A “defensive” offseason in Saskatoon

SASKATOON – Here’s a few notable items to clear out before they burn a hole in my notebook — with help from the summer heat!

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Thanks to a July 6 trade with the Tri-City Americans, the Saskatoon Blades could potentially have eight defencemen with WHL experience on their training camp roster. The deal saw the Bridge City Bunch send a third-round selection in the 2019 Bantam Draft, as well as a fifth rounder in 2020, to the Ams for 2000-born defenceman Seth Bafaro.

“Right now, he’s probably in that 4-to-6 range,” explained Blades’ general manager Colin Priestner when talking about where the Revelstoke, B.C. product slots in with Saskatoon. “He’s going to have to show what he’s got from there, but he’s definitely got the potential to play up in the top two pairs and be a real part of what we’re building here with all of our other good 2000s and 01s and 99s.”

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Bafaro played in 28 games for Tri-Cities during the 2016-17 season, registering an assist with a plus-3 rating and 14 penalty minutes.

“He’s not a huge guy, but he plays with a lot of intensity,” said Priestner when talking about Bafaro being very competitive. “He plays with a real ferociousness and is a very physically strong kid. (He) moves the puck really well, good skater…I think he’s just the kind of defenceman that we’ve been looking to acquire for a while.”

Bafaro is set to join veterans Libor Hajek (1998-born), Evan Fiala (1997), Mark Rubinchik, Jake Kustra, Jackson Caller, Jantzen Leslie (all born in 1999) plus Payton MacIsaac (2000-born) with the Blades. Saskatoon is also high on 2001-born Zachary Ashton, a third-round choice in the 2016 Bantam Draft, who had 28 points in 32 games with the Calgary Buffaloes midget AAA squad this past season.

Not everyone on that list will start the season in a Blades’ uniform.

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Speaking of Evan Fiala, the ever-present smile on the face of the 20-year-old blue liner is probably wider than ever right now, as the Clavet, Sask., product skates at the development camp of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings in Traverse City, Mich.

“I found out (about the camp invite) about a couple of months ago,” explained Fiala just before he left for Traverse City. “My agent (Jeff Helperl) texted me and said give me a call. Right there and then, I was kind of worried…not sure what was going on. He let me know (about the Detroit invite) and it’s an amazing feeling just knowing that you have a chance.”

It’s not the first time that Fiala has been on NHL radar. Two years ago, he attended the development camp and the rookie camp of the Florida Panthers. But, the “take no prisoners” style defenceman had no bites from the NHL in 2016. A former first-round pick, 14th overall, by Spokane in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Fiala came home to Saskatoon in a pre-Christmas break trade from the Chiefs and seemed to have a new lease on life.

“I was real fortunate (for) that trade (to happen),” said Fiala. “I’ve had a lot of help, that’s for sure…not only (from) my teammates, but the coaching staff there has been phenomenal. Being in your hometown, being in your own city, playing that kind of hockey, has been huge for me.”

Last season, in 70 games split between Saskatoon and Spokane, Fiala posted four goals and 15 assists for 19 points with a plus-12 rating and 139 penalty minutes.

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The 2017 CHL Import Draft was a non-event as far as the Saskatoon Blades were concerned.

For the first time since 2012, because they expect to have defencemen Libor Hajek and Mark Rubinchik return for the 2017-18 season, the Bridge City Bunch didn’t make a European player selection back on June 28. The difference this time around was that the Blades couldn’t trade their turn to pick, as they did in 2012.

“It’s a difficult situation because you have an asset sitting there in terms of a first round Euro pick that we aren’t able to use as an asset,” said GM Colin Priestner on the day before the Import Draft was held. “We can’t trade it because it’s not allowed in the CHL rules. So, it actually incentivizes you to try and trade one of your (existing) Euros.

“But, we’ve built relationships with (Hajek and Rubinchik) and their agents. They’re both good players. Those are good, loyal players and good people. To move one of them to get another unknown wasn’t appealing to us and since we can’t trade (the pick), we’re just going to have to waive our selection.”

Which the Blades did.

Hajek will be going into his third season in Saskatoon. The 19-year-old from the Czech Republic was the second overall selection in the 2015 CHL Import Draft and was taken in the second round of the 2016 NHL Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He had four goals amongst 26 points in 65 games last season.

An 18-year-old Russian, Rubinchik had 23 assists in 63 games in his rookie season after the Bridge City Bunch took him seventh overall in the 2016 Import Draft.

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For the first time since hosting the MasterCard Memorial Cup in 2012-13, the Blades won’t have to acquire anyone to fill out their 20-year-old quota.

Steve Hiscock / Saskatoon Blades

Saskatoon went into the offseason with six potential overage players for the 2017-18 campaign. Since then, the Bridge City Bunch have told goaltender Brock Hamm that he won’t be returning while trading right winger Mason McCarty to Red Deer for a second round pick in the Bantam Draft held in May.

That leaves the Blades with goaltender Logan Flodell, defenceman Evan Fiala plus forwards Braylon Shmyr and Cameron Hebig coming to training camp. Flodell was the team’s No. 1 goaltender and most valuable player. Shmyr was the leading goal-scorer and point-getter for Saskatoon, while Fiala provided toughness and leadership on the blueline.

Hebig, meanwhile, missed the entire season because of an upper body injury suffered in training camp. He had 69 points in 59 games in 2015-16, which was more points than any Blades’ player posted this past season. He has 135 points in 198 career games played.

 

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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