Back In The Hunt

Will the Blades make the playoffs in 2017-18? Will they? Yes.

Sports | by Gregory Beatty

Season Opener: Blades Vs Swift Current Broncos
Sasktel Centre
Friday 22

For analytics fans out there, the biggest stat for the Saskatoon Blades last season wasn’t their puck possession, shot quality or goal prevention — it was their man games lost to injury. With centre Cameron Hebig out for the entire year with a neck injury, the team total was in the 275 to 300 game range. That’s a lot of injuries!

Even so, the Blades, under head coach Dean Brockman, nearly qualified for the WHL playoffs. In fact, they were still alive heading into the season’s final weekend, but finished five points behind the Calgary Hitmen for the final wild card spot with a 28-35-7OTL-2SOL record.

Barring another injury-riddled season, Blades play-by-play man Les Lazaruk expects to see the team take a big step forward in 2017-18. How much of a step, though, will depend on the amount of offense they’re able to generate.

“Last season, the Blades dropped their goals against by 69 from the previous year, going to 248 from 317 goals allowed,” says Lazaruk. “Now, they’ve got to find a way to up their offense as their goals for also went down — not 69 goals worth, but it went down enough that they still had trouble winning games.

“Had the Blades scored maybe half a goal a game more, which probably could’ve been provided by Cam Hebig had he been healthy, I think they would have won eight to 10 more games and made the playoffs,” Lazaruk says.

Hebig has been in training camp with the Blades, and in the first three exhibition games notched five goals and one assist.

So, yeah, he might be able to help the team out in the scoring department.

The challenge for Hebig is that he’s a 20-year-old, and the Blades already have three quality candidates for the three roster spots that are available for 20-year-olds. Teams have until Oct. 10 to finalize those spots, so the Blades will have a tough decision to make.

“The other three players are left-winger Braylon Shymr, who was their leading scorer last year,” says Lazaruk. “Then there’s defenceman Evan Fiala, who came to the team before Christmas from Spokane and was a big part of them being a little more competitive in the second half. He brought leadership, and a tough defensive style of play.

“The third 20-year-old is their MVP from last year and second team Eastern Conference all-star, goalie Logan Flodell,” says Lazaruk. “So which one do you not keep, it’s a very difficult decision.”

One potential wildcard is the status of Fiala. Undrafted, he earned a free agent invite from the Detroit Red Wings. “And not the rookie camp, either, he’s going to the main training camp,” says Lazaruk. “That makes you wonder if maybe they have an idea for him to play in the AHL, which he can do as a 20-year-old. If so, that makes the decision easy. But that depends on what Detroit’s intentions are, and how well he plays at their main camp.”

Sixteen-year-old centre Kirby Dach could provide some offensive spark too, says Lazaruk. “He played midget AAA in Fort Saskatchewan last season, and once they were done he joined the Blades and made an immediate impact in the 13 or 14 games he played. So he’s ahead of the curve as far as 16-year-old rookies go, having had that experience, and he’s probably going to slot in as a top six forward.”

Russian defenceman Mark Rubinchik is back as one of the Blades’ two European players. Defencemen Libor Hájek is also expected to return. First, though, he’s attending the Tampa Bay Lightning rookie training camp.

“He was supposed to join the rookies at a tournament in Florida, but with hurricane Irma bearing down on the state the tournament was cancelled,” says Lazaruk. “So the Lightning flew their rookie team to Nashville to play a series of exhibition games against the Predator rookies. Libor is then expected to stick around and go to the main training camp. He was a second round pick in 2016, so he’s fairly highly regarded.”

The Blades haven’t made the playoffs since they hosted the Memorial Cup in 2012-13. Lazaruk is optimistic that the drought could end this season. “When you look at the East Division, with Regina being the host team for the Memorial Cup, you know they’re going to do everything in their power to be as good as they can.

“This is Moose Jaw’s year too, they built their team for this season, with a good group of veterans who have been around for a few years, so I expect those two to finish first and second.

“After that, all four teams — Brandon, Swift Current, Prince Albert and Saskatoon — think they could finish third,” says Lazaruk. “Obviously, that’s impossible, so it will come down to how the teams do against each other in head-to-head meetings. But the Blades really believe they are in the running, and at very least should win a wild card spot.”

Better days lie ahead too, Lazaruk predicts. “The Blades’ 19-year-olds, overall, aren’t a strong group by comparison to some other teams. But the team believes they’ve got a strong group coming up through the 1999, 2000, 2001 birth years, and even 2002 with the bantam draft this year. So they’re excited about the future, but they definitely want to make the playoffs this season.” ❧

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