The Calgary Hitmen is all about that direction in the 2022-23 Western Hockey League campaign.
It stems from last year’s ugly opening that ultimately helped determine their fate of missing the playoffs and a desire to rectify the season-long mistake by – at least – giving themselves a chance to make it through. WHL Championship.
“We had a tough first weekend,” said Hitmen goalkeeper Brayden Peters, looking back on last fall’s first weekend of the regular season – falling 9-2 and 4-1 for the Lethbridge Hurricanes. “The first two games were not what we wanted.
“So at the moment we can’t look forward to this weekend (to open the season). Of course we have our long-term goals. But for now we have to get together night in, night out and prove it every night. We can look ahead, but it should only be about the next game.”
The obvious long-term outlook is to a spot in the playoffs, something that eluded them last year despite a promising early part of the schedule.
Winning just 11 of their last 37 games, the Hitmen have struggled to finish with a sub-par 25-34-7-2 record and just two sore points from a post-season position in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
A year older and wiser — and still stinging with that end-of-season bitterness — they’re letting that fuel their fire en route to the season-opening home-and-home series featuring the Swift Current Broncos — Friday night at Saskatchewan’s InnovationPlex (19 p.m.) and Saturday night at Scotiabank Saddledome (7 p.m.) — to drop the puck on the current campaign.
“Right now I think it’s going out with the attitude to prove to everyone that we’ve improved and that we deserved to make the playoffs last year,” said Peters, a product of Taber, Alta. “We missed two points and that left a sour taste in our mouths to finish the season.”
His partner on the net, Ethan Buenaventura, has a similar attitude.
“The end goal is to win the championship, and if you don’t even get a chance to play in the playoffs, it’s hard,” said the Winnipeg native, a draft pick for the fourth round of 2019 by the Hitmen. “Last year we left with a pretty sour taste in our mouths. We all think we could definitely have made the play-offs and have done better than the result. So I know every guy on the team took the off-season very seriously. We have something to prove in the competition this year.”
That starts with the two rope pullers.
Both Peters – fresh off rookie camp with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks – and Buenaventura offer a one-two last line of defense that few rivals can match.
And that’s reinforced by the club’s backbone – a blueline corps returning in tact from last year. NHL conscript Tyson Galloway – 19 and still at camp with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues – is expected to lead a unit with a lot of WHL experience. It also includes three other 19-year-old defenders in Blake Heward, Keagan Slaney and Trey Patterson.
“I think just the match they will have every night is the biggest key,” Buenaventura said of his d-men. “I know in every game they will support us. You can trust them with just little things like showing us the puck from the point – they’re going to exclude guys. They’re going to protect us if something happens. So we have the confidence in them and they have that confidence in us, and that’s a great thing.”
Next up is whether the Hitmen can support the goalkeepers on the scoreboard. Besides attacking stars Sean Tschigerl and Riley Fiddler-Schultz – both still away at NHL camps in St. Louis and Los Angeles, respectively – the attack group is a bit of a question mark.
Last winter, 2018 Hitmen conscript Zac Funk scored 22 goals – just one back from Tschigerl (23) and six back from snipe leader Fiddler-Schultz (28) – to provide top promise among the less heralded attackers. And the rest is motivated by a full year of WHL experience after COVID robbed them of that two years ago.
“We have high-end attackers here with Tschigs and Fidds, and then we have so many guys who took strides last year that will have higher roles,” said Peters, himself a 2017 Hitmen fifth-rounder. guys up front are ready to take that step and take on the extra responsibility and extra playtime that comes their way.
“I am confident that our attackers will move up and fill those roles.”
And, hopefully, fill the nets – if not with lots of pucks, then with timely pucks.
Given what appears to be a solid back end, the Hitmen probably don’t need to be high octane.
But they expect to be winners with a more experienced group up and down the roster.
“We feel like this year is known to be a more experienced team,” said Peters. “We don’t have that many freshman guys coming into the league. Everyone who was here last year and even the new guys got some experience last year that we wouldn’t have been able to get during the COVID year.
“In the hall we have every confidence in ourselves. If someone outside the room doesn’t believe in us or doubt us, we can go out and prove them wrong.”
And back to the playoffs, where they think they belong.
“We want to make a big step as a team,” Buenaventura added. “We can be one of the best teams in the conference – win a lot more games and really make a playoff push this year. People may see us as underdogs this year and maybe not as high as we expect to be, and that’s totally ok for us, and we think it’s ok to prove that we are capable of doing that. As one of the top teams in the conference that is very important to us. We all want it extra this year after the sour taste of last year.
“Hitmen fans should be excited about what we’re going to bring this year. It’s going to be an exciting year to watch us.”
The Hitmen closed the preseason with a 4-0 point, after two wins apiece over the Red Deer Rivals and the Edmonton Oil Kings… The club traded Mason Finley to the Oil Kings earlier this week in exchange for a parole eighth round pick in the 2023 WHL Prospects Draft. The 2004-born forward, from Kelowna, BC, was drafted by the Hitmen in the fifth round of the 2019 pick-em and appeared in 40 games of the 2021-22 season, scoring two goals and 11 points… Out of their 34 home games this year, the Hitmen will play six of the Tsuut’ina Seven Chiefs Sportsplex, starting with dates on November 2 and 4. The others are scheduled for January 18, January 28, February 19 and February 25.
9. Billal Noori RW 2004
11. Matteo Danis C 2005
14. Tomi Marinkovic C 2004
15. Maxim Muranov LW 2004
16. Carson Wetsch C 2006
17. David Adaszynskic LW 2005
18. Ethan Moore LW 2005
19. Sean Tschigerl LW 2003
21. Riley Fiddler-Schultz C 2002
23. Steel Quiring RW 2003
24. Zac Funk RW 2003
27. Brandon Whynott LW 2004
32. London Hoilett RW 2005
34. Chase Valliant RW 2006
37. Oliver translator C 2005
2. Dax Williams l 2005
3. Trey Patterson l 2003
4. Blake Heward R 2003
7. Keagan Slaney l 2003
8. Grayden Siepman R 2004
12. Vojtech Husinecky R 2005
22. Tyson Galloway l 2003
26. Carter Yakemchuk R 2005
28. Matthew Sutter l 2004
29. Ethan Buenaventura l 2004
31. Alex Garrett R 2005
35. Braden Peters l 2002