Tyler Lowey

2018-19 WHL season previews: Calgary Hitmen

Calgary Hitmen

2017-18: The 2017-18 season for the Calgary Hitmen will be remembered as one of the few rebuilding years in franchise history. It was clear early that the Hitmen wouldn’t be contenders even in a down year for the Central Division, so the great sell off began early. The Hitmen dealt their captain Matteo Gennaro and alternate captain Beck Malenstyn to the Swift Current Broncos in exchange for current roster players, prospects and draft picks. The Hitmen also traded away homegrown talent Jake Bean to the Tri-City Americans for another bountiful return. Riley Stotts and Carson Focht showed great promise in the Hitmen’s future and were two of the main hauls in those trades. Last year was the first time in seven seasons that the Hitmen didn’t qualify for the playoffs, but management believes they made the moves necessary to bolster the short- and long-term future of the franchise.

Offseason departures: The most surprising departure from the Hitmen over the summer was rookie Head Coach Dallas Ferguson. After just one season, Ferguson left for family reasons, while the rest of the coaching staff and management remained. Earlier this summer, the Hitmen announced that former Edmonton Oil King Head Coach Steve Hamilton would be the 10thcoach in franchise history.

Fourth-liner Justyn Gurney was dealt at the Western Hockey League Bantam Draft to the Regina Pats. Other than that, the only players not back in a Hitmen jersey are the three overagers, in Nick Schneider, Jakob Stukel and Conner Chaulk.

Newcomers:The top two picks from the 2017 Bantam Draft could crack the lineup on a full-time basis later this week.

Luke Prokop was thrust into action last year year when the Hitmen were hamstrung with injuries and players leaving for the World Junior Championship. He appeared in 14 games and attended the Under-17 Hockey Canada Developmental Camp earlier this summer. He may only be 16, but he is 6-foot-3, skates well and is already one of their better puck movers on the back end.

Taken in the following round was Saskatchewan native Ryder Korczak, the younger brother of Kaedan Korczak. Ryder played three games for the Hitmen last year as a 15-year-old and has made a solid impression on the new coaching staff this year.

Five rounds later, the Hitmen nabbed Edmonton product Riley Fiddler-Schultz. Fiddler-Schutlz tied for the rookie scoring lead in the pre-season with two goals and one helper, and is among the younger players vying for a role on the bottom six. The Hitmen like the way he skates, his shot and his ability to play with some aggression at 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds.

Overage situation: The Hitmen opened training camp with no issues on the overage front unlike last year. It appeared as if Jake Kryski, Luke Coleman and Nick Sanders were going to be the three 20-year-olds on the club. That all changed when the Hitmen reassigned goaltender Sanders last week to the Lloydminsiter Bobcats of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

Luke Coleman (Andy Devlin)

Sanders was acquired at the trade deadline last year from the Prince Albert Raiders, but never played a game for the Hitmen. He suffered a high ankle sprain days before the trade and never became healthy enough to contribute to the team.

Last week, Hitmen GM Jeff Chynoweth said the team was in no rush to fill their final overage spot and will evaulate it as the season progresses. 

Import situation: Depending on who comes back from National Hockey League training camps, the Hitmen could have had both import spots vacant, one spot vacant or both spots occupied.

Defencemen Vladislav Yeryomenko was drafted by the Nashville Predators in the fifth-round last summer and just returned from training camp Sept. 17.

His pairing partner, Egor Zamula, slipped through the draft but still earned an invite to the Philadelphia Flyers training camp. He has not returned to the Hitmen lineup.

It is safe to assume that the Hitmen are expecting both players back this season. The Hitmen were the third WHL team to pick in the annual CHL Import Draft, but passed on both the eighth-overall and 68th-overall pick.

Returning scorers:

Pts rank Player GP G A Pts
2 Jake Kryski 71 16 40 56
3 Mark Kastelic 71 23 22 45
4 Riley Stotts 69 19 25 44 (3 pts with SC)
5 Vladislav Yeryomenko 63 13 38 41
6 Luke Coleman 72 15 24 39
7 Tristen Nielsen 49 19 16 35
8 Carson Focht 69 13 20 33 (16 pts with TC)
10 Cael Zimmerman 66 6 12 18
11 Egor Zamula 69 2 16 18 (7 pts with REG)
12 Dakota Krebs 69 4 12 16 (8 pts with TC)
13 Dom Schmiemann 68 1 13 14 (3 pts with SC)
14 Orca Wiesblatt 49 5 8 13
15 Hunter Campbell 59 4 7 11
16 Layne Toder 70 1 9 10
18 Zach Huber 56 2 3 5
19 Jackson van de Leest 36 1 4 5
20 Andrew Viggars 39 0 5 5
23 Luke Prokop 14 0 2 2
26 Bryce Bader 3 0 0 0
27 Ryder Korczak 3 0 0 0
29 Devan Klassen 9 0 0 0

 

Returning goalies

 

Player GP GAA Sv % Record
Matthew Armitage 19 3.55 0.890 4-7-1-0

Forwards: Up front, the Hitmen should boast a roster with more depth and more skill than they did last year. Despite seeing their leading scorer in Jakob Stukel (37 goals, 27 assists) and a solid veteran in Conner Chaulk (16 goals, 15 assists) graduate the league, the Hitmen should improve offensively from last year’s sixth-worst goals for ranking of 226.

Riley Stotts (2000) enjoyed a breakout season last year after coming to the Hitmen and getting paired up with Kryski. The two will be attached at the hip this year and should both enjoy career seasons now that they can start on the same line this year.

Tristen Nielsen (Andy Devlin)

Tristen Nielsen (2000) and Carson Focht (2000) are two guys similar to Stotts to keep an eye on. Even though they were both passed over in the draft for different reasons, both carry the potential to be breakout stars in the Central Division. Both are former first-round bantam picks and have the ability to skate and create offensive plays.

Nielsen battled injuries all last year and Focht was buried in the depth chart with the Tri-City Americans before arriving to Calgary at the trade deadline.

Cael Zimmerman (2001) worked his way up the depth chart as a 16-year-old last season and finished the year centring a line with Focht and Nielsen. He finished last year strong with six points in his final 13 contests and could carry that over into this year. If he plays in the top-six more often than not, his production is surely to spike from six goals and 12 assists in 66 games last season.

Mark Kastelic enjoyed a career season last year with 23 goals and 45 points in 71 games. He will be one of the leaders on the team and he is the throwback power forward that has gone away from the game. He has a great chance to captain this team and could replace the production lost from Stukel.

Zach Huber under-performed on the fourth line in his first full season with the Hitmen. He is coming off one of the strongest pre-seasons for the Hitmen and probably saved his job. He was a scorer at the midget level and could help the Hitmen in another bottom-six role this season.

Defence: Positions in the top three pairings has been the biggest roster battle for the Hitmen in the pre-season with nine players returning who logged minutes last year.

Dom Schmiemann (photo Tyler Lowey)

When this story was published, the Hitmen had yet to release their regular season roster.

Prokop’s emergence could force out guys like Devan Klassen (who also filled in for injured players last year, but is 17 this year) and Andrew Viggars (2000).

There doesn’t appear to be much offensive production from the blue line this year, but what they lack in point producing, they make up for in size. Only Layne Toder (2000) stands below the 6-foot mark, while Viggars (6-foot-3), Dom Schmiemann (6-foot-3.7), Jackson van de Leest (6-foot-6), Dakota Krebs (6-foot-4.5) and Zamula (6-foot-3.7) all provide towering presences on the back end.

Goalies: Last year, Nick Schnieder carried the mail for the Hitmen and set a franchise record for saves and minutes played. This year, the goaltending picture isn’t so clear. As of release of this article, the Hitmen have three goaltenders on the roster with a lot less experience than what Schnieder brought to the table last year.

Matthew Armitage (photo Andy Devlin)

Matthew Armitage (1999) backed up Schneider last season and finished the season strong with a 4-1-1-0 record with a 2.90 goals against average and a .918 save percentage, but he only has one season under his belt and only appeared in 19 contests last year (mostly in relief roles).

The Hitmen accquired Carl Stankowski (2000) over the summer from the Seattle Thunderbirds. As a 16-year-old, Stankowksi was a backup but got thrust into the spotlight during the playoffs and led the Thunderbirds to the Memorial Cup. The only issue with Stankowski is his health. He missed all of last season with an aggressive form of arthritis in his lower back and hips, which caused him to miss the entire season. So far, Stankowski has looked great with the Hitmen and hasn’t missed a beat on the ice. How long he can keep it up and how much the Hitmen can rely on him to be the No. 1 guy is anyone’s guess at this point.

That leaves Jack McNaughton, a 17-year-old local product who went 2-0 in the pre-season with a 4.66 goals against average and a .841 save percentage. He has never played in the WHL regular season and has never played more than 22 games in one season.

Outlook: Last year was a rebuilding season for the Hitmen. They saw their run of seven consecutive trips to the post season end, but helped the future of the franchise by pulling the trigger on a couple of trades that would bolster their assets moving forward. The team has commented several times that if they were to miss the playoffs again this year (which would be a first since the franchises first two years of existence from 1995-97) it would be considered a failure.

With the way the Central Division unremarkably unravelled into one of the worst divisions in all of the Canadian Hockey League last season, there is no reason the Hitmen shouldn’t be competitive for a playoff spot given the growth and maturing of their younger, talented players up front.

That being said, a team can only go as far as their goaltending can take them. There doesn’t appear to be a rock solid No. 1 option for opening night later this week, so someone will have to step up and seize the role, or management may have to look elsewhere for help between the pipes.

December and January were a trying time for the Hitmen last year. With all the injuries, roster moves and players missing time for the World Junior Championship, the Hitmen went 8-17-5-0 and fell out of the race for a wild card spot. If they can have better luck on the injury front and can get some production out of Stankowski, this team should shoulder the dog days and be a contender for home ice in the Central Division come playoff time.

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