Rounding into shape

Looking for a draft sleeper? Moose Jaw’s Ryan Gardiner just might be a guy worth keeping an eye on.

It was a busy weekend for the Hitmen, and the upcoming schedule doesn’t get any lighter.

The Hitmen took both home games in a three-in-three weekend, and dropped a road decision in Red Deer.

Friday night’s game marked the home-debut of newly acquired Keegan Kanzig. The new big man hit the score sheet with an assist and a curious penalty, and showed off a little of the upside that made him a third-round draft pick in 2013. Kanzig showed high-end hockey IQ, and better puck-moving ability than I ever imagined he’d have. He was maybe even better during Sunday evening’s game, as he seemed to have more confidence in his teammates and took a few offensive chances–and a few more hit chances.

All of which is to say, I think I’m going to like having him around.

Some draft notes from the weekend:

Terrell Draude didn’t play in either home game for the Hitmen. Last weekend, Draude played very sheltered minutes in Calgary’s game against Saskatoon two Sundays ago, starting almost every shift in the offensive zone. Despite that, Draude’s line produced zero points and spent a whole lot of time skating back to their own end. The Hitmen went with other options against stiffer competition.

From Friday night’s game, if you’re looking for a sleeper who could shoot up draft boards the way Ben Thomas and Travis Sanheim did last season, you might want to check out Moose Jaw’s Ryan Gardiner. The speedy blueliner has just two points (both against Calgary) in 23 games, hardly a jaw-dropping number. But he was named the third star after scoring his first WHL goal (in a rink that loves to give home-team star sweeps) and played a very good game. He was strong with the puck, showed very good speed, had a couple of nice passes, and on his goal, made a great read to jump into the play and tap home a fast break cross-ice pass. If he can get a few bounces and start piling up points, he’ll be on a lot of radar screens before the spring.

Sunday, the Red Deer Rebels visited, looking to sweep a home-and-home after beating the Hitmen 4-0 Saturday night. The Rebels roster is loaded with Central Scouting listed players, most prominently Adam Musil. His biggest impact on the game came late in the third period when he hit Calgary’s Jake Bean pretty hard from behind. The hit was one of several questionable hits that went un-called, and instead of answering to any referees, Musil scrapped with Hitmen defenseman Michael Zipp. Musil did have a couple of other good rushes, but for the most part, the Rebels as a group–and especially Grayson Pawlenchuk–seemed a whole lot more interested in Rock ‘em Sock ‘em action than trying to win the hockey game, and none of their other listed players really stood out.

Surely, if you’re reading this, you follow @DubFromAbove on twitter. You likely saw this little nugget Tuesday afternoon.

A later tweet indicated the real numbers were four, seven, and eight players in each of the last three drafts, respectively. It’s an interesting trend, and I’ll be curious to see if it continues in the next draft. One Hitmen player who could fit the bill as a second-timer is forward Taylor Sanheim. He’ll earn a longer look from most scouts by virtue of being Travis’s brother, and the 1996-born rookie looks like he might fit the bill to join the above club. The tenacious forward has a nose for the net, and although his skills aren’t elite, he creates chaotic situations with his forecheck and has a knack for ensuring his team gets an offensive zone start after one of his shifts.

Looking ahead, Prince Albert, Swift Current and Vancouver are visiting over the next four days, though I’ll miss the Swift Current game. Should be another good test for the Hitmen as they look as though they’re just about rounding into something closer to the shape we’ve grown to expect them to be in. Check back next week for another update.

Welcome to the Kanzig era

The newest Calgary Hitmen, Keegan Kanzig, on the far left, towers over his former teammates. In need of a big body on the blue line, the Hitmen got one of the WHL’s biggest

Thanks to an extended road trip, it’s been a while since I offered a Hitmen and WHL update. Before this past Sunday, it was still baseball season the last time the Hitmen played a home game.

And Greg Chase was still with the team.

Since that’s the biggest news, let’s start there. The Greg Chase Saga ended late last night. Just as early speculation suggested, he’s now a member of the Victoria Royals.

When news of Chase’s trade demand first came out, I wrote it’d be hard for him to find a better place to play than Calgary, and I’m not convinced he’ll find it in Victoria. Chase clearly was at odds with Calgary’s coaching staff, and last I checked, Royals head coach Dave Lowry is about as demanding as they come.

The newest Calgary Hitmen is hulking defenseman Keegan Kanzig. We saw Kanzig earlier this season, and a few things were noteworthy about his play. One: he’s one of the biggest, meanest, toughest players in the WHL. That’s an immediate upgrade for Calgary’s blue line, which offers a lot of skill but not a lot of nastiness. Kanzig is also a vastly improved (though still limited) player from the one we saw during Victoria’s visit last season. His skating is much better, and he’s showing some puck handling ability. Those aren’t the things the Hitmen are going to ask from Kanzig though. He’s here for his mean streak.

It’s a pretty even trade for both sides, and one could imagine these teams getting together on this deal even without the Chase trade demand.

Shifting gears, Thursday morning’s headlines also include the release of Central Scouting’s latest watch list. A few thoughts:

  • The November list is sorted alphabetically by team, then by player. Way better way to present the info.
  • Unsurprisingly, Brandon’s Ivan Provorov has been upgraded to an A ranking. He’s got first-rounder written all over him.
  • Calgary’s Pavel Karnaukhov remains the only listed Hitmen as blue liner Loch Morrison and centre Terrell Draude haven’t progressed as hoped, while Michael Zipp continues to fly under the radar, and Calgary’s best youngsters are 2016-eligibles.
  • Saskatoon was here Sunday, with their lone listed player plainly on display. Cameron Hebig is a small centre who was all over the ice. He was disruptive on forechecks, OK on faceoffs and was Saskatoon’s best skater on the day. He’s a C player who doesn’t score a lot, but does a lot of good on the ice.
  • Before the long break, Prince George came to town, with A-listed Jansen Harkins leading the way. The Cougars took the 3-2 decision, but Harkins didn’t leave much of an impression.

The Hitmen are getting back into a more regular schedule now, so WHL updates will also get into a regular groove again. Check back next Wednesday for the next installment.

Buying high again

Russell Martin is Toronto’s latest big splash. Are they throwing good money away, or is Martin a hug piece for a team that was only missing a couple pieces last season?

It’s been two days, and it’s still sort of setting in–the Toronto Blue Jays made one of the first big free agent splashes this off-season. I won’t even ask for a show of hands, since I’m pretty sure zero Blue Jays fans thought that’d be the case. And yet, here we are: Russell Martin is a Blue Jay.

Initially, I thought this was a bad signing. Five years, for a 32-year old catcher? An enormous $82 million, for a guy coming off his best season ever? Russell Martin is a guy nobody wanted two winters ago. He was also (rather embarrassingly) demanding to play shortstop for Canada’s World Baseball Classic team two winters ago. And this, two winters after the Jays bought extraordinarily high on 2012 Cy Young winner for thoroughly average 2013 and 2014 RA Dickey? It’s like they didn’t learn anything.

Forgetting the money and weird off-field stuff, the Jays have a capable backstop in Dioner Navarro, and glaring holes at many, many other positions. The deal made no sense.

With that, I started my research to tear the deal down. But it turns out, Russell Martin is a very good ballplayer–even when he’s not at his 2014 peak.

Since making his big-league debut in 2006, Martin has accumulated the third-highest WAR among full-time catchers, trailing only Joe Mauer and Brian McCann. If WAR’s not your thing, let’s try:

  • Home runs: 5th
  • Hits: 6th
  • Walks: 2nd
  • On-base percentage: 10th

He’s also third in games played, so it makes sense he’s way up there for counting stats like homers, hits and walks. If you’re looking for Martin in the Isolated Power or Slugging Percentage leaderboards, you’ll be scrolling for a while. He’s no slugger. His 162-game average is 17 homers, which might be an attainable number at the Rog. His .290 batting average last season is way out of whack with his .259 career average, which would make for a perfectly respectable number when combined with his walks.

Let’s keep digging. There’s gotta be some ugly out there. How’s Martin at framing and calling games? By all accounts he’s an excellent game caller, which the stats seems to agree with. The Pirates had the fourth-lowest ERA in MLB over the last two seasons, compared to the 14th-lowest in 2012 before Martin arrived. It’s worth noting their Field Independent Pitching number also dropped, so it’s unlikely this is random variance or simply a result of improved defensive play).

From a framing perspective, Jays fans spent an awful lot of time in 2014 lamenting balls and strikes calls. The framing data say Navarro, for all the good he did at the plate, was lousy behind it. Navarro received 8003 pitches last season, 11th most. Among catchers that received at least 6000, Navarro had the second-highest rate of pitches in the strike zone called balls (more than 16 per cent!), and seventh-lowest rate of pitches out of the zone called strikes (6.6 per cent). Martin, meanwhile, was ninth-best at getting strikes called strikes (among catchers with 6000 or more receptions) and sixth-best at getting extra strike calls.

The Jays had an inconsistent pitching staff last season, and as they look to go younger, guys like Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Drew Hutchison and Daniel Norris–to say nothing of uber-control pitcher Mark Buehrle–could really benefit from having a strong caller and excellent framer receiving their pitches. The Jays ERA over the last two seasons was fifth-worst in the majors, at 4.13. If Martin can help shave half a run off that, as he did with the Pirates, the Jays could have a top-10 staff ERA in 2015.

OK but the money. They money’s crazy, right? Well, a bit. That said, around this time last season, Fangraphs calculated the cost of adding a win via free agency was a little over $6 million. Using the average annual value of Martin’s new deal, $16.4 million, Martin needs to be worth about 3 WAR per season for the next five seasons, right in line with his career average.

We learned Tuesday that Martin’s deal is backloaded, and he’ll take home only $7.5 million in 2015. That makes it possible the Jays could afford another big ticket signing on another backloaded deal to bolster the 2015 team. And while that $20 million price tag from 2017-’19 is awfully steep, Martin is one of three pre-arbitration players signed in 2017, one of two in 2018, and the only player beyond 2018. Even though this contract has a backside that might try to break the internet, it still leaves the Jays with both short- and long-term flexibility.

Martin projects to be worth at least two more wins in 2015 than Navarro was in 2014. His calling and receiving may be worth another win. With one move, the Jays can reasonably expect to improve on their 83 wins in 2014, without hoping for a single improvement from young players.

All of which is to say the Russell Martin signing has grown on me. Not even just to a point where I don’t hate it, but I’ve come all the way around and really like it.

That escalated quickly

Greg Chase, a soon-to-be former Calgary Hitmen? That's the look of it, following a team announcement he's requested a trade and is no longer with the club.

Greg Chase, a soon-to-be former Calgary Hitmen? That’s the look of it, following a team announcement he’s requested a trade and is no longer with the club.

I barely know where to begin with this. This sort of thing doesn’t usually happen in Calgary.

Today, the Calgary Hitmen announced Greg Chase is no longer with the team and has requested a trade.

I’ve been a season ticket holder since 2009 and can’t remember another public split like this, because again, this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Calgary.

The relationship between Chase and the team has never appeared to be an easy one. Just watching from the stands, it’s been easy to see times when Chase and coaches weren’t on the same page. Under new head coach Mark French, those times seemed more frequent, which is probably a byproduct of coach and Chase not getting to know each other during camp (Chase was at Oilers camp).

From coach benching Chase in one of his first games back from pro camp to Chase being a healthy scratch earlier this week, today’s conclusion seemed inevitable.

Chase, at his best, is one of the best players in the WHL. He earned a spot on the WHL Super Series team, and is a bubble guy for this year’s World Junior Championship. He creates scoring chances other players simply can’t. And his work from the half wall is reminiscent of Alex Kovalev–complete control.

At his worst, he’s petulant, hot-headed–in short, a teenager.

It’s hard to imagine he’ll find a better deal than he had in Calgary. He played in one of the Dub’s two rinks shared with an NHL club. His presence helped the Hitmen land friend Adam Tambellini when he left the NCAA last season to join the WHL. Calgary is just a few hours from his hometown outside Edmonton. Although it’s been tough for any forwards to get consistent ice time this season (too many scorers, plus the Kenton Helgeson situation, and just not enough ice time), Chase is often on the first power play unit and gets plenty of offensive zone starts.

It’s a shame it’s come to this. While most folks will rush to blame the player, since he asked for the trade, it was the team that made the request public (and according to Yahoo’s Kelly Friesen, the team sent Chase home, he didn’t leave). Chase has been a very good player, and a good ambassador for the club off the ice. He’s at times seemed like a guy who should wear a letter, and a guy who could have gone down as one of this franchise’s all-time greats.

Instead, he’ll be the next name on the move in a wild WHL season. Good luck, wherever you land, Greg.

Turkey and a win over the Wheaties is great recipe

Keep an eye on all of these guys between now and June. From left, Brandon defencemen Ivan Provorov and Ryan Pilon, Hitmen forward Terrell Draude, and Wheaties netminder Jordan Papirny in the background (photo from Hitmenhockey.com)

I’m a little late to this weekend’s Hitmen/2015 draft wrap, and I’m sorry for that. Canadian Thanksgiving, and all its delicious turkey and stuffing and gravy are very much to blame for the delay. The delay ends now though–much like Brandon’s unbeaten season ended Sunday.

Let’s start there, since it was the most intriguing matchup for a lot of reasons. As mentioned, Brandon were unbeaten (in regulation) before Sunday’s trip to the Dome, making them a strong test for the still-kinda-scuffling Hitmen. They also brought some exciting prospects with them, which pro and amateur draftniks alike were thankful for. Central Scouting’s watch list includes three Wheaties skaters and a goalie. Although the Hitmen won 6-2, the game was nowhere near that lopsided and each of the listed Wheaties left strong impressions.

We’ll start with forward Jesse Gabrielle. Listed as a third liner, Gabrielle is currently tied for second in scoring for the high-octane Wheaties, outpacing highly-touted 2014 picks John Quenneville and Reid Duke (who doubles as a big-time in-season acquisition). Gabrielle used his size effectively, hounding Calgary’s smallish defenders all afternoon, and playing pest perfectly against a team known for taking too many penalties (more on this in a moment).

The real draw for this club are a pair of defencemen whose names you should start getting to know: Ryan Pilon and Ivan Provorov. With nine and eight points respectively, this dynamic duo are making their mark in the offensive zone as well as at home along the blue line. Pilon’s own-zone coverage appeared more polished than Provorov’s, and Pilon looked a little more comfortable with the physical game (not that Provorov was any shrinking violet–he mixed it up plenty). Central Scouting lists both as B players. Their rankings should improve if Brandon continues to have success. Neither looks ready to jump directly into the NHL, leaving the Wheaties blue line in good shape this season and next (it’s obviously folly to try to handicap the 2015-16 season while we’re still figuring out this season, but a lot of smart folks are already penciling Brandon in as favourites to head to Red Deer in 2016).

Last among Brandon’s listed players is goaltender Jordan Papirny, a second-time eligible goaltender. Papirny was better Sunday than the scoreline would indicate (an empty netter and a 59th-minute goal padded Calgary’s totals), and while it’s unlikely he’ll play his way into the first round, he’ll make a nice prospect that some team can bring up slowly through the ranks.

That was a lot of words about the team I dislike the most in the Dub. So here’s a little about the good guys. It’s time for a shout-out to Chase Lang. When Lang came to the Hitmen, he looked like a little kid in his dad’s clothes, and while he’s still not quite filled out his uniform, he’s grown in leaps and bounds on the ice. Langer hit the post roughly 75 times last season, but did so many unheralded things (almost always making the right pass, winning lots of key faceoffs in both ends, working his tail off, and killing penalties) the Minnesota Wild took a chance on him in the sixth round of June’s draft. Already, he’s beginning to look like a steal. His puck-luck has come around, and he’s tied for second in the league with seven goals, leads the Hitmen in points, and has effectively taken over the job as number one centre.

On the prospect front, Terrell Draude was left off CSS’s preliminary list, which must have been disappointing for the former second-round WHL pick and Canadian U-17 representative. In the last three or four Hitmen home games, he’s been making a strong case to land on someone’s draft list. In eight games this season, he’s already eclipsed his meagre seven point output in 47 games last season, albeit playing significantly more minutes and with better linemates than he had last season. His skating is a work-in-progress, but appears to have improved from even three weeks ago, and his decision making has improved to the point he’s occasionally been rewarded with second-line (and first powerplay) time.

Earlier in the weekend, Calgary hosted Victoria and dropped a 3-2 heartbreaker. Victoria’s Tyler Soy was named the game’s first star after scoring a goal and an assist in the Royals’ comeback victory. Soy showed an impressive first step both with and without the puck, often needing just a stride of two to get to top speed–or evading defenders with one very good first step.

After seeing Austin Carroll’s hit on Alex Schoenborn (stick tap to @hawkeyblog for the vid)…

…and seeing him level Connor Rankin with a similar hit Friday night, it’s beginning to seem obvious this is a player who plays beyond the line. I disagree with hawkeyblog’s assessment that having more goons around will help to eliminate this garbage, but I wholeheartedly agree that it needs to go. I’ll never fully understand how Carroll escaped suspension. The league needs to get serious about penalizing these incidents as they happen, and then handing out supplementary discipline.

And speaking of discipline, let’s get around to that point about the Hitmen and penalties. Calgary allowed two powerplay goals in the third period against Victoria, en route to blowing a 2-0 lead after two. They’ve been shorthanded 36 times already, through eight games, including five different 5-on-3 situations. It’s the same old song in Calgary, as the team just can’t stay out of the penalty box. They were shorthanded just three times Sunday against Brandon, and in a close game, they were able to score an insurance goal in the third instead of spending time killing penalties.

Get ready Alberta

With the Rebels winning the 2016 Memorial Cup, there’s even more to cheer about in Alberta than just junior hockey’s biggest prize.

Wednesday afternoon, the WHL awarded the 2016 Memorial Cup to the Red Deer Rebels, over the Vancouver Giants. While Vancouver is a lovely city, would make an OK host for the Mem Cup, and is a pretty ideal travel destination, I’m glad Red Deer won the bid.

I’ve been to the Rebels’ rink–the Enmax Centrium–a couple times. It’s a beauty. It’s got big, wide, open concourses. The sight lines seem pretty good from just about any seat. Getting in and out of the building itself is a breeze, and the on-site parking lot is top notch.

If there’s a complaint to be made about the rink, it’s about the location. It’s sort of outskirtsy, and not particularly close to hotels travelers and the teams will be using. Otherwise, it’s the platonic ideal of a big junior hockey arena.

Another benefit to having the Mem Cup in Red Deer is that it’s a stone’s throw for most of the Central Division teams to get to, which is great news for those of us that want to see more great hockey

The WHL’s Central Division has long been home to some of the best hockey around, and has been one of the most competitive divisions in hockey. You have to go back to the 2005-06 WHL season to find one without a Central Division team in the final. And a Central team’s been in all but two finals since 1998-99.

The rich teams in Calgary and Edmonton have already been locked in a pretty epic battle for the last two seasons, and they’re not going to let an opportunity to play in a Mem Cup so close to their backyards go to waste. Medicine Hat and Kootenay don’t have the resources Calgary and Edmonton do, but that’s never stopped them from being on-ice equals with the big boys. Obviously as hosts, Red Deer is going to start ramping up for a couple of big seasons. And even lowly Lethbridge will try to get things turned around in time to join the party.

So buckle up, Alberta (and Cranbrook). Red Deer’s Memorial Cup is going to be a great party, but it’s also going to be a great way to cap off two very exciting seasons of hockey.

A big Hitmen comeback, and other notes

Kenton Helgeson (centre) battles with Troy Murray in front of the Kootenay net during Calgary’s 6-4 come-from-behind win Saturday. Photo from Hitmenhockey.com

Last week was another busy one in the junior hockey world. On top of a pair of road games for the Calgary Hitmen, Hockey Canada released their rosters for the upcoming U-17 Challenge, the Hitmen made a minor trade, and then the Hitmen came home to face off against the Kootenay Ice in a wild one.

Let’s start with the U-17 rosters. Gone are the five Canadian teams of the old days. Canada will now send three squads, each filled with players from all over the country. This seems to be a wise move, as it’ll get players out of their comfort zones a little more, and provide stronger Canadian squads at the tourney.

Two Hitmen players, defenceman Jake Bean and forward Beck Malenstyn, were named to the squads, which for now can act as a very early watch list for the 2016 NHL Draft.

But let’s bring 2015 back into focus. The Hitmen have had a rocky start to the season, which is to be expected with such a disrupted camp, a new coach, and key graduations. And after their loss in Lethbridge last week, the back-to-back games in Edmonton and against the Ice were a bit of a worry for some fans.

The boys acquitted themselves well though, with a pair of wins–a 2-1 nailbiter in Edmonton and 6-4 comeback at home. Although he has held off the scoresheet, Terrell Draude turned in one of the most impressive performances of his young career. During the home opener, Draude looked lost most of the game. But he was better in Calgary’s second home game, piled up four points in their third, and started looking like the player everyone hopes a kid with Draude’s size can be in the win over Kootenay.

In just two weeks, his skating is better, and his decision making is a complete 180 from where it was in the opener. He finally looks comfortable out there. He may still be a little under the radar, but if he plays for the rest of the season the way he did Saturday night, he could climb into the top 100 picks.

From the Kootenay side, get to know the name Cale Fleury. He’s not eligible until the 2017 Draft, which is crazy to be thinking about already. But he’s already getting first-unit power play work from the blue line, finished the night with two assists, and was out there late in the game when Kootenay was pressing to tie.

Among drafted players, Hitmen forward Greg Chase is in the mix for a spot on this year’s World Junior team. He’s a vastly-improved player from the player we saw last season. His puck control really stands out now. He’s listed at 6′ (which is believable), but has shown the reach of a player two or three inches taller. His shot’s improved, he still passes too much, and his defensive game is still very strong. There’s a lot for the Hockey Canada brass to love.

There’s also the part where he was benched for most of the third period after a sequence in which he took a too-long shift, nearly scored on his own goal because of a careless turn in his own end, then took his frustration out of a Kootenay player after the whistle, leading to a penalty against Pavel Karnaukhov who came to his aid. He had the best seat in the house to see Calgary’s four third-period goals. This stuff is part of his game, but he’ll need to show he can tone it down if he wants to make the WJC squad. Hockey Canada won’t want to bring a guy who may find himself stapled to the bench like this.

Up next for the good guys: familiar foes. Former head coach Dave Lowry and his Victoria Royals are in town Friday night. Sunday afternoon, the Hitmen host pre-season East Division favourites (and my favourite rival) Brandon. In non-Hitmen news, we’ll learn whether Red Deer or Vancouver will host the 2016 Memorial Cup. Either city is fine by me. Red Deer is home to Canada’s best donuts at the Donut Mill, and Vancouver is Vancouver.

And the scouts rested

This sums up Sunday's action. Games like this are fun on the PS4, but not so much as a paying customer.

This sums up Sunday’s action. Games like this are fun on the PS4, but not so much as a paying customer.

Although the Calgary Hitmen are just three games into the shiny new WHL season, this past weekend felt like a reminder that the 72-game schedule can be a grind. Largely, that’s because this observer was operating in Full DayQuil Mode.

Compounding the feeling of the grind was almost complete lack of solid draft-watcher material on display during the pair of games. Med Hat’s veterans led the way in their win over Calgary Friday night, with Trevor Cox doing all the Trevor Cox things Hitmen fans have grown to expect/hate. Marek Langhammer was great in his return from NHL camp. Defenceman Connor Hobbs made last week’s Central Scouting list as a C prospect, though did little to stand out in the game.

Meanwhile, one of Calgary’s most notorious trends was once again on full display–lack of discipline. It was early Halloween and power plays were the treats. The Tigers converted one of six chances in the win. The Hitmen also showed a lack of discipline when defencemen were pinching.

For as long as I can remember, the Hitmen have always been very good at activating their defence. It’s been so long since I saw a bad pinch by a Hitmen defender, I was a little alarmed to see so many in the first two games. Some of that comes from the very young defence corps they dressed in their opener, and a lack of familiarity with each other in the second game. But even the forwards seemed unaware of the pinching plan.

Under former head coach Mike Williamson, I often lamented the team was too reliant on their systems, and could be beaten easily by teams that were able to disrupt the system. Early in new head coach Mark French’s tenure, this team has been very loose. I’m keen to see the way it plays out this season.

Against an opponent like Sunday’s visitors from Lethbridge, a loose system is rarely going to hurt. The Hitmen piled up nine goals, including a pair from Pavel Karnaukhov–a C-level CSS player. Lethbridge isn’t a lot of fun to watch lately, and this 9-2 romp by the Hitmen wasn’t much of an exception. Although the Hurricanes’ Zachary Goberis and Brandon Kennedy didn’t make Central Scouting’s preliminary watch list, both had a couple of flashes for this putrid team. Goberis has a little skill and could become an important part of whatever offence Lethbridge hopes to mount this season, while Kennedy threw his weight around quite a bit and was a real banger. If nothing else, they stood out. Time will tell if they catch anyone else’s eye, but without a true A-level player drawing draftniks to Hurricanes games, it seems unlikely.

Next weekend the horrible Kootenay (sucks) Ice are here for a visit. See you next week, with hopefully a little more to say about the action.

Welcome back, WHL!

Mack Shields looks through a screen during Saturday night’s season opener. Photo from hitmenhockey.com

Following a too-long off-season, the Calgary Hitmen returned to Saddledome ice Saturday night. And frankly, not a moment too soon.

With the would-be contenders loaded up for the 2013-14 season’s stretch run, all signs pointed to Calgary and Edmonton squaring off in a conference finals rematch. The Kootenay Ice had other plans though, and unceremoniously bounced the Hitmen from the playoffs in the first round.

And just like that, instead of a short summer filled with accolades, a summer of change was upon the Hitmen. Graduating overagers Jaynen Rissling and Alex Roach left huge holes in Calgary’s blue line corps. Along with the disappointing playoff result came a predictable coaching change. New head coach Mark French also has to figure out his club piece-by-piece, as nine players attended NHL rookie and training camps during the majority of Hitmen camp, with only one returning in time for Saturday’s season opener.

Despite the upheaval, the Hitmen are favoured to win the Central division this season. Just don’t mention that to Red Deer. Saturday night, Red Deer came into the Dome and took an ugly one from the favoured Hitmen thanks to a pair of fortunate bounces for the Rebs, and Calgary’s inability to capitalize on their own bounces. The 4-1 loss spoiled the debut of Calgary’s 20th “anniversary” jerseys, which may have been the highlight of my night even with a better result.

Of course the WHL season is the main event, but let’s be real. We’re all looking ahead to the World Junior Championship and the 2015 NHL Draft. So let’s take a look at that.

Both Red Deer and Calgary were without their top drafted talent, and in this game full of youngsters (I think five Hitmen skaters were making their WHL debut), older players usually stand out. Saturday was no exception. But that’s not to say none of the young guys made their mark.

Red Deer’s Adam Musil made Central Scouting’s pre-season Futures list and quietly played a strong game. He’s a big body who does a lot of the hard work along the walls. He didn’t create a lot, but he didn’t hurt his team either. Meyer Nell may be a name to watch for the upcoming draft. He has good speed and showed some good possession instincts. A couple of times, he carried the puck into the zone to initiate long and extended (15+ and 30+ seconds) possessions, and was in my eyes Red Deer’s most dynamic forward during the game. From the blue line, ’98-born Josh Mahura showed some offensive upside and is a name to remember this time next season.

On Calgary’s side, their top pick in this summer’s import draft Pavel Karnaukhov showed a little of the stuff that had people saying Calgary got the steal of the draft. He’s big–listed at 6’2″ 197, he used that size. He’s a very good skater and has a nose for the net. If the production comes, and if he can fit into Calgary’s system (he looked a little lost at times), he’ll draw a lot of interest at draft time. Michael Zipp is a late ’96 who happens to be one of Calgary’s most experienced defencemen. So far, I’d be surprised if he’s on anyone’s draft lists, but he could rise quickly the way Ben Thomas and Travis Sanheim did last season if he grows into a top-four role. I’ll have more on him as the season moves along. The Hitmen defenceman to really watch this season is Lochlan Morrison. He played a handful of games with Calgary last season and showed great promise. He has high hockey IQ, highlighted by high-end transition instincts and the speed and skill to use them. If he’s under the radar now, he won’t be by Thanksgiving.

That’s all for today. Next weekend Medicine Hat and Lethbridge visit, and the Hitmen should have at least a couple of their vets back.

MELKY MELKY MELKY

Sometimes, one play says all you need to know about a team.

These Blue Jays have the look of a team that’s cast aside Jobu’s myth and magic (or, in the real world: the possibility of honest-to-goodness trade deadline reinforcements), knowing they have to do it themselves, and for each other.

The Jays will need to go about 32-24 down the stretch to have a real shot at winning the division, which is a shade or two better than they probably are. If Melky there is to be believed, they’re going to throw everything they have at making a run.

The next 56 games could be a very long rollercoaster like Sunday’s game in New York was. All in hopes of a payoff like that catch. I can’t wait.

*Let’s be real, this post exists almost entirely to showcase that catch by Melky Cabrera. I’m going to watch that catch while eating breakfast for the rest of the season, because seeing it is like shotgunning 26 Red Bulls at once.