The resurgent Lethbridge Hurricanes have been both the feel-good and surprise story in the Western Hockey League this season. All of this comes after a five-year run of futility without playoff hockey that could aptly be termed a horror story.
With a record of 37 wins and 16 losses in 53 games, the Hurricanes are only three points out of top spot in the overall WHL standings. Through February 9th, they are the only team in the league without either an overtime or shootout loss. They are motoring along with an almost gaudy .706 winning percentage. It is heady stuff for a franchise that won just 34 games during the past two seasons.
Fueling the high-octane offense this season is a collection of players that have seemingly garnered little NHL interest in recent years. That is destined to change. So far this season, four members of the Hurricanes sit among the top 15 in league scoring.
Brayden Burke (FA), who celebrated his 19th birthday on New Year’s Day, is third in the WHL with 76 points. Giorgio Estephan (BUF) is 11th with 63, while 19-year-old Tyler Wong (FA) and import forward Egor Babenko (2016) have chipped in with 59 and 58 points respectively. Andrew Neilson (TOR) is the top scorer among WHL defensemen with 53 points.
Estephan, who celebrated his 19th birthday on February 3rd, was selected in the sixth round, 152nd overall, by the Buffalo Sabres at the 2015 NHL Draft. It was pretty much where he figured in the proceedings, based on the NHL Central Scouting final rankings that had him pegged at 144th amongst North American skaters. His deceptive speed and above average offensive skills were enough for the Sabres to call his name, despite his presence on a team in Lethbridge that hadn’t had a sniff at a playoff berth for much of the regular season.
The Edmonton, Alberta native has also been able to park emotions that might have made most adults cringe, as the franchise in Lethbridge was constantly in the news for many of the wrong reasons. While the city has a storied junior hockey history, the community-owned team has been rife with controversy of late. Volatile shareholder meetings, efforts to sell the team and what seemed like ultimatums from the WHL brass were all ongoing hot topics. Prior to the 2015-16 season, it was reported the team had lost over $2-million over the past six seasons.
Prior to his arrival in Lethbridge, Estephan was a highly-touted forward from the Edmonton area where he played for the South Side Athletic Club’s Southgate Lions Bantam AAA team in the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League. He picked up 100 points in 32 games in 2011-12 to lead the league. In fact, it wasn’t even close. Teammate Tyler Benson, a year younger than Estephan, was next with 84 points. Estephan was then chosen in the first round, fourth overall, by the Hurricanes at the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft.
During that successful bantam season, Estephan scored twice in the AMBHL All-Star Game, which the North won by a 6-5 count. The winning team’s roster also included Burke and goaltender Stuart Skinner. The three players are now teammates in Lethbridge.
Estephan caught on with the Hurricanes for the 2013-14 season and posted decent numbers for a rookie with 12 goals and 12 assists in 64 games as a 16-year-old. But his -25 rating was not good, although it was far from the worst on a team that finished with only 12 wins.
Things did not improve drastically last year during the first half of his NHL Draft season as the Hurricanes languished near the bottom of the standings. Even Estephan struggled mightily, at one point going six weeks without registering a single point. With the team in turmoil, the Hurricanes dismissed both their coach and general manager. Dark days indeed.
When Lethbridge named Peter Anholt the interim coach and general manager, the entire mood in the city seemed to take a gradual turn for the better. The impact was almost immediate for Estephan, who began to find the net with some regularity. In fact, of his 51 points last season, 47 came in the final 43 games. It was that gutsy second half effort that kept him on the NHL radar.
Estephan, who is not yet signed by the Sabres, is a scorer who possesses good skating and stickhandling ability. His shot is hard and accurate and he is one of the Hurricanes’ top offensive weapons. He has the ability to create his own shot and competes very hard each shift, especially in the offensive end. Defensively, like many junior players, he needs to pay more attention to his positional play. At 6’ and 188 pounds, he has become thick and sturdy.
When the Hurricanes arrived in Kelowna earlier this month on February 2nd, Lethbridge was atop the overall standings by one point over the Rockets. Both teams had played 50 games and each team limped into the contest on respective two-game losing streaks. Kelowna would win the tilt by a 2-1 count, but the Hurricanes took an even bigger hit that evening when Estephan was injured.
Midway through the first period, the speedy forward had a partial breakaway on the penalty kill when he slid past the Rockets goal and went feet first into the boards, suffering what appeared to be an ankle injury. He was helped off the ice, unable to put any weight on his left leg. From the bench, he required support from a teammate and the training staff en route to the Hurricanes dressing room.
When HF asked to speak with him after the game, Estephan was accommodating despite the reality that he was not in good spirits. Wearing his customary suit and tie, he was also sporting a walking boot and leaning on crutches. That’s not a good combination for a hockey player at any time, but this was also the night before is 19th birthday.
It was later learned that Estephan will miss six weeks with a broken ankle. If there is any upside at this point, Lethbridge will play in the postseason and should have Estephan back in the lineup by then.
Below is Estephan’s chat with Hockey’s Future, with his full comments being included in this HF podcast.
Follow Glen Erickson on Twitter via @glenerickson51