It’s been a long time since the Saskatoon Blades were last considered one of the elite teams in the Western Hockey League (WHL), but that is where they find themselves entering the 2019-210 season.
On the heels of a campaign that saw the Blades reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and win their first playoff series since 2011, expectations for the upcoming season are even higher.
Those expectations extend well beyond the Bridge City. The Canadian Hockey League’s initial top-ten rankings have the Blades as the highest-ranked team in the WHL at number three overall.
That projection is based on a number of factors, including Saskatoon’s 4-0-1 pre-season record and more importantly, the team’s roster, which features a tantalizing mix of veterans and skilled young players.
Having one of the league’s best goaltenders doesn’t hurt either.
Despite the fact that he won’t turn 19 until January, Nolan Maier has already played nearly 100 games in the WHL and last season he finished third in the league with 36 wins and tied for third with three shutouts.
On the blue line, the Blades look much different than they did a season ago.
Newcomers Scott Walford and Libor Zabransky, acquired via trade and the CHL import draft, respectively, are expected to play major roles along with returning over-ager Nolan Kneen and former first-round bantam draft pick Aidan De La Gorgendiere, who is entering his second full season of junior hockey.
The team’s biggest question mark involves their best player, forward Kirby Dach.
The 18-year-old was selected third overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in the National Hockey League entry draft in June and will begin the season in Chicago.
It will be up to the Blackhawks to decide whether Dach is ready for a full-time jump to the NHL. If not, he will return to Saskatoon, giving the Blades a huge boost upfront.
That decision won’t come for another few weeks, however, so for now the Blades will forge ahead without Dach.
Even without him, they still have a lot of players who can produce, led by shifty winger Ryan Hughes, Washington Capitals prospect Eric Florchuk, captain Chase Wouters and 17-year-old speedster Kyle Crnkovic, who averaged nearly a point per game during the second half of his rookie season.
The Bridge City Bunch will have plenty of grit upfront, too.
Overage forward Riley McKay has led the WHL in penalty minutes in each of the last two seasons. Cyle McNabb, Randen Schmidt and Kjell Kjemhus, who was recently acquired from the Moose Jaw Warriors, will also bring a physical edge to the forward group, along with rookie Colton Dach, younger brother of Kirby.
Head coach Mitch Love is entering his second year behind the Blades bench, as is associate coach Ryan Marsh. Assistant coach Ryan Keller returns for a fourth season on the Blades staff.
Saskatoon begins the season with four overage players in Walford, Kneen, Hughes and McKay.
The WHL allows teams to carry a maximum of three beyond the opening weeks of the season, so there are some decisions to be made by Blades president and general manager Colin Priestner.
However, the problem of having too many good players is one the Blades haven’t experienced in quite some time and it speaks to the high level of expectation for this year’s team.
The Blades will get a solid test right out of the gate as they open the season on Sept. 20 with a home-and-home series against their arch-rivals, the defending WHL champion Prince Albert Raiders.
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