Thursday, 20 September 2018

Fearless prediction – Blades will make WHL playoffs in 2018-19

The Blades celebrate a goal from their final game in the 2017-18 season.
    Well folks. You heard it here first.
    The Saskatoon Blades will make the WHL playoffs in the 2018-19 campaign. That is my prediction for “the Bridge City Bunch” this season, and I am sticking to it.
    Saskatoon last made the playoffs back in the 2012-13 campaign, when they hosted the Memorial Cup. That marked the final season of the Blades being owned by long-time owner Jack Brodsky.
    In making that prediction, I can already see the jaded followers of the team falling down on the floor in laughter. Actually, I have a gut feeling the Blades might have a playoff spot locked up when March 2019 begins. That notion might potentially cause the jaded fans to die of laughter, so I hope they can control themselves and be alright.
    Due to the fact the Blades are in the midst of their longest playoff drought in team history spanning the last five consecutive seasons, the “I will believe it when I see it” notion has floated around a number of followers of the charter WHL franchise.
Chase Wouters has been named the Blades new captain.
    Edmonton product Mike Priestner bought the Blades from Brodsky before the start of the 2013-14 campaign. The new regime faced a major rebuilding project due to the fact the Blades’ future was mortgaged to stock the team with a roster worthy of hosting the Memorial Cup in 2013 and a major trade that brought star hometown product Brayden Schenn to the club in the 2010-11 campaign.
    The Blades finished first overall in the WHL in 2010-11 with a 56-13-2-1 record, but were swept in the second round of the playoffs by that season’s eventual WHL champions the Kootenay Ice.
    Under Priestner’s ownership, the Blades have slowly improved. In the 2013-14 campaign, the Blades finished with a 16-51-2-3 record for 37 points in the standings, which was an expected drop after hosting the Memorial Cup.
    The club’s record has improved each season since that time.
    For the past two seasons, the Blades were seeing signs that their lengthy rebuild was paying off and that the club had come out of the funk in the aftermath of hosting the 2013 Memorial Cup. Unfortunately, a playoff berth eluded the squad.
    In 2016-17, the Blades posted a 28-35-7-2 record to sit five points behind the Calgary Hitmen (30-32-8-2) for the second and final wildcard berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
Dawson Davidson will serve as a Blades assistant captain.
    The 2017-18 campaign proved to be more heartbreaking. The Blades posted a 35-33-3-1 regular season record to fall three points shy of the Prince Albert Raiders (32-27-9-4) for the second and final wildcard berth in the Eastern Conference.
    Saskatoon had the seventh most points in the 12-team Eastern Conference, which meant two clubs with worse records made the post-season under the current league playoff format.
    The Blades were playing out of an East Division, which was viewed as one of the toughest divisions seen at any time in the history of the WHL. Saskatoon still put together an 18-17-2-1 mark playing against East Division foes.
    Internally, the Blades must have felt reasonably confident a post-season berth would happen last season, because management decided to bring back the team’s classic Pac-Man jerseys as the club’s regular look before the start of the campaign. The Blades wore the Pac-Man jerseys during a heyday of stellar campaigns in the 1980s and early 1990s.
    Saskatoon will be guided by rookie 34-year-old head coach Mitch Love this season. Love is viewed as one of the best young coaches in the WHL having spent the previous seven seasons with the Everett Silvertips as an assistant coach.
Max Gerlach has scored 30-or-more goals in three straight campaigns.
    The Silvertips finished third overall in the WHL’s regular season standings in 2017-18 with a 47-20-2-3 mark. They advanced to the WHL Championship series falling to the Swift Current Broncos in six games.
    The Blades two biggest draws will be 17-year-old stars in centre Kirby Dach and goalie Nolan Maier. Dach is being pegged as a prospect that could go early in the first round in next year’s NHL Entry Draft, and Maier aims to build off a sensational rookie campaign that saw him named the Blades team MVP as well as rookie of the year.
    On Thursday, the Blades announced their leadership group, and their picks were great ones. Chase Wouters, who is a standout 18-year-old centre, was named the 59th captain in Blades team history.
    Wouters appeared in all of the Blades 72 games last season and finished fourth in team scoring with 18 goals and 33 assists, while posting a plus-seven rating in the plus-minus department. He was named the scholastic player of the year for the Eastern Conference posting a 90 per cent average in Grade 11 and an 89 per cent average last year in Grade 12.
    Having just returned from the training camp of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, Wouters, who is from Lloydminster, Alta/Sask., had earned the opportunity to be the Blades leader with his efforts on and off the ice.
Josh Paterson had a breakout season for the Blades in 2017-18.
    Overage defenceman Dawson Davidson, overage right-winger Max Gerlach and 19-year-old right-winger Josh Paterson were named assistant captains.
    Davidson and Gerlach know all the ropes of the WHL. Davidson has appeared in 233 career regular season games with the Kamloops Blazers, Regina Pats and Blades displaying an offensive touch on the back end collecting 24 goals and 92 assists over that time.
    The Moosomin, Sask., product had 10 goals and 33 assists in 69 regular season games split between the Pats and Blades in 2017-18.
    Gerlach, who recently returned from the training camp of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, has appeared in 209 career regular season games split between the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Blades. Over that time, the Flower Mound, Texas, product has registered 99 goals and 78 assists.
    In each of his three previous WHL seasons, Gerlach has potted 30-or-more goals and collected 35 goals and 35 assists in 65 regular season games split between the Tigers and Blades in 2017-18.
    Paterson has improved steadily in his three campaigns to date with the Blades. The Edmonton, Alta., product had a breakout campaign in 2017-18 for the Blades appearing in all 72 regular season games netting 31 goals and 22 assists, which were both career highs.
Kirby Dach is one of the Blades top players to watch this season.
    Another player to watch will be tough-guy forward Riley McKay. The 19-year-old McKay was acquired by the Blades in an off-season trade with the Spokane Chiefs. Last season, McKay recorded four goals, nine assists and a WHL leading 152 penalty minutes in 62 regular season games.
    Standing 5-foot-11 and weighing 192 pounds, the Swan River, Man., product has displayed a good offensive touch coming up through the Manitoba minor hockey system, and he might turn into more of a power forward.
    Overall, the Blades have a solid roster that has been mainly built through the WHL Bantam Draft and supplemented with some sound trades.
    The Blades open the regular season traveling to Swift Current on Friday night to take on the Broncos at 7 p.m. at the Credit Union i-Plex. Those two clubs go at it again on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre in the Blades home opener.
    The overall hard work everyone in the Blades organization has put in over the past five years is set to show returns in a big way.

Back in the Express with Pilon

Garrett Pilon is embarking on his professional hockey career.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a story on Washington Capitals prospect Garrett Pilon.
    Pilon was a graduate of the Saskatoon minor hockey system, and for the past three seasons, he became a star playing in the WHL for the Kamloops Blazers and Everett Silvertips. In 207 regular season games split between the Blazers and Silvertips, Pilon recorded 69 goals and 123 assists.
    He collected career highs in goals (34) and assists (46) appearing in 69 regular season games split between the Blazers and Silvertips last season.
    Pilon has a signed three-year NHL entry-level contract with the Capitals and is currently playing pre-season games with the defending Stanley Cup champions.
    The story on Pilon can be found right here.

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