Coming out of the WHL’s Eastern Conference Finals, two things became very clear for the Calgary Hitmen as they were eliminated by the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Number one, there is no doubt the team still has work to do to be part of the elite WHL and CHL groups. Despite a trip to the conference finals, the quick five game exit proves this. Brandon flexed their muscles and ran away with three of the five games. This is a sign that shows despite being a final four team in the league, the Hitmen still have another level to reach. The good news is that looking forward to next season, they have the ability to be one of country’s truly elite teams.
When you look ahead to the 2015-2016 season the potential for the Hitmen is sky high. First, the returning group of players will be plentiful and very talented. Starting with the two players who were first round NHL picks. Both Jake Virtanen and Travis Sanheim will make strong cases to stick with the Vancouver Canucks and Philadelphia Flyers respectively. However, if one or both of them come back, they will instantly become the new leadership group. Both players will have a good chance to represent Canada at the World Juniors and both will without a doubt be top end players in the league.
Other players like Chase Lang, Radel Fazleev, Pavel Kahurnakov, Ben Thomas, Colby Harmsworth, Keegan Kanzig, Micael Zipp and Elliott Peterson will be back as well and will give the team a strong veteran core. All of those players have three or more years in the league, including a couple trips to the conference finals. Even the goaltending combo of Mack Shields and Brendan Burke could be back. If not, the team has Kyle Dumba in their system who is ready to make the jump and could become the goaltender of the future.
Speaking of the future, the group of rookies and young players that made debuts this season gained a ton of experience and showed very well in their deep playoff run. Jordy Stallard spent time on the top line in the postseason. Carson Twarynski, Taylor Sanheim, Terrell Draude, Layne Bensmiller, Beck Malenstyn and Loch Morrison all played big roles and saw lots of ice time, and their improvement from September to May was clearly visible. The play of 16-year-old Jake Bean on the back end, setting a franchise record for points by a rookie defenseman in the process, also showed that this team has a future stud and potential captain to build around.
Aside from the players, one of the big factors coming into next season will be the returning coaching staff. Mark French took over as Head Coach last summer and the adjustment wasn’t as smooth as many had hoped. The team got off to a slow start under the new bench boss, but as the season wore on it was clear just how good of a coach French is. As the team made the adjustment to his style the results began to show and the team showed flashes of brilliance during the second half of the season. This gives a positive outlook for next season as French along with Brent Kisio, Joel Otto and Darcy Wakaluk will have a veteran team that knows what to expect. The awkward time it took to get on the same page this year won’t apply next season and that could only mean good things for this Hitmen team.
Despite all the returning players, the team will certainly say goodbye to three players. The graduating class this season is as good as the team has ever seen. Adam Tambellini reached a whole new level and developed into a true superstar in the WHL. He was the team’s leading scorer and player of the year, and signed his entry level deal with the New York Rangers as a result. He will definitely be missed, but it was a pleasure seeing him become the great player and leader he did.
Connor Rankin was also a dynamic offensive weapon for the team, reaching career highs this season. Unfortunately, his season was cut short by an injury and the team clearly missed him against Brandon. One thing that stood out in Rankin’s season was how he elevated his play in big games, especially in game seven against the Kootaney Ice where he posted a hat-trick. He is a free agent right now as far as NHL rights go, but don’t be surprised if he’s invited to NHL camp and plays pro next season.
Finally, Kenton Helgesen will move on as the captain of this team. His play over the last few seasons has improved greatly and no doubt the Anaheim Ducks product will find a place to play next season. One of the big plusses in his game is his ability to play all positions on the ice. We saw him play on the blueline and just about every position as a forward. That ability will no doubt see him succeed at the next level.
All in all, the year was a huge success for the Hitmen. A trip to the Eastern Conference Finals this season allowed a group of young players gain a huge amount of experience. They also find out from the Wheat Kings what it takes to succeed at the next level. General Manager Mike Moore has done a fantastic job setting this team up for a lot of success into next season and the future. 2015-1016 is setting up to be a great year for the franchise and will no doubt be exciting to watch.