In a season marked by change with new faces in different roles, the Saskatoon Blades were able to remain a factor in the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference in 2019-20, thanks in large part to the stability provided by this year’s crop of overage players.
At the outset of the season, the Blades knew they had adjustments to make and were going to rely on young players to step into bigger roles, which they did quite well. Still, this year’s team likely does not qualify for the playoffs with a chance still to move up the Eastern Division standings before the COVID-19 stoppage in March without the influence of their 20-year-old class.
The winger from Swan River, MB played his first two seasons with the Spokane Chiefs, chipping in 7 goals and 22 points in 113 games before he was acquired by the Blades in the summer of 2018. The move to Saskatoon allowed McKay to step into a more offensive role, as he scored 31 times with 65 points in 130 games in a Blades sweater.
In 2019-20, his fourth WHL season and second with the Blades, McKay’s 19 goals and 38 points provided Saskatoon with valuable secondary scoring to support emerging stars Tristen Robins and Kyle Crnkovic.
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Even with the increased offensive freedom, a hard work ethic and a willingness to play a hard-nosed game and have a teammate’s back when called upon remained a hallmark of McKay’s game. It made him a popular member of the group and endeared him to fans at SaskTel Centre, as he was the recipient of the Blades’ Fans’ Choice Award.
Following the season, McKay signed a contract with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League.
In an interview for The Hockey Writers, Blades radio broadcaster Les Lazaruk said that although the sport is trending away from an emphasis on some of the gritty elements that McKay provides, and towards speed and skill, McKay still brings plenty to the table that could help him forge a successful professional career.
“There is still an emphasis on looking out for one another and standing up for your teammates,” Lazaruk said. “I think [McKay] will work well that way, especially in an American Hockey League situation. Whether he gets to play in the National Hockey League remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t bet against him seeing a few games just because of the work ethic that he has and the fact that he kind of relishes the role of being an underdog and will do everything he can to get to the top level at some point in his career,” he said.
McKay finished his WHL career with 38 goals and 87 points in 243 games
A rugged defenseman from Kelowna, BC, Kneen brought experience on the Blades’ developing blueline along with fellow overage defenceman Scott Walford. Kneen played heavy minutes in important roles especially early in the season while younger members of the defence core grew into larger roles and the team found its new offensive identity in the wake losing their top five scorers from a year ago, headlined by 2019 third overall NHL draft pick Kirby Dach, who surprised many in Saskatoon by remaining with the Chicago Blackhawks for the season.
Kneen and Walford spent much of the first half of the season playing heavy minutes in critical situations, a nightly load that may have taken them away from their game at times.
“I almost felt bad for them because they got played a lot,” Lazaruk said, adding that the pair routinely played 25 to 30 minutes per game early in the season. “They played a lot together and with other defencemen to make sure that [the team] had at least one of them on the ice as much as possible,” Lazaruk said.
The two veteran defencemen came into the season with some previous familiarity with each other after playing together for Team Canada Black at the 2015 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
Both were able to slide back into roles and workloads that suited them better as the season progressed. Playing in his fifth full WHL season, Kneen enjoyed his best offensive season with career highs in goals with 12 and points with 40. He also brought a physical element to his game that made him tough to play against and wore down opposing forwards.
On Feb. 9, Kneen skated in his 300th career game, a 4-3 overtime victory over the Moose Jaw Warriors. 94 of those games came in a Blades uniform after coming over in a midseason trade in the 2018-19 season from the Kamloops Blazers, where he spent his first three-and-a-half seasons plus five games as a 15-year old.
All tolled, Kneen played 310 WHL games counting 28 goals and 139 points.
The second pillar of defence for the Blades to begin the 2019-20 season, Walford arrived in a trade from the Victoria Royals in the summer of 2019 that sent overage forward Gary Haden to Victoria. By acquiring Walford, a 2018-19 WHL second-team All-Star, the Blades were looking to offset the production lost from the back end after the graduation of Dawson Davidson who tied for the league lead in scoring among defencemen in 2018-19 with 75 points.
Walford’s offensive numbers were not where some may have expected in the first half of the season with the heightened workload likely affecting his ability to consistently impact the game on the offensive end, but he flourished in the second half. Walford registered 7 goals and 37 points in his final 30 games, bringing his season totals to a career-best 12 goals and 54 points in 61 games to rank sixth in the league for points by a defenceman.
Another contributing factor to Walford’s second-half romp may have been the acquisition of rearguard Rhett Rhinehart from the Prince George Cougars. Rhinehart, who was listed in Larry Fisher’s Top 500 Final Rankings for the 2020 NHL Draft, ended the season on a pairing with Walford.
Walford played his first four full seasons plus two games as a 15-year old with the Royals, where he played alongside current Detroit Red Wings blue liner Joe Hicketts and Los Angeles Kings prospect defenceman Chaz Reddekopp.
Walford was selected in the third round, 68th overall, by the Montreal Canadiens in 2017. He sustained a late-season shoulder injury that forced him to miss the 2018 playoffs but rebounded well becoming the Royals’ number one defenseman in 2018-19, putting up career-highs at the time in production and participated in the CIBC Canada Russia Series, but was left unsigned by the Canadiens.
A native of Coquitlam, BC, Walford enjoyed a long WHL career, finishing with 30 goals and 174 points in 290 games split between Saskatoon and Victoria, and was a two-time winner of his team’s top defenceman award, with Victoria in 2018-19, and Saskatoon in 2019-20.
The Blades benefited greatly from the steadying presence and impact that their overage crop brought to the table. All three were astute acquisitions by general manager Colin Priestner in recent seasons that helped the club stay highly competitive in a transitional year, and if it would have been possible to finish the season, this group may just have made some noise come playoff time.
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.