Got their man

Time to go to work. Mike Babcock just signed on for the hardest job in hockey.

Well then. That was a waste of energy and speculation. Mike Babcock is the new head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And already, the honeymoon is over.

Make no mistake, this is the most pressure-filled coaching job in hockey. The pressure to pick up the pieces in Detroit after Dave Lewis couldn’t replicate Scotty Bowman’s success? The pressure to win Olympic gold as Team Canada’s head coach? Those are nothing compared to the pressure to end the Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup drought.

In Leafland, it’s Stanley Cup or bust. Toronto fans (and this is one of their most admirable qualities–even Habs fans have grown accustomed to settling) aren’t happy with a bunch of second-round exits, and even if they were, the Toronto media will always be there to remind Babcock of every little failure on or off the ice.

Babcock’s won everything there is to win–Worlds, Olympic gold twice, a Stanley Cup. He has nothing left in this game to prove, as a head coach. He’s widely considered one of the best current coaches, and he’s right in line with a bunch of other guys behind Scotty Bowman on the list of all-time greats. That said, in Detroit and at the Olympics, he had lineups dotted with Hall of Famers. In Toronto, for the first time, Babcock’s playing from behind. And again, anything other than a Cup will be failure. He’s got a lot more to lose in Toronto than the Leafs have to lose in hiring him.

As for the Leafs, it’s a perfectly Leafs move–they’ve skipped to the end. They spent the last year rebuilding their front office, coaching, and scouting staffs. They brought in smart, progressive hockey operations guys. The new guys spent the last year questioning and changing the way they want to build their hockey team. And then the Leafs decided to give this rebuild a boost, and went out and got the biggest, splashiest free agent they could find*. By giving Babcock some amount of control in personnel decisions, the Leafs may have just undone all the work they spent the last year doing.

[*They completely warped the value of head coaches in the league in doing so as well. While rich teams like Toronto have always had the advantage of being able to afford having three former head coaches on the books, how many teams can really afford to sign a coach for more than $3 or $4 million? What’s the market value for a guy like Dan Bylsma (fastest coach ever to 200 wins, one Stanley Cup, one Olympic silver) now?]

Could it work? It could. The Leafs have a handful of very talented players. Arguably as many as any other team in the league. The biggest difference: the Leafs often rush their guys through development, which Babcock will likely steer them away from.

The trouble comes when a personnel decision has to get approval from as many as four levels of management (Babcock, Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter, Brendan Shanahan, and maybe another GM still to be named). And while the Leafs have some talent, they also have a lot of changes that need to be made.

I hope this goes well for the Leafs. I like Babcock. Lord knows he said all the right things at today’s introduction (especially the part about it being his job to help his leaders, when asked about Dion Phaneuf). I like some of their young players. I want the progressive guys in the front office to succeed. I genuinely believe the league is better off when the Leafs are a strong presence instead of a doormat. But once again, by trying to skip the journey, the Leafs may have put themselves in a position to fall short of their destination.

If this doesn’t work, nothing will

Hey Oilers fans, it might not be very long before you see an image like this

If this doesn’t turn the Edmonton Oilers around, I’m not sure anything can. New head coach Todd McLellan comes with a track record of getting very good performances out of his young players. He’ll have plenty of them to work with in Edmonton, with a stable of youngsters that includes four first-overall picks, plus recent top-10 picks Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl.

So why do I think McLelland will succeed where half a dozen other coaches have failed?

First, he comes to the team with (presumably) immediate buy-in from Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, both of whom just played for McLellan at Worlds–and earned rave reviews for their performances. He and the team should already have a little trust built in.

Second, Connor McDavid. When the Oilers had the first overall pick three years in a row from 2010 to 2012, they had the misfortune of holding those picks in years with heavy debates at the top. At the time, each of the Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov picks were defensible, though hardly consensus. If we re-drafted those drafts today, none would go first overall, but as Tyler Johnson’s reminded us all season, that kind of hindsight is easy but ultimately doesn’t tell us much. McDavid is unlikely to come with such second-guessing.

Third, new GM Peter Chiarelli is very good at constructing rosters. He used a bit of a cheat code in Boston when he was able to sign Zdeno Chara away from Ottawa, but he built the roster around Chara, and transformed a cellar-dwelling team into a Cup winner. He hit a home run with the Phil Kessel trade, and made more shrewd deals like picking up Chris Kelly. It hasn’t been all hits though, trading away Tyler Seguin’s proved to have been a tough trade, signing Jarome Iginla was an OK decision (signing Iginla to just a one-year deal was the best part of the signing), and Chiarelli’s leaving the Bruins with a bit of a salary cap mess. But it’s a mess he helped to create by constantly acquiring very good players.

The secret ingredient though, may just be Hall and Eberle’s exposure to Sidney Crosby at Worlds. Veteran presence simply for the sake of veteran presence often fails (see: Ference, Andrew). But for players like Hall and Eberle, who’ve had more coaches as Oilers than The Doctor’s had faces, who were expected to lead this team as rookies, and who’ve never really seen the kind of off-ice preparation needed to win consistently, the experience of playing and preparing with Sidney Crosby can only help. Not only will it help them individually, they’ll be able to set a new example with the rest of the current squad as well as with incoming players.

Young, incredibly talented leaders, a new coach who often gets the best out of young players, and a GM with a knack for buying low and winning big. If it doesn’t work this time in Edmonton, we’ll know for sure some universal force is punishing them for selling Wayne Gretzky.

Pucks going in from everywhere

With 15 goals in January, Adam Tambellini's been one of the WHL's hottest scorers.

With 15 goals in January, Adam Tambellini’s been one of the WHL’s hottest scorers.

You may have heard there’s an analytics movement in hockey. One of the things advanced stats tries to convey is the idea that shot quality has a smaller effect on actual goal scoring than we’d intuitively assume it does.

If the analytics guys are looking for any more evidence, they should grab the tapes from Calgary’s games last weekend-the Hitmen were scoring from everywhere on their way to a pair of wins by a combined score of 15-1.

Friday night, the Hitmen hosted Prince Albert and jumped out to a 4-0 first period lead, chasing Raiders’ starter Nick McBride just 14 minutes and nine shots into the game. Unsigned New York Rangers prospect Adam Tambellini lead the way for Calgary with two goals and two assists, while nine other Hitmen chipped in multiple points en route to a 10-1 win.

Normally, I start to feel bad for an away team that falls behind by a touchdown or more. Midway thru the third period, just as I was beginning to feel bad for them, PA’s Mackenzie Stewart levelled Connor Rankin with a cross-check to the throat. It was–surprisingly–the only real ugliness in a game that was over before the first radio break, but left me wanting Calgary to score a dozen or more and really run it up. Instead, Calgary kept is classy–barely shooting at all during the five-minute power play and giving their fourth line some work. They did score twice during the power play, but after getting the 10th goal, I think Calgary only had one more shot of goal in the final eight minutes.

The Hitmen were right back to work Saturday afternoon in the first half of a Battle of Alberta doubleheader. And they got right back on the scoresheet. Rankin, showing no ill-effects from the cross-check the night before, got the Hitmen on the board with their first shot of the game, a wrister at Tristan Jarry’s head that he mis-played and swatted into his own net. Jake Virtanen put the Hitmen up 2-0 on their second shot of the game, and it looked like Calgary was off to the races again. The Oil Kings proved stiffer competition than the Raiders, and ended up out-chancing and out-shooting Calgary. The Hitmen continued to have great puck luck, piling on three more goals in the 5-0 win. Mack Shields stood his ground, and occasionally stood on his head, turning away a few great Oil Kings chances, to pick up his second shutout in eight days.

Calgary’s 15 goals on 60 shots was good for an outlandish 25 per cent shooting for the weekend. They weren’t picking corners. They had dribblers, bang-ins at the side of the net, and wristers headed for the glass find their way into the net. It was a lot of fun to watch.

Up next, the Hitmen head to Saskatchewan for a pair, including a rematch with the Raiders. They’re back at home next Wednesday (so no post here next week).

Second half grab bag

16-year old defenseman Jake Bean, left, is the unlikely spark for a suddenly streaking Hitmen team. (photo from Calgary Sun)

Hey, we’re back.

After missing most of Calgary’s games since Christmas, I’ve finally got back into a bit of a (broken) rhythm and have found my way back to the Dome for a few games.

And after a couple of absolute stinkers that had me thinking I might save some money of playoff tickets, the Hitmen have come back around to their winning ways.

Last weekend, the Hitmen took all three games of a three-in-three, outscoring their opponents 20-2. Sure, Swift Current, Edmonton and Vancouver aren’t quite the cream of the crop in the Dub this year, but that’s a good weekend by any measure.

Two things stand out as reasons for Hitmen fans to have hope for the spring. One: the Hitmen finally–finally–got to ice their best roster all weekend. Ben Thomas, Colby Harmsworth, Jake Virtanen and Elliott Peterson were all in the lineup for what feels like the first time all season. This veteran leadership core was together for a handful of games in November, but those games coincided with Greg Chase’s absence–hard to consider that a full lineup. Once the Chase saga was resolved, Thomas got hurt in just Keegan Kanzig’s third game with the Hitmen, and Harmsworth followed him to the injured reserve just two games later.

The second big development for Calgary has been Jake Bean. As you’d expect, the 16-year old defenseman had trouble getting into the lineup regularly early in the season. He has played nearly every game since returning from the U-17 tournament in November though. Before leaving for Sarnia, Bean had zero points in 11 games. He recorded a goal and three assists in five tournament games, which seemed to reignite his game. Bean picked up 14 more assists with the Hitmen thru the end of 2014. Since the calendar changed, Bean has three goals and 11 assists in 12 games. He’s made his way to the scoresheet in eight of the 12 games, recording multiple points in three of them including a career-high four points this past Sunday.

To compare, Travis Sanheim’s offensive explosion in last season’s second half, as a 17-year old, that vaulted him into the first round of the NHL draft saw him pick up seven points in January and 21 in 2014, finishing with 29 for the season. Bean has 28 right now, is getting first unit usage on the power play, and is playing with Sanheim on Calgary’s top pair. Last week, Alan Caldwell of Small Thoughts At Large noted Jake Bean’s offensive output is nearly un-paralleled in the WHL over the last 20 seasons. Since that post January 21, Bean’s raised his points-per-game to .74–now the best rate by a 16-year old WHL defenseman in the last 20 seasons.

Safe to say, Bean’s going to be a guy worth keeping an eye on ahead of the 2016 draft.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s too early for 2016 when we’re still five months away from the 2015 draft. Two weeks ago, St. Catharines hosted the BMO Top Prospects Game. A few stray thoughts from the game: Obviously, Connor McDavid (Erie) was excellent and there’s little chance he won’t be the top pick in June’s draft… It’s hard to imagine his linemates from the showcase, Travis Konecny (Ottawa) and Timo Meier (Halifax), did anything to hurt their draft standing and both look like good bets to go in the top 10… Team Orr’s defense pairing of Ryan Pilon and Ivan Provorov (both Brandon) showed off some of the skills that make their Wheat Kings the WHL’s Eastern Conference favourites. By my count, Team Cherry had just three even-strength shots on goal against that pair, one of which was an easy save Provorov transitioned into Konecny’s marker to make it a 4-0 game… Team Cherry defensemen Brendan Guhle (Prince Albert) and Brandon Carlo (Tri-City) put in probably the best performances for Team Cherry…

That’s all for this week. Tonight, the Hitmen kick off another three-in-three weekend, and I’ll be back in the middle of next week with another update.

End of the first half

Fist-bump to Travis Sanheim

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.

  1. Ivan Provorov D Brandon First half of first round
  2. Nick Merkley F Kelowna Second half of first round
  3. Reid Gardiner F Prince Albert 50-70th overall
  4. Ryan Pilon D Brandon Mid second round
  5. Pavel Karnaukhov F Calgary Fourth round unless some team is really in love with him
  6. Connor Hobbs D Medicine Hat Unlikely to be drafted
  7. Adam Musil F Red Deer Mid second round
  8. Jansen Harkins F Prince George 20-40th overall
  9. Cameron Hebig F Very late, may not be drafted
  10. Tyler Soy F Very late, may not be drafted

Hitmen offering fans a hot streak for Christmas

Layne Bensmiller, seen in action against Moose Jaw above, scored his first WHL goal in Sunday’s win over Kelowna.

A successful weekend for the Hitmen saw them take a pair of games from Kamloops and Kelowna, despite key absences.

Saturday night, with top defenceman Travis Sanheim away at World Junior tryouts, and the rest of their top four (Keegan Kanzig, Ben Thomas and Colby Harmsworth) out with injuries, it was the Jake Bean and Loch Morrison show from the back end.

That show wasn’t without some nervous moments, but ultimately the Hitmen were able to put together a 5-3 win. Bean, eligible for the 2016 draft, took the reigns on Calgary’s top power play unit and had it (mostly) humming all night long. For his part, Morrison played his best game of the season, which was nice to see from a guy I thought would be climbing the Central Scouting list by this point of the season.

From the Kamloops side, I was surprised by how fast the Blazers are. They’re below .500 and have fallen almost completely off the map after their very impressive 2012-13 season, so I figured this one would be a bit of an easy one for Calgary. Nope–no such thing as an easy win against a Don Hay-coached team.

A pair of Blazers are on the CSS list, goaltender Connor Ingram and forward Deven Sideroff. Ingram played well enough despite allowing four goals. Sideroff looked good. He had a couple of impressive zone entries, carrying the puck through Calgary’s stacked line. He picked up some second-unit power play time, and was one of the wingers for a key defensive zone draw with about two minutes left in what was at the time a one-goal game.

Sunday’s game was one I’ve had circled on my calendar since the schedule was released. Those no-good, dirty-rotten, cheating scoundrels from Kelowna.

Before I get into the game action, a quick note about haves and have-nots in the CHL. Kelowna’s in the midst of a five-game Alberta road trip during which they’ll play four games with a full day off in between each game, playing on back-to-back nights for only the fourth and fifth games. That’s practically unheardof. Kelowna plays road games on back-to-back nights in different cities just five times (10 games) this season. Calgary plays 24 such games (two-thirds of their road scheduled). Anyway, take from that what you will.

Back to Kelowna. I thoroughly dislike the Rockets. It probably stems from them beating Calgary in the 2009 WHL Final, but it also has to do with the fact they’re full of players like Tyson Baillie who run around recklessly and rarely face consequences (for example, after crashing into Hitmen goaltender Mack Shields Sunday evening, Baillie punched Shields in the head before getting up and skating away–no call). Even more infuriating, he’s a really good hockey player. Which also was on display Sunday evening while Kelowna’s top players Rourke Chartier and Madison Bowey were away at Canada’s WJC camp, and others were missing after being traded to Prince Albert. Baillie was Kelowna’s best player by a mile on a night the WHL’s top team was short-handed, and not at their best.

Also not at his best: the WHL’s leading scorer, draft-eligible Nick Merkley. It was my first live look this season and although Merkley didn’t register any points (or even any shots), he didn’t disappoint. There’s a lot about his game to love. He’s small, but he has exceptionally powerful skating ability. If you saw Brandon Kozun skate in junior, Merkley has a similar style and similar stride–low, compact, almost impossible to move off the puck because of incredible balance. Merkley seems to prefer to go through a third defender after dangling around a couple, as smaller guys with unbelievable balance tend to. He has hands that can leave spectators and defenders alike wondering how he makes some of the dangles and passes he does, though you’d probably guess that from his 42 assists this season. If there’s a knock against Merkley, it’s that he’s a pass-first player. Whether he’s sort of developed that mentality playing next to Chartier and his 32 goals, or it’s his natural preference, I’m not sure. I doubt it would be enough of a hindrance to keep him out of most NHL teams’ top 10’s.

Excuses for poor play and gushing over Kelowna’s top scorer aside, the Hitmen absolutely dominated Kelowna Sunday. Calgary held the Rockets to a season-low 18 shots and came within five minutes of handing them their first shutout since dinosaurs walked the earth.

Leading the way for the Hitmen were the unlikely contributors Beck Malenstyn and Layne Bensmiller, along with superb efforts from Calgary’s penalty killers and a couple of Herculean saves by Mack Shields.

The game highlighted Calgary’s ability to play with just about any team in the league, and was the kind of win that can give a fanbase hope for a lot of springtime hockey.

The Hitmen wrap up the first half tonight with a home game against Edmonton. Check back tomorrow for a rare Thursday update featuring a little something extra, and some thoughts on Calgary’s trade from Tuesday.

Teddy bear send-off for Hitmen WJC hopefuls

The teddy bears flew early Sunday afternoon, and the Hitmen rolled to an 8-3 win over Moose Jaw

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Canada’s 2015 WJC camp, which I guess means it’s starting to get real.

For the Calgary Hitmen, it’ll be really real, as their top forward and top defenseman will both be attending camp. The Hitmen are coming off a week in which they scored 23 goals in just three games, and a two-week stretch in which they’ve scored at least six goals in five of their last seven games. Jake Virtanen has five goals and five assists in those seven games, bested by Travis Sanheim’s three goals and 12 assists.

While the Hitmen and other teams will miss their big guns, WJC time is an excellent opportunity for other players to step up and make names for themselves. One Hitmen player in particular who’ll see a drastic role change is defenseman Michael Zipp. I’ve written before about Zipp as a sleeper for the 2015 draft. He’s a quick but undersized defender, whose game is all about generating offense.

With recent injuries to Ben Thomas and Colby Harmsworth, and Sanheim presumably gone until January, Zipp (or 2016 eligible Jake Bean) figures to assume a top-pair role with Keegan Kanzig. If he’s going to get himself noticed, it’ll be over the next month.

Among draft eligible players to visit the Dome last week, only Edmonton’s Tyler Roberston is listed by Central Scouting. In the big Hitmen win, Robertson took three penalties, had two shots, and didn’t play much in the third period. Although I missed Moose Jaw’s visit Sunday, unlisted Ryan Gardiner appears to have played well, continues to get power play time for the Warriors, and remains on my radar as a guy who could rise quickly with a strong second half.

Let’s wrap this up today where we started–the WJC team. Here’s the squad I’d bring, which has an extreme WHL bias but I can’t really help that half the players invited to camp hail from the Dub.

Nick Baptiste
Rourke Chartier
Max Domi
Anthony Duclair
Robby Fabbri
Frederik Gauthier
Morgan Klimchuk
Connor McDavid
Nic Petan
Brayden Point
Nick Ritchie
Sam Reinhart
Jake Virtanen

Josh Morrisey
Madison Bowey
Shea Theodore
Travis Sanheim
Haydn Fleury
Dillon Heatherington
Darnell Nurse/Chris Bigras

A week to love the away players

Prince Albert’s Reid Gardiner was the best draft-eligible player I saw in Calgary last week.

In last week’s post, I mentioned the recent rise of WHL players getting drafted in their second or third year of eligibility, and later that very night, we got a peek at one such player who’s really made a strong case in his second year of eligibility–Prince Albert’s Reid Gardiner.

Gardiner posted a respectable 44 points last season, but couldn’t stand out despite having scouts in the building to watch former teammate Leon Draisaitl every night. He’s standing out now. In just a third of the season, he’s already scored 14 goals, easily projecting to eclipse the 22 he scored last season, with 40 in the realm of possibility.

He scored against Calgary, totalled 4 shots, and was easily the best player on either side last Wednesday night, leading the Raiders to a 2-1 win. It’ll be interesting to see where he’s taken next June, as he’s producing like a first or second round pick.

I missed out on Calgary’s win over Swift Current Friday night, instead being treated to an ugly loss at the hands of the Vancouver Giants. The Giants fired head coach Troy Ward last week, and were helmed by a pair of assistant coached when they visited. Watching the game, one would never have guessed it. Vancouver’s forecheck was tighter than Calgary’s, and indeed kept Calgary from making many good breakouts at all. Vancouver’s neutral zone and defensive play were also better than Calgary’s. They were structured, poised, protected the puck, all while playing without a head coach and icing a lineup chock-full of 1997’s and ’98’s.

Vancouver has three players listed by Central Scouting: Alexander Baer, Vladimir Bobylev and Dmitry Osipov. Bobylev didn’t dress, and the others didn’t stand out much.

The big news this week, of course, was the release of Canada’s WJC selection camp roster. This thing has grown so wildly out of control, the selection camp even has a title sponsor. Two Hitmen will head to camp, Jake Virtanen and Travis Sanheim. Virtanen has the better shot to make the team, as he’s a big-time scorer with a big body and great speed. He’s almost a lock for a first or second line role. Sanheim does a lot of those things as well, especially well for a defenseman, but the competition on the blue line will be fierce and he’ll have to be better than three guys to make this team.

Up next for the Hitmen: a battle with Edmonton Friday night and the Teddy Bear game against Moose Jaw Sunday. Check back next week for the updates.

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.