Final Thoughts: Season Reflections

NielsenWatsonGoal-EdmontonYes, let’s get it out of the way, the Lethbridge Hurricanes have once again missed the playoffs extending their playoff-less streak to six straight seasons having not appeared in the Western Hockey League post-season since 2008/2009 – it’s been said, now let us move on.

Negativity is a word, that for me, should be considered as a swear word. I’m a glass half full kind of guy; that’s how I was raised and that’s how I will raise my kids (when I have some one day). Why dwell on the negatives? If I dwelled on the negatives there is no way I would be where I am right now. There was a time where I had four years of Junior-B play-by-play experience under my belt and it was mid-way through August approaching hockey season and I didn’t have a job. I was reaching out to other Junior-B teams to see if they needed a broadcaster just so that I could stay sharp. I was down in the dumps. Being rejected for countless Junior-A opportunities was a big blow, but with my upbringing and friendly reminders from important people in my life, I tried to stay positive and a few weeks later I got a play by play job in La Ronge, Saskatchewan, calling Junior-A hockey in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League with the La Ronge Ice Wolves – that was just three summers ago, and now I’ve got one year of WHL on my resume.

There is no point in focusing on the negatives – it doesn’t help you, or anyone around you. Now granted, I’m new to town and just completed my first year as the play by play voice of the Hurricanes, and so I haven’t been here long enough to feel the complete pain of missing the post-season six straight seasons. However, with that being said, junior hockey goes through cycles.

Skinner-BroncosI grew up in a town that had a Junior-B hockey team in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League (the Comox Valley Glacier Kings, the team I began my play-by-play career with when I was just 17-years-old).  The Glacier Kings were awful, simply put. They missed the VIJHL playoffs eight straight seasons, in an eight team league; that’s tough to do. Fan support dwindled and outcries to have the team sold were loud and clear (sound familiar) but since 2008, the Glacier Kings have made the playoffs seven straight seasons having gone to the league final twice, losing both – all under the same ownership and the stands are packed every night. My point is, as far as I’m concerned, the Hurricanes cycle of missing the playoffs could be over as soon as next season.

Sure, the ‘Canes finished second last in the WHL this season with a record of 20-44-5-3 with a total of 48 points, but that is an eight win and 19 point improvement from the season before. That’s a big step; especially considering the Hurricanes sat with a 6-19-3-1 record when the axe fell on both Drake Berehowsky and Brad Robson. A move that saw the Hurricanes promote then Assistant General Manager, Peter Anholt, to take over both vacancies left behind by the previous regime.

What Anholt was able to do in just over half a season’s work has to be viewed as a success. In 42 games behind the bench, Anholt paced the team to a 14-25-2-1 record, but more than picking up a higher winning percentage (.333) as compared to (.206) before the change, was the productivity and evolution of individual players.

First and foremost, Giorgio Estephan who shot from off the NHL draft rankings to a potential third round draft pick. The sophomore’s season could only be described as a tale of two years. After missing training camp and the first two weeks of the regular season, the 1997-born forward struggled to start his year collecting just four points (1g-3a) in his first 21 games; he went 14 games without a point, had a 23-game goalless skid, and a pointless November. However, after the change, Estephan exploded collecting 47 points (22g-25a) in his final 43 games – a pace that would see him collect 79 points (37g-42a) over a 72-game season, that would’ve ranked him among the 20 in scoring this season.

Burke-BroncosThen there was Tyler Wong and Jamal Watson who shattered their previous career high in points finishing one-two in team scoring this season with 56 and 54 points respectively. A 25-point improvement for Wong and a 16-point improvement for the Captain over their previous season highs.

While on paper, the trade with the Brandon Wheat Kings at the start of the season that saw the Hurricanes deal Reid Duke, Macoy Erkamps and prospect Tak Anholt to Manitoba in exchange for Ryley Lindgren, Kord Pankewicz and Brett Kitt – the latter who now is playing Junior-A hockey in Flin Flon – seemed to be a lopsided trade, and not for the ‘Canes. However, with one season complete following that trade, the Hurricanes came out much better than originally anticipated.

Reid Duke, yes, had a career year with the Wheaties this season collecting 51 points (20g-31a) in 53 games and Erkamps was no slouch chipping in 31 points in 68 games from their back-end. But, with that being said, the Hurricanes found a hidden gem in that trade with Pankewicz. The 18-year-old’s previous career high in points came last year collecting just eight assists, but this season, especially the second half, Pankewicz exploded proving he can be a true offensive defenseman. In 64 games this season, “Panks” collected 41 points and led the ‘Canes in assists with 34 – Pankewicz was one of just 26 defenseman with 40 or more points in the league this season and just one of two in that 26 to be on a non-playoff team (the only other was Jesse Lees of the Prince Albert Raiders, who spent half the season on a high-flying Kelowna Rockets team).

The other current piece on the ‘Canes from that trade was Lindgren – who also set a career high with 25 points and if not for an end of October injury that kept him out of the line up until after Christmas, Lindgren might have eclipsed the 35 or 40 point plateau. Combined between Pankewicz and Lindgren, they produced less points than the Duke/Erkamps duo. Pankewicz and Lindgren combining for 66 points (13g-53a) in 115 man games while Duke and Erkamps picked up 82 points (23g-59a). Yes, the former ‘Canes had more, but just slightly. And when you break it down to points per game, Lindgren and Pankewicz produced at (.574) points per game whereas Duke-Erkamps popped in (.678) per game on the highest scoring team in the WHL as opposed to the fourth lowest scoring team (only Tri-City, Vancouver, and Saskatoon averaged less goals per game than the Hurricanes did). The other benefit from that trade, is the better of the two defenseman, Pankewicz, is a year younger than Erkamps who might not play with the Wheat Kings next season an overager.

Then there was the acquisition of Brayden Burke at the beginning of December. That proved to be a move that has set up the franchise well. At the time of the trade, the Hurricanes dealt then overage scoring leader, Riley Sheen, to the Red Deer Rebels for a 17-year-old, unproven kid who’d played a total of three WHL games. It sure didn’t take long for Burke to prove his worth and upside though. After being placed on a line with former childhood teammate Giorgio Estephan, Burke showcased his skill and play-making ability. In 41 games with the ‘Canes, the Edmonton product put up 34 points (8g-26a) – if you compare Burke’s 17-year-old season to Sheen’s 17-year-old year, Burke produced 31 more points in five less games.

EstephanFaceoff-BroncosThen December 9th. The Hurricanes announced that Drake Berehowsky was relieved of his coaching duties immediately. The following day, General Manager Brad Robson was also fired. Peter Anholt was named as the replacement and in just under a month into his tenure as both head coach and GM, Anholt was the busiest man at the trade deadline making some bold moves; the philosophy: get bigger, get younger. And the moves he was able to make was mission accomplished – how his phone didn’t die, I’ll never know!

He swapped out Bryton Sayers for Scott Allan in two separate trades that both saw fifth round draft picks exchanged. He sent Taylor Cooper, whose stock might never be as high as it was when he traded him, to Regina for a 17-year-old project in Brady Reagan who simplified his game in the second half and became a rock on the ‘Canes defense. He acquired a young, skilled forward in Johnny Wesley from the Vancouver Giants for rugged forward Zane Jones. Wesley, who was the last cut for the Giants was playing Junior-A with the Surrey Eagles all season came in and produced when given the opportunity.

Then he claimed Florian Baltram off waivers from the Seattle Thunderbirds – a no risk move that has shown some reward as Baltram produced 14 points in 34 games with the ‘Canes (a near 30 point pace for a full season). And he also stole away goaltender Jayden Sittler from the Victoria Royals for a seventh round draft pick – a move that has solidified the goaltending and has helped prized netminder Stuart Skinner.

Every player on the Hurricanes roster that had at least one previous WHL season under their belt had career years including: Wong, Watson, Estephan, Lindgren, Pankewicz, Reagan, Allan, Kade Jensen and Carter Folk who all surpassed previous point highs. That in itself is improvement when you consider the ‘Canes, as mentioned before, were the fourth lowest scoring team in the Western Hockey League.

Then there is the rookies on this year’s edition of the Hurricanes who excelled. Andrew Nielsen, an undrafted but signed defenseman from Red Deer, made the team out of training camp and never looked back shooting onto the NHL draft radar. The 1996-born, with a late birthday, was ranked 69th among North American skaters for the upcoming draft and was seventh among eligible WHL defenseman on the NHL’s Central Scouting List’s midterm rankings.

Jaeger White, whose skill is there, showed glimpses of being a very strong, undersized offensive threat. White, who struggled with consistency in the early part of his rookie season, really began to come into his own in the second half of the season before suffering a season-ending injury forcing him to miss the final month and a half of the season. In 40 games this season, White collected 16 points (4g-12a) and scored all of them in his final 24 games he played, that also included a seven-game point streak near the end of December into January. Anholt was bold enough to compare White to former WHLer Ray Whitney, otherwise known as the wizard, who went on to play over twenty years in the NHL and was no slouch at that level either.

But, you’d be remiss to mention rookies without bringing up Stuart Skinner. The 16-year-old goalie, who didn’t turn 16 until November 1st, is still two full seasons away from hearing his named called at the NHL draft and at the rate he’s going, he could be a first round selection in 2017. The Edmonton product, in my opinion, is already one of the best goalies in the WHL and maybe the best goalie in the Eastern Conference, Tristan Jarry aside. In his first full year in the WHL, Skinner posted a goals against average of 3.63 (pretty good when you consider the team’s GAA was 4.22). He also recorded an impressive (.909) save percentage that ranked him eighth in the WHL and the only goalie in the top-20 on a non-playoff team. In his 13 victories this season, Skinner posted an impressive (2.40) goals against average and a whopping (.940) save percentage while averaging 39 shots per game. In five of those 13 wins, he had to make 40+ saves while making 37+ saves in eight of the 13 victories, including a 37-save performance against the Vancouver Giants for his first WHL shutout in November.

SittlerRobbery-ICEWith all of the positives that have come out of this season, I haven’t even mentioned the terrific crop of prospects in the Hurricanes system which is only going to get better once the ‘Canes complete the May 7th draft in Calgary. The cupboard of prospects is chalked full of talent, some of which we’ve already been able to see in WHL action.

Ryan Vandervlis, who made the team out of camp, but was sent back to midget after the home opener appeared on occasion throughout his season before joining the big club midway through February. In 19 games of work this season, the 16-year-old picked up two goals and two assists while using his six-foot-three, 200-pound frame effectively winning big faceoffs and becoming a strong depth player. This season, we also saw a brief appearance for behemoth defenseman Ethan King who appeared in one game playing a handful of shifts in Everett against a tough Silvertips team. King, who literally broke a pane of glass at practice in Seattle with the Hurricanes with a slapshot, didn’t look too out of place. And assuming he works on his foot speed, he could be a better version of Keegan Kanzig (maybe not as big, but King still has some time to grow).

Brett Davis, who was one of four Hurricanes draft picks at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George, appeared in three games this season. In his second game, he skated on a line with Burke and Estephan and produced his first WHL point picking up an assist. He had glimpses of dominance and fearlessness going to the tough areas with his slender 160-pound frame. If he adds 15 pounds over the summer and gets some more velocity on his shot (which will naturally come with more weight and muscle) the rest will take care of itself and he could be a rookie standout as a 16-year-old next year.

Much like Davis, there was Zane Franklin who also appeared in three games scoring one goal and adding an assist while going a plus-one. Franklin’s goal was the epitome of what he could be. A terrific toe drag before uncorking a top-shelf snap shot. The only knock on the 1999-born forward might be his skating, but a hard summer with him improving on that will only bode well for his hopes of making this team as a 16-year-old rookie.

LindgrenTwo others we saw this season, albeit just once, was defenseman Connor Rokosh and forward Barrett Sheen. Rokosh, who almost made the ‘Canes out of camp being one of the final cuts, played one game in Red Deer using his six-foot-five, 210-pound body effectively. While Sheen, who is a big-bodied forward, had some glimpses of being a player that would be tough to handle. In the AMHL playoffs, Sheen is tied for the lead in playoff scoring.

That’s just the start of the strong prospect system the Hurricanes have right now. Also in the system includes Tanner Browne (acquired from the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Ryan Pilon trade), Jesse Sheen, Jacob Ashton and Cody Allen who were all taken in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft. As well as a strong group of 1999-born players in Koletrane Wilson, Ayden Roche-Setoguchi, Jadon Joseph, Tyler Traptow, and Nick Watson. As well, the Hurricanes second overall pick from last year’s draft Jordy Bellerive who, if signed, could be a VERY dangerous 16-year-old, much like Sam Steel and Tyler Benson were for the Regina Pats and Vancouver Giants this season.

When you factor in that great crop of young players that are in the pipeline, and have already played at least one season in the WHL, and add that with what will be some high picks in both the WHL Bantam Draft and CHL Import Draft this season, it will only bode well for this team both now and moving forward.

The Hurricanes found out on Wednesday that they will be drafting second overall for the second straight year in the WHL Bantam Draft. In all the other rounds, the ‘Canes will have the second pick in each round. Not to mention, the ‘Canes will be drafting in the top five of the CHL Import Draft as well.

There will be some terrific players available in the import draft this season – and the bantam draft for that matter too – and Anholt has already said he’ll be taking the best player available, no ifs-ands-or-buts. When you look back at previous import drafts, the potential of getting a sure-fire NHL prospect in the top 10-15 spots isn’t unfamiliar. Consider this, the Brandon Wheat Kings took Ivan Provorov 30th in last year’s draft and he could be a top-10 NHL pick this year. The only problem is the CHL Import Draft at times is somewhat of a crap-shoot and it all depends on how that player responds to a faster-bigger game, with less room. That’s a tough adjustment to make. Not to mention, these players are on the other side of the planet at 17, 18 and 19-years-old for the first time – that in itself is tough. And then there is the language barrier for some of them. Imagine you at 17-years-old going over to Russia to play hockey not understanding the language, being away from your family for the first time, and trying to learn a new style of game after playing the same way all your life with the expectation and pressure to produce right away– that would be a very difficult task.

The other benefit that Anholt has is that Jamal Watson is the only returning 19-year-old from last year’s team and has two open overage spots that he will be able to fill. In Swift Current last Saturday, he admitted that he’d likely go after two top-tier forwards with those spots as he feels the team needs more depth and scoring up front – something I completely agree with. There are some very talented 19-year-old’s in the WHL this season that will be dealt around, and probably for some late round picks.

Some of the big overage deals that happened this season saw the ‘Canes land Zane Jones from Everett for a fourth round draft pick – he almost scored 30 goals. Other twenties that exchanged hands for late round draft picks early in the year included Carter Rigby, Pavel Padakin Calder Brooks and Richard Nejezchleb. In my opinion, there are much better 19-year-olds this season that will be on the move with teams only allowed to carry three 20-year-olds.

There are some very dangerous 19-year-old’s in the league this season – a lot of whom will likely play pro, and some good ones that will be kept by their current teams. But, there will likely be some movement of overagers at, or before, WHL training camps. Some players who might be available are Gage Quinney from Kelowna, Parker Bowles from Tri-City, Cory Millette from Seattle, Presten Kopeck and Scott Feser from Red Deer and Cole Benson and Brandon Baddock from Edmonton – among others. Assuming Anholt stays true to acquiring two forwards, those are all guys who could play in your top-9 forward group.

Watson-WarriorsWhen you look at the tough Central Division that saw five of six teams make the post-season – the ‘Canes as the only exception. Some of those teams are going to take a step back next season. You have to think that the Edmonton Oil Kings will take another big step back with most likely losing Tristan Jarry to pro and Ashton Sautner is in his final season of eligibility. Medicine Hat, who currently has ten overagers will likely have the trio of Cole Sanford, Trevor Cox, and Dryden Hunt (assuming the three return and don’t play pro). But, the Tigers will lose a healthy amount of strong defenseman and I’m not sold on Nick Schneider as a WHL starter despite him being listed for the NHL Entry Draft.

There is Kootenay, whose time is now to do anything, with most certainly losing Sam Reinhart to the Buffalo Sabres. They will probably lose Jaedon Descheneau to the St. Louis Blues American Hockey League team, likewise with defenseman Rinat Valiev. Plus they’re losing overagers Levi Cable and Tim Bozon. The five finished two through six in Kootenay’s top-six scoring leaders this season. And there is also Calgary who might take a step back with losing overagers Kenton Helgeson, Adam Tambellini and Connor Rankin. Keegan Kanzig and Jake Virtanen will play in the AHL as 19-year-old’s. That’s a big dent in their core not returning next season.

With all of those variables, the only team that you have to think will improve and not take a step back from this season is the Red Deer Rebels who will continue to bolster their line-up as they will be hosting the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup – something Brent Sutter and company will want to win at home.

If the Hurricanes can continue to progress like they did in the second half of the season, with some key additions, it’s not out of the question to think this team could be a group that competes for a playoff spot and might make the post-season for the first time in six years. I’m not suggesting they will be a team that pushes for a Central Division title, but to think this team is a wild card team (or maybe a 2014/15 Swift Current, who just squeezes into third spot in their division) isn’t too far of a stretch.

I know there is a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths from the past years – this year included – especially with seeing the team end the year on an eight game losing streak and finishing the month of March with a disappoint 1-9-0-0 record. Keep in mind though that of the ten games in March, all but two were playoff teams (and when the ‘Canes played Prince Albert, they weren’t yet eliminated from playoff contention). Games are tougher to play in the second half of the season and all of those teams were fine tuning their game getting ready for the post-season making sure they were firing on all cylinders. And Anholt was admittedly disappointed with the end of season results.

Many will disagree with me on a lot of these points, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I think that the positives out-way the negatives for a team that has had their fair share of bumps in the road in recent seasons.

But again, I’m a glass half full kind of guy who tries not to dwell on the negatives.

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