THE BOYS ARE BACK
In case there was any doubt, a trek down to the arena to watch some hockey solidified to me that things are back in full swing. A plethora of players of different ages and skill levels assembled to dust off their skates and break in their new gear by means of a quick five on five scrimmage. Some will be heading out of the city to play for various teams abroad while others will call Lethbridge home for the hockey season. Amongst the later were five Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Andrew Nielsen, Brady Reagan, Brandon Kennedy, Egor Babenko, and Igor Merezhko took to the ice as a unit Thursday night. The pace was quick and physicality was low (as expected during a friendly scrimmage) but it was interesting to see the two new European players take the ice. It goes without saying that it is dangerous to read too far into a scrimmage that equates to pond-hockey so my impressions should be taken with a grain of salt. The purpose of casual scrimmage as a player is to sharpen your game – get your legs back – and build your confidence heading into training camp. As a result, none of the players were operating at 100%, Hurricanes included. There were however, a few on-ice characteristics that could be gleaned from watching the players hit the ice.
I spent the majority of the hour watching the two European imports. The Canes first selection in the Euro draft, Egor Babenko, really stood out to me. He was very energetic, silky smooth, and lethally fast. From what I saw, Babenko is an extremely skilled player with a high ceiling and I think Canes fans are going to love watching him. He made a number of heads-up plays looking for open teammates and also nicely finished off a 2 on 1 – going five-hole on Pronghorns goaltender Alex Sirard. With all that said, Egor is small. Very small. Listed at 5’9, 145 pounds, he is going to need to adjust quickly to the small ice and keep his head up when the bullets start flying for real. He immediately reminded me of Tyler Johnson and Brandon Kozun, both of whom are the exact same height as Babenko. At 145 pounds he is light, even for a guy his size, but he is also light on his feet and that should serve him well. He can turn on a dime, and should do okay evading defenders with his soft hands. He is a slippery player and fun to watch. His energy level for a casual scrimmage really stood out to me. I was particularly impressed by the backchecking pressure he applied, on numerous occasions managing to strip the puck with a timely stick lift and quickly move it in the other direction. I could see him causing some neutral zone turnovers this season.
All in all, I liked what I saw and am excited to see what he can do as the competition ramps up.
The right shot Ukrainian defenseman Igor Merezhko is the polar opposite of Babenko. He is undeniably huge, well over 200 pounds. He moved okay though he stood out as a much more clunky skater than Nielsen, Kennedy or Reagan. His shot seem heavy, but he never really let anything too serious fly and somehow missed the net by about 6 feet from the slot on one play. His first instinct seemed to be defending at all times and on the attack was usually the last player out of his own zone. Whether it is jet-lag, conditioning, or just an off-night, he looked a little lethargic. He got caught a number of times on poor challenges that led to scoring chances the other way, but also did a decent job of defending a few 2 on 1’s. Merezhko made a few nice breakout passes and clearly has some raw ability. I hope for both he and the teams sake that he can ramp up the intensity and conditioning level by the time the season rolls around. Clearly the sort of hockey that was being played last night favors a player like Babenko over a big physical defenseman. I am very interested to see how Merezhko uses his size and strength once main camp starts. He will without question be the heaviest set player on the team and will need to use it to his advantage in order to lock down a position on the roster. It would be easy to start worrying about his foot speed and intensity level but for now I will give him a pass and wait to see how his game develops during camp and the exhibition season.
While I spent most of my time watching the new players, I did note a few things about the returning players. Nielsen, in particular, looked sharp and ready to build on last season. During warmups he was both fast and smooth, finishing a number of drills with beautiful goals and making it all look effortless. He looked confident and is likely highly motivated coming off of being drafted. This is going to be a very exciting few weeks for Nielsen and he is going to be a huge part of the Hurricanes plan for the season. It will be fun to watch him turn into the horse this team desperately needs on the back end.
I was also really impressed by Kennedy and Reagan. Both players move really well and looked like they were having fun. The Hurricanes should have a very mobile defense this year and if both continue to develop it will be fun to see what they become. Reagan, in particular, seems to be flying under the radar of many and could have a breakout season. Mark him down as a player who may develop in leaps and bounds this year.
It was fun to take a quick look at the heart of the Canes young D core and the small Russian Babenko. Without reading too much into what I saw, hockey fans have reason to be excited about this fall. The ice is in, the players are arriving, things are happening. Get excited Lethbridge. Hockey is back.