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Sanders reassigned; other Calgary Hitmen roster battles

Following last year’s frenetic trade deadline, Calgary Hitmen GM Jeff Chynoweth said of newly acquired 19-year-old netminder Nick Sanders, “we feel Nick can not only help us push for a playoff spot this season but audition to be one of our three overages next year.”

The only issue was that Sanders never recorded a single save for the Hitmen.

Sanders was reassigned to the Lloydminster Bobcats of the Alberta Junior Hockey League earlier this week.

Last season, he appeared in four games with the Prince Albert Raiders before getting reassigned to the Bobcats for what was called a conditioning stint. Sanders was coming off hip surgery and needed time to get back into game shape, and that wasn’t going to happen with Ian Scott soaking up the majority of the Raider minutes.

Days before the Hitmen sent a sixth-round pick in this year’s Western Hockey League Bantam Draft to the Raiders, Sanders sustained a high ankle sprain. The injury kept him on the shelf for the remainder of the 2017-18 season.

Entering camp, Sanders was one three overagers, along with forwards Luke Coleman (1998) and Jake Kryski (1998).

When asked if the Hitmen will go out and add to their overage pile, Chynoweth said, “I don’t think so. For the time being, we will let it play out. The 1998-age group is not as deep as the 1997s or the 1995s two years ago, so we will take out time to evaluate the situation and figure out what is best for the hockey club.”

The Hitmen rolled with four goaltenders into the pre-season, but made the decision to reassign Sanders to the Bobcats following the pair of exhibition games against the Edmonton Oil Kings last weekend.

“It was unfortunate that we didn’t get to watch him play (last year). To his credit, he worked very hard this summer and got into great shape,” said Chynoweth. “We just felt as a group that the three other goaltenders had passed him. We needed him to carry the mail for us.

“You can’t have a 20-year-old as the backup.”

In two pre-season games, Sanders went 1-0-0-0 in 62 minutes. He stopped 23-of-26 shots for an .885 save percentage and a 2.92 goals against average.

Hanging with the Hitmen as the pre-season comes to an end this weekend is last year’s backup Matthew Armitage (1999), local listed player Jack McNaughton (2001) and the former WHL champion Carl Stankowski (2000).

Armitage benefited most from Sanders injury last season, as the Creston, B.C. product finished the final six games with a 4-1-1-0 record, coupled with a 2.90 goals against average and a .918 save percentage.

“I’m mostly focused on myself and trying to get ready for when it’s my turn in net, but at the same time, it means that I’m one step closer to making this team,” said Armitage, a former fourth-round pick by the Spokane Chiefs. “I’m just keeping focused on what I can control and let the rest play itself out.”

The starting job for when the Hitmen lift the curtain on the 2018-19 season Sept. 22 in Cranbrook against the Kootenay ICE is basically still up for grabs.

Stankowski has really impressed the Hitmen staff as the pre-season has gone on. He hasn’t missed a game or a practice, is 1-0 in two games with a dazzling .973 save percentage and a 1.01 goals against average.

His health will continue to be monitored as the season plays out. There is no plan in place for how little or how often he will be used, but he is looking good to grab one of two spots with the club.

To his credit, McNaughton has made the decision a difficult one for the Hitmen. He has performed admirably in his two appearances, having picked up a pair of victories and stopped 21-of-24 shots. He is the youngest of the bunch, was an undrafted netminder and hasn’t played one second of regular season action in the WHL.

Elsewhere on the depth chart, the Hitmen are getting one final look at the rest of their defencemen in camp with the departure of their two imported players.

Vladislav Yeryomenko (1999) was nabbed in the fifth round by the Nashville Predators during the National Hockey League Entry Draft last summer and is away at training camp. Egor Zamula fell through the cracks of the draft, but landed an invite to the Philadelphia Flyers.

That leaves the Hitmen with seven blue liners in camp, given that Yeryomenko and Zamula (2000) can be returned at any moment.

Dakota Krebs (1999) and Andrew Viggars (2000) are day-to-day at the moment, but both were at practice today. Krebs was a scratch from the Hitmen’s 6-2 victory over the Oil Kings Sept. 8, but he believes that was in regard to healing up a nagging lower-body injury.

“It’s a super competitive camp for the defencemen. Everyone is giving it their all and battling for a spot. Even the older guys know that they need to be at their best to get more ice time,” said Krebs.

Krebs could be one of the returning blue liners that are beginning to feel some heat from a pair of younger talents trying to crack the roster.

Luke Prokop (2002) is a name many Hitmen fans should be familiar with by now. A first-round pick in 2017, the Edmonton native played in 14 games last season as a 15-year-old. Playing in his third pre-season game this year with the Hitmen, he recorded a team-high three assists.

Devan Klassen (2001) was also called up for nine games last year, but as a 16-year-old from the Grande Prairie Storm of the Albert Midget Hockey League. He has also improved and impressed enough to earn the right to battle for a spot on the blue line.

“I think (Klassen) playing in those games — no different from Prokop and Jackson van de Leest the year before — gave him a leg up on the other first-year players. He knew what to expect coming in, the travel that goes with the league and the intensity of games, he was able to hit the ground running,” said Chynoweth.

Chynoweth also stated that the Hitmen are likely to carry nine defencemen following the conclusion of the pre-season, while they wait for Yeryomenko and Zamula to return, along with Viggars and Krebs to clear up any lingering bumps and brusies.

Also missing from the Hitmen’s practice was Riley Stotts (2000), who was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third round during this past summer’s draft.

Carson Focht (2000) was a draft eligible player but didn’t hear his named called by an NHL team. Once the draft ended, he got a call from the Boston Bruins with an invite to rookie camp.

“It was pretty disappointing to not hear my name get called in the draft, but right after the draft, the Bruins gave me a call and invited me to camp,” said Focht, who arrived back in Calgary earlier this afternoon.

Competing with the top picks and prospects in the Bruins’ system, Focht participated in strength testing, practice sessions and suited up in a pair of games in the Prospect Challenge at the HarborCenter in Buffalo, N.Y.

Focht started the tourney Sept. 7 by centring the fourth line with John Ludvig against the Buffalo Sabres’ top prospects. Focht was scratched against the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top prospects, but the Hitmen forward returned to the lineup Sept. 10 in the finale against the New Jersey Devils’ top prospects, where he centred the top line with Ryan Fitzgerald and the Bruins’ first-round pick from the 2015 draft, Zach Senyshyn.

Focht was held off the score sheet in both contests, but picked up a split decision, going 1-1 and learned some valuable lessons.

“I felt like I got my feet wet in the first game and got more comfortable with more opportunity in my second game,” said Focht. “I got pretty positive feedback from our coach (Jay) Leach after the camp and it’s only going to motivate me more to work hard this season.

“I think it could be a pretty big season for me this year.”

The return of Focht is only going to limit playing time for others, but potential rookies like Riley Fiddler-Schultz (2002), Ryder Korczak (2002) and Tye Carriere (2001) might have already made a good enough impression on the Hitmen staff.

“Points aren’t important at anytime of the year, there’s more to the game than just points. Take a guy like Ryder Korczak, he’s had a very good training camp and has carried that into the pre-season. He does the subtle things that aren’t sexy or fancy, but the coaching staff is very happy with what we’ve seen from him,” said Chynoweth. “He came to camp with a purpose to make the team, same as Fiddler-Schultz. (Fiddler-Schultz) has been excellent in his time with us and it’s nice having a decision to make with thee 16-year-olds pushing the 17- and 18-year-olds for jobs.”

Korczak was the Hitmen’s second-round pick in the 2017 draft, while Fiddler-Schultz was taking in the seventh round that year.

Because production does matter at some level, Carriere and Fiddler-Schultz are tied for the rookie scoring lead in the pre-season with two goals and one assist each. Korczak rounds out the rookie scoring with one goal and one assist in four games.

Other notable reassignments from the pre-season roster include the fourth overall pick from the recent draft in Sean Tschigerl (2003), Zac Funk (2003), Connor Brock (2001), Tyson Galloway (2003) and Ryan Shostak (2001).

Tschigerl impressed the Hitmen enough to entice them to call him up at some point this year, while their second-round pick from the same draft, Galloway, was reassigned to the Thompson Blazers of the B.C. Major Midget Hockey League

Funk, another second-round pick from 2018, was sent down to the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds of the BCMML, Shostak was reassigned to the Calgary Buffaloes of the AMHL and Brock got sent to the Calgary Mustangs of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

The Hitmen roster should be near completion following a home-and-home with Chynoweth’s old crew, the ICE, beginning Friday night in Invermere and wrapping up Saturday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome (7 p.m.).

The Hitmen said they will release a regular season roster next week, but it was not announced which day.

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