For the first time in a half-decade, the Saskatoon Blades are heading into a new Western Hockey League season with high expectations.
After missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year in 2017-18, the Blades set themselves up for success the following season, which they had, finishing the regular season in second place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 45-15-8. While the team had its best finish to the season over the past decade, it was the 54-10-2 Prince Albert Raiders who put an end to the Blades’ season in six games in the second round of the post season.
This season, Saskatoon will be without its top four scorers from last year in Dawson Davidson (graduated), Max Gerlach (graduated), Kirby Dach (NHL Chicago Blackhawks camp), and Gary Haden (traded to Victoria in off-season). However, Saskatoon still boasts one of the best goaltenders in the conference in Nolan Maier and is returning 13 of its players from last season, including captain Chase Wouters and playmakers Kyle Crnkovic, Ryan Hughes, and NHL-drafted (Washington Capitals) Eric Florchuk.
Last year, Davidson (13 goals, 62 assists), Gerlach (42 goals, 32 assists), Dach (25 goals, 48 asssits), and Haden (30 goals, 32 assists) combined for 110 goals and 174 assists for 284 points out of the total 251 goals and 412 assists for 663 points by skaters who played at least 20 games for the Blades. The good news is that while Dach has a chance of cracking the Blackhawks roster as an 18-year-old, he will more likely benefit better from another year of junior hockey, which will have a huge impact on the Blades’ offence.
Outside of hoping for Dach to return, Saskatoon will rely on returning players such as Florchuk (21 goals and 29 assists last season), Wouters (15 goals and 24 assists), Crnkovic (11 goals and 20 assists), and Hughes (13 goals and 16 assists in 25 games) to step up even more.
In terms of new offensive players this season, Saskatoon will have 16-year-old Colton Dach, who was the Blades’ first round selection in the 2018 Bantam Draft. Through three preseason games, Dach has shown he can score with two goals and an assist while proving to be a two-way forward who has defense on his mind. Other new additions up front for Saskatoon include Tyler Ho, who was invited to camp after spending time with the Vancouver Giants, 2002-born Braden Plashewsky, who played a handful of games with Saskatoon last season, and 16-year-old Saskatoon-drafted Sammy May.
The biggest question mark heading into this season was defence after the Blades lost Brandon Schuldhaus to graduation, as well as Emil Malysjev and Reece Harsch, who was traded to Winnipeg. However, prior to the start of training camp, Saskatoon strengthened its blue line by swinging a trade with Victoria for WHL all-star and NHL-drafted Scott Walford, while also drafting Libor Zabransky and Radek Kucerik in the annual CHL Import Draft. Returning to the defence corps from last season’s roster is Majid Kaddoura, Nolan Kneen, and Aidan De La Gorgendiere.
With the additions on defence Saskatoon should have a blue line which will be tough to penetrate, making it even harder for the opposing offence to get anything going in the Blades’ end. Zabransky and Kucerik bring tremendous leadership and international playing experience, having represented the Czech Republic as captains. Adjusting to the North American game won’t be an issue as Zabransky formerly played for the Kelowna Rockets, and the two spent time training in the off-season. Also, through two preseason games, Kucerik has shown an offensive upside, netting a goal and assisting on another.
The Blades also acquired Parker Malchuk in a separate trade with the Victoria Royals. Malchuk will join Alex Ozar, Spencer Shugrue, Marek Schneider, and Charlie Wright, who will battle with the above-mentioned defenseman for the seventh and eighth spots on the back end.
As mentioned, Saskatoon is set in net for another season with Nolan Maier. After not bringing back 20-year-old backup Dorrin Luding this season, it appears the new backup will be 2002-born Koen MacInnes, who is joining the Blades after spending the past three seasons with the Burnaby Winter Club in the CSSHL. Through 53 games last season, Maier had four shutouts to go along with a 2.64 goals against average and .910 save percentage — an improvement from a year ago. After going undrafted in this past June’s NHL Entry Draft, Maier has something to prove to big league clubs and will continue getting better.
It will be interesting to see how Saskatoon responds after last season’s second round knockout. Anything less than playoffs would be a failed season. However, many would expect the Blades to have a long run in the post-season and potentially even win the city’s first Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions. This will depend on a few things such as how much will the returning offence step up and how much will the blue line gel with only three returning faces.