For the first time ever, the dog days of August have arrived in the NHL.
The excitement for hockey’s return after a hiatus of more than four months extends beyond the fan bases of the 24 teams involved, including fans of the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades. Five former Blades have participated in the Qualifying Round and round-robin at the NHL hubs in Edmonton and Toronto.
Kirby Dach, Chicago Blackhawks
The centerman from Fort Saskatchewan, AB dazzled fans in Saskatoon just last season, scoring 25 goals and 73 points for the Blades in his draft season in 2018-19, and was a force in the postseason, where he added another five goals and eight points in 10 games. That performance helped entice the Blackhawks to select him third overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.
With his scoring ability combined with an already imposing 6’4’’, 197-pound frame, that will continue to develop over the next few years, the 19-year old was able to remain with Chicago for his entire first professional season. Though he put up modest production with eight goals and 23 points in 64 regular-season games, Dach showed tremendous development after the season’s pause and played a major role in the twelfth-seeded Blackhawks’ four-game qualifier upset of the high-powered no. 5 ranked Edmonton Oilers.
Dach logged top-line minutes throughout the series, centering a line with Patrick Kane for most of the series. He showed great confidence in his first postseason action, as he provided a power element to the line that was commonly matched up against Leon Draisaitl’s line for the Oilers.
Also on the Blackhawks first power-play unit, Dach collected four assists in the first three games, and in the decisive Game 4, registered four shots on goal. Head coach Jeremy Colliton also sent him out on the penalty kill on occasion.
The Blackhawks will face the no. 1 seed in the Western Conference first round, which will be the winner of Saturday’s round-robin game between the Vegas Golden Knights and the Colorado Avalanche.
Micheal Ferland, Vancouver Canucks
The winger scored 47 goals for the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2011-12 and was a valuable member of the WHL club for three-plus seasons (2009-13) before the Blades picked him up during his overage season as they prepared to host the 2013 Memorial Cup.
Down the stretch in Saskatoon, Ferland lit the lamp eight times with 29 points in 26 games and added a pair of assists in the Memorial Cup.
The product of Swan River, MB debuted with the Calgary Flames during the 2014-15 season and made a name for himself in that postseason with his physical play. Three-and-a-half seasons in Calgary was followed by a season with the Carolina Hurricanes before he signed long term with the Canucks last summer.
Ferland developed the offensive side of his game with 53 goals and 106 points with the Flames and Hurricanes over the previous three seasons before signing his four-year, $14 million contract with the Canucks. His first season in Vancouver was tumultuous, as he sustained a pair of concussions that limited him to just 14 games in the regular season.
The season’s pause provided Ferland a chance to recover and rejoin the lineup. The Canucks were hopeful that a fully engaged Ferland would provide highly effective energy and a physicality boost reminiscent of the 2014-15 playoffs when Ferland opposed the Canucks as a member of the Flames.
Unfortunately for Ferland, that is not how it has unfolded. He was fined $5,000 by the NHL for spearing Wild winger Ryan Hartman on the bench in Game 1, and after playing less than three minutes in Game 2, Ferland left the Edmonton bubble due to an undisclosed injury.
Still, the Canucks were able to tame the Wild in four games to advance to the first round.
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
These playoffs are shaping up to be very important for the long-time Capitals goaltender.
In his first 10 seasons in the NHL, Holtby has put together one of the greatest stretches for any goaltender in Capitals history, punctuated by helping win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2018. However, the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner posted the worst stat line of his career this past regular season.
After it was announced that fellow Capitals netminder Ilya Samsonov would not travel to Toronto due to a lower-body injury, The Hockey Writers’ own Ben Little explained that this postseason is Holtby’s time to shine to bolster his case to receive a new contract offer from Washington this offseason.
The product of Lloydminster, SK has been a workhorse dating back to his WHL career with the Blades. Holtby played in 176 games over three seasons in Saskatoon, recording 82 wins and seven shutouts. He played in more than 50 games every season and eclipsed 60 in each of his final two seasons.
The Capitals are 0-1-1 through two round-robin games. Holtby has been in net for both, allowing five goals on 44 total shots.
Washington’s final game of the round-robin against the Boston Bruins will determine the third and fourth seeds in the Eastern Conference’s round of 16. The Capitals hold a one-point edge over Boston (0-2) heading into that game on Sunday.
Anton Khudobin, Dallas Stars
The former seventh-round draft choice of the Minnesota Wild in 2004 put together likely his best season in the NHL in 2019-20, extending what has been maybe the best three-season stretch of his NHL career.
In 30 games this season, Khudobin was 16-8-4 and recorded a career-best 2.22 goals-against average (GAA) and .930 save percentage (SV%). Khudobin is paired with Ben Bishop in net for the Stars.
The Stars have struggled out of the gates with consecutive losses with each goalie starting a game. Khudobin allowed four goals on 40 shots in the Stars’ second round-robin game, a 4-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday after Bishop was declared unfit to play.
Prior to finding his groove with the Bruins in 2017-18, the starting goalie for Russia at the 2005-06 World Juniors was the definition of a journeyman goaltender. In all, he has 218 games of experience in 11 NHL seasons, having also played parts of eight seasons in the AHL and part of the 2012-13 season in the KHL. At the beginning of his career, Khudobin played 60 games over two seasons in the ECHL.
Khudobin played in 44 games with the Blades during the 2005-06 season, recording 23 victories with a .917 SV% and a 2.90 GAA, and helped Saskatoon reach the second round of the WHL playoffs.
Now 34 years old, Khudobin has won 16 games in three consecutive seasons, which are eclipsed only by his 19 victories with the Hurricanes in 2013-14. Though that stretch doesn’t rival the run of Tim Thomas with the Bruins after turning 30, similarities can be found between the two goalies who continued to ply their trade until it all came together for a late prime.
The Stars’ final round-robin game is against the St. Louis Blues on Sunday. Both teams have identical 0-2 records in the round-robin, so the winner of the head-to-head matchup will enter the round of 16 as the third seed in the Western Conference.
Brayden Schenn, Blues
Schenn was another career Wheat King in the WHL before a blockbuster trade in 2011 that sent him to the Blades.
The veteran centerman has recorded a pair of assists in the Blues’ first two round-robin games in the Edmonton hub, both losses.
In his third season in St. Louis, Schenn tied David Perron for the team lead in goals with 25 and was third on the club with his 58 points. Those numbers represent an uptick in Schenn’s production from 17 goals and 54 points a season ago when the Blues claimed their first Stanley Cup title.
Schenn, born in Saskatoon, scored 94 goals and 258 points in 195 career games for the Wheat Kings. He was named captain for the 2009-10 season when he posted WHL career highs with 34 goals and 99 points. Down the stretch of the 2010-11 season with the Blades, Schenn impressed with 21 goals and 53 points and added another six goals and 11 points in 10 playoff games.
The fifth overall pick of the Los Angeles Kings in the 2009 draft, Schenn has been traded twice at the NHL level. First in 2011 from the Kings to the Philadelphia Flyers, where he played six seasons after just nine games in parts of two seasons in LA. He was then shipped to St. Louis in 2017 and has recorded two of his three best goal-scoring seasons to date.
St. Louis was the top team in the Western Conference when the season paused in March, but because of their consecutive losses to open the round-robin, will relinquish the top seed in the conference in the round of 16. The Blues’ final round-robin game against the Stars on Sunday will decide the third and fourth seeds in the Western Conference round of 16.
Did Not Play
Libor Hajek, New York Rangers
The 2018 Czech Republic World Junior defenceman made the Rangers postseason roster after splitting his second professional season between the American Hockey League and the Rangers. However, he did not dress for a game in their three-game sweep at the hands of the Hurricanes.
Hajek chipped in five assists in 28 regular-season games for the Rangers this season. Originally a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2016, he was part of a package traded to the Rangers in the deal that sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay in 2018. Hajek debuted with the Rangers last season, skating in five games and picking up his first NHL goal.
Mike Green, Edmonton Oilers
Having played in just two games with the Edmonton Oilers after a trade from the Detroit Red Wings before the season went on pause, former Blades’ standout blueliner Mike Green opted out of the NHL’s return to play for family reasons.
Best known for his prime years with the Capitals, Green starred for four seasons in the WHL with Saskatoon, scoring 37 goals and 170 points. Now 34, he will become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and is surely walking into the process with great uncertainty.
One of the Blades’ greatest alumni, Green has seen his production decline in each of the past three seasons, albeit on a lesser Red Wings team. With his offense falling as his age climbs, and all of the unknowns facing the NHL surrounding COVID-19 and it’s effect on the league, it is difficult to know what kind of market will formulate for Green when free agency opens.
Dog Days of Hockey
On the heels of more than four months filled with much more critical matters than hockey, the NHL’s return is certainly a welcome step back to some semblance of normalcy and excitement for fans. With the non-stop schedule of the Qualifying Round and round-robin, the action has been tremendous and promises to continue.
Fans in Saskatoon will continue to keep a keen eye on not only their favorite teams but also their former Blades standouts.