It may be a roller coaster season for the Calgary Hitmen but for sophomore centre Mark Kastelic it’s been all on an incline.
Last season’s Hitmen Rookie of the Year – ranked 133rd among North American skaters in last month’s NHL Central Scouting Midterm Rankings – has taken his game to a whole other level despite his team’s hardships.
Kastelic, who proudly watched fellow Arizonian Auston Matthews called to the stage at the 2016 NHL Draft, is hoping for the same this June in Chicago.
“It’s not very common for a player from Arizona to be drafted, so it would be a huge honour,” said the 17-year-old Phoenix native, whose father Ed was a sixth round selection of the Washington Capitals in 1982. “It’s an exciting time for my family, but at the same time I have to put in the work. It’s not going to come for free.”
A second round (41st overall) selection of the Hitmen at the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, Kastelic impressed out of the gate with his tenacious, two-way play during his rookie season, however his offensive numbers – five goals and five assists – weren’t exactly earth shattering.
During training camp in August, where he showed up packing 20 more pounds of muscle, Kastelic noted he had hopes of improving that area of his game this season.
In 51 games, he has already set career-highs in goals (9), assists (11), points (20) and penalty minutes (49).
An impressive feat when you consider the kid from the desert had produced only two assists in his first dozen games to start the year.
“There have been some rough patches,” Kastelic admitted. “I started the season a little slower than expected, but overall I consider this season a positive personally. I just wish we were having more success as a team.”
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound pivot has used his big frame well in the face-off circle, has proven he can be a physical force with shutdown capabilities, and has that old school work ethic and determination.
To put it simply, there’s a lot to like in the hulking centreman than just stats.
“He’s only 17?” asked winger Luke Coleman in disbelief shortly after arriving in a trade last month. “Wow. He plays like he’s older than that.”
“I tried to learn as much as I could last season,” added Kastelic. “I learned a lot from the guys that have moved on. I’m trying to be more of a leader, prove what I’m capable of, and play top minutes every night.
“Power play, penalty kill, I want to do it all.”
And he has been.
“I feel like I’m starting to find my game in the second half, but I can’t get too high or too low,” said Kastelic, who captured a silver medal with Team USA at the 2016 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup before suiting up in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in September. “I’m just trying to focus on the present. It could always be better, but it could also be a lot worse.”
The same could be said about the Hitmen, who fought back this afternoon from a two-goal first period deficit only to drop a 3-2 overtime decision to the Edmonton Oil Kings at Rogers Place.
Tyler Robertson scored 1:12 into the extra frame and Trey Fix-Wolansky and Davis Koch netted goals in regulation to help snap Edmonton’s ugly 16-game losing skid.
Beck Malenstyn and Jake Bean replied for the Hitmen (20-26-8-2), who, with the bonus point, pulled within two points of the idle Saskatoon Blades for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“There are things we need to clean up,” Kastelic said. “In the room we know that, and we’re trying our best to get out of it, but it’s been a multiple of things, from slow starts to sometimes just being too comfortable. It just seems like once we overcome one problem there’s another one waiting to challenge us.”
Oil Kings goalie Patrick Dea made 22 saves while Trevor Martin kicked out 29 shots in a valiant effort for the Hitmen.
Both teams finished the afternoon 1 for 7 on the power play.
Kastelic and the Hitmen host the Oil Kings in the back end of this Battle of Alberta home-and-home set on Friday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome. Game time is 7 p.m.