Hitmen 'excited' about potential after busy WHL trade week

Commitment to get younger and grow together continues for Calgary’s major junior crw

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For fans of the Calgary Hitmen, there’s reason to be restless.

Another Western Hockey League trade deadline has come and gone with plenty of change in the lineup to get younger …

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Again.

But Steve Hamilton is feeling this past week — one with four trades to bring in future talent — has fuelled the team further with the kind of potential it takes to rise from the mediocrity of too many consecutive seasons.

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“It’s exciting,” declared the Hitmen head coach. “A little bit of a change obviously over the past week — new guys came in.

“There’s lots of work to be done around here.”

All totalled, the changes to the lineup have been massive in the last eight months.

Even before Wednesday’s WHL trade deadline sent veterans Sean Tschigerl and Tyson Galloway to the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Swift Current Broncos, respectively — which fetched four upcoming draft picks — the Hitmen were committed to changing the shortcomings of previous years.

The deals this past week were simply an extension of that commitment spurred on by a change in the roster-maker’s chair, with veteran executive Garry Davidson taking charge — first as director of hockey operations over the summer and then as the team’s sixth GM in November.

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“At the end of last year, we had 24 players on the roster,” Hamilton said. “We have eight remaining (from that roster). So it is a new team — two-thirds of it is a new team.

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“By design, we have a youth movement going on. We want a team that we can grow that’s got a high ceiling and big potential.”

They are young, for sure.

Calgary Hitmen vs. Spokane Chiefs
Calgary Hitmen goaltender Ethan Buenaventura blocks a shot by Spokane Chiefs forward Chase Bertholet at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calary on Friday, Jan. 12, 2024. Photo by Brent Calver/Postmedia /Brent Calver/Postmedia

For Friday’s 7-4 victory over the visiting Spokane Chiefs at Scotiabank Saddledome — in what was their first game since deadline day — the Hitmen iced just five 19- and 20-year-old players, including newcomers Pavel Bocharov and Justin Invanusec, both acquired in deadline deals.

But whether potential blossoms into success remains to be seen.

“We have a ton of skill in our lineup — we have a ton of potential,” Hamilton said. “I mean … our team should be playing under-18 — by age, 85% of them, right?

“So when you look at it that way, there’s guys that haven’t had a lot of reps in the league and they’re getting them this year in big moments and big opportunities. They’re not riding the bench for two years and then figuring it out as an 18-year-old. They’re playing now, and we’re growing this group together, and we’re doing it purposely. And it’s all part of the plan to grow this group together and grow our core together.

“To see Tyson and Sean move on, that’s always a clear sign that’s there’s a changing of the guard. They’re two wonderful guys that we wish nothing but success for going forward for them. But a new era here for us, and that started with (Friday).”

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Certainly two of Hamilton’s top youngsters like what they see for the future of their squad, even after losing 20-year-olds Galloway — their captain — and Tschigerl — a key contributor.

“A lot of guys exited, but good guys came in and fit in well,” said Carson Wetsch, who’s headed to the 2024 CHL Top Prospects Game on Jan. 24 in Moncton, N.B. “And we’re going to keep on getting these wins.

“I like that the guys quickly fit in to what we’re about here — that Hitmen hockey and that hard-working hockey,” Wetsch said. “Pasha played a great game, and Justin played a great game, and they fit in well.”

But it’s more about forward Wetsch — himself still 17 and a driver Friday with the first goal and two assists in a stellar effort — and the younger Hitmen.

Two-way defenceman Carter Yakemchuk, 18, is another of those featured phenoms, as he’ll join Wetsch later this month at the prospects game for NHL draft-eligible players in the major junior ranks.

“We are a super-skilled team,” agreed Yakemchuk. “I think we have a lot of young talent that’s going to take some time to develop. But they’ve got an unbelievable skill set — all of them.

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“I thought that after the trade deadline, we brought some good guys in,” continued Yakemchuk. “I thought they really played well and gelled with everyone. It was good to get a win coming out of the trade deadline with our new team.”

“We like our group,” added Hamilton. “We like the youth of our group and like the potential of our group.

“I mean … if you look at our team, I like the way we play. We make mistakes, but so does everyone else. We make young mistakes, but we’re going to get better because of it. We’re going to live through those mistakes.

“But we’re going to live through the moments where guys make plays and make things happen. So it’s exciting.”

Calgary Hitmen vs. Spokane Chiefs
Calgary Hitmen defenceman Brandon Osborne is pursued by Spokane Chiefs forward Chase Bertholet at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Friday, Jan, 12, 2024. Photo by Brent Calver /Postmedia

LOOSE PUCKS

Friday’s decision marked a third-straight triumph for the Hitmen (16-17-5-1), who are now 3-0-2-0 in their last five to push to within one point of a playoff spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference … Ethan Moore had two goals in the game, while Hitmen teammates Wetsch, Yakemchuk, Maxim Muranov, Oliver Tulk and Tyson Greenway shot home singles. Goaltender Ethan Buenaventura made 34 saves in earning the victory … Hitmen scratches were D Reese Hamilton (lower body, week-to-week), F Chase Valliant (upper body, week-to-week), D Aleksey Chichkin (upper body, week-to-week) and D Hunter Aura, an affiliate player up from B.C.’s Yale Hockey Academy in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League … The Hitmen continue with the third scene of their seven-game home-stand Sunday against the incoming Tri-City Americans at the Dome (2 p.m.).

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