New Hitmen for 2023-24, left to right: Nathan Garnier, Jack Matsukobo, Chaka-Benjamin Ntumba-Muntu, Jan Moskor.
By Joshua Boyd / NCDCHockey.com
The Jersey Hitmen’s culture of winning – they have the most points of any organization in the six years of the NCDC, as well as the most Dineen Cups (two) – is one that doesn’t take much to convince players to jump on board. This is a very good thing, especially when every player who will pull on the Carolina Blue jersey this year is brand new to the NCDC squad.
“We have zero returning players for the first time in our 21-year history,” said Hitmen Head Coach Toby Harris.
But that doesn’t mean the Hitmen are going to be any more vulnerable than they have been the last five years when they’ve won the Founders Cup (as regular season champions) every time. They may be a new team, but they may also be even deeper than ever before.
“The first word that comes to mind is depth,” said Harris, one of the co-founders of the Hitmen program. “We have three goaltenders that could be starters in many junior programs. We have 14 very dynamic forwards and an excellent mix of veterans and rookies on the blue line.
“The difference from this year’s team vs. last year can be compared to that of a strong baseball lineup – we have much more length up front. Length meaning depth and size,” said Harris. “Our similarities are in the blue paint. Last year’s goaltending and this season’s goaltending are very comparable. Work ethic. Talent. Leadership.”
In terms of leadership, the Hitmen will be taking that momentous vote to start next week – who will wear the vaunted “C”?
“Every season we have our team vote for captains after our first three exhibition games. Our first captain vote will take place on Sept. 18,” said Harris. “It will be interesting, not having a single returner, to see who emerges and steps forward. There are a lot of more than capable young men in this room who have leadership qualities. High character people.”
With his excitement about the team’s goaltending trio, we’ll start to dig in there. The three include ‘03’s Braedyn McIntosh and Connor Shibley and ‘06 Daniel Moor. McIntosh was an All-Star in the Central Canada Hockey League last year, and Shibley was a member of the CCHL Champion Ottawa Jr. Senators. Over the last three years in the Ramapo Saints AAA program, Moore’s average save percentage has been .925.
Top newcomers on the defense include ‘03’s Samuel Beaulne and Nicolas Tan and ‘05 Tristan Caldwell. Beaulne was a teammate of Shibley on the championship Ottawa team, while Nicolas Tan comes into the NCDC with two years of Tier II experience in Canada. Caldwell is another CCHL product from the Nepean Raiders.
Top forwards early on have been Nathan Garnier, Chaka-Benjamin Ntumba-Muntu, Darik Feasey, Jack Matsukubo and Conrad Moline, all with prior year Tier II junior experience. Shibley, Beaulne, Caldwell and Matsukobo have all been teammates previously with the Nepean Raiders in the CCHL.
Feasey earned his prior year Tier II experience with the Winnipeg Freeze. Holtby, an ‘06, joins from the Windy City Freeze full-season midget team. Wisconsin’s Moline joins after being tendered in June, and he and Beaulne played together in the CCHL for the Rockland Nationals.
The Hitmen are also excited about the advancement from their 16U program to the NCDC by Denis Kuzmenkov. He scored 56 points in 67 overall games last year (and 19 points in 19 Tier 1 Hockey Federation contests).
Recent Hitmen draft selections who will make the team include 2022 selections – both ‘06’s – defenseman Vincent Ipri and forward Tommy Holtby, another player identified as a top forward in camp. Ipri wrapped up his career this past year with Mount St. Charles Academy in Rhode Island, and Holtby was with the Windy City Storm AAA program – and also earned a single-game call-up with the USHL’s Fargo Force.
The Hitmen were not happy with how everything shook out in 2022-23 – don’t expect them to ever be happy when they don’t win both the regular season and playoff championships.
“Our expectations for the 2023-24 season are always the same – to defend the Founders Cup and win the Dineen Cup,” Harris said. “I expect for the Atlantic Division to be even stronger this year. We have four very good and highly decorated head coaches in this division and a newcomer to the NCDC in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton [Terry Watt]. Every division game should be a highly contested battle. We look forward to the competition!”