Tyler Lowey

Hitmen slowly gaining ground on the injury front

Life from the press box has provided a new perspective for a pair of Calgary Hitmen.

Andrew Viggars and Tristen Nielsen have been sidelined for nearly one third of the season with identical injuries: both players broke bones in the same hand/wrist joint one game apart.

Nielsen got pinned up against the boards at the end of a 7-3 pounding by the Portland Winterhawks Nov. 22. when he arm gave way.
Three nights later, Viggars dropped the mitts with Red Deer Rebels’ winger Brandon Cutler. In the tussle, he punched Cutler’s helmet and found himself in the press box alongside Nielsen.

“We basically had the same type of injuries. It’s never fun sitting up in the box and not be on the ice with the team, but it was nice to have someone to watch the games and go through rehab with,” said Viggars.

A lot has changed since the pair hit the shelf. They hit the Western Hockey League injury report slightly before the big Matteo Gennaro and Beck Malenstyn deal, remained out during the trade deadline fury that blew up everyone’s timelines.

When they made their returns Tuesday night, Viggars and Nielsen had to adapt on the fly to life with a handful of new teammates.

Adjusting to the new faces was slightly easier for Nielsen, who spent time with the U17 Canadian national program with Riley Stotts and Carson Focht last season. They are also all former first-round picks from the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft.

“It’s obviously a little difficult, it’s a huge difference coming into the lineup with the new guys. We lost a few of our top players but we picked up a couple young studs and they have been great for us,” said Nielsen.

There’s never a good time for an injury, but Viggars’ injury overlapped a period where the Hitmen’s top defensive unit of Jake Bean and Vladislav Yeryomenko were away at the World Junior Championship. Of the 19 games the Calgary native missed,  eight of them took place when he could have logged more ice time with the departure of Bean and Yeryomenko.

With his injury, the Hitmen were forced to call up a pair young defencemen in Luke Prokop (15) and Devan Klassen (16) for an extended period of time.

When taking into account the trades, the missed time with the World Junior players and significant time missed with injured players, it comes as no surprise to learn that the Hitmen’s goals-per-game fell from 3.92 before the Nielsen-Viggars injuries to 2.85 during that 20-game stretch.

In an incredibly small sample size, the dup provided instant offence upon their return, as they at one point held a 6-3 lead over the surging Saskatoon Blades, before wrapping up the 6-5 victory.

“It’s just nice to have bodies back and to be able to dress a full lineup. We were very depleted and needed AP’s a lot of the time,” said Hitmen Head Coach Dallas Ferguson.

Nielsen finished with one goal and one assist in his return, and could have easily finished with more if he received a bounce or two. Viggars logged minutes on the third pairing with Dom Schmiemann and took a pair of shots.

“Tristen brings a high level of skill and energy each night. He is competitive without the puck and I like having those kind of players in the lineup to provide energy with their hard work,” said Ferguson. “Andrew was coming off an injury as well. He was starting to build up some playing time but then he broke his hand. Now we are trying to build him back slowly and implement him back in with a game and couple practices. It’s nice to have bodies back in the lineup.”

A lot of work went in behind the scenes with Athletic Therapist Kyle Vouriot, finding a rehabilitation program and strength program for the two athletes with similar injuries, but very different body complexions and positions on the ice.

Unfortunately for those two, that meant a lot of conditioning skates and miles logged on the treadmill.

“We put as much work as we could into our cardio, but I still found myself huffing and puffing towards the end of the game. It’s something that I will continue to work on,” said Viggars.

For Nielsen, the added time strengthening his lower half paid immediate dividends as he broke loose on a handful of breakaways against the Blades.

“Kyle and Sean Hope-Ross (Hitmen Strength and Conditioning Coach) really helped strengthen my core and lower half, which made me more stable, changed my centre of gravity and made it easier to lean against guys when they try and knock me off the puck,” said Nielsen.

Nielsen’s injury came at an inopportune time, as he was on the hottest stretch of his career, registering seven points in his previous five games.

Not to compare injuries, but what was even more concerning about Nielsen’s injury in contrast to Viggars’ was all the time Nielsen put in over the summer honing his shot and turning him into one of the more lethal scorers on the Hitmen.

But Tuesday was evidence that there were no major setbacks.

“My shot has changed a little. There’s still a little motion I can’t quite do yet. I still have the quick release, which is important. Hopefully with the rest of my rehab it will be even more harder of a shot,” said Nielsen.

Reinserted into the lineup, the two fit in seamlessly due to their attention to detail while watching from a above.

The banged-up 17-year-olds used their time in the press box to get a birds-eye view of their new teammates, noticed some of their tendencies on the ice and even areas on the ice where they can improve on.

“Sitting up top made me realize that I have more time with the puck than I thought I did,” said Viggars, who owns a plus-5 rating in his rookie season. “It slowed the game down in a way and made me realize how I can be better positionally in my own end.”

The timing of the two returns couldn’t have come a moment too soon, as days before they suited up again, 16-year-old blue liner Jackson van de Leest succumbed to a foot injury last week at practice and will be in a walking boot for the near future.

That’s just the way things have gone for the Hitmen this season.

Around the holiday season, defenceman Jameson Murray missed seven games with an upper-body injury despite being listed as day-to-day. When Murray was ready to go, fellow rear ender Drea Esposito took his place on the injury list with an upper-body injury and has no timetable for a return.

“It’s definitely been challenging at times, the timing of the injuries seem to be happening closer together than they did last year,” said Vouriot, who is in his second year with the Hitmen. “It feels like we take one step forward but two steps back sometimes.”

At least this time the Hitmen have options on the roster to plug the holes on the back end. The acquisition of Schmiemann, Dakota Krebs and Egor Zamula provides enough depth to get by without calling up any more affiliated players.

“I just coach the guys that are available and make sure the healthy players are good to go. We have been able to evaluate some of our younger players with all the trades and injuries this season which has been good. Unfortunately injuries happen and it’s something we will go through as a group,” said Ferguson.

Those aren’t the only notes on the Hitmen injury front. Power forward Mark Kastelic was a late scratch from Tuesday’s game. Ferguson stated that he liked the way Kastelic moved today during practice and will be re-evaluated before tomorrow night’s game. Conner Chaulk also recently made his return from the injury report. He stepped into the lineup last weekend during the Hitmen’s road swing through the East Division after missing six games. Rookie forward Orca Wiesblatt has been out since Jan. 6 with an upper-body injury and is listed as week-to-week.

The timing of Nielsen and Viggars’ injuries cannot be understated. The team was short on bodies for a variety of reasons as they played their heaviest stretch of Central Division games and failed to make up ground.

Gaining able bodies will definitely help, but if the Hitmen are to make a run in during the back nine of this season, they will need to keep those bodies in the lineup each week instead of shuttling players back and forth on the injury report.