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Blades’ 2016 draft class spearheads playoff push

Hosting the Memorial Cup can be glorious. A nation pauses for a week as the spotlight brightens on the host community. It also provides an automatic chance for 23 young men to play for the national title, whether they won their way there or not.

The drawback to hosting the Canadian Hockey League championship is that it often comes with a roster overhaul, where valuable draft picks and prospects serve as the tax. Win now, deal with the rest later.

But when the confetti stops falling, the national broadcast shuts off and the last beat writer files their final story, the community is left staring at a roster in ruins, in some cases.

It’s not a quick fix, either, as the Saskatoon Blades found out the hard way.

Former Blades GM Lorne Molleken went all in for the 2013 Memorial Cup when the Paris of the Prairies put on the show. He sent five draft picks out the door, along with other unripe prospects.

After getting bounced from the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs, the Blades went 1-2 in the round robin one month later and were eliminated in the tiebreaker against Max Domi and the London Knights.

Reality hit hard the following season, with minimal optimism in sight, as the Blades slugged forward without their first-round pick for the next two seasons.

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The Blades went 16-51-2-3 (20th overall) in the 2013-14 campaign and plummeted to the basement the following season when they went 19-49-2-2—two of the five lowest win totals in the franchise’s previous 54 years of existence.

Without their first-round draft picks, the Blades missed out on future Western Hockey League stars and National Hockey League draft picks in Stelio Mattheos (Brandon Wheat Kings, 2014) and Ty Smith (Spokane Chiefs, 2015).

Rebuilding is never easy, especially when teams are forced to watch elite talent that they could have owned develop elsewhere.

So, after the hosting the Memorial Cup, the Blades spiralled down the drain. Still working their way back to the post season, they are currently tied with the Victoria Cougars (1989-1994) and the Medicine Hat Tigers (1997-2002) for the second-longest playoff drought in league history at five years.

The Blades have a realistic shot at ending their drought this year and leaving the Lethbridge Hurricanes (2009-15) alone in top spot with their six-year drought. To date, they sit second in the Eastern Division with a 17-9-3-0 record and 37 points.

(Old school Eastern Conference fans will argue that the Blades should have made the playoffs last year but were robbed by the wildcard playoff format and the poor play by the Central Division.)

That trend could end this year for the Blades, as the foundation for the road back to the playoffs was built in 2016 when they finally earned the right to draft in their designated slot in the first round.

“You always want to hit on high picks regardless of your situation,” said Blades GM Colin Priestner, who was running the draft in 2016 despite having Bob Woods carry the GM title. “If you miss on your high picks, it’s hard to replicate that talent elsewhere and it really sets you back. We saw that happen around us with Smith and Mattheos.”

The Blades entered the lottery with the third-best odds at the No. 1 pick, but the ping pong balls came out in proper order. The Kootenay ICE kept the No. 1 pick, the Vancouver Giants slated to go second and the Blades held their spot in third.

There wasn’t a consensus No. 1 pick, but there were three names that could have gone in any particular order, depending you who ask: Peyton Krebs was a centre who racked up 102 points in his final bantam year with the Rocky Mountain Raiders, Bowen Byram was viewed as the best blue liner in the draft and Kirby Dach was a lanky 14-year-old playing up with his hometown Fort Saskatchewan Rangers of the Alberta Midget Hockey League.

“We always had Dach as our No. 1 pick in the draft. I ended up spending a lot of time with his family and tried to make him feel comfortable with the Saskatoon program,” said Priestner. “He had it all back then: the vision, the skill, the hands, the demeanor. He was often the best player on the ice playing with kids three-to-four years older than him.”

Prior to the draft, the Blades swapped a bundle of picks with the Giants to move up one spot, where they eventually took Dach.

“It was flattering to go No. 2 overall. For me, it was more about the situation I was being put in, instead of where I went in the draft. It’s a developmental league and you need to be in a spot where you can succeed. This was wear I wanted to be,” said Dach.

Although the Blades hadn’t done much in the handful of years leading up to Dach’s draft, the future NHL first rounder had a little convincing from Payton McIssac, a fellow Fort Saskatchewanian that was taken by the Blades in the second round the year before.

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“He was definitely a big influence on me signing with the Blades,” said Dach.

The Blades weren’t done finding impact players.

With the franchise centre in place, the Blades still needed help in their own zone. They were coming off a three-year window that saw them finish last or second last in goals against.

Goaltenders were a hot commodity in the 2016 draft, as Taylor Gauthier got picked with the 10th selection by the Prince George Cougars. Trent Miner went to the Giants at the end of the first round, before a bundle of netminders went in the second round.

“We knew we were taking a goalie in the second round. There was a cluster of really good goalies—and they’ve all turned out to be good goalies in the league—but we loved Nolan because he was such a fierce competitor,” said Priestner. “We just crossed our fingers and hoped he fell to us.”

The ICE drafted Jesse Makaj 23rd overall, followed by Byron Fancy going to the Red Deer Rebels, leaving Maier sitting there for the Blades with the 25th pick.

“Location was the biggest thing for me [when making my decision to enter the WHL]. I wanted to stay in Saskatchewan and I knew a couple guys that already played for the Blades and enjoyed their time,” said the Yorkton, Sask. product Maier. “It was a really special feeling for me to be taken in the second round.”

Once he was old enough for the league, the Blades didn’t waste much in getting Dach acquainted with the junior club, as he filled in for 19 games as a 15-year-old, scoring six goals and supplying four assists.

After that debut, Dach was a permanent fixture in the Blades’ lineup the following season, where he appeared in 52 games where he finished fourth in rookie scoring with seven goals and 46 points.

“It’s not just his size; everyone knows he’s NHL ready there. His IQ is near the top in the league and he’s a special player to watch night in and night out,” said Maier of Dach.

Dach’s teammate on the other hand, took a little while longer to become a mainstay with the blue and gold.

Playing midget AAA after his draft year, the Blades reassigned the netminder to the Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League following training camp to start his 16-year-old season.

There, Maier struggled, going 1-5 with a .897 save percentage and a 5.15 goals against average.

Despite the slow start to his junior career, Maier still earned an invite to the 2017 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge with Team Canada Black, where he shared a dressing room with Dach.

“It’s really special to play for your country with a teammate. I think we took a lot from those experiences and I think it has made our team better because of it,” said Maier.

Team Black went 2-1-0 in the round robin, but lost to Team Canada Red 4-3 in the quarterfinal. Aside from the experience of playing against the best players in the world from their age group, Dach departed with one goal and six assists in five games, while Maier shined in three games by posting a 3.02 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.

Maier’s performance caught the eye of Priestner.

“He was outstanding during that tournament. Afterwards, we wanted to bring him in as our backup to see what he could do. We ended up having an injury to our starter. Maier never looked back and stole the starting job,” said Priestner.

Maier burst onto the scene during the Blades biennial trip through the States shortly after returning from the U17s, going 2-2 along the way, highlighted by a 4-0 blanking the powerful  Portland Winterhawks on the strength of 48 saves.

Maier didn’t stop there. He posted an incredible rookie campaign and recorded the most wins (23) by a 16-year-old since Calvin Pickard (23) did so with the Seattle Thunderbirds in 2008-09.

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“From there, we rode Nolan a lot. Maybe too much at times, but he was our MVP last year. Nobody was more important to our success last year than Nolan,” said Priestner

He also appeared in the most games by a rookie goaltender (43) and registered a 3.31 goals against, along with a .895 save percentage.

“It’s comforting having him back there. He allows us to make risker plays on defence because you know he is there to back you up. He makes the key saves at key times and gives us a chance to win each night,” said Dach of Maier.

Proving that he belonged, Maier also brought the Blades within three points of a playoff spot, the closest they had been since hosting the Memorial Cup.

To no one’s surprise, the duo’s freshman campaigns earned them another invite from Team Canada. This time, it was for the rebranded Hlinka Gretzky Cup, which kicked off a year-long examination by scouts, as they both became NHL Draft eligible.

Learning from their U17 tour, Dach and Maier delivered a gold medal on home soil.

“I’m never going to forget winning that gold medal,” said Dach, who scored in the championship game. “It’s awesome to have [Maier] by my side as I experience these amazing moments with different hockey teams.”

With both Dach and Maier’s names popping up on draft boards and NHL Central Scouting lists, the time was now to end the five-year playoff drought at the SaskTel Centre.

Priestner realized he had two stars entering their prime at key positions and the Blades got off to a great start. The team was solid, but far from complete.

Last week, the Blades GM pulled the trigger on a deal that landed them a deeply needed veteran and right-handed blue liner in Nolan Kneen.

Before Kneen’s arrival, Blades Head Coach Mitch Love was often working with five left handed d-men, with the lone right shot coming from Seth Bafaro.

“Mitch loves his right-left combos on the blue line. We had a lot of guys playing on their off-side, which is fine when it’s Dawson Davidson—because he’s great—but you’re asking a lot out of your 17-year-olds to play the other side. Nolan helps us out in that area immensely, he can play in the top four, play on our power play and we expect him to have a big year this year and next year,” said Priestner.

Also joining the fray this season has been Aidan De La Gorgendiere, a 16-year-old defenceman who the Blades nabbed with the fifth overall pick in 2017, as they continue to weave in homegrown talent into their lineup.

Priestner might have a couple more tricks up his sleeve before the Jan. 10 trade deadline, so long as the Blades continue to drive towards the playoffs. Quietly, Priestner’s unit owns the fourth-best record in the WHL, as divisional rival Prince Albert Raiders soak up all the league and national headlines. Cautiously adding another key piece or two could turn them into serious contenders, if they aren’t there already.

Around town, there is no hiding from it. The whispers are getting louder about the likelihood of seeing the second-longest WHL playoff drought end with Dach and Maier leading the charge on the ice.

Dach has cooled off as of late. He was sitting fourth in league scoring for much of the season. Through 29 games, he is tied for eighth in the league with 41 points.

Maier is finding his consistency, too. He already has a pair of three-game heaters under his belt, along with a seperate four-game winning streak. He sits fifth in the league with 14 wins with a respectable 2.80 goals against average and a .909 save percentage.

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The drought’s chances of making it six consecutive years aren’t looking so good these days.

“It’ll be a huge celebration if we make it this year; the people are pretty excited already,” said Dach with a smile on his face. “But at the same time, we have to stay even keeled about the process or it’s not going to go our way.

“The city is doing a great job in getting behind us. We have to keep improving so we can hopefully give them a pretty good run.”

Since the Blades hosted the 2013 Memorial Cup, other franchises have pulled off similar and potentially crippling moves. The Regina Pats and Swift Current Broncos might go through a few lean years in the seasons to come.

“I think we learned how hard it really is and how long it takes to rebuild a team after hosting a Memorial Cup,” said Priestner. “It’s so important to have first round picks moving forward because they have helped rebuild our identity with guys like Dach, Nolan, Kyle Crnkovic, Aidan De La Gorgendiere and Chase Wouters. [Trading all those future first round picks] is not something we would do again. Our goal is to be a really good hockey team over the next several years, but still pick up some top-end players through the draft each spring.”

There’s still a lot of runway remaining in front of the Blades, but it is shaping up to be a fruitful spring in Saskatoon. Not only are the Blades battling for home ice in the playoffs, it is likely that Dach and possibly Maier could hear their names called in the NHL Entry Draft. Also, in a nice reversal of history, the Blades occupy the Pats’ first round picks in 2019 and 2020. Now, the ping pong balls could extend a new Blades’ playoff drive with a couple friendly bounces—all thanks to the Memorial Cup.

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