LETHBRIDGE HURRICANES: TOP FIVE REASONS TO BE EXCITED FOR 2016-2017
(Credit: Steve Hiscock)
Funny how the summer always seems to fly by. The rookies hit the ice next week! Hurricanes hockey is just around the corner and I wanted to take a quick peek into the coming season. It only seems fitting to examine a few reasons fans (and management) should be excited about the coming season.
With the foundation the players and coaches were able to establish last season, it’s not hard to be optimistic about the outlook for the coming hockey season. The team is on solid footing and the players ought to be returning with gleeful energy and confidence. The Hurricanes are a good team and there’s no reason this group shouldn’t once again be competing as one of the best in the Eastern Conference.
Without further ado, I present to you five reasons Hurricanes fans should be excited for 2016-2017.
1: THE TOP LINE
It’s not often a division winning major junior team has an entire top line return the following season. More often than not, one or two of the elite forwards graduate to a higher level of hockey or are forced out on account of age. Retaining a productive top line in the WHL for consecutive seasons just doesn’t happen (at least not often), but barring a huge surprise, that’s exactly what Canes fans can expect to see this fall.
Last season, Brayden Burke, Tyler Wong, and Giorgio Estephan combined for a staggering 272 points. Had Giorgio Estephan not sustained a nasty ankle injury on a difficult BC road-trip, it’s reasonable to suggest the trio’s points total would have been even higher.
Despite their torrent production, Estephan, Wong, and Burke haven’t (yet) received the attention (I believe) they deserve. This is particularly true when talking about Wong and Burke – both of whom have been passed over by NHL scouts at the draft. Now, in defense of scouts, Wong and Burke both had career seasons last season, so the jury is still out on their overall WHL body of work.
From all accounts, Wong turned some heads on his ATO with the Leafs this spring and Brayden Burke is going to be given a look by the Calgary Flames this fall, so while I’d argue their prospective pro options don’t align with how incredible they were last season, things might be slowly changing in their favour. Regardless, it’s likely Wong and/or Burke will be in Lethbridge for 2016-2017 and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for either player.
Wong, entering his 20-year-old season, will once again captain the Canes and be looked to for emotional and productive leadership both on and off the ice. For his part, Burke will need to prove that his 109 point season wasn’t a fluke, and with some valuable experience under his belt, hopefully, help carry the team on a deep playoff push.
Depending on his performance at pro camp, I expect Giorgio Estephan to get a long look from the Sabres. Giorgio was sensational last season for the Canes and posted a goal through six appearances with the Sabres farm team in Rochester last spring. The Sabres are relatively deep up front and I would imagine they want to groom Estephan as the natural centerman that he is rather than shoehorning him onto the pro squad via the wing. Buffalo will also be aware that Burke and Wong are (more likely than not) returning and I think that only increases their comfort level with sending Giorgio back to Lethbridge – knowing he is in a position to succeed and develop.
Wong, Burke, and Estephan formed one of – if not the – most lethal lines in the entire CHL last season. Canes fans have every reason to be excited knowing that the offensive trinity will likely be back at it again in 2016-2017.
2: CALEN ADDISON
The 2015 WHL Bantam Draft was stocked to the rafters with top-flight defensive talent. Ty Smith (Delta Hockey Academy) was the consensus number one but not far off sat Calen Addison (Brandon Wheat Kings Midget AAA) and Jett Woo (Winnipeg Wild Midget AAA). Spokane made good on picking Smith 1st overall and Anholt elected to add young Calen Addison to the Hurricanes defensive depth chart.
Last season wasn’t the easiest for the young defenseman. Shortly after returning from the Hurricanes Training Camp, Addison suffered a fairly severe broken leg/ankle and was sidelined for months. He eventually returned to AAA action and was also able to play four games with the Canes, giving us a taste of what he’s capable of.
After slowly settling-in at Canes rookie camp last fall, I felt Addison kept getting better as the days went by. In his only preseason appearance with Lethbridge (against the Tigers at the Enmax), I really felt he was one of the best players on the ice. In my (limited) viewings, I was impressed with how smooth and smart Addison was.
Unfortunately for Calen, one thing he will have to overcome when making the jump to major junior is his size. Listed at 5’9’’ 172lbs, Addison’s size is not likely to strike fear into the hearts of the league’s bigger, older players. As Canes GM Peter Anholt said on a recent episode of the 110% Podcast, “A small player has to prove every day that he can play – a big player has to prove every day that he can’t.”
It’s certainly not fair, and it’s undoubtedly an uphill battle for players of smaller stature, but my money’s on Addison to succeed thanks to his strong hockey mind and skating ability.
Keep in mind that Calen will need to earn his way onto this team during training camp. As a 16-year-old, fans certainly shouldn’t be expecting him to be a minute-eating top four defenseman but instead ought to see him as a rookie that brings high-end depth to the backend (think Nick Watson from last season but with possible potential for a higher ceiling). Anything more would be a welcome bonus.
I would be remiss to not at least mention what Addison could bring to the Hurricanes powerplay. Calen has proven himself an elite offensive defenseman at every level and the powerplay could be a great place for him to succeed in his young WHL career. The Hurricanes were an elite powerplay team last season and I for one am excited to see how they are able to follow up the success from a season ago.
3: STUART SKINNER
Last season the Hurricanes boasted an elite goaltending tandem. The only netminders even close to surpassing the combined effectiveness of Skinner and Sittler were Victoria Royals’ Griffen Outhouse and Coleman Vollrath (both of whom were stellar). Unfortunately, due to the nature of major junior, the clock was ticking. With Sittler entering his overage season and Skinner looking to be selected in the coming 2017 NHL entry draft, something had to give.
When the trade was announced – Jayden Sittler to the Spokane Chiefs – I don’t believe it came as a great surprise to Hurricane faithful. One way or another, 2016-2017 was going to be the season Stuart Skinner championed the Hurricanes net.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what he will be expected to do. With no proven WHL goaltender below him on the depth chart, Skinner stands alone as the Hurricanes starting option in goal. Thankfully, Skinner is also one of the best and brightest upcoming goaltenders in the CHL.
Last season may not have been the spotless sophomore season some (unfairly) hoped for – but as the games went by – Skinner continued to improve. If he had critics after the first 20 games, he silenced them in short order. By the end of the season, it was more than clear that Stuart was ready to be an undisputed number one goaltender. He was spectacular down the stretch and gave his team a fighting chance in the final games of their first-round playoff series with the Regina Pats.
Skinner is big, good at controlling rebounds, and has a flair for the dramatic (more on that in a second). He’s proven to be good under pressure and doesn’t appear to let much bother him. He’s a stud. There’s no bones about it. Fans should be excited knowing that on more nights than not, #74 is going to give his team a chance to win.
The challenge for Stuart this season is going to be consistency. Whereas last season Jayden Sittler was able to carry the load when Stu wasn’t at his best, this season the safety net doesn’t appear (at least for now) to be there. Skinner is going to need to be ready to play a lot of games, and be good from October on.
Can he do it?
I sure won’t be betting against him.
I should also add that in the worst case scenario, Kisio always has the option of moving Skinner to forward to capitalize on his goal scoring prowess.
(Keith Hershmiller/Regina Pats)
4: OVERALL TEAM EXPERIENCE
It may seem like a lot of time has passed since there was a cloud of shame and vitriol hanging around this organization – but it hasn’t. The players may have believed they were headed in the right direction last fall, but proving it to the fans and the media took some time. There was a well-established history of losing that even the most staunch team supporters were starting to grow weary of.
As it turned out, the team stormed out of the gates and turned heads with their blistering offense and solid netminding. From that point on, the bubble never really burst. The Hurricanes weren’t just a team that had caught lightning in a bottle. Over the course of the season, they proved to cynics and critics around the league (and at home) that they were the real deal.
The experience of last season is going to serve this entire organization well. If ever there was a doubt that this franchise could return to winning, it’s since been erased. My hope and belief is that the returning players now know what it takes to win. Not only that, but they will also be entering this season expecting to win.
Think of young returning players like Brett Davis, Jordy Bellerive, Nick Watson, Colton Kroeker, and Igor Merezhko, all of whom should be heading into the season with a full wind of confidence at their backs. They’ve been here before. They know what to expect and what is expected of them.
I should also mention that the bitter end of last season will also serve this team well moving forward. Regina showed significantly more savvy and less unbridled emotion than the inexperienced Hurricanes in the 1st round. It may not have been fun to watch as a fan, but come this season, the lessons learned and the experience gained against Regina will serve these players well.
Success breeds success, and if the young core can harness the experience gained from last season, then 2016-2017 is shaping up to be another productive season.
5: JORDY BELLERIVE
When one is selected as highly as Jordy Bellerive was in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft (2nd overall, 2014), lofty expectations are unavoidable. There was a lot of hullabaloo when Bellerive finally came to terms with the Hurricanes and decided to commit for 2015-2016. Understandably so. When fans suffer through a season as painful as 2013-2014 (12-55-2-3) and watch the subsequent top selection elect to not sign… it hurts. Thankfully, Pete Anholt was able to get Bellerive onboard for 2015-2016 and the North Vancouver native performed admirably.
Jordy had a healthy season, posting 36 points (11-25-36) through 65 games and ending the season +16. In comparison to others in his 2014 draft class, Bellerive performed fantastically. Stelio Mattheos (1st overall) recorded 30 points (13-17-30), Justin Almeida (5th overall) posted only 6 (2-4-6), and Jake Leschyshyn (6th overall) managed 16 (7-9-16). As it turned out, last seasons most productive forward taken in the 1st round of the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft was Michael Rasmussen (6th overall). The lanky Tri-City American had an outstanding season that saw him record 18 goals, 25 assists (43 total points), and finish the season +4. The Wheat Kings, Hurricanes, and Americans all appear to have done well with their 2014 1st round selections.
Not unlike young Calen Addison, Bellerive (5’9’’) has a notable size disadvantage, particularly in comparison to both Mattheos (6’1’’) and Rasmussen (6’5’’). Having not had the opportunity to extensively watch Mattheos or Rasmussen, what I can say about Bellerive is he is great at using the size he does have effectively. Bellerive is athletic, strong on the puck, and has a ferocious attitude on the ice – all qualities that help him level the playing field. Perhaps more-so than any other element of his game, I was impressed with Bellerive’s physicality throughout last season. Right from the drop of the puck Jordy displayed a willingness to throw his weight around – particularly on nights when the offense just wasn’t there.
Bellerive was able to put up 36 points in a season where I don’t believe we saw his best offensively. He missed the net a lot with his (arguably) NHL calibre shot, couldn’t convert on countless breakaways, and was occasionally stymied by some spectacular goaltending. What I’m getting at here is I believe Bellerive was just scratching the surface last season.
During his time on 110% Podcast a week ago, GM Peter Anholt alluded to wanting to see Bellerive become a more efficient playmaker. He talked about Jordy having always been the best player on his team and now needing to develop a greater awareness of his linemates. Those are essential qualities for a top six centre and I don’t see Bellerive being unable to refine that element of his game.
Jordy has already proven himself a useful player who belongs at the WHL level. Can he become a dependable second or third line centre in his sophomore season? Will he take the next step and build on last years 36 points?
Nothing is certain, but I’m confident we will see great things from Jordy Bellerive in 2016-2017 – a surefire reason fans should get excited.
So there you have it – my top five reasons to get excited for the 2016-2017 Lethbridge Hurricanes. Surely I have excluded something. If you have something in mind, drop a comment and let us know why you’re excited for the coming season! It’s great to be back writing about hockey and I hope you enjoyed this list.
Remember to hop on Twitter and give us a follow for more Hurricanes related thoughts and coverage.
Believe it or not, rookies are on the ice at the Enmax next week. The Cane train is very nearly leaving the station. Climb on board for another exciting season! Can’t wait to get back to the rink and see some new, excited faces.
See you soon.
Average uncoordinated tall man. Oilers super fan. U of L Graduate. I like to write about hockey and pretend I know what I’m talking about. I play too much Battlefield and Counter Strike. Snapchat devours my phone bill and data plan. Twitter: @Dasboot34