Last season, the Calgary Hitmen had an awful first 20 games. Then they managed to figure things out and power their way into the playoffs. Ahead of what should be a competitive season for the team, they kick off their pre-season schedule this weekend with a home-and-home set with the Edmonton Oil Kings.

Largely returning the same group they had last season, the Hitmen should be contenders in what is expected to be a wide-open Central Division. Last season, the Hitmen finished in a divisional playoff spot and managed to avoid playing the powerhouse Prince Albert Raiders in the first round.

The Hitmen lost overagers Luke Coleman, Kaden Elder and Jake Kryski and upgraded their defense by swapping Vladislav Yeryomenko to Moose Jaw for Jett Woo – Yeryomenko subsequently returned to Europe, so the trade was really smart for the Hitmen.

Hitmen living lean this fall

The reason why this pre-season might be a bit of a challenge for the Hitmen is they’re going to be short-handed for much of it. They’ll be missing eight regulars due to NHL camps (and an injury):

  • D Jett Woo – Vancouver
  • D Egor Zamula – Philadelphia
  • D Jackson van de Leest – Calgary
  • F Mark Kastelic – Ottawa
  • F James Malm – Calgary
  • F Riley Stotts – Toronto
  • F Carson Focht – Vancouver
  • F Cael Zimmerman – hip surgery

It’s unlikely that the Hitmen will get many (if any) of these players back during the pre-season. So expect to see some unfamiliar faces.

The available Hitmen players

Goalies [4]: Carl Stankowski, Jack McNaughton, Ethan Hein and Brayden Peters

The goalie roster spots are locked down. McNaughton is the top dog and the real “battle” is to see who will be the third stringer in case Stankowski suffers another injury – an ankle injury hampered him for a good chunk of last season.

Defensemen [8]: Dakota Krebs, Layne Toder, Andrew Viggars, Devan Klassen, Luke Prokop, Tyson Galloway, Rory Neill and Grayden Siepmann

The Hitmen blueline gets lean pretty quickly once you remove their three best defenders (Woo, Zamula and van de Leest). But Krebs is a strong WHL defender and Prokop and Toder are both pretty underrated. Given that Woo is likely going to be away at Hockey Canada commitments for five or six weeks this season, it’ll be interesting to see who the Hitmen keep as the seventh defender – Klassen can also play forward, while Viggars arguably has more upside.

Forwards [11]: Josh Prokop, Orca Wiesblatt, Hunter Campbell, Tye Carriere, Jonas Peterek, Riley Fiddler-Schultz, Samuel Krajc, Adam Kydd, Zac Funk, Sean Tschigerl and Brandon Whynott

First of all, they don’t have enough forwards so Klassen probably skates with the forwards for awhile. Missing five regulars makes this group really lean, so it’ll be curious how players like Riley Fiddler-Schultz and Sean Tschigerl step up. Adam Kydd was impressive during the training camp scrimmage, so we’ll see if he can continue to carve out a niche for himself.

Presuming that Zamula is locked in for one of the two import spots, it’ll be interesting to see which of the two new imports – Jonas Peterek or Samuel Krajc – is retained and which is waived, given new import picks can’t be traded before December.

The Hitmen are returning the same roster that made the playoffs last season and their up-and-comers are a year older. But there’s still room within the depth of their roster for potential surprises.