|The Pats salute their fans after falling in the WHL finals.|
The Regina Pats had a dream season in 2016-17, but they might not have a dream start in 2017-18.
Last season, the historic Pats, who are the oldest major junior hockey franchise in the world, hit heights they haven’t seen for a long time. They topped the WHL’s regular season standings for the first time since 1974 posting a 52-12-7-1 record.
They were rated first in the Canadian Hockey League’s top 10 rankings for most of the campaign and topped the final ratings released on March 22.
They made their first appearance in the WHL’s Eastern Conference championship series since 1993 and knocked off the Lethbridge Hurricanes 4-2 in a best-of-seven set. The Pats made the WHL Championship series for the first time since 1984, but fell 4-2 in the best-of-seven set to the Seattle Thunderbirds. Thunderbirds import centre Alexander True scored the overtime winner in Game 6 of the WHL title series to give his side a 4-3 victory in that contest.
While the WHL title eluded the Pats, they had a roster that seemed full of super heroes last season, who delivered tonnes of thrills. When the Pats embark on their 100th anniversary season in 2017-18 which will see them host the 100th Memorial Cup championship tournament in May of 2018, they might start the campaign minus as many as 11 faces from last year’s powerhouse squad.
That number doesn’t include backup goalie Jordan Hollett, who was traded to the Medicine Hat Tigers in May.
|The Pats lost superstar captain Adam Brooks to graduation.|
The Pats open rookie camp on Monday in Regina with registration for rookie players.
Superstar captain Adam Brooks, skilled left-winger Dawson Leedahl and sound defensive defenceman Chase Harrison were all lost to graduation due to being overage players last season. It was inevitable they would leave big holes.
In theory, Filip Ahl and Sergey Zborovskiy could return both taking up spots as an import player and an overage player. Ahl had a standout lone WHL season in 2016-17 collecting 28 goals and 20 assists in 54 regular season games, but he has signed a one-year professional contract Orebro HK in his home country of Sweden, which means he is out of the picture for next season.
Zborovskiy, who is from Russia, has an NHL entry-level contract inked with the New York Rangers, and he can be assigned to any of the farm clubs the Rangers have in the minor professional ranks due to being a 20-year-old.
With those developments, the Pats selected two players in the CHL Import Draft at the end of June in Russian defenceman Yegor Zamula, who is entering his 17-year-old season, and Finnish forward Emil Oksanen, who is entering his 19-year-old season. Both have big shoes to fill in trying to replace Ahl and Zborovskiy.
|Jake Leschyshyn is still recovering from an ACL tear injury.|
Another questionable returnee is star defenceman Connor Hobbs, who is entering his overage season. Hobbs has an NHL entry-level contract signed with the Washington Capitals, and he looks more than ready to play at the next level. If he doesn’t make the Capitals, Hobbs can be assigned to any of Washington’s minor league affiliates.
The Pats could be without WHL scoring champion Sam Steel, who had 50 goals, 81 assists and a plus-49 rating in the plus-minus department in 66 regular season games last season. The superstar centre has an NHL entry-level contract inked with the Anaheim Ducks, and he appears to be ready to play in the NHL.
With Steel going into his 19-year-old season, the Ducks have to assign him back to the Pats, if he doesn’t make the NHL squad.
Offensive defenceman Josh Mahura is in the same boat as Steel. Mahura also has a signed NHL entry-level contract with the Ducks, but entering his 19-year-old season, the talented rearguard has to be assigned back to the Pats, if he doesn’t make the Ducks NHL roster.
|Nick Henry (#21) is recovering from a torn labrum injury.|
Mahura has only played one full campaign since returning from a serious knee injury that sidelined him for 70 regular season games in 2015-16, when he was still with the Red Deer Rebels. The Pats acquired Mahura from the Rebels on WHL trade deadline day back on Jan. 10. Odds are high Mahura will be back with the Pats for another WHL campaign, but he might not be in Regina at the start of the season.
Centre Jake Leschyshyn, who was selected in the second round and 62nd overall in June’s NHL Entry Draft by the Las Vegas Golden Knights, is still recovering from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees in a WHL game on Feb. 3. It is touch and go as to whether he will be ready when the Pats open their regular season on Sept. 22 with a match against the Wheat Kings in Brandon.
|Austin Wagner (#27) is healing from a torn labrum and dislocate bicep injury.|
Right-winger Nick Henry, who had a spectacular rookie campaign with the Pats, underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder in late June. Henry, who was selected in the fourth round and 94th overall in last June’s NHL Entry Draft by the Colorado Avalanche, could be out four to sixth months, which means a possible return could occur near the end of October or the end of December.
Speedy left-winger Austin Wagner, who is entering his overage season, underwent major surgery in early June to repair a torn labrum and dislocated bicep tendon. He is expected to take about six months to recover, which means his return might happen in mid to late December.
|Sam Steel (#23) might stick with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.|
Wagner does have an NHL entry-level contact signed with the Los Angeles Kings, but it is uncertain the Kings will trigger the first year of that deal by bringing him into the professional ranks due to his injury situation. He might be returned to the Pats but would still miss a sizable chunk of the WHL campaign.
The injuries to Henry and Wagner show what a grind the WHL playoffs can be and how much heart the Pats had to get to the point they were two wins away from winning their first league title since 1980.
At the moment, the Pats are looking at possibly opening their regular season schedule without any returning players from their top two lines last season and the starting centre from their third line. It should also be noted that teams hosting the Memorial Cup often get players returned to their rosters by NHL clubs who might normally be kept in the professional ranks.
|Connor Hobbs might stay in the pros in the Washington Capitals system.|
NHL clubs regularly return players to major junior teams hosting the Memorial Cup championship tournament, because those returnees gain experience playing important post-season games in May. That traditional development might see the Pats get Hobbs, Steel and Mahura back on their roster.
Regina holds the major junior rights to standout centre Tyson Jost, who will enter his 19-year-old season. Jost played last season with the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks men’s team in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and he appeared in six NHL regular season games after signing an NHL entry-level contract on March 29 with the Colorado Avalanche. He scored one goal during his six games with the Avalanche.
Due to signing with the Avalanche, Jost can’t return to the Fighting Hawks next season, but the Avalanche can assign him to an AHL affiliate because he was drafted from the junior A ranks in British Columbia.
|Goalie Tyler Brown might have to keep the Pats in games early in 2017-18.|
The Avalanche selected Jost in the first round and 10th overall in 2016 NHL Entry Draft, and they are expected to give Jost every chance to stay with the big club for the upcoming season.
The Pats still have two big keys in their favour in the fact John Paddock is still the club’s head coach and general manager and Dave Struch is still an assistant coach and assistant general manager. Paddock has the skill to quickly strengthen the Pats via the trade route.
In May, he already started doing just that acquiring star centre Matthew Bradley, who is entering his overage season, in a deal with the Medicine Hat Tigers in a deal that saw Hollett move to “the Gas City.” Bradley recorded 34 goals, 43 assists and a plus-23 rating in 70 regular season games with the Tigers last season.
Struch has built a reputation for being a stellar coach who is strong at building up a player’s confidence.
|The Pats want to enjoy more post-season celebrations like this in 2018.|
The Pats will return star netminder Tyler Brown as an overager. The Winnipeg, Man., product will provide the ability to keep the Pats in games during the early going as the rest of the club’s roster takes shape.
As the 2017-18 season progresses, the Pats might build a roster that is as equally as good as the one from last season and be a contender for a WHL league title and a Memorial Cup title as CHL champions.
At the moment in the early going, it looks like the rest of the WHL will be looking forward to encounters with a Pats team that will be weaker than the squad that hit the ice last season.
Fans in Regina will have to be patient at the start of the 2017-18 campaign, if it is bumpy, and they might get a better appreciation for how special 2016-17 was.
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