seven players to NHL camps this summer. Jake Bean (Carolina Hurricanes), Luke Coleman (Edmonton Oilers), Matteo Gennaro (Ottawa Senators), Mark Kastelic (San Jose Sharks), Beck Malenstyn (Washington Capitals), Nick Schneider (Calgary Flames) and Jakob Stukel (Vancouver Canucks) all have aspirations of signing a contract with their respected big club.

In net, if Schneider returns from Flames’ camp, Chynoweth said that he would be the starter for the season opener Sept. 22 against the Kootenay ICE.

The goalie overhaul began in May, when the Hitmen traded a fourth-round pick to the Medicine Hat Tigers for the 20-year-old Schneider.

Heading into the offseason, the backup goaltender position seemed to be a no-brainer. But, last year’s backup Kyle Dumba, who appeared in 28 games, was dealt to the Kamloops Blazers in August for a conditional 2018 seventh-round pick. With Trevor Martin aging out and Cody Porter being released on waivers, all three goalies from last season’s playoff roster have vanished.

That void created the biggest competition in camp. The Hitmen have two very different goaltenders, neither of which brings one second of WHL experience to the table.

The 18-year-old Connor Dochuk has appeared in a pair of pre-season game with the Hitmen, leading them to their first exhibition win in a 3-2 shaving of the Edmonton Oil Kings Sept. 8 at WinSport Arena.

The 6-foot-3, 170-pounder Dochuk made 48 saves on 55 shots, with a 3.50 goals against average in his two starts this pre-season.

Last season, Dochuk appeared in 11 games for the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He finished with a 2.51 goals against average and an .899 save percentage.

He might have a leg up on the competition, as the Hitmen brought him in to work with goaltending coach Jason LaBarbera after the Prince George Cougars removed him from their listed players.

Entering camp with no Hitmen experience hasn’t seemed to bug local product Matthew Armitage, who came up through the Edge School. And like Dochuk, he is 18.

Armitage was solid this preseason, starting a pair of games, going 1-1 with a 1.51 goals against average. He turned away 63 of 66 shots against the Prince George Cougars and Edmonton Oil Kings.

Last season, Armitage spent 18 games with the Okotoks Oilers of the AJHL and recorded a 2.53 GAA with a .902 save percentage.

“Army is a smaller guy but he competes like crazy,” said LaBarbera. “He really works hard in there and when you aren’t as tall as (Dochuk), you got to have that in him and he’s fun to watch out there”

“I have really enjoyed watching those two guys go out and compete, making the decision difficult for us,” said Chynoweth. “Right now, if Schneider comes back, we will carry three goalies into the start of the season and go from there.

“But that isn’t written in stone.”

Playing in front of whichever goalie gets the nod in net is a defensive unit that has a year under their belt of playing together.

Aged out are last year’s blue liners Michael Zipp (who finished with 299 career games played) and Scott Allan. The defensive core will be stabilized if Bean returns healthy from the Hurricanes. Last season, Bean missed 29 games with a hand injury and was absent with the World Junior team. If he is healthy and back in Calgary, he should compete for the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy as the league’s top defenceman.

Bean has only been around the team for a handful of practices before departing for other responsibilities in late August. Chynoweth likes his veteran defencemen, and will structure the team’s defensive core around Bean and potentially 20-year-old Brady Reagan. Around them, will be an 18-year-old unit that played together last season. Jakob LaPointe, 2016 import pick Vladislav Yeryomenko and Jameson Murray should all log more minutes. The Hitmen released Jaydan Gordon this summer, opening the door for young defencemen Jackson van de Leest, Andrew Viggars and Layne Toder.

“Overall, team stability on the back end is important. We have some guys with experience in the league and a few guys that were with the team last season. I’m a firm believer that you create offence through getting the puck out of your zone quick, and I think we have the guys to do it this year,” said Ferguson.

Van de Leest was the Hitmen’s first round pick in the 2016 Bantam Draft and seems to be ready to handle any situation on the blue line.

The 17-year-old Viggars stands 6-foot-3 and was the stopping force behind the best defensive unit of the Alberta Midget Hockey League last season with the Calgary Buffaloes.

Looking to add some punch from the blue line is Toder, who scored 11 goals and 28 points in 44 games for the Portage Terriers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League last season.

If the Hitmen are able to keep the puck out of their net, they need to find a way to put more pucks in the other net this season.

One issue that could bubble up this season and haunt the Hitmen will be their goal scoring and record in one-goal games.

Last season, Hitmen games were white-knucklers. They played in 35 one-goal games (19-6-8-2), the third most in the league behind the Swift Current Broncos (37) and Spokane Chiefs (36), per WHL Stats Pro.

The Hitmen’s 19 wins in one-goal games tied them with four other clubs for the most regulation one-goal victories last season.

It also turned out to be the second-most thrilling — score-wise — season in franchise history. Only the 2005-06 Hitmen played in more games decided by one goal, when they went 23-8-3-4.

Pulling off 19 one-goal wins seems remarkable when perusing over last year’s numbers.

Last season they scored 211 goals for (17th in the WHL), allowed 280 goals (18th best in the WHL) for a minus-69 goal differential. They only had 11 wins come by more than one goal. When the Hitmen lost, they lost big. When they won, it was by the thinnest of margins.

Compared to the 2005-06 squad, those Hitmen netted 188 goals for (14th best), allowed 151 goals (fourth fewest) for a plus-37 goal differential. Playing with small leads must have felt comfortable knowing that future NHLer Justin Pogge was between the pipes.

They 2016-17 Hitmen scored 32 fewer goals than the year prior. If the Hitmen are to be without anyone of their possible returning vets up front, the offensive production is surely going to take another hit following a less than ideal season last year.

Gone are wingers Tyler Mrkonjic and Taylor Sanheim, who aged out of the league following last season. The Hitmen also announced on Monday that they have reassigned winger Bryce Bader and released Murphy Stratton.

Stratton, 18, is a Los Angeles product who scored four points and was a minus-15 in 45 games with the Hitmen last season. He was an eighth-round pick back in 2014

Bader was the club’s second round pick in 2016 and got called up for one game from the midget AAA Sherwood Park Kings last season.

Early signs of the Hitmen offence aren’t that impressive, but what must be remembered is that Reagan and Malenstyn only appeared in two games, while Coleman, Gennaro and Stukel only suited up once.

In the pre-season, the Hitmen’s 12 goals for ranked them 18th. The good news is that they received great goaltending from their backup tandem, and as a team, allowed 15 goals, the sixth fewest.

The power play was stagnant at times. Ferguson has mentioned that there was, “no rhyme or reason to who we were throwing out there,” and rightfully so. Still, the Hitmen only converted three of their 26 man advantages, 18th best in the league.

If the power play is able to return to its dynamic form of 2015-16, when they were fifth best in the league, rolling along at a 23.13 per cent clip, it should take some of the pressures away from five-on-five play. Last year, the Hitmen’s power play ranked 20th with scoring 17.13 per cent of the time and sat middle of the pack with 156 even-strength goals.

Waiting in the wings are plenty of young guns ready to seize the moment.

After five pre-season games, a pair of 17-year-olds shinned brightest offensively.

Delta product Justyn Gurney led the squad with two goals and five points in four games. Right behind him was the electrifying Tristen Nielsen, who scored twice and added an assist in three exhibition games.

But counting on 17-year-olds to carry a team through a rigorous 72-game slate could be asking a lot.

This season is all going to come down to who is still on this team come November. If the Hitmen have the majority of the seven players that were off to NHL training camps return, then they should have a deep and productive veteran core returning to anchor a lineup that was a playoff team last season.

It is still too early to imagine how the 20-year-old situation will unfold before the Oct. 10 deadline. Reagan is the only one of the four 20s not invited to an NHL camp. There is a possibility that an NHL club could make the decision very easy for Moore and Chynoweth, by offering a roster spot to one of the 20-year-olds.

The biggest key for this Hitmen season is having Gennaro return to the team. He was undoubtedly their best player last season, racking up 43 goals and 80 points in 69 games. He also elevated his game defensively, turning his minus-11 rating the year prior into a plus-13 last season.

On the back end, the Hitmen are waiting to see what the Hurricanes have in mind for Bean. If he returns, he solidifies a battle-tested defence core looking to raise the bar this season. In 162 games with the Hitmen, Bean has buried 37 goals and racked up 148 points to go with his plus-26 rating.

This team has all the pieces in place to compete for the third spot in the Central division, in what is always a wild season at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

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