CALGARY, AB -- Out with the old, in with the new.
The old adage can describe a junior hockey team almost every season, as players run out of eligible years or move onto the next level of pro hockey.
Then come the expected increased roles from the younger guys to keep the team strong and playoff contenders.
The Calgary Hitmen are no different.
Captain Cody Sylvester and his assistant captains Brooks Macek and Spencer Humphries have all graduated from the WHL. Import forward Victor Rask and defenceman Alex Roach have also likely played their last WHL games, moving on to the NHL ranks.
That’s three of their top scorers, and two of their best defenceman gone, and they aren’t coming back.
“They are tough holes to fill,” said associate coach Brent Kisio. “You’re not going to be able to just fill them overnight, guys are going to have to come in and work for them. We know we have some work to do there, but we expect some guys to step up and fill some big shoes. If that happens, we will be okay.”
But time marches on, and Kisio and the rest of the coaching staff are confident those replacements are on the team right now.
Part of that certainty came from what they saw during last year’s playoff run.
As the Hitmen advanced to the WHL Eastern Conference Final against the Edmonton Oil Kings, more and more of the younger guys were asked to play a bigger role in key moments.
On the backend, there was Colby Harmsworth. After fellow rearguard Kenton Helgesen was injured in the first round versus Swift Current, Harmsworth stepped in admirably for a WHL rookie.
“I want all the young guys to step up, but a guy like Harmsworth who last year played a lot against other teams top guys especially in the second half of last year,” Kisio said. “He’s a guy we expect to come in and hopefully play in our Top 4.”
The backend will be lead by a pair of 20-year-olds: Jaynen Rissling and Jesse Zgraggen.
Rissling is back in Calgary after spending training camp with the Washington Capitals, and was named the 21st captain in team history.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys still here and they were really shining,” said Zgraggen, who enters his first full season with the Hitmen.
“Those spots are tough to fill, it’s tough to replace a guy like Roach and Humphs, but we will have another solid D core this year.”
Those young guys Zgraggen refers to are Travis Sanheim, Ben Thomas and Matt Foster, who remain with Hitmen as 17-year-olds.
Rounding out the backend are Josh Thrower and Kenton Helgesen.
Up front, there will be plenty of eyes on forward Jake Virtanen. The 17-year-old forward is entering his draft eligible season, and is expected to be a first round draft choice in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.
Joining him are veterans Brady Brassart, Greg Chase, Zane Jones, Pavel Padakin and Elliott Peterson.
A wild-card remains Radel Fazleev, the Hitmen’s selection in the 2013 CHL Import Draft. The Russian turned heads in training camp with dazzling puck skills, and he opened up the season centering the top line as a 17-year-old.
“We have a lot of guys coming back and a lot of guys coming out of their first year that were very strong,” said Chase, who was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in June.
The backbone of the team will come from between the pipes though.
Chris Driedger, last year’s no. 1 ‘tender, played lights out in net in last years playoffs, outdueling his competition in Swift Current, Red Deer and Edmonton.
“What we need to do is help our goalies in the defensive end, and our forwards better be strong. Mack and Chris are going to do their jobs, we aren’t worried about that,” Kisio said.
Backing him up will be 18-year-old Mack Shields, who spent rookie camp with the NHL’s Florida Panthers.
“I think this team has a lot of upside this year, and it’s an exciting time,” Chase added.
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