Calgary Hitmen general manager Kelly Kisio expects a much younger and inexperienced team on the ice for the 2010-11 Western Hockey League season.
Of course, two summers ago, the same man also figured the 2008-09 year was going to be a rebuilding one - instead, the team eclipsed WHL and franchise records left, right, and centre, en route to one of the best years in Hitmen history. Then last summer, Kisio was sure it would be tough to reload for the 2009-10 campaign - lo and behold, the Hitmen nabbed the Ed Chynoweth trophy for WHL supremacy and made it all the way to the Memorial Cup.
So, if history has taught us anything, take pre-season predictions at face value.
"You know what, this year might be a little different," Kisio insisted last week at the Calgary Hitmen alumni golf tournament at Springbank Links. "We were a little older team last year. We're losing a lot of older guys that will move on to the American Hockey League or the East Coast Hockey League.
"I think we'll be a bit younger team this year and with younger teams come some growing pains. We'll hopefully figure it out by Christmas."
It's hard to believe but after a short summer break, they'll start the process all over again. Things kick off when the rookies report for camp on Sept. 1 at the Don Hartman North East Sportsplex. Over 80 prospects will be put through the paces with a select few joining the veterans at main camp on Sept. 3.
And as far as the Hitmen are concerned, the long road through the WHL season starts by identifying talent early.
"I think that's the key to having strong teams, year after year," said second-year head coach Mike Williamson, who took over last season for Calgary Flames assistant coach Dave Lowry. "Our scouts have done a good job and obviously Kelly knows what he's doing.
"They've been able to keep quite a bit of talent in the pipeline."
It certainly shows in the graduating class of 2010. It also has left them with giant holes to fill.
They'll have to adapt to life without stars such as WHL scoring champ Brandon Kozun (Los Angeles Kings), Ian Schultz (Montreal Canadiens), Tyler Shattock (St. Louis Blues), Joel Broda (Minnesota Wild), defenceman Michael Stone (Phoenix Coyotes), and goalie Martin Jones (Los Angeles Kings).
Which, according to Williamson, is not a bad problem to have.
"At this level of hockey, you're always going to be graduating players," he said. "That's what they're here for and that's why we're here.
"For us to lose a big chunk of our team is a positive thing."
Both Kisio and Williamson agreed they'd like to see big things from returning players like defenceman Matt Mackenzie, who was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in June, St. Louis Blues 2010 draft pick Cody Beach, and Cody Sylvester who came up huge during lat year's playoffs.
Meanwhile, Tyler Fiddler, who went from scoring three goals to 30 last season, and Jimmy Bubnick, a potential 30-plus goal scorer picked up from Kamloops at the trade deadline, could also make an impact as 20-year-olds.
"We're going to be a little bit younger," Williamson said. "But we have a lot of guys that were here last year that maybe played smaller roles are going to get bigger opportunities.
"But the expectations are still going to be very high."
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