Sunday, 6 December 2015

Confidence will be a battle for Blades

The Saskatoon Blades get tied up in a scrum with the Regina Pats.
    The Saskatoon Blades are expecting more than morale victories.
    On Saturday night in Brandon, the Blades earned a morale victory dropping a 5-3 decision to the host Wheat Kings, who are one of the top teams in the WHL with a 17-8-1-2 mark and have aspirations to contend for a league title. While the Wheaties controlled play in most of that contest, the Blades were able to gain traction during a couple of points to create legitimate hope of pulling out an upset.
    Saskatoon is also in year three under the ownership of Edmonton product Mike Priestner, which also includes being in year three of a massive rebuild after the club hosted the 2013 Memorial Cup tournament under previous owner Jack Brodsky. A blockbuster trade in 2011 that saw the Blades surrender a bunch draft picks to acquire Brayden Schenn from the Wheat Kings for that season’s playoff run also added another obstacle to the current rebuild.
    The retooling saw the club bring in Bob Woods as head coach and general manager at the start of the 2014-15 campaign as well as Dean Brockman as an assistant coach. Woods, who was an assistant coach with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, came to the Blades with boatloads of professional experience coaching in the NHL, AHL and East Coast Hockey League. Brockman was the storied head coach and general manager of the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
    The hires were very astute ones.
    With all that in mind, the Blades entered the 2015-16 campaign with hopes of seeing more tangible results in the win column and belief that a playoff berth could be achieved.
    After finishing last in the entire WHL for two straight campaigns, they jumped out to a 9-7-3 start and were comfortably holding a playoff spot.
    While they were 19-49-2-2 a season ago, the Blades work ethic was strong in most outings, and they dropped a number of close contests. The work ethic carried over into the current campaign and the wins were coming. Management, coaches, players and fans had to be excited about what was transpiring.
Brock Hamm has had struggles in goal for the Blades along with his defence.
    Recently, the wheels have fallen off.
    The Blades are 1-8 in their last nine games falling to 10-15-3 to sit four points back of the Edmonton Oil Kings (12-14-3) for the final playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
    The fact the Blades still have a young team surfaced in November, when the grind of the 72-game regular season really starts to sink in causing some to hit the wall. It also almost feels like the stench of the accumulated losses of the past two seasons is rearing its head.
    Last Monday, the Blades sent struggling 18-year-old sophomore netminder Nik Amundrud to the Calgary Hitmen for a sixth round pick in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. Amundrud posted a 3-5-1 record, a 4.32 goals against average and a .870 save percentage. The Melfort, Sask., product showed a lot of upside as a rookie and took a step back this season.
    That left 18-year-old sophomore Brock Hamm to be the Blades projected number one netminder. Hamm started the season real strong looking like a top end number one, but he has struggle recently and currently posts a 7-8-2 record, a 3.92 goals against average, a .881 save percentage and one shutout on the campaign.
    In Wednesday’s 5-0 home loss to the Regina Pats, Hamm was beaten early on two deflection goals by the Pats that he had no chance on. He then looked lost trying to stop Regina centre Adam Brooks giving up a third marker at the 16:57 mark of the opening frame. Hamm was pulled after stopping eight-of-11 shots, but you could see in his eyes he was fighting demons in his head.
    Jake Morrissey, an 18-year-old goalie who was added to the Blades from the Drayton Valley Thunder of the Alberta Junior Hockey League last Monday, finished the game.
    The Blades defenceman haven’t been doing their netminders any favours as well. All of the Blades current blue-liners have minus rating in the plus-minus department. They appeared to have no faith in their defensive partners or other teammates against the Pats and would constantly try to pinch to one side of the ice or the other in the defensive zone only to be burned by a scoring chance or goal that came from the spot they vacated.
    The running around is a sign that the confidence in you teammates isn’t there as well as a lack of confidence in what is happening on the ice.
The Regina Pats celebrate their 15th straight win over the Saskatoon Blades.
    Standout offensive defenceman Brycen Martin was the Blades best player on the back end posting three goals, 21 assists and a plus-five rating in 25 games before being dealt to the Everett Silvertips last Monday. Marten and a conditional third round pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft went to Everett in exchange for 16-year-old defenceman Jantzen Leslie, who was a former first round WHL Bantam Draft selection, 16-year-old forward Ryan Anderson and a second round selection in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.
    That move will likely help the Blades over the longer term. Leslie played in Saturday’s loss in Brandon. Anderson is playing in the Alberta major midget AAA ranks with Edmonton’s South Side Athletic Club Boston Pizza Athletics posting 15 goals and nine assists in 19 games.
    In the present, the Blades need to find overall confidence. Hamm might have some after making 43 stops in the setback to Brandon. He gave Saskatoon every chance to steal a win.
    Saskatoon’s defenders really have to focus on the basics of just chipping the puck out of their own end and holding their position on either side of the net.
    There is still lots of time to rally back to earn a playoff berth, which currently isn’t that far out of reach. A more prolonged slide makes that task much more difficult.

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