Justin Hickman taking advantage of increased role
By Tim Pigulski
With 15 points in 28 games, T-Birds forward Justin Hickman is well on pace to exceed his career high, set last season, of 22 points in 71 games.
Playing alongside veteran center Luke Lockhart and shifty wing Riley Sheen, Hickman’s offensive numbers have taken off, but that’s not the only part of his game that has seen vast improvement.
Hickman also often finds himself matched up against the opposition’s top line, a responsibility that the 6-foot-3 forward has embraced.
“Our job lately has been to play against the other team’s top line, which we did on Sunday against [Kamloops’] Lipon – Smith – Bozon line,” says the power forward, speaking of his matchup versus the highest scoring line in the WHL. “We really step into that role to shut down their lines and we’ve been able to add some offense lately too.”
Despite some plus/minus ratings that may not appear all that impressive on paper, the Hickman – Lockhart – Sheen (minus-7, 12, and 11, respectively) line has been the T-Birds’ best defensively and found themselves paired up against two of the WHL’s top scoring lines in Kamloops and Portland on an almost weekly basis.
The responsibility is certainly a new one for Hickman, who spent much of his first two seasons on one of the team’s lower lines learning the game and taking lessons from the veterans.
One of those veterans, Tyler Alos, was forced into retirement earlier this week due to concussion-related injuries. Alos, who had two goals and one assist in 10 games this season, will stick with the team in a coaching capacity for the remainder of the season.
Alos, named an alternate captain by Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk at the beginning of the season, was a favorite of the coaching staff, his teammates, and fans alike.
“Coming into my first year, it was a different league, a different team, and a different country,” remembers Hickman, “but Alos was one of the guys who brought me in and welcomed me right away and we’ve been close ever since. It’s always tough to have to see a guy retire at such a young age, especially a guy like Alos, who was a heart and soul kind of guy and always the hardest worker on the ice.
When you were going through ups and downs [off the ice], Alos was always the guy you could go to. Fortunately he’s taken a part with the coaching staff and me and him will remain close friends.”
A big part of the T-Birds’ success this season has been due to greater offensive contributions from their top three lines. Eight players are currently on pace to exceed 40 points this season, compared to just one from the 2011-2012 season (Burke Gallimore).
While the primary focus of Hickman’s line is keeping tabs on the opposition’s top scorers, another line has assumed much of the offensive load and has started opening some eyes around the league. The “DHL” line, as they’ve been called, consists of Alex Delnov, Connor Honey, and Rob Lipsbergs
The three have combined for 72 points so far this season and are the top three scorers on the team through 28 games played. The line has been especially hot lately with Lipsbergs leading the charge. The 18-year-old Latvian forward has seven goals in his last four games.
“They’ve been on fire lately and they seem to work really well together,” says Hickman of his teammates. “All of those guys are offensively gifted, but they also seem to mesh together really well. They’ve been clutch for us and we can always rely on them to get a goal or to turn the game around with a big shift in the offensive zone.”
Having three lines that are capable of scoring on each night is a luxury the Thunderbirds haven’t been afforded over the past few seasons. The third unit, featuring Brendan Rouse, Seth Swenson, and Connor Sanvido, also has been able to put significant pressure on opposing defenses.
“When we have three deep lines like we do right now it makes thing a lot easier,” says Hickman, a native of Kelowna, British Columbia. “On a given night, any of the three lines could end up being our best line.”
In addition to his newfound roles in the offensive and defensive zones, Hickman continues to provide a physical presence, often clearing the path for his undersized linemates.
Last year, in Hickman’s sophomore season, he had eight fights and ranked third on the team with 106 penalty minutes. So far this season he ranks fifth on the team in penalty minutes with 45, but has found himself dropping the mitts less, likely due to his increased value at both ends of the ice
“My role with the team is as an all-around player. Some games I’ll need to go out there and make a big hit and I’m not afraid to fight at all,” Hickman says about himself. “I always want to be the player that’s relied on in the last two minutes, whether we’re up a goal or down a goal. I’m happy to adapt roles based on what coach asks and my confidence is growing.”
This weekend the Thunderbirds play another three games in three days, beginning with the Tri-City Americans at the Toyota Center in Kennewick, a place where the team hasn’t had very much luck over the past few seasons. Friday night they’ll return to the western side of the state as they face Everett at the Comcast Arena before finishing the long weekend at home against the rival Portland Winterhawks on Saturday.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski