The Saskatoon Blades are heading into the 2020-21 season with confidence in net with the ability to return veteran goalies Nolan Maier and Koen MacInnes.
Quality goaltending can be, and often-times is, a game-changer in junior hockey. A top-flight netminder can steal games for a lesser-talented club and can cover up flaws and deficiencies. That is not to imply that the Blades will not ice a strong team this coming season. To the contrary, they have the potential to return a very strong team to begin the new season, with their overage decisions playing a factor.
Instead of a premiere puck-stopper bailing them out, the Blades goaltenders may take a good team to the next level in when the Western Hockey League returns to the ice.
Maier will be entering his fourth Western Hockey League season with the Blades in 2020-21. The native of Yorkton, SK began his 16-year old season in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, playing seven games with his hometown Terriers in 2017-18 and earned a full-time spot in Saskatoon, appearing in 43 games and posting 23 wins for the Blades. His breakout season came in the next campaign when he won 36 games with a .910 save percentage and a 2.64 goals-against average in 2018-19.
Maier’s 17-year old season earned him consideration for the 2019 NHL Draft as he was ranked 22nd among North American goaltenders on NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings, but was not taken.
Maier carries a smaller frame for a goaltender at an even 6’, which could be a factor that works against him with scouts in an era of large goaltenders at the professional level. A recent example of an undersized WHL goaltender who needed to do more than his counterparts to get a look at the next level is former Victoria Royals star Griffen Outhouse.
Listed at the same height as Maier, the two-time Royals team MVP is among the winningest netminders in league history with 114 victories over his four seasons, and never recorded a save percentage below .913 while playing 60 or more games twice.
On April 2, 2017, Outhouse made 72 saves in the longest game in CHL history, being edged 3-2 in quintuple overtime of game six of the first round of the WHL playoffs, by Carter Hart and the Everett Silvertips.
A native of Likely, BC, Outhouse was invited to Vegas Golden Knights development camp in 2017 and Winnipeg Jets rookie camp in 2019 before eventually signing an American Hockey League contract following his overage season.
Maier’s numbers slipped slightly last season following his draft omission, winning 20 games with an .899 save percentage and a 3.09 GAA, but the slight statistical step back in his 18-year old season cannot land squarely on Maier’s shoulders.
The Blades began last season without their top five scorers from the previous season and were loading heavy minutes onto the 20-year old defence pairing of Scott Walford and Nolan Kneen in the first half of the season. Maier’s veteran presence at just 18 helped keep the team afloat and within striking distance in the East Division, especially in the first half while they forged a new identity in front of him.
Maier appeared in the CIBC Canada Russia Series last November, and has donned the maple leaf on numerous occasions, including the 2017 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and the 2019 IIHF Under-18 World Championship.
As he heads into his 19-year old season, Maier should be hungry to rebound for the Blades and make a statement in 2020-21. He is on the radar of Larry Fisher of The Hockey Writers as a second-year draft eligible goaltender.
The man they call “Koko” made a positive first impression in his rookie in the WHL in 2019-20. As a 17-year old, MacInnes played in 24 games going 14-5-1-0 with a 2.84 GAA and a .901 save percentage to go along with three shutouts.
The focal point came in January when MacInnes started nine consecutive games in a span of 20 days while Maier was out of action with a lower-body injury. He helped the team to a 6-2-1-0 record during that span, solidifying the Blades’ playoff positioning.
“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,” he said.
A native of Burnaby, BC, MacInnes emulates his game after former Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo. His strong play as a freshman in Saskatoon likely provided a spark of energy for the Blades and a good complement to the veteran steadiness of Maier as they went through a transitional season.
MacInnes, who stand 6’3’’ 183 lbs, put himself on the radar of NHL scouts, being ranked 22nd among North American goaltenders NHL Central Scouting’s 2020 final rankings, up nine spots from his no. 31 midterm ranking.
“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,” he said.
However the draft turns out, MacInnes should be a highly motivated goalie in the coming season as he tries to improve upon his freshman season in the WHL and further his case for a career at the next level.
The Blades are looking to improve upon their cumulative goaltending statistics from 2019-20, when they sported a 3.08 GAA and an .898 save percentage as a team. One move that they hope will help shore up the crease is the hiring of new goaltending coach Jeff Harvey.
Harvey played five seasons in the WHL with three teams from 2000-04, including the Kootenay Ice, Swift Current Broncos and Everett. In 2003-04, his 20-year old season and lone campaign with the Silvertips, Harvey was 24-15-5 with a 1.97 GAA and a .926 save percentage, leading the league in the latter two categories. He then bettered those numbers in the playoffs, posting a 1.86 GAA and a .938 save percentage in 20 games, helping the Silvertips become the only WHL expansion team to reach the Ed Chynoweth Cup Final.
They were swept in the final by the Medicine Hat Tigers, who featured Clarke MacArthur up front as well as defenceman Cam Barker, that season’s third overall pick in the NHL draft.
Harvey and Blades head coach Mitch Love were teammates in the WHL with Swift Current and Everett, and again for one season in the Central Hockey League.
“Jeff is an eager individual who works extremely hard and is striving to get better each-and-every day at his craft. We only see that as a benefit to the goaltenders on our roster and system,” Love said in the Blades announcement. “We look forward to his tutelage of the goaltending position within the Blades organization,” he said.
After graduating from the WHL, the native of St. Albert, AB went on to play at the University of Saskatchewan before playing six seasons split between the CHL and the Sask Valley Hockey League.
“I am thrilled to be a part of a young coaching staff who all are trying to get better at their crafts,” Harvey said. “The atmosphere around the team is one of learning which is beneficial as we are all still learning in this great game,” he said.
Harvey, 37, has been a goalie instructor for the past 16 years, overlapping with his own playing career until 2014, working with goalies across Western Canada and has spent time with Vancouver Giants goaltending coach Ian Clark.
Lifting The Blades
Strong performances from Maier and MacInnes this season could be what elevates the Blades from being in the pack like they were this past season, to separating and becoming an Eastern Conference power.
From a purely statistical standpoint, the Blades had a remarkably average season in 2019-20. At the time of the COVID-19 stoppage, they were the second Eastern Conference wild card team, fourth place in the East Division while possessing the eighth-best record in the conference based on winning percentage, and were 12th overall in the 22-team WHL. they also ranked 12th in both goals for and goals against (211/197).
The Blades were however, trending upwards and were winners of seven out of their last 10 games. 2020 draft-eligible forwards Tristen Robins and Kyle Crnkovic were finding their way as top-line scorers in the WHL and had grown in to leadership roles on the team.
The backbone of their defence was the overage duo of Nolan Kneen and Scott Walford, but draft-eligible defenceman Aidan De La Gorgendiere took a large step forward in 2019-20, playing with much more confidence, and fellow draft-eligible Rhett Rhinehart played beside Walford after coming over from the Prince George Cougars prior to the trade deadline.
The Blades have the ability to return the core of their forward group in 2020-21, minus Riley McKay, who aged out of the WHL and signed a contract in the American Hockey League. Captain Chase Wouters and import Martin Fasko-Rudas, who was traded from Everett to the Swift Current Broncos and then to the Blades at the deadline, are entering their overage seasons, but with only four 20-year old players currently on the Blades roster, both seem likely to return.
The biggest absence that Saskatoon must compensate for is the graduation of alternate captains Kneen and Walford from the blue line, but continued maturation from the aforementioned De La Gorgendiere and Rhinehart should provide a remedy for those losses.
All that to say, roster continuity should give the Blades the opportunity to continue building on the momentum they began to build in the second half of last season. The final ingredient could come from their masked men. If Maier has a bounce-back season and MacInnes continues to develop and create an internal competition for starts, Saskatoon could be a legitimate contender in the East Division with eyes on the top of the Eastern Conference.
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.