After a strong start to the regular season, the Calgary Hitmen have dropped their past five contests. Breaking the losing streak may be difficult with one of team’s most prominent defensemen, Jake Bean, injured and a weak powerplay. But, despite the Hitmen’s struggles, head coach Mark French has faith that his squad can turn the season around.

After finishing off the pre-season with a record of four wins and two loses, the perennial playoff team looked like they were going to once again be competitive in the Western Hockey League.

New, young players were contributing to the team’s success and French took notice of their impact, saying that he “was really positive about some of their contributions during the pre-season.”

The team followed up their successful pre-season with a record of three wins and one loss in their first four games of regular season play. But on Oct. 10 fortunes began to change; the Hitmen suffered a 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Giants, a game that signaled the beginning of the team’s losing streak.

French says he believes the losing skid has been caused by the team, “still learning our identity and trying to play with a level of consistency around that identity, which I think all teams kind of battle with early in the year.”

Unfortunately for the team, finding their identity and creating consistency got a lot harder on Oct. 14 when Bean suffered a hand injury during a game against the Medicine Hat Tigers.

While losing a franchise defenseman such as Bean, who was the Carolina Hurricane’s first round pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft, is difficult for any line-up, French says that he and his coaching staff are not putting pressure on any single player to step-up.

“When you lose a player, nobody has to jump in and fill his shoes,” explains French. “I think what you ask for is that if we have… 20 [players] on the given night, that everybody just gives two or three per cent more to their game.”

One specific area of the game where French needs his players to step up is on the powerplay, which has been dismal this season. The Hitmen’s powerplay has ranked at, or near, the bottom of the WHL standings for the majority of the season. Now, with Bean no longer quarterbacking the top powerplay unit, it seems more pressing than ever that the team repair this aspect of their game.

French believes his powerplay lines are still trying to get a feel for playing with each other. He notes, specifically, that their entries into the offensive zone and puck possession on the powerplay are two areas that need the most improvement. French also says that the team has been consistently working on the powerplay both in practice and in video sessions.

The Saddledome has seen playoff WHL hockey in each of the past five seasons. Photo courtesy of flickr user Bernard Spragg.

Though intent on getting his team out of their slump, French believes in methodically going about setting goals for the Hitmen. He explains that over the course of a season the coaching staff will evaluate the team in ten-game segments and set performance goals and make adjustments as necessary.

With the first ten-game benchmark coming up, French knows there will be things his team needs to work on, and he seems ready to tackle the challenge.

“I think the biggest thing that we want to see is that improvement,” says French.

And with a system in place to make those small improvements every day, work on the little things and constantly adapt their game plans, French believes that soon enough his team’s fortunes will be right back on track.

kbird@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for the story is Brendan Stasiewich, bstasiewich@cjournal.ca