When the 2011-12 season started, Calgary Hitmen defenseman Kenton Helgesen barely could get on the ice -- and if he did, it sometimes was as a fourth-line forward.
When the season ended, he was a top-pair blueliner preparing to hear his name called sometime in the first three rounds of the 2012 NHL Draft.
That's some turnaround.
After being unranked in NHL Central Scouting's mid-term rankings in January, he shot up to No. 64 in the final rankings.
Kenton Helgesen is No. 64 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2012 Draft. (Photo: Brad Watson/Calgary Hitmen)
"He was surprisingly hidden for the whole first half [of the season]," Central Scouting's B.J. MacDonald told NHL.com. "They were playing him as a fourth-line winger, getting a few shifts a game. He had a very non-descript game and banged a little.
"I saw him play in the second half and went back a couple of times to make sure. He was playing in his natural position and was a completely different player -- a big, strong and tough left defenseman. He can scrap well. Great mobility, and not afraid to join the rush to make an odd-man situation. Puck movement is clean and safe for the most part. One-on-one play is solid.
"I don't know if they realized what they had or didn't feel he could break into their defense corps, but clearly he was their best defenseman in the second half."
It wasn't what Calgary was missing; rather, Hitmen coach Mike Williamson knew he had the makings of a real good player. But to create that work of art, he knew some extra time was needed.
"We really were excited about his potential," Williamson told NHL.com. "He skates really well, he has a lot of confidence with the puck. He's willing to play assertive and aggressive. Really, we just had a lot of bodies on the back end and some guys who had a little more experience. It ended up being a little easier to play him up front to get him some confidence, experience, some more minutes. Eventually there were opportunities for him with injuries and whatnot. He just ran with the opportunity."
For Helgesen, his run began in January -- coincidentally, right around the time the mid-term rankings came out.
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"Sort of by January I was starting to come out of games confident and starting to put up a couple points and playing better and better every shift," Helgesen told NHL.com. "About January is when I started to break out. … February was probably my best month that I had. Then in March, that's when I got a good idea I'd get ranked because I kept playing better and better."
After playing just 25 games in the 2011 portion of the schedule, totaling four points and a minus-4 rating, he played 35 games in the second half of the season, scoring a goal and adding nine assists, along with a plus-11 rating.
The result was scouts who missed him the first time around started making Hitmen games a must-see.
"In fairness to Kenton, at the start of the year, the scouts didn't really see him play a lot," Williamson said. "He was in and out of the lineup, he was playing forward. I don't think they had a good read on him. As much as we were telling them hey, this guy is going to be a good player, he's a good kid, he skates well, it's just taking him a little time and there's a few guys ahead of him keeping him out.
"It's not that he really made extremely dramatic leaps and bounds. He certainly improved a lot. There were more opportunities and scouts started to watch him and he gained confidence, and that certainly goes a long ways."
Helgesen said even he was surprised at where he found his name in the rankings.
"I was surprised to get ranked that high," he said. "It came out of nowhere. I had a feeling it would come. My agent told me I'd get ranked. But getting ranked was a huge honor. I was expecting top 100. To get that high, ranked third round, it put a big smile on my face."
Like a snowball rolling downhill, one good game led to another for Helgesen, and before he knew it, he was playing significant minutes in all situations.
"I think that Helgy [Helgesen] is a confident player," Williamson said. "He's not arrogant at all, but he's confident in his abilities. We saw that right at the start. As frustrated as he was probably at not playing his regular or natural position, I don't think it really ever shook him up too much. He knows he's a good hockey player and he knew he has to continue to get better. He took it in stride and when he got the opportunity he used it as, 'I'll prove that I'm ready, that I can play and that I can really help our hockey team.'"
WEAR WHAT THE DRAFTEES WEAR
He did just that, as the Hitmen went 26-9-0 after Jan. 1 [they were 18-14-3 in the prior to that date] to finish third in the WHL Eastern Conference.
Beside Helgesen's on-ice talent, Williamson said what he liked best about Helgesen this past season was how the young blueliner never became disillusioned with his limited role early in the season.
"He had a great approach," Williamson said. "We don't expect guys to not want to be on the ice. We like the fact that he was hungry and wanted to play more. He would ask what he could do to be in the lineup more. … He comes from a very humble family that has done a great job raising him. They preach hard work, they preach doing the right things [and] in the days that were tough, when he wasn't playing a lot, that's probably the message he got from his family. He was ready for the opportunity. So many times guys get frustrated and stop preparing and stop working because they don't see the light at the end of the tunnel. Helgy kept working so when that opportunity did come, he was ready for it."
Helgesen and Williamson both know there's more work that's needed.
"I want to put up more [offensive] numbers," Helgesen said. "I didn't get much opportunity on the power play, but that's one of my goals [next] year, to play more and more on the special teams. I played lots of penalty kill, but I want to be on the other side of things for [next] year."
Williamson said after the season Helgesen had, the expectations will be raised for him in 2012-13.
"I think he's got the ability, he's got the mindset," he said. "The thing with Kenton is he really has to push his conditioning and strength and continue to develop and get those pro habits of learning how to work and how hard you can push yourself and just how hard the guys at the next level do work. He's willing to do it, but it's a process because guys don't realize how hard they can push until they do it.
"The ball's in his court. We're going to rely on him a lot next year in different situations. There's going to be a whole different level of expectations. This year was his first year. We had one set of expectations for him. Next year he'll be a veteran guy and he'll have a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK