If there is a team in the Western Hockey League that would really like to see the clock turned back, it might very well be the Medicine Hat Tigers.
Medicine Hat finished the abbreviated 2019-20 season with a 41-19-2-1 record, good for 85 points, second place in the Central Division and second overall in the Eastern Conference. Had the season not been cancelled, the Tigers would have hosted their Highway 3 rivals, the Lethbridge Hurricanes, in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite its premature conclusion, Medicine Hat enjoyed what should aptly be considered a successful season.
The Tigers made big news during the off-season when Willie Desjardins returned to the organization in the dual role of head coach and general manager. Desjardins maintained his ties to the community during the years he spent coaching in the National Hockey League, and that commitment has not been lost on the Tigers fan base.
DUBNetwork spoke with Desjardins by telephone to discuss the 2019-20 campaign.
The Core Group & ‘The Trade’
The Tigers returned a solid leadership group, including overage forwards James Hamblin and Tyler Preziuso. Both were original Tigers, selected by the organization at the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft.
Hamblin was the 17th overall pick. He started and finished his career as a member of the Tigers, appearing in 324 regular season games. He pretty much stirred the drink in the Gas City this season. He led the team with 92 points and finished third overall in the in WHL scoring race.
The other 20-year-old in the mix this season, Parker Gavlas, arrived in September from the Edmonton Oil Kings amid little fanfare, but he quickly established himself as a popular figure and a proficient defender.
“Getting Gavlas was an opportunity, we brought him in early,” Desjardins said. “We knew we were going to probably try to fill that (overage) spot with a defenceman and he was an outstanding player.
“He was a guy that would compete hard every night. And he got better and better as the year went on. He really improved as the year went on.”
Preziuso was the Tigers second of two third round picks in 2014, 60th overall and by season’s end, he led his entire age class with 327 regular season games under his belt. However, the last 34 games he played came as a member of the Vancouver Giants.
“We had a good group,” Desjardins said. “We certainly made some changes there though. Preziuso was with us early in the year and did a great job.
“We made a move with Vancouver and I think that was something that bringing in Luke (Lucas Svejkovsky) was a was a big addition for us.”
The trade, announced Dec. 7, was huge.
Medicine Hat also sent defenceman Trevor Longo to the Giants, along with a 2020 first round pick. The Tigers also landed 20-year-old rearguard Dylan Plouffe.
“Plouffe was a really skilled player,” Desjardins said. “He saw the ice really well and gave us a little bit of a different dimension. I know he would’ve had a great playoff run like he had in Vancouver. He was just kind of getting accustomed to our style of play and what we were doing.”
When asked how the move went over in the room, Desjardins was candid, allowing that the deal involved good players and good people.
“I think our guys were all pretty committed, you know, that the move could help us,” he said. “It wasn’t that we didn’t recognize we lost good people. We did. They were not only good players for us, they complimented our group well, so it was a big change.”
The Tigers had waltzed into Lethbridge on a Friday night prior to the trade and earned a comeback win in a shootout over the Hurricanes in front of a frenzied, partisan crowd at Enmax Centre. The next night at Canalta Centre, the Tigers fell flat against the Everett Silvertips, dropping an uninspired 5-0 decision.
“It did set us back a little bit when it happened,” Desjardins said. “It was tough. We just had a big win that night and then we pull out the trade and that was a hard thing for us.
“That was hard for our group. But saying that, I think they recognized maybe a little change might help. And I think it did down the road.”
The forward group also included Brett Kemp and Ryan Chyzowski, a pair of skilled 19-year-olds, who teamed up with 16-year-old rookie Cole Sillinger to form a potent trio.
Sillinger is an intriguing prospect. He answered the call to duty in early November, suiting up for one of the Team Canada entries at the World U17 Hockey Challenge, while the Tigers embarked on it road trip through the B.C. Division. The Regina-native enjoyed a successful rookie season in the WHL that was briefly derailed in late January by an upper body injury.
“I think we were working hard, but we had some key injuries,” Desjardins said. “It’s amazing how it changed our team and there’s a 16-year-old player that had a big, big impact on us.
“It’s not usual for you to get that kind of an impact on your team from a 16-year-old and it was a big loss. We had a couple other guys go down at the same time and that hurt us.
“It changed our power play and just changed the dynamics of how we were rolling our lines. For whatever reason, it just took us a while to get going on that, but we did catch fire again once he came back to the lineup. That’s a really impressive thing for a 16-year-old to make that kind of difference.”
The likes of Corson Hopwo, Elijah Brown, Bryan Lockner were expected to elevate their game, and they did so. Caleb Willms, Noah Danielson, Nick McCarry and Baxter Anderson supplied important depth.
Brown fit in nicely among the Tigers top six, but an untimely ankle injury kept him sidelined for a good portion of the second half of the season. He accounted for 34 points in 50 games, but he was a notable presence on the power play when the Tigers would frequently ice five forwards. Brown, now healthy, will have to crack the roster as an overager.
“You know, his biggest strength is how he wants the team to do well,” Desjardins said of Brown. “When you combine that with his skill, you know he’s got a great skill level. His injury set us back as well, for sure.”
Keepers & Imports
The Tigers added Jonathan Brinkman at the CHL Import Draft, a forward from Alborg, Denmark. The rookie fit in nicely with his speed and puck skills, although he did experience some inconsistency amid the usual growing pains and challenges many import players deal with.
In goal, Mads Sogaard was the go-to-guy, a 6’7 Danish import fresh off training camp with the Ottawa Senators. In fact, Sogaard, who grew up with Brinkman in Alborg, was outstanding during the first round of the 2019 playoffs, where the Tigers dropped its best-of-seven series in six games to the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“I think Mad’s got caught into a lot of different things going on,” Desjardins said. “With NHL camps being a drafted player, then all of a sudden he wasn’t facing as many shots in the games like he had, then different coaches. It did take him a while to sort it out.
“Late in the season, he was outstanding, that last weekend against Calgary and Edmonton at home. You know, he was really solid the last two weeks. We expected him to be one of the top goalies in the league and he was at the end of the year. We were confident, excited about the playoffs, because we felt he was going to be outstanding.”
Rookie Garin Bjorklund was pegged as the understudy but by mid-season has firmly established himself as the future in goal for the Tigers.
“I think Bjorklund played great when we needed him when Mads was gone,” Desjardins said. “He stepped up and played well and won some big games for us on the road.”
Bjorklund finished his first WHL season with a 20-5-1 record in 28 appearance. He compiled a 2.91 goals against average and a .897 save percentage while handling chores between the pipes during Sogaard’s absence in December at an IIHF tournament.
If there were any questions prior to the 2019-20 campaign, it surrounded the blueline brigade. At the time, the group appeared shy on experience with the likes of Eric Van Impe, Daniel Baker, Cole Clayton and Trevor Longo, along with 16-year-old Dru Krebs and youngster Damon Agyeman.
Acquiring Gavlas was important, but as the season drew near, the group lacked a high-end, puck-moving rearguard. That was dealt with when Plouffe arrived in December. A minor deal at the end of November saw Nick Perna come over from the Portland Winterhawks.
In the meantime, Longo provided veteran presence before being moved to Vancouver.
“I was bit worried, but they got better all the time,” Desjardins said of the group on defence. “You know, I think that we were worried coming in the year about scoring goals, if we’re gonna be able to score.
“I think they did a great job moving the puck up to our forwards and they did a great job joining the rush. They really stepped up as a group.”
Baker and Clayton began to contribute on the offensive side. Both are tall and lanky and when paired as a righty/lefty combination, they move the puck with efficiency while also possessing the size and mobility to shrink passing lanes in the defending zone.
Baker (6-foot-4, 185 pounds) chipped in with 13 goals and 25 assists in 62 games. The left-handed shooter will celebrate his 19th birthday next month.
Clayton (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) scored two goals, added 28 assists and has likely sewn up one of the Tigers overage spots for next season.
For both players, their respective offensive output represents career high numbers.
Perhaps the most quietly effective defenceman this season was Eric Van Impe. The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder scored four goals and added 13 assists. However, he was a calming, veteran presence, paired for the majority of the campaign with 16-year-old rookie Dru Krebs. For his part, Krebs collected 13 points in 55 games.
Agyeman appeared in 12 games, but demonstrated some versatility, suiting up to fill a forward role occasionally.
With the WHL Bantam Draft set for tomorrow, the proceedings will provide a glimpse at the Tigers long-term future. In the first round, Medicine Hat chooses 11th and according to Desjardins the team will select who they believe is the best available player. Given the depth of talent, serving a specific organizational need can likely be dealt with later on in the Draft.
“I think every team, you do look at your group,” he said. “But, what’s the difference between the player ranked eighth or 12th? There’s not a big difference. It’s really hard for someone to say they know 100 per cent that one guy is going to be clearly the best guy.
“There’s so many things that can go on. You know that their skill level and all that’s pretty close. You do weigh some other factors in, but the good thing for us is there’ll be a real good player left when it’s our turn to pick.”
The Bantam Draft aside, in the short-term, Desjardins does admit there is work to do.
“Yeh, we lose some real key guys, some really really strong players,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to bring all our 19’s back, but there will be a new look for sure.
“I’m saying that we’ve got some guys that have been working hard to get that opportunity to get more ice time and they’re going to be excited about the year coming up.”
2019-2020 Medicine Hat Tigers Player Awards
Leading Score – Sponsored by Medicine Hat News: James Hamblin
Most Goals – Sponsored by Trophy World: James Hamblin
Scholastic Player of the Year – Sponsored by ATB Financial: Cole Sillinger and Dru Krebs
Most Improved – Sponsored by MacLean Weidemann Lawyers LLP: Daniel Baker and Corson Hopwo
Hardest Working Player – Sponsored by Mr. Lube: Ryan Chyzowski and James Hamblin
Gerard Moyer Leadership Award – Sponsored by Lanny McDonald; James Hamblin
Unsung Hero – Sponsored by CHAT 94.5: Brett Kemp and Ryan Chyzowski
Top Defensive Forward – Sponsored by South Country CO-OP: Corson Hopwo
Best Defenceman – Sponsored by Cliff Best Memorial: Cole Clayton and Parker Gavlas
Rookie of the Year – Sponsored by MY96: Cole Sillinger, Dru Krebs and Garin Bjorklund
Three Stars Award – Sponsored by Aldo’s Shoe repair: James Hamblin
Community Service Award – Sponsored by Vision Care: Cole Clayton
Most Valuable Player – Sponsored by Medicine Hat Lodge: James Hamblin