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Calgary Hitmen move on without top scorers

By Sonny Sachdeva, September 10 2015 —

The Calgary Hitmen will enter the 2015–16 season as a team in flux. After recently finishing atop their division for the first time in half a decade, the Hitmen will begin their new season without their top two offensive threats from 2014–15.

Centreman Adam Tambellini — whose 86 regular season points were the most of any Hitmen player and the 10th–highest total in the league — has finished his tenure with the Hitmen, as he’ll pass the WHL’s age eligibility limit of 20 years old in November. Tambellini, who signed an entry-level contract with the NHL’s New York Rangers earlier this year, will suit up for the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford next season.

The Hitmen’s second-leading scorer, Connor Rankin, is on a similar trajectory. Rankin piled up 79 points for Calgary during the 2014–15 regular season and added 14 points during the playoffs. But he’ll spend the upcoming campaign with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors, the affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers.

The most interesting case to watch, however, will be that of Hitmen forward Jake Virtanen. The young winger is one of the Vancouver Canucks’ most prized prospects. Virtanen was drafted by Vancouver with the sixth-overall pick in the 2014 NHL draft, and he could very well crack the club’s pro roster this season.

Virtanen has already proven he has the skill to cut it in the big leagues. He posted 71 points in 71 games for the Hitmen in 2013–14, and then followed that up with 52 points in only 50 games last season. Virtanen also racked up a gold medal with Team Canada earlier this year when he competed in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship tournament alongside heralded Canadian scorers like Connor McDavid and Sam Reinhart.

Should the Canucks elect to send Virtanen back to the WHL for one more year of development, the Abbotsford native will almost certainly reign as the Hitmen’s top offensive threat in 2015–16.

However, if Virtanen does indeed join the NHL ranks, the Hitmen’s remaining top option will be defender Travis Sanheim. A promising NHL prospect in his own right, Sanheim finished as the third-highest scorer on Calgary’s roster last season, posting 65 points in only 67 games — a fairly remarkable sum for a defenceman — while leading all WHL defencemen in scoring.

Sanheim’s exceptional performance earned him an entry-level contract from the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers, who previously drafted him with the 17th-overall pick in 2014. Considering the elite level he’s been playing at as of late, the 19-year-old has a very real chance of earning an NHL tryout in 2015–16 as well.

The unpredictable nature of Virtanen’s and Sanheim’s situations puts the Hitmen in somewhat of a bind. Should the two return, the club should remain fairly competitive in their effort to defend their Central Division title. But if the two talented prospects earn spots in the NHL, the Hitmen will be forced to begin their season without four of their top five scorers — a drop-off few teams would be able to endure, and one that would make the upcoming campaign much more difficult.

Despite all this, the Hitmen have looked just fine so far. Calgary is three games into their seven-game preseason schedule, and have rung off three straight wins thus far — beating the Regina Pats, Moose Jaw Warriors and Prince Albert Raiders, all with a score of 4–3. The club has two more weeks of preparation time before they officially begin their 2015–16 season on Sept. 25 with a match-up against the Kootenay Ice.

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