A psychic would struggle with predicting who is going to be between the pipes September 22 when the Calgary Hitmen open their Western Hockey League season in Cranbrook.
Last year, clairvoyance was not needed in predicting the No. 1 netminder, as it was basically decided before the heat of summer set in.
After getting bounced in the 2017 playoffs in the first round by the Regina Pats in four games, the Hitmen and their new front office completely overhauled the goaltending department.
Cody Porter was not brought back and bounced around a few different leagues. His backup Kyle Dumba, a former Hitmen bantam draft pick, spent last season with the Kamloops Blazers, Everett Silvertips and Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the BCHL.
Nick Schneider entered the fold last summer when the Hitmen acquired him from the Medicine Hat Tigers in exchange for a fourth-round selection in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft.
Schneider brought 142 career regular season games to the table with a 3.34 goals against average and a .892 save percentage.
With it being his overage campaign, his depth of experience in the league and having just spent a future asset to acquire him, Schneider was basically a lock for the starting job if he was healthy and the Calgary Flames didn’t decide to send him elsewhere.
One of the biggest roster battles last year at training camp was determining who would back up Schneider. Fighting for those minutes were Matthew Armitage, Brayden Peters, Tyler Shea, Trey Hirschfield, Connor Dochuk and Cody Levesque, who combined for zero games in the WHL. Dochuk was the only netminder besides Schneider to start last season over the age of 17-years-old.
In the end it was Armitage that edged out Dochuck for the right to work the gate.
As Armitage watched, Schneider reset the Hitmen record book with 1,651 saves and minutes played with 3,491.
Needless to say, Schneider carried the load for a young, defensively challenged Hitmen squad last season. When the Hitmen won, he was largely responsible. When they lost with the Leduc native in the blue crease, it was usually because he got hung out to dry.
With Schneider not fitting into the equation this season, the Hitmen traded for Nick Sanders, a goaltender with WHL experience at last year’s deadline.
A local product, Sanders entered the league with the Tri-City Americans, spent three seasons in Washington before getting moved to the Prince Albert Raiders, where an injury last season sent him down to the Lloydminster Bobcats of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
In 67 career games, Sanders is 19-22-3-3 with a .890 save percentage and a 3.61 goals against average. His best year came as a 17-year-old with the Americans, where he appeared in 23 games, went 9-6-0-1 with a 2.99 goals against average and a .901 save percentage.
“I’m really excited to be here. I’m from Calgary, this is the team I grew up watching, I always wanted to be the next Justin Pogge or Martin Jones, now this is my chance,” said Sanders. “I want to play in 50 to 55 games next year and help this team make a playoff push.”
Sanders didn’t play one second with the Hitmen last season, as he showed up after the trade deadline in a walking boot on his left foot after he suffered a high ankle sprain .
Even when he was cleared for hockey activities, Sanders remained in the press box during game action.
“I was still able to learn a lot from being in the press box. You can pick up how guys position themselves, see different angles and even notice a few tendencies,” said Sanders.
He has not appeared in a WHL game since Oct. 17 last season.
Even with the injury, he still brings more WHL experience to the table than Armitage.
The Creston, B.C. native, Armitage started 11 games for the Hitmen last year and appeared in 19 contests. He posted a 3.55 goals against average and an .890 save percentage, but didn’t see regular action until the final month of the season and would often go weeks in between starts.
“Army deserved those opportunities this year. He knows he’s competing for a job next year, he’s been an underdog his whole career and relished in those opportunities,” said Chynoweth at the end of last season.
Even with his lack of playing time and size, as he stands a listed 5-foot-11, the Hitmen liked his compete and ability to make a second and third save, even if his game isn’t as technically sound as Schneider’s.
The newest goaltender thrown into the mix is Carl Stankowski, a local goalie with significant big-game WHL experience in his short time in the league.
The Hitmen orchestrated a deal last week with the Seattle Thunderbirds that saw them also land a conditional fourth-round pick in exchange for the rights to U.S. born Mike Koster and an eighth-round pick in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft.
As a 16-year-old, Stankowski only appeared in seven regular season games, but backstopped the Thunderbirds to the Western Hockey League championship when starter Rylan Toth went down with an injury. Stankowski shocked the world with a 16-4 record with a 2.50 goals against average and a .911 save percentage on the Thunderbirds’ run to the Memorial Cup.
Stankowski was sidelined all of last season with back and hip pain that eventually was discovered to be caused by Ankylosing Spondylitis, a rare autoimmune disease that presents itself as inflammatory arthritis.
There is no cure for the condition, but it can be managed through treatment, dieting and constant testing. Hitmen GM Jeff Chynoweth said in a press release in the announcement of the trade that the team expects Stankowski to be ready for training camp.
Another goalie that could potentially be at camp is Dochuk, which would really crowd the crease.
Dochuk could be a wildcard in the goaltending battle. He appeared in two preseason games with the Hitmen last year, but lost out to Armitage.
The Edmonton native posted pretty solid numbers across Junior A last year. Despite going a combined 3-4 with the Melville Millionaires of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and the Brooks Bandits of the AJHL, Dochuk owned a 2.45 goals against average and .918 save percentage.
The only issue could be that Dochuk finished the season with the Bandits last year. It could be a wise decision for Dochuk to return to the Bandits this season, seeing as they host the RBC Cup later next spring.
The Hitmen have not released a roster of who will be attending camp, but there will be plenty more goaltending names in the mix, many of which could be those group of younger names that were passed over last summer for Dochuk and Armitage. Those players are now one year older and more seasoned, maybe ready to make the jump into the WHL.
In a vacuum, Stankowski seems like the best option moving forward for the Hitmen. He has the pedigree and proven ability to lead a team to a title, but in the real world, his medical situation will severely limit his ability.
If Dochuk wants a chance to play for a national championship, his best opportunity to do so would be with the Bandits, if they take him back this season. The Bandits will open their training camp Aug. 28.
It will be interesting to see how Sanders looks when camp opens. Other than Stankowski, Sanders has been out of action the longest and will either be playing for a contract or a scholarship this year in his overage campaign.
Unlike last year, the Hitmen are not in a crunch to get under the overage limit. Last year they entered camp with four overage players. This year, Sanders would join Jake Kryski and Luke Coleman from last year’s roster as 1998-born players. Already being at the limit just from last year’s unit gives the Hitmen a little more roster flexibility than they had last year.
“Unfortunately, Nick never recovered from his ankle injury. He’ll be ready to go for camp hopefully and we will have goalies coming into camp with experience in the league now and we think we will have about seven or eight guys that we think have a chance to make our team. Lots of competition for all positions makes our team better,” said Chynoweth.
The other question is how much did Armitage learn last season in working so closely with Schneider and Hitmen Goaltending Coach Jason LaBarbera? Each one of them commented on how close they were and LaBarbera was a big fan of Armitage’s work ethic.
The goaltending puzzle is similar to last year’s but not nearly as concrete. With a pile of half-filled WHL resumes and a couple medical issues surrounding this goaltending group, the Hitmen could break camp with a variety of options between the pipes. Sanders is an early clubhouse favourite for one of the two jobs seeing as he was brought in last year in a trade. But after that, the other role, whether starter or backup, is anyone’s guess at this point.