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Hitmen housing NHL talent of the future

By Sonny Sachdeva, April 2 2015

Calgary is currently playing host to some of the top young hockey talent in the world, and they don’t play for the Calgary Flames.

While these promising young players suit up at the Saddledome, their jerseys don’t bare a flaming C, but rather the masked marauder of the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Calgary Hitmen.

The Hitmen may not get much attention in Calgary, but the junior team boasts some elite young prospects who are well on their way to NHL careers.

Forwards Adam Tambellini, Jake Virtanen and defenceman Travis Sanheim have all been key contributors for the Hitmen this season, helping the club finish as division champions for the first time since 2010 when they won the WHL championship.

All three have been drafted to NHL teams and have inked entry-level contracts.

Virtanen is arguably the most promising of the trio. Drafted sixth overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2014, he rose to prominence earlier this year when he won a gold medal for Team Canada at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championship.

Virtanen also led the Hitmen in goals last season with 45 in 71 games. He followed up the breakout season with a strong performance in 2014–15, finishing with 52 points in 50 games after a successful return from shoulder surgery.

Identified by the Canucks organization as a gifted scorer with an unrelenting competitive nature, 18-year-old Virtanen already possesses a skill set that bodes well for the NHL. His speed, physicality and knack for putting pucks in the net could lead Virtanen to the NHL ranks as early as next season.

Adam Tambellini may not have earned himself a spot among the top-10 picks in his draft class — the winger was selected 65th overall by the New York Rangers in 2013 — but his scoring ability is no less prolific.

The son of Steve Tambellini, the former NHL forward and general manager, has been on a tear this season, piling up 47 goals and 86 points in 71 games to lead the Hitmen in scoring. The offensive outburst placed Tambellini in the top 10 among all WHL scorers and top five in goal scoring.

With notable size (6’3”, 191 lbs.), elite skill and the family pedigree of his father’s successful NHL career,

Tambellini has his eyes set on the big leagues and could be there within the next few seasons if his scoring continues.
Manning the Hitmen’s blue line is Philadelphia Flyers prospect Travis Sanheim. Drafted 17th overall by the Flyers in 2014, Sanheim has established himself as the top defenceman in the WHL, leading all blue liners in scoring with 65 points in 67 games.

Sanheim has amassed notable international recognition as well, guiding Canada to a bronze medal at the IIHF World U18 Championship where he was named the tournament’s best defenceman.

The young prospect is projected to be a top-tier defender for the Flyers, bringing a slick set of hands, an excellent understanding of the game and the poise to be relied upon in any situation. He still has to fill out his 6’3” frame, but as long as he continues his solid play for another couple of seasons in the WHL, Sanheim will earn his spot as a staple of Philadelphia’s defensive core.

While it may seem too early to judge the success of these young players, the Hitmen are no strangers to producing elite talent.

The club has housed some of the NHL’s top players like Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Ryan Getzlaf. Other notable Cup champions such as Andrew Ladd, Johnny Boychuk and Brad Stuart also began their careers with the Hitmen.

With the skill and drive for promising professional careers, Sanheim, Virtanen and Tambellini have a strong chance to join the NHL, putting the Hitmen on the map as one of the best youth programs in the country.

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