2017-18 WHL Season Previews: Saskatoon Blades

2017-18 WHL TEAM PROFILE

Saskatoon Blades (2016-17 record…29-36-7, 65 pts; 5th in East Division)

Missed the playoffs…for a fourth straight season:

Needless to say, based on the above line, the 2017-18 season for the Bridge City Bunch is all about returning to the post-season…something the franchise felt they had a realistic chance to achieve the last two seasons, but came up short in doing.

Possible breakout players: 16-year-old centre Kirby Dach and 17-year-old centre Chase Wouters. Both are first round WHL Bantam Draft picks…Dach in 2016, Wouters in 2015. In addition, any of the nine remaining 1999-born players on the roster having a career year would be very helpful to the Blue and Gold’s fortunes.

What would have to happen for this team to…make the playoffs? Stay healthy. The Blades lost 278 man-games to injury or illness in 2016-17. The majority of those man-games lost were to forwards aged 19 or 20.

What is the glaring concern? Goal-scoring! While Saskatoon addressed a need to be better defensively, reducing their goals against from 317 in 2015-16 to 249 in 2016-17, they also saw their goals for mark slip to 190 in 2016-17 from 219 in 2015-16.

Where are the roster battles? Aside from the 20-year-olds…back-up goaltender behind overager Logan Flodell is the next biggest battle. Two Saskatchewan kids…18-year-old Joel Grzybowski of Hafford and 16-year-old Nolan Maier of Yorkton…are vying to play whatever minutes Flodell doesn’t.

Interesting stats: The Blades’ franchise has played exactly 3,600 regular-season games in the Western Hockey League…a record of 1,672 wins, 1,642 losses, 202 losses, 51 overtime losses which are worth a point in the standings and 33 shootout losses. Going into this season, the Bridge City Bunch are 17 goals away from scoring 4,000 in the history of SaskTel Centre (originally known as Saskatchewan Place, followed by Credit Union Centre), the team’s home since February, 1988.

20-year-old situation: The biggest battle, is which three of four 20-year-olds will be on the roster as of October 10. The return of centre Cam Hebig, who missed all of last season with a mystery injury that even he has no explanation for, has made for some sleepless nights for G-M Colin Priestner. A Saskatoon product, Hebig would’ve been the leading returning scorer for the Bridge City Bunch last season with 69 points in 59 games in 2015-16. Meanwhile, left winger Braylon Shmyr (35 goals and 66 points) led the Blades’ offence last season; defenceman Evan Fiala, who was just named team captain, brought a tough, no-nonsense style that rubbed off on several players in the second half of last season following his acquisition from Spokane; goaltender Logan Flodell was the Blades’ MVP last season and a second team Eastern Conference all-star. Who is the odd man out? There is no consensus yet!

Import situation: Defencemen Libor Hajek and Mark Rubinchik return from last season. Hajek is going into his third season with Saskatoon after being the second overall selection in the 2015 CHL Import Draft. Rubinchik was the seventh overall choice in the 2016 Import Draft.

Away at NHL Camps: Hajek is at Tampa Bay camp after being a second round selection by the Lightning in the 2016 NHL Draft. Fiala was invited directly to the Detroit Red Wings main camp after attending their development camp in July. He was a free agent invite.

Conclusion…The fact the Blades haven’t been in the playoffs since being the Mastercard Memorial Cup host team in 2013 gnaws at a fan base that is slowly eroding. That fact also gnaws at the ownership as Mike Priestner bought the team in September, 2013…after that Memorial Cup hosting…and has been remarkably patient with a rebuild that is taking its course as expected. With a decision to be made as to which 20-year-olds to keep and which one to jettison, plus finally having their own first round draft picks playing, and contributing, gives Saskatoon ownership, management, hockey operations, players and fans a boost of confidence that their time has come to return to the WHL post-season

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Les Lazaruk

I’m a veteran of 38 years in the sports media, 37 of them in radio. The last 23 years have been in Saskatoon and the play-by-play voice of the Blades since the fall of 1994, having called over 1,700 games