Call it a retooling season for the Saskatoon Blades, not rebuilding.
Expectations were high for the Blades coming into the 2019-20 campaign, and rightly so, after they finished the 2018-19 season with 98 points and reached the second round of the playoffs, where they bowed out to the eventual league champion Prince Albert Raiders.
The Blades entered the new season without their top-five point scorers from that team, headlined by dynamic forward Kirby Dach, who remained with the Blackhawks for after being selected third overall by Chicago in the 2019 NHL Draft. Still, they were able to again clinch a playoff spot and remain in the thick of a deep and competitive Eastern Conference playoff race.
The subtraction of core contributors from last year’s roster prompted somewhat of a youth movement on the fly this season for the Blades that showcased the emergence of up and coming stars guided by leadership from the team’s older players and impactful additions at the trade deadline.
Blades radio play-by-play broadcaster Les Lazaruk helped us break down how it all happened.
When Dach was selected third overall in the 2019 NHL Draft by the Blackhawks, it came as a surprise to some in Saskatoon, as Chicago kept their choice close to the vest right up until they announced his name at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
Lazaruk said that Dach being selected third overall came as a “massive shock,” as Chicago had been very quiet about what they would do with their pick. The next surprise was Dach staying in Chicago all season.
“The Blades knew the possibility was going to be there [for Dach to remain with Chicago] but I don’t know that they really thought that it was necessarily going to happen,” Lazaruk said. “The Blades thought that Dach would come back at some point, and I think a lot of the early-season planning was based on his return,” he said.
Those plans included the acquisition of former Montreal Canadiens’ third-round draft pick Scott Walford from the Victoria Royals last offseason to anchor the defence core with fellow overage player Nolan Kneen. With Dach anchoring the forward group, and Nolan Maier in net, the Blades looked to have the makings of a potential championship team.
The departure of Dach prompted them to look to their young players to elevate their roles sooner than expected.
Robins and Crnkovic
Coming into the season, the Blades thought they were going to be able to slide young players into complementary roles while Dach shouldered the load. Promising players like Tristen Robins and Kyle Crnkovic would have the chance to develop in depth roles, and a player like Washington Capitals’ seventh-round pick Eric Florchuk would slot in nicely as a quality complementary piece.
When it became clear that Dach was not going to return, everybody’s roles were increased, and the adjustment took time.
“It took the better part of half a season to finally overcome the loss of Kirby before they found their sea legs again in the second half,” Lazaruk said, pointing to Robins as a player who was elevated to first-line minutes and situations and took a couple of months to really start producing at a high level, ending the campaign with a team-leading 33 goals.
Another player who stepped up on the front end was 17-year-old Crnkovic. Similar to Robbins, it took some time to adjust to being relied upon much heavier in just his second WHL season, but once he began to find it, the speedy winger became a threat with 21 goals for the season, finishing as the team’s second-leading scorer with 64 points, behind only Robins who had 73.
With Robins and Crnkovic laying claim to offensive leadership roles, the youngest player of them all, who carries a familiar last name, was able to find his place and begin to make a name for himself.
Colton Dach made the team as a 16-year-old and had a lot on his plate early in the season as he worked to establish himself in the league. The younger brother of Kirby, it took Dach some time to find his way and begin producing, but once he did, he turned in a respectable 11 goals and 29 points in his first season. There was no escaping his last name in Saskatoon, but when it comes to style of play, there are few similarities between Colton and his older brother.
“Kirby is a slick Joe Nieuwendyk-type of player and Colton is a little rough around the edges and a little more straight lines, stay-on-your-wing type of player,” Lazaruk said. “He has a pretty good shot and is not afraid to try things that you wouldn’t expect him to do,” he said.
It took Dach until Dec. 7 to register his first WHL goal, scoring on his 40th shot of the season, which seemed to free him up for the rest of the season, scoring all of his goals in his final 34 games, further bolstering the team’s depth as the season wore on.
General manager Colin Priestner made a series of trades at and leading up to the trade deadline in an effort to help his team reach another gear heading into the stretch run.
Florchuk was dealt to the Vancouver Giants, followed by defenceman Rhett Rhinehart being brought in from the Prince George Cougars as well as forward Caiden Daley from the Regina Pats. The key move was made last, acquiring import forward Martin Fasko-Rudas from the Swift Current Broncos.
Related: 10 Best 7th-Round Picks Since 2005
The key addition, Fasko-Rudas looked energized by the change of environment, netting 10 goals with 18 points in 23 games after arriving in Saskatoon. A potential contributor was the familiarity the Slovakian had with head coach Mitch Love, having played under Love in Everett for two years when Love was an assistant with the Silvertips.
“The deadline was massive for the Blades,” Lazaruk said. “Those were huge veteran acquisitions that slotted in well with the development of Robins and Crnkovic,” he said.
The new blood complemented the Blades veteran cast that was already led by captain Chase Wouters and Riley McKay as well as Walford and Kneen on the back end. Wouters set a career-high in goals with 26 in his fourth season with the team while Walford and Kneen provided an anchor to a developing defense core. McKay scored 19 times in his second year in Saskatoon after coming over from the Spokane Chiefs after the 2017-18 season, and earned himself an American Hockey League contract with the Rockford IceHogs
The Blades held the second Eastern Conference wild-card position and were four points out of second place in the East Division when the season was paused and ultimately cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
There was no truly dominant team in the Eastern Conference this season, meaning that everybody who had a playoff spot had reason to believe that they had a chance to make a deep run, including the Blades. Unfortunately, nobody got the chance to find out how it might have all played out.
A 6-0 shutout victory in Moose Jaw against the Warriors turned out to be the Blades’ last game of the season, potentially without even realizing it. Lazaruk said that he and the team learned of Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz testing positive for COVID-19 like anyone else, while watching the Oilers and Jets game after dinner.
“So the next morning, you’re going to practice wondering if you’re getting ready for a game that isn’t even going to be played,” Lazaruk said of the team’s practice on March 12. “You go through the motions of practice like you normally would, but in the back of your mind you’re wondering what’s going to happen,” he said.
With the remainder of the WHL season ultimately being cancelled, nobody will ever know how this season’s script might have ended for the Saskatoon Blades, or any team.
“Certainly for the 20-year old players I hoped that wasn’t going to be it but it ended up being that way, and for the younger guys it feels kind of incomplete but maybe there’s a chance to improve on something for next season,” Lazaruk said.
They didn’t have a chance to see it through to the finish line, but much was accomplished this season by the Saskatoon Blades and they’ve set themselves up well for the future.