Summertime means roster decision time for clubs across the Canadian Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades are no exception.
Each off-season brings its own, usually quite familiar to-do list pertaining to roster-related duties to get the lineup set for the start of the following season. These include things like the bantam and import drafts, decisions on returning overage 20-year old players, and other transactions.
Now midway through June, the Blades’ summer tune-up is well underway.
The Blades first move of the summer was acquiring 2004-born forward Carter Streek from the Portland Winterhawks in exchange for a fifth-round pick in the WHL’s 2020 bantam draft.
“Carter is a fast and competitive player,” Blades director of scouting Dan Tencer said in an article for the team’s website. “He plays the game with a relentless energy and has a skill level that allows him to make significant offensive contributions. His style of play will fit in very nicely with our young core of forwards,” Tencer said.
Bantam and Import Drafts
The following day, the Blades made defenceman Tanner Molendyk their first selection, fifth overall in the bantam draft.
The CHL import draft is next on the docket, slated for June 30. If the Blades expect both of their import players to return; Slovakian forward Martin Fasko-Rudas and last year’s second-round import draft selection Radek Kucerik, then they will likely not make a selection.
In last year’s import draft, the Blades selected the defence pairing of Libor Zabransky and Kucerik. Both were teammates for Team Czech Republic when they hosted the 2020 World Junior Championship and finished seventh. Zabransky was the captain and recorded four goals in five games, which led all defenceman in the tournament, one ahead of Rasmus Sandin of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Zabransky already amassed 107 games of WHL experience in two seasons with the Kelowna Rockets from 2017 to 2019, before he was released in January of 2019 and finished the 2018-19 season playing in the United States Hockey League. After re-entering the CHL import draft and being selected by Saskatoon, he recorded a goal and five points in 16 games with the Blades before being moved to the Moose Jaw Warriors, and finally finished the 2019-20 season with the Kamloops Blazers.
Saskatoon’s second pick in the import draft last year, Kucerik put up 3 goals and 13 points in 49 games last season, and was recently invited back to the Czech Republic U-20 summer training camp.
Those import decisions will help get the ball rolling on the next major order of business for general manager Colin Priestner, which will be the Blades’ impending decisions on returning 2000-born players.
Currently, the Blades roster has five players who will be classified as overage when next season begins. WHL clubs can open the season with four overage players on the roster and dress three each game until the overage deadline, which is typically in mid-October, when they must cut down to three overage players on the roster. This gives an opportunity for players to compete for a remaining spot, and also to possibly bring in a 20-year old who does not stick with their previous club, if the need and opportunity arises.
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Though the Blades’ ensuing overage decisions aren’t as numerous as a team like the Victoria Royals, there are marquee players involved, and thus, critical choices to be made.
The 6-foot, 185-pound centre has spent his entire four-year career in Saskatoon since being drafted in the first round of the 2015 bantam draft, also suiting up in a pair of games as a 15-year old in 2015-16. The native of Lloydminster, AB has been the Blades captain for the last two seasons. He was second on the team in 2019-20 with his career-high 26 goals and offered critical veteran leadership to a team in transition trying to establish a new identity, and to the team’s core of young forwards.
When all factors are considered, a two-year captain with 259 games of experience in the league and the organization, plus being a potent offensive threat who can drive his own line, Wouters figures to be a presumed recipient of one of the club’s three overage spots in 2020-21.
Fasko-Rudas joined the Blades at the 2019-20 trade deadline from the Swift Current Broncos after starting the season with his original club, the Everett Silvertips. The shifty forward, who represented Slovakia at the 2020 World Junior Championships, became another consistent scorer for the Blades in the second half finding the back of the net 10 times with 18 points in 23 games.
The wrinkle in retaining Fasko-Rudas is that he would be a two-spot player as both an overage and an import, limiting the Blades roster flexibility slightly, as they would only able to utilize a total of four different players in those categories instead of five.
The native of nearby Grandora, SK came to the Blades from the Calgary Hitmen in a midseason trade in the 2018-19 season. A reliable player who brings energy to the lineup with his physical game, Huber chipped in offensively this past season, scoring a career-best 15 goals, up sharply from his previous high of four.
Daley already has 259 games of experience across four seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings, Regina Pats, and Saskatoon. The centreman from Winnipeg, MB was acquired by the Blades at the deadline this past season from the Pats and chipped in five goals and 12 points in 22 games down the stretch.
The native of Regina, SK has spent his entire career with the Blades and has skated in 129 games over three seasons, tallying three goals and 20 points. He set career-highs across the board in 2019-20, suiting up in 52 games, scoring twice with nine points.
The Blades could also look outside of the organization to fill their quota of 20-year old players.
On paper, the 2020-21 Blades look like they should be able to fill the net, in contrast to the situation last offseason when 63 percent of their goals from the 2018-19 lineup did not return in 2019-20. Scoring leaders and 2020 draft-eligible players Tristen Robins and Kyle Crnkovic are slated to return with another year’s experience along with rookie of the year Colton Dach, who could take the next step in his development after scoring 10 times in the second half this past season.
If the team awards overage tags to Wouters and Fasko-Rudas, the Blades will be even more confident with their forward group, with perhaps their biggest need up front being to recreate the two-way presence of Riley McKay, who graduated and signed in the American Hockey League following the 2019-20 season.
Therefore, the greatest need may exist on defence.
Saskatoon will head into the new season without graduated blue liners Nolan Kneen and Scott Walford, who combined for 24 goals and 94 points this past season. The Blades could attempt to acquire a defenceman to fill the final overage slot if one were to come available in the offseason or prior to the overage deadline.
Doing this could potentially replenish some of Kneen and Walford’s production to decrease the reliance on the forwards for offence, and help the rest of the defence hold the fort their own end. The Blades already have a promising group of young defenders led by Aidan De La Gorgendiere, 18, and the 17-year old pair of Charlie Wright and Marek Schnieder, who figure to be led by the 19-year old trio of Kucerik, Rhett Rhinehart, and Matthew Sanders.
The caveat in all of this is that there has been no official word on the status of the 2020-21 WHL season with regard to COVID-19 travel and gathering restrictions. When the season will begin, the length of the schedule, and the ability of import players to travel back to their teams are all elements that may or may not be affected. Even so, all clubs must continue to manage their rosters as they normally would and will have to roll with the punches if next season is altered in any way.
When the puck does drop in Saskatoon, the Blades hope that their heavy lifting over the summer will translate into an even stronger team that will take the next step to contend for their division and even the Eastern Conference.