The Calgary Hitmen saw their whirlwind season end with a bit of a thud last week, as they were swept in four games by the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Game 1: Oil Kings beat Hitmen 3-2 (in overtime)
Calgary got out to a 2-0 lead by the midway point of the third period off goals from Kaden Elder and Luke Coleman. But the Oil Kings scored twice (via Parker Galvas and Jake Neighbours) in the last five minutes to send things to overtime, where Neighbours scored his second goal of the game 3:20 into extra time to give Edmonton the win.
Game 2: Oil Kings beat Hitmen 4-1
In Game 1 against Lethbridge, the Hitmen were beaten in overtime and seemed to face a hangover in the next game. The pattern continued against Edmonton, who never trailed in this game. Four different Oil Kings scored (Quinn Benjafield, Liam Keeler, Matthew Robertson and David Kope), while Carson Focht had the lone Hitmen goal.
Game 3: Oil Kings beat Hitmen 2-1 (in overtime)
Edmonton’s Zach Russell scored midway through the second period in a tight-checking game. Hitmen captain Mark Kastelic scored with 1:07 left in regulation to force overtime, but Oil Kings forward Wyatt McLeod scored in overtime to give them the victory.
Game 4: Oil Kings beat Hitmen 6-0
In a similar hangover-style game as Game 2, the Oil Kings never trailed in this game. Six different Edmonton players scored (Scott Atkinson, Benjafield, Neighbours, Vince Loschiavo, McLeod and Andrew Fyten) to capture the victory and complete the sweep.
All told, the Hitmen had a miraculous season. After going winless in their first six games and sitting below the .500 mark until early December, they managed to not only make the playoffs but avoid facing the powerhouse Prince Albert Raiders in the first round.
The Hitmen retain their young core, losing 1998-born players Luke Coleman (44 points), Kaden Elder (60 points) and Jake Kryski (46 points), along with 1999-born Nashville prospect Vladislav Yeryomenko (33 points). Their overage players for next season look to be Mark Kastelic, James Malm and Dakota Krebs, while they’ll have an open import slot with Yeryomenko going pro. They’re losing their fourth, seventh, eighth and ninth-leading scorers from this season, but retaining everyone else.
Speaking to the media on Thursday, general manager Jeff Chynoweth credited 17-year-old goaltender Jack McNaughton with pushing the team over the top this season. When presumptive starting goalie Carl Stankowski blew out his ankle in November, the Hitmen leaned heavily on McNaughton.
“Twenty-two straight starts from the middle November to the end of January,” said Chynoweth. “We don’t make the playoffs without Jack McNaughton. That’s a credit to him as a 17-year-old listed player, undrafted, and just had a great season and bodes well for our future.”
While the Hitmen don’t really need a drastic overhaul given their young roster and the improvements several players made under new head coach Steve Hamilton, Chynoweth didn’t rule out changes in the offseason.
“That’s the cyclical nature of junior hockey, there’s always change,” said Chynoweth. “You got a five-year lifespan so to speak, so we’ll sit down and evaluate. We’ve got some good young prospects coming up, too, which is really important. We’ll see where we need to make changes if need be, but I’ll tell you what, it’s a good nucleus coming back and we’ll see that with this group if they can take the next step.”
According to Alan Caldwell’s handy tracker spreadsheet, the Hitmen have two first round picks and four selections in the first three rounds of this year’s bantam draft. They have currency to play with if they want to upgrade a part of their roster.