Photo Credit: courtesy Calgary Hitmen

Three Hitmen players are about to age out of junior

The 2019-20 regular season has been completed by the Calgary Hitmen, albeit with four fewer games than intended due to the coronavirus stoppage (and season cancellation). The playoff future of the team is unclear, but what we do know is three Hitmen players have played their final regular season contests in the WHL.

As per tradition, the three graduating 1999-born players – forwards Mark Kastelic and Kyle Olson, and defender Dakota Krebs – were to be named the three stars in the final home date of the season, this coming Sunday against Swift Current. In lieu of that, let’s honour them briefly here and then look ahead to the potential 20-year-olds for the 2020-21 campaign.

A look back

Right wing Kyle Olson joined the Hitmen at this year’s trade deadline, but didn’t play his first game for awhile due to a lingering injury. He played 14 games for Calgary and had 18 points for his hometown team. He spent the rest of his junior career with the Tri-City Americans, playing 205 games over parts of five seasons – serving as captain prior to his move to the Hitmen. He was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in 2017, but wasn’t signed. As a career 0.85 point per game player, he’ll be in contention for an AHL depth gig somewhere.

Blueliner Dakota Krebs joined the Hitmen in a mid-season trade with Tri-City in 2017-18. The older brother of Winnipeg ICE star Peyton (a Vegas prospect) and Medicine Hat Tigers rookie Dru (eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft), Dakota was a rock-solid meat and potatoes defender in the Dub. He never really progressed past being a solid second pairing guy, but he could play with anybody and in any situation. His offensive numbers won’t blow anyone’s hair back – he’s a career 0.20 points per game player over 300 games – but his two-way play and size will probably get him looks at the AHL level.

Hitmen captain Mark Kastelic joined the club via the 2014 bantam draft and stuck around for his entire junior career. Blessed with good size and work ethic, he overcame a perceived lack of skill to become one of the team’s most reliable producers. He was a career 0.73 points per game player over 321 games, scoring 47 and 38 goals in each of his past two WHL seasons. Drafted as an overage prospect by Ottawa in last year’s NHL Draft, he’ll probably sign and go play with Belleville in the AHL last season. There have certainly been more talented or flashy Hitmen in franchise history, but few embodied the team’s rough-and-tumble attitude as well as Kastelic.

A look ahead

The Hitmen ended the season with seven 2000-born players on their roster as possible contenders for their three overage spots. Let’s handicap them.

Two guys that will not be back are defenders Egor Zamula and Jett Woo. Zamula signed with the Philadelphia Flyers as a free agent and his deal kicks in next season. Woo was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 2018 and signed, and his deal also kicks in next season. Both players have clearly outgrown major junior.

2018 Toronto Maple Leafs pick Riley Stotts, a versatile yet inconsistent forward, is a bubble player. By that, we mean that he might be signed or he might not. He’s progressed from scoring a just shy of a point-per-game pace in his draft year to scoring at just over that pace this year, but he’s a player that scores in bunches or doesn’t score at all. If the Leafs don’t sign him, expect him back as an overager.

2019 Canucks pick Carson Focht is arguably a more consistent version of Stotts, in the sense that he’s more consistently noticeable when he’s not scoring. The Canucks have several expiring deals in Utica this off-season and could easily fit Focht in, but they wouldn’t need to sign him (or lose his rights) until after the 2020-21 season. He seems like a probable signing.

Three players without NHL entanglements seem safe bets to return. Josh Prokop, older brother of 2020 NHL Draft prospect Luke (also of the Hitmen), is a rangy two-way forward. Orca Wiesblatt, older brother of 2020 NHL Draft prospect Ozzy (of the Prince Albert Raiders), could get NHL attention after a really strong finish to the season. While struggling with consistency, Orca has superb finesse and puck skills and should at least get development camp invites. Defender Andrew Viggars is a solid depth piece, but he’s also the most likely to be jettisoned if Stotts or Focht return.

One more interesting wrinkle for the Hitmen? With Zamula’s departure, they’ll have zero incumbent import players heading into the 2020 CHL Import Draft. As a big market team that shares a building (and resources) with an NHL team, they could be well-positioned to land a big fish. Then again, it’s the Import Draft and nothing’s ever for sure with that cattle-call.