It’s beginning to seem like I curse the Hitmen every time I write about how well they’ve been playing. Wednesday night the Hitmen came out flat, didn’t capitalize on early power plays, took early penalties that Edmonton did capitalize on, and by the time they really got going in the third period, it was too little too late and the winning streak ended.
It was a tough loss to send the team into the Christmas break, but with some luck will serve as a reminder that they have to work hard every shift, every game once the second half of the season gets started.
In other Hitmen news, for the second season in a row, the Hitmen completed a trade Tuesday to acquire the rights to a NCAA player. Last season it was Adam Tambellini and this season, they’ve acquired the rights to Boston College goaltender Thatcher Demko. By all accounts, Demko’s been excellent for BC this season, and he’s one of three goaltenders USA Hockey is bringing to the WJC (he was with the team last year as well, but didn’t see any game action). Following the news of the trade, Twitter was awash with insistence Demko plans to stay at BC, but around this time of year, anything can happen. Will be interesting to see how it plays out.
A quick note about programming: Last night was my last live game of the year. I’m going to take a couple of weeks away from the blog and will come back some time after January 11.
Before I go, let’s dive into a couple of fun things. First up, some first half awards for the Hitmen.
Best rookie: Pavel Karnaukhov It’s easy to make a case for a couple of the other guys (notably Jake Bean) or to overthink this choice, but for overall production, and growth from September through now, Karnaukhov’s my choice. Some of his early production was a result of being in the right place at the right time, and though his point totals haven’t kept up that early pace his overall game has improved. He’s one of the few forwards on this team that often comes back deep enough to help his defencemen with sub-optimal passes. He’s been using his size consistently for the last few weeks and has given Calgary several options up front during Jake Virtanen’s absences. Karnaukhov looks poised for a monstrous second half, and he’ll have more good news below.
Best defenceman: Travis Sanheim I just can’t honestly pick any of the other guys. He’s been so good this season, I picked him to make Canada’s WJC team, despite being one of the younger defencemen in camp. He’s shown the ability this season to pull the Hitmen out of a lackluster performance, and can take over games all on his own. I can’t wait to see what the next level looks like for him in Calgary.
Most Underrated Player: Mack Shields After an up-and-down start to the season in which I wondered if Shields would lose the starting job to Evan Johnson, Shields has been very consistent through November and December. He’s had some big leads to play with, but he’s also bailed the team out in some nailbiters and he’s shown a propensity for making huge, acrobatic saves. Chris Driedger’s pads are practically impossible to fill, but Shields has shown he can keep this team in games, and give the high-octane offense in front of him opportunities to win them.
MVP: Travis Sanheim I’m choosing Sanny over some other very worthy guys (Kenton Helgeson, Chase Lang, Jake Virtanen, Adam Tambellin, Connor Rankin have all been deserving at different points in the season) with the caveat that Sanny may not be my pick at the end of the season. Through the first half though, he’s been Calgary’s most consistent player. The team won a couple of tough games without him last weekend, but I’m not sure they’d win consistently if he were gone for a long stretch.
Overall: The Hitmen needed a few weeks to really get a handle on new coach Mark French’s system (and if I’m being completely honest, they’re still not all the way there) and now that things are coming together for them, they’re starting to look like a team that could be dangerous in the WHL playoffs. Younger players like Loch Morrison, Jake Bean, Beck Malenstyn and Layne Bensmiller look like they’re starting to develop into dependable players, Kenton Helgeson looks better and better at forward every game (though Anaheim’s decision to move him up front will always baffle me). And the team is getting strong contributions from role players like Marshall Donald and Elliott Peterson, which leads to them rolling four lines far more often now than ever during the Mike Williamson era. Obviously, division leaders Medicine Hat think they’re dangerous, as do Red Deer and Kootenay, and Edmonton is maybe one player away from also feeling that way. So the going won’t be easy for Calgary, and they have a couple of tough trips east coming up, but Hitmen fans might want to start getting excited about this team.
The second piece of fun today is my first ever draft ranking! Couple of notes, qualifiers, etc. This is just a quick top 10 of WHL players I’ve seen live this season. Mathew Barzal and Paul Bittner aren’t making visits to Calgary this season, so they’re not on the list yet. Most of these rankings are based on one viewing, so guys may be in very different orders than you’ve seen them elsewhere (looking at you, Jansen Harkins). For now, it’s just the ranking and a guess at where in the draft I could see the player being selected (which won’t necessarily reflect what I’ve thought of the player), though I’ll throw more info at you later in the season as the list expands and as we get nearer to the draft.
- Ivan Provorov D Brandon First half of first round
- Nick Merkley F Kelowna Second half of first round
- Reid Gardiner F Prince Albert 50-70th overall
- Ryan Pilon D Brandon Mid second round
- Pavel Karnaukhov F Calgary Fourth round unless some team is really in love with him
- Connor Hobbs D Medicine Hat Unlikely to be drafted
- Adam Musil F Red Deer Mid second round
- Jansen Harkins F Prince George 20-40th overall
- Cameron Hebig F Very late, may not be drafted
- Tyler Soy F Very late, may not be drafted