The holiday break in the Canadian Hockey League serves as the unofficial midway point of the season. Sportsnet.ca reviews the surprising player and team as well as the disappointing player and team from the Western Hockey League.
Surprising team: Saskatoon Blades
Anyone who saw the Saskatoon Blades early this season likely left thinking another rebuilding season was in store for the Blades. Saskatoon has the longest championship drought in the Canadian Hockey League, not having won a WHL title in their history since inception in 1964. While it’s far too early to say that drought could end this year, their first half success has put them in position to win the club’s first division title since the 1993-94 season.
The Blades have a cushy lead in the East Division at the halfway mark, sitting in first with 52 points, nine more than second-place Swift Current. Their early-season success is surprising given their start, particularly their season and home opener where they lost to rival Prince Albert 8-2. Saskatoon lost four of its first five games but has since gone 24-6-2-0.
Saskatoon was planning ahead for the loss of power-forward Colton Gillies, who is playing in the National Hockey League with the Minnesota Wild as a 19-year-old. However, it wasn’t until the duo of goaltender Braden Holtby and defenceman Jyri Niemi returned that the Blades picked it up. Holtby, a draft pick of the Washington Capitals, has emerged as one of the top goaltenders in the league. Niemi, a prospect of the New York Islanders, boasts the most lethal slapshot in junior hockey.
Meanwhile, sophomore defenceman Stefan Elliott is one of the best offensive blueliners in the WHL. Elliott is tied for second in scoring by a defenceman with 34 points in 37 games. Dubbed “the franchise” by his teammates, Elliott possesses the talent and upside that should make him a first-round pick this June.
Saskatoon may not be the frontrunner to win the league title this season but with the key elements already in place, they have the talent to make this campaign a memorable one.
Surprising player: Jordan Weal, Regina Pats
The emergence of Jordan Weal this season came as a surprise. Weal, a 16-year-old rookie from North Vancouver, B.C., was a fourth-round pick, 79th overall in the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft. Unlike the other two major junior leagues, the WHL draft is held with players a year younger, allowing players like Weal to emerge ahead of first-round talents.
Although he stands just 5-8 and 158 pounds, Weal plays with a chip on his shoulder and doesn’t shy away from the physical aspect of the game. His most suitable asset, however, is his offence where the rookie has exploded onto the scene. Weal leads all rookies in scoring with nine goals and 32 assists for 41 points in 37 games played. His offensive vision is similar to that of teammate Jordan Eberle, who is representing Canada at the world juniors.
Weal will get his first experience on the international stage on Team Pacific at the Under-17 world championships in Port Alberni, B.C. later this month. He is expected to be one of the top performers at the tournament as he already has scouts salivating over his potential.
The rookie forward is tied for 15th in league scoring, a remarkable achievement for a 16-year-old in the WHL. His 41 points are just one shy of the team lead behind Eberle. Early this season, Weal was among the top-five league scorers. While it remains to be seen whether he can remain consistent over the course of the season, his first-half performance makes him one of the brightest stars so far this season.
Disappointing team: Prince George Cougars
The Prince George Cougars seemingly turned a corner this season with a quick 6-1 start. The results since then have been less than favourable. The Cougars struggled defensively while going 8-20-0-1 since their hot start. The young team failed to rally quickly enough as the team fired head coach Drew Schoneck on Dec. 1, making him the first coaching casualty in the league this season.
News of the firing came the day after the team lost its fourth-straight home game by a 7-3 final to the Saskatoon Blades, a game that also saw the lowest attendance in the Cougars’ history at the CN Centre. Since the firing, the Cougars have won four of seven games as assistant coach and assistant general manager Wade Klippenstein took over. The team then hired Jeff Battah, an assistant with the Eastern Conference champion Lethbridge Hurricanes last season, as an assistant coach.
Overage goaltender Kevin Armstrong was brought in during the off-season to lead the young team after winning the WHL and Memorial Cup titles last season as a backup with the Spokane Chiefs. Like his team, Armstrong started the season hot but has cooled considerably with a goals against average of 4.02 and save percentage of 0.877 thus far. Backup Joe Caligiuri was brought in to provide stability at the position but has struggled more than Armstrong.
The Cougars may have suffered their biggest blow last week when captain Dana Tyrell received an injury while playing for Canada’s national junior team. The Prince George Citizen is reporting Tyrell’s injury could end his season, as he has already been replaced on the world junior roster by Vancouver’s Evander Kane.
In spite of all the turmoil in Prince George, the team remains in the race for a playoff spot, five points ahead of the rebuilding Chilliwack Bruins for the eighth and final spot.
Disappointing player: Jacob De Serres, Seattle Thunderbirds
This season was supposed to be a big year for the third-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers. De Serres, who was drafted ahead of goaltenders such as Spokane’s Dustin Tokarski and Saskatoon’s Holtby, had big expectations coming into this season after the way he performed last season.
De Serres had essentially began stealing minutes from starter and first-round NHL pick Riku Helenius last season, including some time in the playoffs. Armed with that confidence and that of being a relatively-high NHL pick, De Serres has experienced a first-half flop this season. Ironically, his minutes have also diminished and gone to another youngster, Calvin Pickard.
The 16-year-old Pickard, younger brother of Team Canada and Tri-City Americans goalie Chet Pickard, has played exceptionally well for the struggling Thunderbirds this season. Pickard has played nearly twice the minutes of De Serres while his goals against average is more than one goal fewer per game than De Serres’. While De Serres has had a few strong outings this season, they’ve been overshadowed by his poor performances.
While his team might not be ready to start trading away assets as they move into a new state-of-the-art facility in the new year, there’s no doubt the future of the organization lies on Pickard’s shoulders. And if De Serres doesn’t pick his game up any time soon, the starting role could remain with the young Pickard.