Friday, 24 March 2017

Blades inch closer to being playoff participant

The Blades celebrate a 4-2 win over the Red Deer Rebels on Feb. 4.
    For the fourth straight year, the Saskatoon Blades will not take part in the WHL playoffs, but this year’s post-season miss is more painful than the previous three.
    The Blades season game to an end last Saturday with a 5-1 setback to the archrival Raiders in Prince Albert. Saskatoon finished the 2016-17 campaign with a 28-35-7-2 record to sit five points behind the Calgary Hitmen (30-32-8-2) for eighth overall in the WHL’s Eastern conference and the conference’s second and final wildcard berth for the post-season.
    Entering their fifth last game of the season, the Blades were three points ahead of the Hitmen for the last playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. The Blades won only one of their final five contests, while the Hitmen went on a tear winning five of their final six outings.
Braylon Shmyr led the Blades in scoring with 66 points.
    When the WHL post-season began on Friday, the Blades were again on the outside looking in.
    Had maybe two or three more breaks gone the Blades way, they may have very been participating in the post-season for the first time since 2013. The biggest obstacle the team faced was the injury bug, as a number of the club’s top players spent lengthy stretches on the shelf with various ailments.
    The most noticeable absence was star centre Cameron Hebig, who missed the entire campaign with an upper body injury. The local product was the Blades second leading scorer in 2015-16 netting 26 goals and 43 assists in 59 regular season games. Had Hebig been available for all or parts of this past season, the Blades likely would have sat comfortably in a playoff position.
    On top of Hebig’s absence, Braylon Shmyr, who topped the Blades in scoring with 35 goals and 31 assists in 66 appearances, missed time due to a concussion. Overage centre Jesse Shynkaruk missed about 14 games with an upper body injury. The local product still finished second in team scoring with career highs in goals (31) and assists (25) appearing in 58 games.
Jesse Shynkaruk potted a career 31 goals with the Blades.
    Right-winger Mason McCarty was out for about 35 games with a leg injury and he managed to record 21 goals and 16 assists in 45 appearances. That just scratched the surface of the Blades injury woes for the campaign. Injuries were a big factor in the Blades scoring the third fewest goals in the league at 190.
    Big credit has to be given to head coach Dean Brockman and assistant coaches Ryan Keller, Bryce Thoma and Jerome Engele for holding the ship together. Still, Brockman has visions of bigger things.
    “We fought through a lot of injuries and adversity, and we never used that as an excuse, and I still don’t want to use it as an excuse,” said Brockman. “I am proud of our team for what they accomplished.
    “Did we get to where I want to get to? Every year I want to win a championship to be honest with you. If you don’t do that I don’t find it successful.
    “Is a bit unbelievable to think that way all the time? You have to have something to strive for.”
Logan Flodell was named a WHL second team Eastern Conference all-star.
    Brockman is taking the right approach. At the start of the season, you want to have winning a championship as your goal, because it helps give the team clarity of purpose. When teams work their hardest to achieve that goal, it helps create conditions were players seem to achieve things beyond their abilities.
    Due to all the injuries, the Blades were constantly having to place younger players higher on the depth chart and have them play roles they weren’t expected have yet or in some cases maybe ever have. Players like forwards Chase Wouters and Michael Farren, who were in their 16-year-old seasons, performed beyond their limits and gained experiences that will help them in the future.
    The same goes for forwards Josh Paterson and Logan Christensen and defenceman Jackson Caller, who all completed their 17-year-old seasons.
Libor Hajek signed an NHL entry-level contract with Tampa Bay.
    Forward Kirby Dach impressed in his call ups from the Fort Saskatchewan Boston Pizza Rangers midget AAA team netting six goals and four assists in 19 contests with the Blades. The second overall selection in last year’s WHL Bantam Draft will play his 16-year-old rookie season with the club in the upcoming campaign.
    As far as guiding the improvement was concerned, Blades general manager Colin Priestner loved how Keller handled the skill development and power play. Priestner applauded how Thoma handled the defence. On top of everything, the general manager was impressed how calmly Brockman handled the difficulties.
    “He (Brockman) had adversity every day to deal with, and didn’t make excuses,” said Priestner. “He really had that next man up philosophy.
Chase Wouters is one of the Blades youngsters that has a bright future.
    “If we lose a player for a month, six months or whatever it was, he wouldn’t show that despair to the players. He kept a very even keel with the players and the coaches. I think that allowed us to be successful.”
    The individuals that had the biggest success were goaltender Logan Flodell and import defenceman Libor Hajek. Flodell established himself as a legitimate number one starter during his 19-year-old campaign. The Regina product was named a second team WHL Eastern Conference all-star posting a 22-20-4 record, a 2.81 goals against average, a .912 save percentage and three shutouts.
    Hajek signed an NHL entry-level contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning after netting four goals and 22 assists in 65 games with the Blades this past season in his 18-year-old campaign. 
Jackson Caller logged a tonne of minutes as Blades rookie defenceman.
    The Lightning selected Hajek in the second round and 37th overall in last year’s NHL Entry Draft. He is currently with the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate the Syracuse Crunch.
    At the moment, the Blades have a glut of possible overagers returning next season with six players battling for three spots. The potential returnees include Flodell and fellow netminder Brock Hamm along with defenceman Evan Fiala. Shmyr, McCarty and Hebig are also in that mix.
    The obvious man out is likely Hamm due to the stellar campaign Flodell had.
    With that said, the Blades will return three really good overagers next year. If they can find players or a way to generate more goals next season, a post-season appearance has an extremely high likelihood of being a reality.

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