Photo Credit: Edmonton Oil Kings

In just one year, Kirt Hill proved he can build a winner

Kirt Hill spent parts of four seasons in the WHL as a player and a handful of years working in the leagues’ front office as the Manager of Player Development and Recruitment, before jumping to the NHL for a brief stint as an amateur scout with the Chicago Blackhawks.

He boasts a wealth of hockey experience that most  31-year-olds do not and he was given a great opportunity last summer when he was named the President of Hockey Operations and General Manager of the Edmonton Oil Kings.

“To say I know everything about the league, I don’t. I take it as a challenge every to make myself better. I’m learning at the same time too,” said Hill at his year-end press conference.

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Now that a season has gone by, it’s fair to look back on Hill’s first season at the helm and evaluate how he’s done. I must admit, there is not a lot to critique.

While the team he inherited had some young, talented players, it was still a team that finished dead last in the entire WHL and was seven points behind second last in the league. He made his mark on the team early in the offseason when he took advantage of the fact he had three open 20-year-old slots and acquired a pair of impact players.

He traded Nick Bowman and a 6th round pick to Moose Jaw in exchange for Vince Loschiavo. Loschiavo was coming off a season that saw him post 36 points in 68 games. That was a down year for the forward who had 57 points as an 18-year-old.  Hill bought low on a player and was rewarded as Loschiavo posted 62 points in 63 games as an Oil King and was the team’s leading scorer in the playoffs. His ability to score clutch goals on a regular basis earned him the nickname “Vinny Big Goals” from play-by-play man Andrew Peard.

He also acquired Quinn Benjafield and a fourth-round pick from Kamloops in exchange for Kobe Mohr. This deal was also a massive win as Benjafield set a career high with 54 points in 54 games and added another 13 points in the playoffs. He and Loschiavo teamed up with Trey Fix-Wolansky on the teams top line in the playoffs and were an absolute force. The two players that Hill acquired back on May 3rd were absolute game breakers for a young Oil Kings team.

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“It goes to say something when you bring in 20-year-olds that didn’t grow with your franchise. They hadn’t been Oil Kings their entire career. They did such an exceptional job of turning around the way things were here in Edmonton.” said Hill, praising the veteran forwards.

Aside from the trades, Hill also selected Vlad Alistrov with the second overall pick in the CHL import draft. Alistrov was a regular presence on the teams’ top powerplay unit and ended his rookie season with 38 points. Assuming he stays in Edmonton, Alistrov will no doubt be a regular contributor in the Oil Kings top six over the next two seasons.

The one deal that didn’t work out was the acquisition of Jacson Alexander, who missed most of the season with an injury. While he didn’t contribute this season, I fully expect Alexander to be a regular on the teams’ blueline next year.

Hill also impressed me with his ability to make impactful trades in-season.

When the team was hit with a slew of injuries to their goaltenders, he went out and got Dylan Myskiw from Brandon. The 19-year-old goaltender had never started more than 22 games in a season and he had never posted a save percentage better than 0.887. This year, he started 45 games and posted a 0.914 SV% to go with a 2.53 GAA. He was a major reason why the team won the Central Division and he cranked his game up another level in the postseason, posting a 2.17 GAA and a 0.913 SV%. He was their best player almost every single night in the playoffs. That early season deal changed the fortunes of the Oil Kings season.

“As the year went on we really learnt how to win tight games,” said Hill when asked about his teams’ growth. “In the second half, when we go leads we locked it down in the third period.”

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14 years ago today Oilers trade for Jaroslav Spacek, Dick Tarnstrom

The other mid-season deal and signalled massive change was the acquisition of Andrew Fyten. The 20-year-old centre was fresh off a WHL championship with the Swift Current Broncos and gave the Oil Kings a needed veteran presence. He scored 24 points for the Oil Kings in the final 33 games and all the cost was a 5th round pick.

Fytens biggest impact wasn’t on the scoresheet though. He ate tough minutes for the team and took some pressure off the teams’ stars. The addition to Fyten sparked the team and it’s no coincidence that once he was put into the lineup, they turned a corner and were one of the best teams in the WHL during the second half of the season. Hill deserves praise for that, as does Director of Scouting Jamie Porter, who has done great work behind the scenes for this team. When you see more young talent like Dylan Guenther, Keegan Slaney, and Matt Smith become regular members of this team, remember Porters name.

Back to Hill, he kept one eye on the present while also remembering to build for the future.

At the trade deadline, his only deal was trading Brett Kemp, who was second on the team in scoring at the time, to the Medicine Hat Tigers for Josh Williams, who was underperforming. Once again, he bought low on a very talented young player and I think that’s a move that will really pay off over the next two seasons.

The next two seasons will be very interesting because of how high the bar is now set. The expectation is that the Oil Kings will be competing for a Memorial Cup over the next two or three seasons and it will be fascinating to see how Hill handles his assets.

He has some work to do this summer considering Loschiavo, Fyten, and Benjafield are all graduating from the league while Trey Fix-Wolansky will likely be turning pro but he has a solid core to build with.

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“It’s going to be a challenge. We’re losing a lot of our offence and we’re losing really good people,” said Hill, but he also expects players in the room to take steps forward.

“Everyone has to go have a good summer. That starts with training, that has to be done first. We’ll look to improve the hockey team, but everybody that’s coming back will be expected to take that next step. In junior hockey, they’re developing players and they’ll be expected to take that next step themselves. That’s been the message.”.

The test for Hill will be surrounding the likes of Jake Neighbours, Matt Robertson, Vlad Alistrov, Josh Williams, and others with a strong group of veteran players who can push this team over the edge. Based on his performance over the last calendar year, fans of the Oil Kings should be incredibly confident in their General Managers ability to do exactly that.

“We have a bright future with our group. With that comes responsibility. We can’t take our foot off the gas.”

Oil Kings Update: Staying hot on home ice

If the next few years around the Edmonton Oil Kings go as well as most are expecting, then you shouldn’t be surprised to see Kirt Hill sitting in the front office of an NHL organization sooner rather than later.