Two days ago, the Calgary Hitmen unveiled the players who will suit up in Cranbrook in their Western Hockey League opener tonight the Kootenay ICE, as they hope to end the franchise’s second-longest playoff drought.
The drought may be insignificant with only having to sit and watch the WHL playoffs for one spring, but the players on the roster will carry significant impact in ending that drought.
Off the top, the most noticeable part of the Hitmen’s roster is that they only carry two overage players in Jake Kryski (1998) and Luke Coleman (1998).
Nick Sanders (1998) was a goaltender the Hitmen acquired at the trade deadline last year before learning about his high ankle sprain. He was brought in at the time to help out the stretch drive and be one of the leaders on this year’s squad as a 20-year-old, but he didn’t play in one game. The Hitmen didn’t feel comfortable enough with him as the starter this year and didn’t want to spend an overage spot on their backup, so he was reassigned earlier in the pre-season. Sanders went 1-0-0-0 in three pre-season games with a 2.92 goals against average and .885 save percentage.
Hitmen GM Jeff Chynoweth did not express any urgency in finding a third overage player, but will monitor roster moves of other teams.
Forcing the Hitmen’s hands were a trio of netminders in Matthew Armitage (1999), Carl Stankowski (2000) and Jack McNaughton (2001).
Armitage filled in nicely when the Hitmen loosened the reigns on Nick Schneider last year and finished the season with a 4-1-1-0 stretch.
Stankowski has a bit of a question mark coming into camp, but has showed no signs of slowing down with his Ankylosing Spondylitis — an aggressive form of arthritis in his hips and lower back — and even played all 60 minutes of the Hitmen’s final pre-season game against the ICE Sept. 15, where he stopped 42-of-44 shots.
McNaughton has impressed enough to hang around a little longer. The locally listed goaltender is trying to make the jump from midget triple-A to the WHL. In the pre-season, he went 2-0-0-0 in three games with a 4.66 goals against average with a .841 save percentage.
It hasn’t been announced yet, but Stankowski could have the first crack at grabbing the starting role. The Hitmen believe that they have enough in Armitage and McNaughton to help carry the load if Stankowski needs a break for health-related reasons during the season.
Immediately in front of the masked me will be a crowded blue line with the return of Egor Zamula (2000).
The Russian slipped through the cracks of the National Hockey League Entry Draft this past summer, but still earned an invite to the Philadelphia Flyers’ training camp. Zamula impressed enough in his audition, as he returned to the Hitmen’s practice yesterday with a three-year entry level deal in hand.
“We are all proud of Egor for going to camp undrafted and walking away with a deal. He’ll be a big-time player for us back there and we have some other bodies to go with him,” said Hitmen Head Coach Steve Hamilton. “We will be at eight on the back end with Dakota (Krebs) missing the first few games, so we don’t’ see a point of making any immediate changes back there. We like the healthy competition for playing time.”
The one defenceman that was recently reassigned was Calgary product Andrew Viggars (2000).
Injuries cost Viggars much of his rookie season, as the 6-foot-3, left-handed shooting blue liner only appeared in 39 games where recorded five assists and was one of the few players in the positive for plus minus, at plus-8.
One of the players that made decisions more difficult than they could have been this year was the emergence of 16-year-old Luke Prokop (2002).
The seventh-overall pick was thrust into the spotlight as a 15-year-old last year, where he suited up in 14 games on an emergency basis, as the Hitmen were riddled with injuries and had a pair of blue liners away serving their respected countries at the World Junior Championship.
The Edmonton native competed at the Under-17 National Developmental camp for Team Canada this past summer and already could be one of the better puck movers out of the Hitmen defensive core.
“Luke is very mature physically and has a young, professional approach to the daily business. He is a student of the game, does not get overwhelmed by situations, I like what he brings to the rink and has a firm command on what he needs to do to be successful out there,” said Hamilton. “You don’t see his maturity too much in young players.”
From Prokop’s draft class, the Hitmen kept two more 16-year-olds.
Taken one round and 22 picks after Prokop was Ryder Korczak (2002).
Korczak stayed with the Hitmen for a pair of pre-season games last year and appeared in three regular season outings. Needless to say, he was thrilled to join the same league as his older brother, Kaedan.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to be named to a WHL team, and even more so having it be the Calgary Hitmen,” said Ryder, who uses a Bobby Orr-esque tape job. “Camp was tough, we had a lot of good players here, but I thought I saw the ice well and made some good plays.”
Three more players were taken by the Hitmen in that 2017 draft before they landed on another Edmonton product, in Riley Fiddler-Schultz (2002) with the 148thpick in the seventh round.
Thick for his age and height (5-foot-10, 178 pounds) Fiddler-Schultz tied for the rookie lead with three points in six pre-season games.
“Both (Fiddler-Schultz and Korczak) are very responsible away from the puck. They both compete, are very mindful of the game without the puck and kept accumulating positive thoughts in our minds as camp went on to the point that we couldn’t overlook their performances anymore,” said Hamilton.
Red Deer native Ty Carriere (2001) didn’t get the chance to crack the Hitmen as a 16-year-old, as he had his appendix removed the day camp opened last year.
“The timing really sucked. I missed the Hitmen camp and my whole pre-season for my midget triple-A team. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to get an invite back,” said the undrafted Carriere. “Lucky enough, I had a good season and I was able to find some chemistry with older guys like Coleman and (Mark) Kastelic.”
Carriere didn’t even get the chance to debut with the Hitmen last year, but two other 17-year-olds used their previous experience to break camp with the Hitmen this year.
Devan Klassen (2001) filled in similarly as Prokop did last year on the back end, but in a lot shorter stint. He will start the season with the Hitmen.
Bryce Bader (2001) was one of the last reassignments last year, but made the Hitmen this year despite suffering a high ankle sprain during the pre-season. He will remain with the club while he comes back from his six-to-eight week injury.
“We were specifically looking for talent in that 2001 age group that would be the best fit for our team and guys that can slide up and down the roster. They do subtle things on the ice that as a coach you appreciate and their teammates appreciate too, but it might go without all the fan fare compared to other guys,” said Hamilton.
The rest of the Hitmen roster is chalked full of players that have received plenty of fan fare over the years.
With Zamula back in the fold, the Hitmen will open the season with all four players back from NHL training camps.
Vladislav Yeryomenko (2001), Riley Stotts (2000) and Carson Focht (2000) were all away at separate camps.
The Dallas Stars drafted Yeryomenko, while Stotts was taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs this past June. Both returned to the Hitmen earlier in the week.
“Camp was great, I learned lots as a player and soaked it all in. I was surrounded by people with great knowledge,” said Stotts, who didn’t suit up in a game with the Maple Leafs. “Skating on the same line with guys like Patrick Marleau and Auston Matthews is a pretty eye-opening experience. You got to see their habits and learn from them. It was a pretty fun experience.”
Other players that could hear their named called this year in their first season of draft eligible play could by 6-foot-6 defensive defenceman Jackson van de Leest (2001) and Cael Zimmerman (2001), who surged late last season after centering a line with Tristen Nielsen (2000) and Focht.
Nielsen saw his name on draft boards last season, but fell through the cracks of the draft and didn’t even receive an invite to camp.
Despite seeing his season shrunk by injuries last year, the former Hitmen first rounder obliterated his career high in goals with 19 in 49 games.
Now motivated to prove himself for NHL scouts, Nielsen has the talent to pop in 30-plus goals — if he stays healthy.
Kastelic (1999) was just named the Hitmen’s 26thcaptain in franchise history and has all the qualities of a hard worker that leads by example, and could be the right man to bring this team back to the post season.
Now, all they need to do is drop the puck and see how all these pieces fit together.