When the Lethbridge Hurricanes open the 2021-2022 Western Hockey League (WHL) season in front of a home crowd on Friday night, it will be with a very different looking roster than when they last played in front of fans in March of 2020.
But general manager Peter Anholt says the expectations remain very much the same.
“I know they might be new to our fans because they haven’t seen them, but we expect our players to perform,” Anholt said. “It will be interesting to see how they’re going to perform now, when there’s something on the line.”
Ty Nash was a rookie the last time fans sat in the ENMAX Centre. Now 18, the winger is expected to step into a much bigger role.
Son of NHL veteran Tyson Nash, the Arizona native got his first taste of the next level in September, when he attended Carolina Hurricanes rookie camp.
“Last year and then the year before, I didn’t have a huge role, but you know being 18 and coming back from an NHL camp, I’ve got to really start to put up points and be a leader on this team,” Nash said.
“Coming back from that camp and learning all that, I think it’s turned me into a lot more of a leader.”
Nash’s growth hasn’t gone unnoticed by Anholt, who says he hopes the player can take a big step this season.
“We’ve been really pleased with Ty, he’s in really good shape, he’s skating well, and you know through last season — through the year we had — he created a lot of opportunities,” Anholt said.
The Hurricanes start the season without a captain, after over-age forward Dino Kambeitz wore the ‘C’ for the 24-game season earlier this year.
The general manager says once again he expects the veteran players to lead the way.
“I think your over-agers always set the tone, and our group of 19 year olds, they’ve got to take a real step for us,” Anholt said.
“For them, I think not having the pressure to go through as 18 year olds, it’s going to be interesting to see how they handle that.”
Three 20-year-old players are allowed on each WHL team, and for the Hurricanes this season it will be the trio that finished in the top three in points for the club during the shortened season: Justin Hall, Alex Cotton and Logan Barlage.
Hall posted 12 goals and 27 points through 24 games to lead the forward group, while Cotton was fourth amongst WHL defensemen with 26 points.
The Hurricanes will be without Cotton for the time being, as the fifth-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings continues his NHL audition in Michigan.
In his absence, Lethbridge will rely on 16-year-old defenseman Logan McCutcheon to take a big step in his second season.
Anholt says he also expects Nolan Bentham — acquired in a trade with the Victoria Royals over the summer — to make an impact on the back-end.
“We’re excited about Bentham, we’re excited about that trade and that addition — he was a first round pick by Victoria a couple of years ago — so we’re excited about him,” Anholt said.
The WHL is once again allowing import players to join clubs, and the Hurricanes will have a pair of European forwards on the roster this year: Yegor Klavdiev of Belarus and Peter Repcik of Slovakia.
“We’re really excited about our two import players,” Anholt said. “We think that we’ve added two really good players there, with some skill.”
Between the pipes, the Hurricanes will rely on a tandem of Bryan Thompson and Jared Picklyk, after trading hometown goaltender Carl Tetachuk to the Moose Jaw Warriors in the offseason.
“Picklyk’s been really good through camp and I thought he played good in exhibition, but I mean ultimately it’s up to Bryan Thompson,” Anholt said.
“The ball is in Bryan Thompson’s court, you know he’s in his fourth season here, he’s a 19 year old, he’s a big, strong guy and it’s up to him to do the job.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHL decided to have teams play the 68-game regular season exclusively within their conferences in 2021-2022, meaning the Hurricanes will only face Western Conference clubs from the Central and East divisions.
Anholt says while his group is very familiar with the other Alberta teams — after only facing provincial rivals in the 24-game season earlier this year — the East Division clubs are a bit more of a mystery.
“The Central Division is historically always a hard division, it’s like a gauntlet for the most part, and we look to all of those teams in our division to be better and hard to play against,” he said.
“Certainly our games against East Division teams are even more important this year and we haven’t seen those guys.”
The Hurricanes will open the season with a home-and-home against Calgary, hosting the Hitmen at 7 p.m. on Friday, before a Sunday afternoon game on the road at 2 p.m.