Monday, 21 March 2016

More work still awaits Blades

WHL club takes baby steps, misses playoffs again

Blades captain Nick Zajac looks dejected after a Wheat Kings goal.
    The Saskatoon Blades might be a perfect case study to show how long a rebuild normally takes in the Western Hockey League.
    A charter member of the WHL, the Blades entered the 2015-16 campaign with hopes of returning to the playoffs. Instead, they ended up missing the post-season for a third straight year – first for the team - after hosting the Memorial Cup tournament in 2013.
    While they are still one of the youngest squads in the league, the Blades jumped out to a 7-4-3 start and comfortably held a playoff spot posting 9-7-3 mark going into action on Nov. 20, 2015. From there, they went on a down stretch posting one win in 10 games.
    Going into the WHL Christmas break, the Blades record sat at 14-19-3, and they were two points out of a playoff position. They kept slowly slipping further and further out of the playoff picture, but did manage to play meaningful games in early March.
    Saskatoon finished with a 26-42-6 record to sit 20th overall in the 22 team league with 56 points. Had they been able to earn 10 more points in the standings, they would have held down the final playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
Connor Gay led the Blades in scoring with 72 points.
    Still, they improved upon last season’s 19-49-2-2 mark and a 16-51-2-3 record posted in the 2013-14 campaign. After hosting the Memorial Cup, the cupboard was close to being empty, so a return to post-season action was expected to take some time.
    Even with all that in mind, the Blades hard their hearts set upon making the post-season at the start of the 2015-16 campaign. To some degree, it felt like the 2015-16 season was an opportunity that was missed.
    The double blue’s struggles occurred because they could never find consistency in goal or on defence. Saskatoon product Brock Hamm was the starter posting a 21-26-3 record, a 4.02 goals against average, a .885 save percentage and one shutout. Parker, Colorado, product Evan Smith finished as the back-up posting a 2-9 record, a 5.75 goals against average and a .843 save percentage.
    Looking at those statistics, one could see the Blades were going to be hard pressed to win games. Both netminders had their moments when they looked great, but they also had too many moments when it appeared the confidence was gone.
    The goalies didn’t have much help from the defensive unit. The Blades play from their defensive unit was as erratic as the play of their netminders.
Colton Waltz one of the more steady rearguards for the Blades.
    All the Blades regular defencemen had minus ratings in the plus-minus department. Overager Colton Waltz had the best campaign statistically recording five goals, 25 assists and a minus-five rating in 65 regular season games, but much of those stats were built playing 34 contests with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Waltz was acquired shortly before the WHL’s trade deadline.
    Payton McIsaac, who was a midget AAA call up from Fort Saskatchewan, had a plus-four rating in 10 appearances for the Blades to go along with an assist.  The second round selection in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft has a good chance to be part of the Blades on a full-time basis next season as a 16-year-old rookie.
    Saskatoon couldn’t do much to strengthen both of those departments via the trade route due to the fact goaltending and defence on average wasn’t as strong this season in the WHL as it has been in the past. Had both of those units just been slightly more productive, the Blades might have made up the 10 points they needed to get into the post-season.
    Up front, the Blades probably received what they could have out of their forward unit. Connor Gay, Cameron Hebig, captain Nick Zajac and Ryan Graham all netted 20 or more goals. Gay topped the team in scoring as an overager with 25 goals and 47 assists. Hebig battled injuries, but he still piled up 26 goals and 43 assists in 59 contests.
Head coach and GM Bob Woods has more retooling to do with the Blades.
    The Blades also had too many games in 2015-16 where their work ethic just disappeared. It seemed like the stench from the struggles from the previous two campaigns started to rear its head this season. If the opponent jumped out to a quick two-goal edge, the Blades folded way too often and lost by a convincing outcome.
    In 2014-15, it seemed like the work ethic was always there, even though the team was outmatched on most nights.
    With that in mind, head coach and general manager Bob Woods and assistant coach Dean Brockman both just finished their second seasons with the club. Both are capable hockey men and need to continue the progress that has been made.
    The Blades still pulled in 8,932 spectators for their final regular season game on Saturday, which they won 3-2 over the visiting Prince Albert Raiders. Saskatoon’s average attendance of 4,377 was still down from the past two seasons, but was 12th overall in the league.
    “The Bridge City” bunch is getting there. A light at the end of the tunnel is visible. Playoffs may be a reality in 2017.

Ridley to call 3,700th game

Bob Ridley calls a game at The Arena in Medicine Hat.
    When the Medicine Hat Tigers appear in their first standings tiebreaker game, their iconic play-by-play voice will hit another milestone.
    Bob Ridley, who has been the WHL team’s play-by-play voice since the club’s inception in 1970, will call his 3,700th career game when the Tigers host the Edmonton Oil Kings on Tuesday at 7 p.m. local time at the Canalta Centre. He has called 3,291 of the 3,292 games the Tigers have played in the regular season, all of the club’s 388 games in the WHL playoffs and all 20 contests the team has played in the Memorial Cup tournament.
    Tuesday’s match will mark the first time Ridley has called a tiebreaking game in his career.
    It is believed that no one in Western Canada has called more hockey games as the play-by-play announcer for one team at the amateur or professional level than Ridley has.
    The Tigers and Oil Kings both recorded 65 points in the WHL standings to finish in a deadlock for eighth overall in the Eastern Conference and the conference’s final playoff berth. The Tigers were 30-37-3-2, while the Oil Kings were 29-36-6-1. Medicine Hat earned home ice advantage due to having more wins.
    The winner of that contest travels to Brandon on Thursday to meet the Wheat Kings in Game 1 of a best-of-seven first round playoff series. Brandon topped the Eastern Conference and finished second overall in the league with a 48-18-4-2 record.
    The Tigers have made the WHL playoffs for the last 13 consecutive years and advanced to the second round in 12 of those appearances.

Shirley in the Express

Sophie Shirley in action last year for the Saskatoon Stars.
    I recently caught up with local hockey standout Sophie Shirley for a feature story in the Saskatoon Express.
    The 16-year-old forward was spent the 2015-16 campaign as a rookie with the Notre Dame Hounds squad that plays in the Junior women’s Hockey League. She was also a member of Canada’s team that won a silver medal at the under-18 world’s in January in St. Catharines, Ont.
    Last season, Shirley helped the Saskatoon Stars win their first Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League title and a bronze medal at the Esso Cup national championship tournament. Her Express feature story can be found right here.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to