Thursday, 22 March 2018

Drama at the end overshadows rest of Blades season

The Blades salute the SaskTel Centre crowd on Saturday night.
    At the end, it almost didn’t feel like the Saskatoon Blades won 35 games in the 2017-18 regular season.
    The Blades enjoyed their best campaign since the hosting the Memorial Cup in 2013 posting a 35-33-3-1 record to actually have the seventh most standings points in the WHL’s 12 team Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, the drama at the end of the season will be what most onlookers remember. The last impression at the moment seems to override everything else that happened.
    When all of the WHL games on Feb. 19 had wrapped up, the Blades had an eight point lead over the Prince Albert Raiders for the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. The Blades were two points behind the Brandon Wheat Kings for the first wildcard position. The Blades had 11 games remaining on their regular season schedule including seven home dates, while the Raiders and Wheat Kings had 13 contests each to play.
The Blades released Dean Brockman as head coach on Sunday.
    Having downed the Oil Kings in Edmonton 3-2 in overtime on Feb. 19, the Blades returned to the SaskTel Centre to play the Memorial Cup hosting Regina Pats on Feb. 23. Saskatoon took a 4-0 lead at the 7:47 mark of that contest before the wheels fell off. Regina roared back for a 7-5 victory with call up Jacob Wasserman playing goal.
    That started an eight-game stretch where the Blades posted a 1-6-1 record to be eliminated from making the playoffs for a fifth straight year. The Blades won their last three straight to post a 4-6-1 record in their final 11 outings. The Raiders went 9-2-0-2 including nine straight wins in their last 13 games to leap into the second wildcard spot, and the Wheat Kings held the first wildcard spot going 9-4 in their final 13 contests.
Blades GM Colin Priestner speaks to the media early in the season.
    A similar story occurred in the 2016-17 campaign. The Blades held a three-point edge over the Calgary Hitmen for the last playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference near the tail end of that campaign. The Blades won one of their final five games, while the Hitmen claimed five of their last six regular season contests to vault into a playoff berth.
    Saskatoon closed the 2017-18 campaign on Saturday with a 5-4 victory over the Prince Albert Raiders before 9,624 spectators at the SaskTel Centre. Following that contest, Blades head coach Dean Brockman met with general manager Colin Priestner for about an hour.
    On Sunday morning, the Blades announced Brockman had been relieved of his duties effective immediately with two years left on his contract. At the media availability that afternoon, Priestner said at the end of the hour long talk he had with Brockman on Saturday night it became clear the team was going to part ways with the 50-year-old veteran bench boss.
Braylon Shmyr (#23) had 37 goals and 51 assists this season.
    Brockman had been the Blades head coach for the past two seasons and was an assistant coach in the two campaigns before that.
    Priestner said the fact that the Blades faltered at the end of each of the past two seasons to fall out of a playoff position was the reason for the move on the coaching front.
    The social media reaction to the development in the following days from the public was fairly toxic.
    Most threw support behind Brockman as being the sound hockey guy with a solid 17-year background in the junior A ranks with the Humboldt Broncos from 1997 to 2014. Brockman started as an assistant coach and assistant general manager before becoming the head coach and general manager in 2004. During Brockman’s years in Humboldt, the Broncos won the Royal Bank Cup for junior A supremacy in 2003 and 2008.
Blades captain Evan Fiala recently signed a pro contract.
    Priestner is viewed as the non-hockey background guy until he came on board with the Blades when his father, Mike, bought the team from Jack Brodsky before the start of the 2013-14 campaign. Colin has been the Blades general manager for the past two seasons taking on that role when the former head coach and general manager Bob Woods departed for the NHL ranks.
    After the Blades hosted the Memorial Cup in 2012-13, the team was pretty much devoid of assets, and the new ownership and management expected a long rebuild.
    In each of the past two seasons, the pressure was on the squad to show the lengthy rebuild was good enough to result in a playoff berth.
    For the most part, the Blades did see positive results on the ice from their lengthy rebuild, and it could be argued they have come out of their funk. They were hexed by the current rules for making the playoffs.
    Since the start of the 2014-15 season, the top three teams in the East and Central Divisions and the two best remaining records after those clubs qualify as wildcards entries to make up the Eastern Conference’s eight squads that advance to the post-season.
Tyler Brown was brought in to be a positive influence.
    Due to the fact the Blades finished sixth in the East Division, they were on the outside looking in as far as the playoff picture was concerned. The East Division this season was arguably the toughest division the WHL ever saw in its history.
    With the record the Blades had, they would have made the playoffs in 2016-17 and 2015-16 under the current rules. Under the rules used in the 2013-14 campaign that had a formula where the top eight teams in each of the WHL’s two conferences advanced to the post-season, the Blades would be moving on to take part in a best-of-seven first round series.
    Instead, they finished three points back of the Raiders (32-27-9-4) for the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. The Blades will watch two teams they bested in standings points in the Lethbridge Hurricanes (33-33-6) and the Red Deer Rebels (27-32-10-3) go at it in the first round of the playoffs to see one of those clubs make the second round.
Centre Kirby Dach is one of the Blades bright young stars.
    Going forward, the Blades do have a sound roster. They lose overagers Braylon Shmyr, Evan Fiala and Tyler Brown.
    Shmyr, who was a star left-winger, topped the Blades in scoring with 37 goals and 51 assists. Fiala was the team’s captain and a solid defenceman, who recorded seven goals, 13 assists and a minus-two rating in the plus-minus department. On Wednesday, Fiala signed a contract with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, who are based in North Charleston, South Carolina.
    Brown built his reputation during a stellar run playing goal with the Pats, and after being acquired by the Blades in a deal before the WHL trade deadline on Jan. 10, he acted as a positive influence on rookie standout Nolan Maier.
    In Maier, the Blades will have a 17-year-old sophomore in 2018-19 that might be one of the top five goalies in the league. They will return a good group on defence in Jackson Caller, Seth Bafaro, Randen Schmidt, Dawson Davidson, Jake Kustra and possibly Russian import Mark Rubinchik.
Nolan Maier will be looking to build off a stellar rookie campaign.
    They have skill up front in Kirby Dach, Eric Florchuk, Max Gerlach, Josh Paterson, Chase Wouters and Michael Farren. Dach, who will enter his 17-year-old season, and Florchuk, who will enter his 18-year-old campaign, have the potential to be the best in that group.
    With that said, the fallout at the end of the season will be something that is hard to forget. Colin Priestner likely backed himself in a position where the team’s next head coach hire will have to be a known name that has had success in the major junior ranks or higher levels of hockey.
    It is uncertain if the new head coach will want to inherit the staff of current assistant coaches. Of that group, Bryce Thoma and Ryan Keller are under contract for the next two seasons.
    At the moment, it isn’t a stretch to say it will be challenging to sell season tickets. Even this past season, the Blades had to work hard to sell tickets and attendances over 4,000 were viewed as a big success.
Josh Paterson had a breakout campaign for the Blades.
    If the Blades gamble on a younger coach that doesn’t have a proven background in the major junior ranks or higher, it will likely be even more challenging to sell season tickets.
    When the regular season ended, everyone on the team should have likely gone through a cooling off period of at least a week before making any decisions.
    Now, the remaining staff has to make the best with the cards they have in their hands.

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