The 2019-20 Western Hockey League season provided a glimpse of what is to come on the ice for the Saskatoon Blades in the coming seasons. After the emergence of the team’s young core this past season, expectations are high for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, which could feature the most Blades content in more than 30 years.
Five Blades finished the season on NHL Central Scouting’s 2020 Final Draft Rankings. They include forwards Tristen Robins and Kyle Crnkovic, as well as defensemen Rhett Rhinehart and Aidan De La Gorgeniere, who all made the rankings for North American skaters. Rookie netminder Koen MacInnes also made the grade among North American goaltenders.
Josh Bell of The Hockey Writers has compiled a comprehensive 2020 NHL Draft Guide, which includes prospect profiles, mock drafts, rankings, team-specific needs, and looks ahead to 2021.
Whether all five Blades are selected in this year’s draft remains to be seen, as phase two of the NHL’s draft lottery will not occur until the completion of the play-in round later this summer. Regardless of how the draft eventually plays out, plenty of excitement has already been generated in Saskatoon by this group of young talent that seems poised to lead the Blades to prominence in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
Tristen Robins – No. 86
The native of Clear Lake, MB had a breakout season in his draft year as he played top-line minutes and situations and grew into a leadership role for the Blades, who pivoted away from their five top scorers from 2018-19.
In his second full Western Hockey League season, the 18-year old winger led the team with 33 goals and 73 points in 62 games. Both numbers increased exponentially on his rookie totals of nine goals and 25 points. His 73 points this season were third most among draft-eligible players, trailing only Seth Jarvis of the Portland Winterhawks and Connor Zary from the Kamloops Blazers, and was good for 14th in the WHL overall.
Robins’ 5’10’’, 173 lb frame has caused him to go overlooked by NHL scouts, said Dayton Reimer of The Hockey Writers in his 2020 Draft Prospect Profile. However, Reimer also said that “(Robins) possesses an incredible work ethic and determination, never shying away from the corners or taking on a bigger opponent on the forecheck. His tenacity is blended with a high hockey IQ, making him a nuisance to play against.”
He also noted that agility and high-end speed are key attributes that contribute to Robins’ success.
A bantam pick of the Regina Pats, Robins was acquired prior to the 2018 trade deadline along with defenceman Dawson Davidson, in a deal that sent import defenceman and current New York Ranger Libor Hajek to the Pats, who were loading up in preparation to host the Memorial Cup.
Robins is a right-handed shot who has the ability to take faceoffs and play in the middle or slide over to the wing. He put up a torrid second half in 2019-20 with 51 points and 23 goals in his final 31 games. His second-half emergence helped springboard him up 48 spots from 134th on Central Scouting’s midterm rankings. Robins seems likely to be taken in the third round or later, but Andrew Forbes of The Hockey Writers opines that he could be one of the steals of this year’s draft.
Rhett Rhinehart – No. 151
Standing 6’4’’, 205 lb, Rhinehart is a physical defender, who came over from the Prince George Cougars in a deadline deal this past season. He was paired with overage blueliner Scott Walford down the stretch. The combo worked well together, melding Walford’s offensive flash with Rhinehart’s physicality and kept the ice balanced when Walford would jump up into the play.
Rhinehart, a right-handed shot, notched three assists in 21 games after joining the Blades. His offensive output for the season came to three goals and 18 points, down from five goals and 24 points in 2018-19. That dip partially explains his dip from 111thon Central Scouting’s midseason rankings.
“It’s tough having my rank go down from the mid-season mark,” Rhinehart told the Blades website. “I wasn’t able to keep up the points that I was producing from the first half of the season, but I believe the other parts of my game began to excel, especially my defensive game and physicality.”
Though a small sample size, the right-shot defender had a plus rating after the trade to Saskatoon. Originally drafted into the WHL by the Prince Albert Raiders, Rhinehart has already played for three teams in the WHL. His rookie season in 2017-18 was split between Prince Albert and the Cougars, and he also participated in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge that season.
This most recent move from Prince George to the Blades brings Rhinehart closer to his hometown of Lloydminster, AB, and will give him an opportunity to seize a leadership role on the Blades defence core next season in the wake of the graduations of Walford and Nolan Kneen.
Aidan De La Gorgendiere – No. 197
The Blades’ second draft-eligible defenceman, De La Gorgendiere earned a spot on Central Scouting’s final rankings after not making midterm rankings. As his confidence grew, the 6’0″ 183 lb defender came into his own at both ends during his second WHL campaign.
The left-shot defenceman from Langley, B.C. finished this season with four goals and 28 points while suiting up in each of the Blades’ 63 games. During a two-game stretch in mid-February, De La Gorgendiere scored six points, a goal and five assists, with a plus-six rating on his way to earning WHL Player of the Week honours.
As a rookie in 2018-19, he registered just five assists in 47 games. He did also suit up in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge last season.
“The transition to the WHL as a 16-year-old was difficult,” De La Gorgendiere told the Blades website. “I wasn’t used to the speed and strength of opposing players. I feel like I had a way better second year, playing more offensively while also locking down on defence. I was able to jump up in the rush more and play with some of our top players.”
When next season gets underway, De La Gorgendiere will have the same type of opportunity as Rhinehart to vault up the Blades defence depth chart, and pending further transactions this offseason, he’s lined up to be the team’s highest-scoring returning blueliner.
Kyle Crnkovic – No. 208
The speedy winger improved across the board and doubled his offensive production in his second WHL season. Crnkovic also earned his way onto Central Scouting’s final rankings after not appearing on the midterm rankings.
As a 17-year old in 2018-19, Crnkovic put up 11 goals and 31 points in his rookie WHL campaign, and impressed at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, scoring four times in five games. He then chipped in two goals and four points in 10 playoff games for the Blades.
The Calgary, AB native roughly doubled his offensive numbers in his second season in Saskatoon, finding the back of the net 21 times with 64 points in 2019-20, forming part of a dynamic top line combo with Robins and import forward Martin Fasko-Rudas.
The left-shot winger finished with a flurry, scoring seven goals with 14 points in his final 10 games, helping him end the season second on the team in points, behind only Robins, and third in goal scoring.
The knock against Crnkovic in the eyes of scouts is his size. With a slight 5’6’’ 159 lb frame, the product of Calgary, relies on his elite speed and creativity to create offence. For these reasons, comparisons could be drawn between Crnkovic and Calgary Flames prospect Matthew Phillips.
Phillips, a sixth-round pick of the Flames in 2016, starred with the Victoria Royals from 2014-18 en route to piling up 136 goals and 281 points in 215 games. That included a 50-goal season in 2016-17 and 112 points in 2017-18.
Many scouts were afraid to take a chance on Phillips as well, because of his 5’7”, 155 lbs stature, but he has quickly proved his place at the next level.
In two seasons in the American Hockey League, Phillips has totalled 28 goals and 71 points, highlighted by 15 goals and 33 points in 38 games in 2019-20, on the way to his first call-up to Calgary, though he did not dress for a game. He also joined AHL teammate and former Swift Current Broncos captain Glenn Gawdin in Calgary for phase two of the NHL’s ‘return to play’.
Crnkovic’s offensive impact in the WHL obviously hasn’t been to the same level of Phillips, who scored 37 goals as a 17-year old rookie for the Royals, but there are similarities in what each player brings, and the challenges they face in needing to outperform the doubts that arise because of their size.
Koen MacInnes – No. 22
Primarily the backup to Nolan Maier, MacInnes delivered well on his opportunities during his rookie season in the WHL. He played in 24 games in 2019-20, finishing with a 14-5-1-0 record and three shutouts with a .901 save percentage and a 2.84 goals-against average.
The highlight of the season for MacInnes, who is listed at 6’3’’, 183 lbs, was making nine consecutive starts in the month of January while starter Nolan Maier was recovering from injury. MacInnes went 6-2-1 in that stretch and helped the Blades strengthen their playoff positioning. That performance also helped to boost his Central Scouting final ranking up nine spots from his no. 31 midterm ranking.
“I think that stint helped me understand what it takes to be a starter,” MacInnes said in this story on the WHL website. “It was the most physically challenging stretch I have ever experienced. Looking back, I realize how blessed I am to have gotten a chance to play that stretch of hockey because I now better understand how to conserve energy and repair my body.”
The native of Burnaby, BC, grew up watching Roberto Luongo tend goal for the Vancouver Canucks, and as a result, now emulates the former Vancouver Canucks goalie.
“Getting drafted into the NHL is something I’ve been dreaming of my whole life,” MacInnes said. “I’ve been working towards it since I stepped on the ice as a kid. It would feel amazing knowing my efforts have been recognized.”
If each of the Blades’ five ranked players is selected in 2020, it would be the first time that five Blades are taken in a single draft since 1986. That draft crop from Saskatoon featured current Los Angeles Kings head coach Todd McLellan.
The franchise record for NHL draft picks produced in a single season occurred in 1973, when eight Blades were taken in the then-named NHL Amateur Draft.
The most successful career in that group belonged to Dave Lewis. The second Blade taken in that draft, Lewis was drafted by the New York Islanders in the third round and went on to play more than 1,000 NHL games. He then coached 19 seasons in the NHL, including three as a head coach.
Crnkovic and Robins will almost certainly remain linemates in Saskatoon next season, as they continue to grow together and lead the Blades attack.
The team’s full top line, which includes 2020 Slovakian World Junior Team member Martin Fasko-Rudas, is likely to return. The Blades seem happy to move forward with their same two imports in Fasko-Rudas and 19-year old Czech defenceman Radek Kucerik in 2020-21 unless CHL Import Draft selection Brad Lambert elects to forgo opportunities in Finland in favour of the WHL. Fasko-Rudas is a two-slot player as an overage import but is fully expected to be one of the three 20-year-olds on the Blades roster, which only needs to shed one from their current group of four prior to the overage deadline.
MacInnes will once again battle for starts with incumbent starter Maier, who will be looking for a resurgent 19-year old season after seeing his numbers slip slightly in 2019-20. The two, who will be working with new goaltending coach and WHL alumnus Jeff Harvey, have the potential to form an excellent tandem for the Blades in their second campaign sharing the crease.
The 2020 draft-eligible players are getting the headlines this year, but the Blades have more promising youngsters waiting in the wings who could garner their own draft attention in future years and give Saskatoon quality depth as soon as next season.
Among forwards, names that should be heard from in Saskatoon as soon as next season, and could receive draft attention in future seasons include 2021 draft-eligible winger Colton Dach and 2019 ninth-overall bantam selection, centerman Brandon Lisowsky.
Dach will look to build off of his rookie season to become a consistent offensive option for the Blades to give the lineup depth to lessen the burden on the likes of Robins and Crnkovic this coming season. The Fort Saskatchewan, AB product had a strong second half in 2019-20 to finish with 11 goals and 29 points. The younger brother of former Blade and 2019 NHL third overall pick Kirby Dach, Colton stands 6’2’’ 183 lbs, and plays a much more physical, straight-line game than that of his brother.
Lisowsky, the Blades’ first-round bantam selection in 2019, played in two games as a 15-year-old in 2019-20 and will be looking to crack Saskatoon’s full-time roster this coming season. In June, it was announced that the Port Coquitlam, B.C. native was invited to Hockey Canada’s U-17 Virtual Development Camp.
On defence, the Blades have high hopes for Charlie Wright, who was their third selection in the 2018 bantam draft. The product of Olds, AB played in 40 games as a 16-year old in 2019-20, registering three assists and has a big opportunity to be a regular this coming season and play bigger minutes and more critical situations.
The objective of a WHL team is two-fold; to win games and to develop and graduate talent to the next level. When done right, the two go hand-in-hand.
In terms of winning, the Blades have consecutive playoff berths under head coach Mitch Live while shifting the core of their team and look to only be getting stronger in the next couple of seasons. And as for producing professional talent, Kirby Dach being drafted third overall to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019 was certainly a feather in the Blades’ cap, but Saskatoon is hoping that he is just the tip of the blade, so to speak.
With a top-three NHL pick to their credit, a chance to have multiple players selected in the 2020 draft, and another wave of talent developing behind those players, the Blades are trying to build a program that can be a sustainable winner as they transition talent in and out, which is difficult to do in junior hockey, while pushing out NHL prospects.
Jonathan covers the Saskatoon Blades and the Victoria Royals of the WHL. He has extensive experience in hockey and sports journalism and broadcasting. This includes bylines at Sports Spectrum, Toronto Blue Jays, Victoria Grizzlies, DUBNetwork as well as a long-time role with the Canadian Baseball Network.