11.Calgary Hitmen: Entering last year I was under the stern belief that the Calgary Hitmen were contenders which was met with plenty of questioning. In fairness to the readers of this blog they were 100% correct. I didn't envision the goal scoring to be so anemic with Cow town only accumulating two hundred and fifteen goals, fifth worst in the conference. The defence held up to expected standards but weren't assisted consistently enough by the forwards which led to a decidedly titled time of possession in the defensive zone. Puck control was a glaring red flag. Some changes were administered in the front office with long time Kootenay Ice owner Jeff Chynoweth now overtaking the General Manager's position and NCAA convert Dallas Ferguson coming over from Alaska-Fairbanks. I know virtually nothing pertaining to Ferguson's coaching style but one thing is for certain, putting a premium on offence is imperative. The brand implemented particular in 2016/2017 won't suffice in the run and gun genre of hockey that we currently reside in. I respect the fact that the strength of this club is on the back end but basic offensive fundamentals must be preached or they will stay entrenched in this rut.
Am I out of line comparing this Hitmen organization to that of the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the sense that Tampa Bay who called upon Brad Johnson under center that year was solely reliant on it's defensive escapades while employing Pop Warner football tactics to make due offensively.Whatever structure former Head Coach Mark French encouraged last year must be scrapped and somehow,someway there's got to be a philosophical shift in getting this group of forwards to play with speed. I grant that could be because the cast of characters didn't allow a different configuration to deployed but aside from the counter productive game planning most nights from my viewings they looked very lethargic.After analyzing the depth charts it is true that they don't possess a wide array of team speed so we must dissect what can be done to rectify this issue. Stretch passes are becoming the norm in this era and by opening up the ice surface it'll force the oppositon defence to back off and in lieu of this should allow further free spaces for the centers cutting through the middle. The irony of me critquing the overall velocity of this group is they do lay claim to one of the Western Hockey League's finest skaters in Matteo Gennaro. It was a general observation the lineup as a whole but certainly doesn't apply to Matteo. I was listening to an interview between Hitmen play by play broadcaster Brad Curle and the 'Pipeline Show' host Guy Flaming(great interview btw) and Brad was fairly confident as am I that Gennaro will return for his twenty year old season. In the same corresponding interview Brad shared his thoughts that four guys were battling for three positions and that there was the assertion that him and I respectfully disagree. From my vantage point IF Matteo continues down the junior route then it becomes three guys for two spots. With all due respect to fellow overagers Jakob Stukel, Brady Reagan and the newly acquired netminder Nick Schneider they are not on the same level and I'll take it a step further by classifying Matteo as a top three twenty year old league wide. The beauty about Gennaro is his acumen for excelling in all areas over the ice. He's made seismic leaps in the O-zone with as he increased his goal output from eighteen in 2015/2016 to forty three last year. It's not just that for why I consider him a special player, he also is a 'world class' penalty killer. My adage(it's not mine at all, I ripped it off somebody) is that you find me someone with superb wheels and I'll point out a great penalty kill and that description fits him to a T. A full healthy season and the coveted fifty goal mark on an improving Calgary team isn't out of the realm of possibilities. Matteo is the present but who exactly the future? That honour gets handed to Fort St.John,BC masterpiece Tristen Nielsen. Don't let the 2016/2017 statistics paint a picture that doesn't exist as the point total doesn't match up with on ice performance. It's actually quite astonishing that when you do the post-mortem on his season that he only computed seven points, unfathomable really! If I had to sum up Tristen in a short sentence it would be doesn't back down.Rarely will you see a player that exudes such tenacity, nevertheless a sixteen year old rookie. There are a multitude of reasons I wanted to profile him but not the least of which was wrapping this around to my original hypothesis of the Hitmen notoriously playing at a dinosaur pace. Tristen can skate and I begin to wonder whether part of the problem a year ago was that his linemates couldn't keep up and the hope is that coach Ferguson notices this and lends a hand to Nielsen's development by testing him alongside Gennaro. A mentor aiding the student scenario. It's not uncommon for coaches to place highly regarded prospects with veterans often times yielding positive results. I'll never forget that during the 2011-2012 WHL playoffs a fifteen year old Moose Jaw Warrior by the name of Brayden Point was called up for the playoffs en route to the conference final and saw time with Quinton Howden and Justin Kirsch. His play was garnering such good reviews that he begun to inherit significant power play time. If Nielsen playing beside veterans can translate to a career in the Brayden Point ball park then Hitmen supporters will be through the roof.
I'll repeat my stance that defence is where it all starts for Calgary. Carolina Hurricane prospect Jake Bean naturally plays a big role in that but he's not the sole contributing piece at their disposal. I thought Belarusian Vladislav Yeryomenko was fantastic in first year venturing into North America Not to label an entire continent one way but it's my experience that Europeans, especially European defenceman come in and during the rookie seasons play with a severe level of tentativeness. That supposed adaption period memo seemingly didn't reach Vladislav. His adaptability learning new systems, languages and cultures was expedited. Where I'll give former coach French credit and I'm curious to see whether Ferguson carries similar principles is the decision to eventually pair up Bean with Yeryomenko was brilliant. You can say what you want about Jake and I've definitely been harsh in my assessment over the past couple years but coupling the two together is the perfect contrast as with Bean joining the rush at every chance, Vladislav can be the last line of defence, a role he's very comfortable feeling. By saying that what would happen sporadically is the back check would zone in on Jake so much so that they would ignore the Belarusian(I grew tired of typing out the name) and he'd swoop in and for a "defensive defenceman" he recorded a commendable twenty five points. I spoke earlier to my insistence that the Hitmen would have three overagers competing for two spots but to clarify barring an unforeseen circumstance(trade, pre-season injury etc) that the decisions have likely already been made. Stukel and Gennaro are too important for the offence and Nick Schneider was an off-season acquistion so it appears Brady will have to latch onto somewhere else across the league or else pursue the Junior A route. That compounded by the realization that ice time needs to be found for young studs in Drea Espositio and Jackson Van der Leest, the writing is very much on the wall. Let's talk about Drea Esposito from Winnipeg who fell to the fifth round of the 2015 Bantam Draft.Van Der Leest will deservedly receive increased attention over his own draft position but I argue that Esposito is in a position to pitch in extensively. Another own end minded defence, like seriously Bean may have to direct all scoring chances himself, similarly to Yeryomenko(ok I typed it one more time) he takes care of his own end before averting his attention to other aspects and although some may view this as an unfair comparison, the only thing separating Vlady(18) and Drea(17) are age. Truthfully carbon copies of one another. As a member of the wildly successful Winnipeg Wild Midget program, I think I may of cited this already once or twice he did register above average levels of scoring touch so it'll come down to whether or not they're ready to push Drea up the depth charts so his own inner confidence can rise. It'll be a tough ask with Bean,Yeryomenko, Jameson Murray and Van Der Leest by virtue of draft position pre ordained inside the top four. It'll take a stellar first couple months combined with Drea capitalizing on an increased assignment while Jake tends to an extended look at Hurricanes camp/World Juniors.
The goaltending position for Calgary is where I hold my hottest take. If Cody Porter at the time of this writing has landed on his feet with a different Western Hockey League organization then I congratulate him but to my knowledge he hasn't. To put it bluntly Porter was handled very poorly by this team on levels that we haven't seen since maybe Isiah Thomas with the Boston Celtics(or, did that just happen?) For Porter to be discarded only to eventually bring in another twenty year old in Nick Schneider is inexcusable. He'd be the first to admit that 2016/2017 was an injury plagued campaign however by working his way back to be physically ready for playoffs when he could've just as easily mailed it in shows resilience and how was he paid back you ask? That's right......with his outright release. Like I implied I have no idea what options exist for Cody, sometimes overagers get contacted by teams from the O or the Q in search of a goalie and I'm hopeful something will materialize because when 100% he was one of the best tenders in this league. Schneider and Porter's save percentages were virtually identical the last two years and it can't be argued that Porter backstopped an inferior team. Schneider had such little support amongst Medicine Hat Tiger hierarchy that they were left little choice but to haul in Mike Bullion from Portland in an attempt to save the season. This is the guy you're choosing to "upgrade" with? Give me a break!