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Hitmen hope fourth line can learn from defensive struggles

There is a lot to get excited about in next year’s batch of 2000-born players returning to Calgary Hitmen training camp.

Tristen Nielsen, Carson Focht and Riley Stotts all enjoyed career years during the 2017-18 season and could hear their names called during the NHL Entry Draft this June.

But that wasn’t the norm for the 17-year-old class this past season. It was a season of great turnover led by a new head coach and a lineup riddled with youth. At times, they showed their age and unfamiliarity with the ropes of the Western Hockey League.

It doesn’t matter how old you are or how many games you have logged in the WHL; anytime you head down the tunnel after a game on the wrong end of things, it hurts.

It especially hurts in your developmental 17-year-old season when you are trying to build your future and you keep seeing a dash-2, dash-3 and dash-4 beside your name in the box score each night.

But that was life on the fourth line for the Hitmen this season. Nobody was immune and everyone had their moments picking pucks out of the back of their net.

“The fourth line is an important one for the hockey club. We needed to be better defensively and to create an identity earlier in the season,” said Hitmen Head Coach Dallas Ferguson. “It’s not about scoring goals, but it’s about creating energy and being hard to play against without the puck.”

The Hitmen are hoping that the young group of players who were stationed on the fourth line this season can use this painful experience as a building block for next season.

Coming out of training camp, Justyn Gurney and Zach Huber looked poised for breakout campaigns.

Gurney, a North Delta product, was coming off a season where he suited up for 31 games as a 16-year-old, scoring a pair of goals and two assists, to go with 15 penalty minutes and a minus-7 rating.

Huber debuted in a pair of games as a 16-year-old with the club that drafted him in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, but enjoyed a fruitful season as the trigger man alongside Peyton Krebs in the Alberta Midget Hockey League.

Together, Gurney and Huber both turned in impressive exhibition performances.

Gurney led the club with five points in four games, while Huber notched a goal and an assist in all five preseason affairs.

“In the preseason, I was feelin’ myself. I had a good camp and good exhibition season, I was excited about my play coming into this season,” said Gurney.

Gurney was flying around the ice, slamming into anything with a pulse and Huber was impressing the new coaching staff with his ability to get to the front of the net and to the goal scoring areas, creating chances for himself and his linemates.

“The thing with the preseason is that often times, older players are away at NHL camps or not playing in all the exhibition games. It’s tough to gauge the results from the preseason,” said Hitmen Assistant Coach Trent Cassan.

Everything was going great until the regular season started.

Huber started the season by yo-yoing back-and-forth from the press box and the starting lineup, only appearing in 22 of the team’s first 36 games. In those outings, he registered two points, nine penalty minutes and a minus-7.

“I’m a competitor and I wanted to be in the lineup each day. I know most young guys in the league go through the same thing I did, but I continued to work hard at practice to get into games more often,” said Huber.

Gurney on the other hand, was given a longer leash and played in 29 of the first 36 games, where he complied a similar stat line one goal and one assist, with 58 penalty minutes with a minus-19 rating.

“We don’t so much look at their stats, as look at seeing improvements in their games. We can’t expect players to be better just because they are one year older. They have to take lessons from this year for when they come back next year,” said Cassan.

For Gurney, it was a particularly disappointing season for his Elite Prospects page. After notching a pair of goals and assists in 31 games as a 16-year-old last season, he only netted one goal and three assists in 54 games this past season. His penalty minutes spiked from 15 to 59, as his plus-minus plummeted from minus-7 to minus-24.

“This season definitely wasn’t what I wanted. I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t consistent enough and that’s why I as scratched as much as I was,” said Gurney.

Gurney and Huber weren’t the only ones who got burnt on the fourth line. Constructed with 16-and 17-year-olds all season, it didn’t matter who was slotted into the final unit, the result was less than favourable more times than not.

Whether it was Orca Wiesblatt, Hunter Campbell, Cael Zimmerman, Gurney or Huber, they all had their flaws in the Hitmen end.

Zimmerman (minus-29), Gurney (minus-24) and Campbell (minus-14) cranked out three of the five worst plus-minus ratings on the team.

Wiesblatt was signed a few weeks into the season from the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Wiesblatt didn’t like his situation in the AJHL and thought a move to the WHL would better his future.

When he showed up to the Hitmen, he was thrown into the fire, playing in a pair of games before skating through his first practice.

Things started well for the local winger, as he netted four goals and six assists in his first 26 games with the Hitmen.

When Wiesblatt was producing, he was being shifted up and down through the top three lines. He was feisty, driving hard to the net and engaging in the opposition after the whistle. Unfortunately, a broken rib early in January knocked him out of his groove.

“I was playing on the top three lines regularly until I broke my rib. Once I came back, I was put back on the fourth line and I didn’t feel like I had an opportunity to get back up to the other lines,” said Wiesblatt. “It felt like I was back in Brooks.”

Situated on the fourth line upon returning after the Hitmen brought in a bevy of young talent during the trade deadline, Wiesblatt only scratched together one goal and two assists in the remaining 23 games.

If anyone was to get a passing grade for their performance this season, it could be awarded to Campbell, who was living in a different country and playing in a different league as a 16-year-old.

“It took some time, but I had to develop into the speed of the game. I had the opportunity to play lots, which I think was good. I’d rather be on the ice regardless of how we were doing instead of being up in the press box,” said Campbell, who appeared in 59 games this season, the second most of any rookie. “A lot of the time, we would have small mental breakdowns. I felt like we would be fine in their zone, but a quick slip up and the puck was back in our end and we had a tough time getting it out.”

Paired alongside Campbell for roughly the first 75 per cent of the schedule was Zimmerman, another 2001-born product.

Zimmerman won the battle in training camp over Bryce Bader to stick with the team. After some growing pains in the first few months of the season, Zimmerman took off and flourished after receiving more ice time and being bumped up in the line combinations.

“Going up against guys like Sam Steel was a real eye-opener for me and probably a lot of the younger guys on our team. It gives us an idea about where we need to get to,” said Zimmerman.

In the Englefeld, Sask. product’s first 32 games in the WHL, he recorded seven points and a minus-12 rating. In his closing 17 games, he finished with seven points and a minus-9 rating.

“The speed was definitely faster than midget triple-A. We had to adjust to the speed, make plays with our heads up and know what you’re doing with the puck before you get it,” said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman won the Rookie of the Year award for the Hitmen and finished the season on a line with Focht and Nielsen, in what could be a very tasty combination next season.

In the closing meetings in the days following the end of the regular season, the team portrayed the idea of looking forward to next year, but stressed the importance of not wiping this year from their memories.

“We saw a lot of guys develop and we played better as a team down the stretch. We need to use this experience we went through and not forget about it, but learn from it. We need to go back and look what we can improve on,” said Ferguson. “Just because you are a year older in this league doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to get better.”

Just because the fourth line was a black hole this year, doesn’t mean it will be one again next year. The five players mentioned that predominantly took up time on the fourth line all possess skills that can help this team moving forward.

Gurney is a big body and shows no sign of fear going into the corner to try and jar a puck loose in the offensive or defensive end. Huber has shown the ability to put the puck in the net from the outside and from the dirty areas. He plays a hard game and won 56.6 per cent of his draws this season. If he works on his skating this summer, the ability to get to open spots on the ice and to more loose pucks will help his game. Zimmerman took the biggest leap out of anyone during the season and could be a big X factor for the 2018-19 campaign. The Hitmen are hoping that 59 games as a 16-year-old will help further the development of Campbell. The Hitmen are also hoping that Wiesblatt comes into camp next season healthy and is able to find a more consistent game and be a tenacious goal scorer.

Those players might not all develop into top-six roles next year, but they can provide a foundation and sense of security in their own zone, allowing their teammates to capitalize in the other end.

As important as it was to get a full season in as a 16- or 17-year-old, the upcoming offseason is just as important. The players know what they need to do to elevate their games to bring this team back to the postseason.

Having skilled players like Stotts, Focht and Nielsen up front is nice, but the Hitmen need more. Depth is what will take this team to the next level. The players that endured a grueling season banished to the fourth line have what it takes to turn into great glue pieces that could make this team tough to play against, regardless of which line is on the ice.

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