If recent history is any indication, the Regina Pats enter the WHL season with some good karma on their side.
Four of the past five league finalists have gone on to win the championship the following year, perhaps a good omen after the Pats fell in six games to the Seattle Thunderbirds a few months ago.
“Hopefully,” veteran defenceman Josh Mahura said. “Anything to help us throughout the year is a positive. Our goal this year, first and foremost, is to capture the WHL championship.”
But the Pats will need more than Lady Luck to accomplish their goals this season.
Every WHL team aspires to knock them down a peg, considering they’re celebrating their 100th anniversary and will host the centennial edition of the Memorial Cup.
Head coach-GM John Paddock believes the long run last spring should serve them well.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for experience,” he said. “I think these guys are going to be better for it as the season progresses.”
The Pats will take any edge they can get because there’s a fair bit working against them as they try to capture their first WHL title since 1980.
Several veteran players are gone, notably captain Adam Brooks and defenceman Connor Hobbs. Brooks had 250 points over the past two seasons and is now with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. Hobbs, the Eastern Conference defenceman of the year, is part of the Washington Capitals system.
New captain and reigning league scoring champion Sam Steel was a first-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks is still with the NHL team. Paddock expects to get him back at some point, but has no idea when.
Mahura remains at Ducks camp as of Thursday, too, but is expected back sooner than later.
The Pats will also likely start the season without drafted forwards Jake Leschyshyn (VGK) and Nick Henry (COL). Leschyshyn tore his ACL in February and is close to returning, according to Paddock. The forecast for Henry, who underwent off-season shoulder surgery, is to play again in late October or early November.
Add it up and that’s 305 points of eligible production missing from Regina’s lineup when the puck drops and the WHL season opens in Brandon on Friday.
“There are lots of opportunities for other guys,” Paddock said. “We’re waiting with bated breath for our guys to get back.”
“We have a real exciting team, there’s a lot of talent and our team gels pretty well together,” Mahura said. “It’s gonna take a while to get to where we want to be playing.”
Paddock is expecting a tougher start to the season compared to last – although that isn’t saying much considering it took until Game 19 for the Pats to lose in regulation.
The East Division is strong, especially the Moose Jaw Warriors. They have one of the better over-age crops in Brayden Burke, Jayden Halbgewachs and Tanner Jeannot. Throw in Tampa Bay first-rounder Brett Howden and one of the WHL’s best 2018 NHL Draft prospects, defenceman Jett Woo, and they’re a formidable crew. (Montreal prospect Josh Brook just suffered a wrist injury that’s expected to keep him out eight-to-12 weeks.)
“Moose Jaw’s the best team, right now, in our conference,” Paddock said. “We know they’re gunning for us. We’re gonna have lots of competition. We’re used to that last year.”
The Pats understand the ramifications of having the Memorial Cup tournament in their own backyard. They won the right to host the event over the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and Oshawa Generals in February.
That announcement came less than three years after a five-man group bought the team from longtime owners Russ and Diane Parker. One of their goals was to bring the tournament back to Regina for the first time since 2001. (That year, the Pats lost in the first round of the WHL playoffs and the semifinal of the Memorial Cup.)
The rotation of the tournament should have placed it in a QMJHL city in 2018, but the CHL opened bids from all three leagues because it was the centennial event. The Pats, with the 100-year symmetry on their side, won out.
“It matched up very nicely,” said Pats co-owner and president Todd Lumbard, a former Pats goaltender in 1982-83. “It was just too great an opportunity not to really go after it and try to make the most of it.”
Memorial Cup bid aside, Lumbard and his group brought in Paddock for the 2014-15 season and he and assistant coach/assistant GM Dave Struch have been working to shape a sustainable winner ever since.
Despite having a roster on the cusp of contending that season, they jettisoned a few veteran players midway through – including Calgary Flames first-rounder Morgan Klimchuk – to more equally distribute talent at every age group.
They planned to build around Steel and Leschyshyn, who was acquired from Red Deer in January 2015.
Mahura, one of the top defencemen in the WHL, was also brought in from Red Deer at last season’s trade deadline. He was part of the Rebels team that hosted the 2016 Memorial Cup, although he missed all but two games of the regular season with a torn MCL before returning for the playoffs.
It’s worth noting that no host team has won its league championship since the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers in 2008.
Now, after missing out narrowly last season, the Pats have a chance to rewrite the script.
“Losing out in the finals there was pretty unfortunate. Coming into this year, we’re more hungry to complete what we weren’t able to go last year,” Mahura said. “We have a great opportunity this year.”