This year, the Lethbridge Hurricanes will need no introduction.
The puck has dropped as the Hurricanes head into the 2016-17 season, celebrating 30 years in the Western Hockey League in the process.
Though the Hurricanes have been a league-wide name for the past three decades, they head into the new season smack-dab on every other teams radar following a memorable 2015-16 campaign.
After six straight seasons of playoff-less hockey and the losing seasons that came with it, the Hurricanes vaulted to the top of the standings with a 46-win season that not only earned the team their first post-season date since 2009, but also earned Lethbridge its first Central Division title since 1996-97.
So it stands to reason there will be no league-wide raised eyebrows should the Canes come blazing out of the gate to start the new season.
This time, it’ll be expected.
“I think, right off the bat, not being satisfied is a real key, understanding that this year is going to be harder than last year,” said Hurricanes general manager Peter Anholt. “We’re not going to catch anybody by surprise at all. All the players that are coming back from last year’s team aren’t going to surprise anybody individually either.”
Second-year forward Jordy Bellerive is ready to help the Hurricanes build on their 46-24-1-1 season.
“For sure, I think welcome it,” said the Hurricanes’ second overall draft pick in the 2014 WHL bantam draft who scored 11 goals and 36 points in 65 games in his rookie season. “Guys weren’t expecting us to be a top team last year. But this year we have such a great group of guys returning from last year and even the young guys. So I think nobody will be surprised when we do well this year.”
In goal, the Hurricanes bring back third-year starter Stuart Skinner, who posted a 27-10-1-0 season in 2015-16 alongside fellow goaltender Jayden Sittler, who was dealt in the off-season to the Spokane Chiefs.
With backup Ryan Gilchrist — acquired prior to the start of the season from the Seattle Thunderbirds — the Hurricanes will now look at Skinner to shoulder the bulk of the puck-stopping duties this season, ideally starting upwards of 50 games.
“I think it’s going to be a really good year,” said Skinner, who had a 2.73 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and three shutouts. “We have a really good group of guys in there and I think they’re going to be able to help me a lot. Me playing 50-plus games is going to be tough, but I’m ready for challenge and I’m excited to get 50-plus game. It’s going to be really good year and I’m excited to get started.”
But there’s more than the physical side of tackling 50-plus games.
“He’s going to have to continue to grow up mentally,” said Anolt. “I think that’s in the little longer term. I think we gave him a little more help than everybody was expecting having Jayden Sittler here. But this year, I think we’re expecting Stewie to take a whole different step with his developement. I think, from our standpoint, as a goaltender it’s never going to be perfect throughout the year, but you can always fall back on your hard work and your technique and what your base is and that’s technique and hard. Stewie has to continue to grow that base as a player and when he does that he’s going to be better for it.”
On defence, the Hurricanes bring in 16-year-old rookie Calen Addison, selected second overall in the 2015 Bantam Draft.
The five-foot-nine, 177-pound defenceman from Brandon played four games with the Hurricanes last season and another three games in the playoffs.
“I have to say that’s the most fun I’ve had in my entire life,” said Addison. “I can’t thank them enough for bringing me up and giving me the ice they did. It’s just a huge experience for me and it helps me coming in this year knowing what to expect, especially with the regular season and all the top guys in every team’s lineups. I think it’ll help me in the long run.”
“He’s a special player,” said Anholt. “He fits right into how Brent (Kisio, Hurricanes head coach) wants our hockey club to play with playing fast and moving the puck and getting the puck up ice as fast as we can. So Calen is a big part of that.”
Still, there there will be a learning curve for Addison.
“I think I’m really going to have to work on, being a younger small guy, (to) really learn how to use my stick and my body in a better. Whether that’s always not being as physical or more physical, it all depends. It’s just being in the right position on the defensive side.
“On and off the ice will be a huge learning for me and that will come over time being around the older guys. Just having this experience in the WHL is going to help me on and off the ice.”
Up front, the Hurricanes bring in a crop of 1999-born players, including forwards including Bellerive and Brett Davis, both returning for their sophmore years.
“It was a huge year for me,” Bellerive said of last season “Growing up in minor hockey, I wouldn’t say it was an easy ride, but it hasn’t been as hard as it was for last year. Off the start I had a really slow start, offensively, but I learned a lot defensively and took pride in being a plus-player last year, which I was in the end. I learned a lot about the whole 200-foot game. It was such a huge year for me, earning (Hurricanes head coach Brent) Kisio’s trust and Peter (Anholt, Hurricanes general manager) trust to put me out there in key situations for myself.”
Davis was the Hurricanes’ fourth-round and 78th pick overall in the 2014 bantam draft.
“Obviously expectations are going to be high for this year,” said Davis. “We had a good year last year, but we want to follow it up this year. I think when it comes to the young guys, everybody has high expectations, so it should be a good season.”
Then there’s the Hurricanes’ WEB line of Tyler Wong, Giorgio Estephan and Brayden Burke, the team’s top three scorers from last season.
Wong topped the 40-goal mark with 43 goals and 89 points in 72 games to finish 10th in league scoring, while Estephan hit the 30-goal plateau to go along with 74 points in 59 games following a 51-point 2014-15 season.
Burke’s 82 assists were tied for tops in the league as the Canes centre finished with 109 points, good for third overerall in league scoring.
Hurricanes overage centre Ryley Lindgren also put up a career year with 27 goals and 50 points in 65 games.
“Brayden, who probably was a bit of a surprise to some people around the league last year — not a surprise to us — but a surprise to some people around the league, I think,” said Anholt. “It’s going to be a harder year for him. He’s going to be a marked man.”
That will also be the case for Wong and Estephan.
“I think Giorgio and Wonger and guys are basically in the same boat,” said Anholt. “I also think guys have to continue to grow as players.”
Lindgren’s 50 points last year doubled his 25 points in 2014-15.
“I think Lindy exceeded our expectations last year, but now those are the expectations,” said Anholt. “So it’s interesting how things evolve. Be careful what you wish for in some cases. Now that we’ve seen Lindy and the key ingredient he is to our hockey club with the offence he put out, but also around the dressing room. He’s 20 years old and it’s really important for him to grow as a player, but also grow as an adult. He’s a man now and he has to play like a man.”
Lindgren is ready for that task.
“I think I want a bigger leadership role to the team, more than I have in the past couple of years and be a good example for the guys,” said Lindgren. “I want to be somebody they can look up to. I think at the same time I want to be able to put the puck in the net and create some offence and win some faceoffs. That’s big.”