Drew's Diatribe

Can Hunt turn the Raiders into hunters?

      - Drew Wilson, June 9th 2015

The hiring of former Raider Curtis Hunt as the 10th general manager of the Prince Albert Raiders makes sense.

The 48-year-old steps into a new role in a long and diverse career as a full time front office front man at the major junior level with a wealth of experience as a player and coach at the major junior and pro levels and has no doubt cultivated a long list of contacts along the way. Hunt has also seen his fair share of adversity. His last two seasons as coach of the Regina Pats were difficult after a return from the pro ranks, which featured the Ottawa Senator side show that saw Hunt go from an NHL assistant to an AHL head coach and back to junior in the course of one season. Ironically former Raider head coach Cory Clouston was part of that Senator roller coaster taking the opposite trip from the AHL to the NHL. The irony doesn’t end there. Raider director of player personnel Dale Derkatch replaced Hunt as Pats head coach during Hunt’s harrowing one year hiatus in the hallowed halls of pro hockey. Both were let go by the Pats and now Derkatch and Hunt will work closely together on the next stage of the Raider re-build. Their first orders of business will be signing 2015 top draft picks Cole Fonstad, Carson Miller and Spencer Moe in addition to preparing for the June 30th CHL Import Draft.   

Hunt’s addition to the Raider front office also falls in line with last year’s theme of recapturing the essence of Raider hockey, restoring the work ethic and pride that resulted in the 1985 Memorial Cup championship, a season Hunt and associate coach Dave Manson as players on that team, know all too well. Head coach Marc Habscheid spoke of exactly that several times while eventually guiding the team to a 7-2-1 finish in its final 10 games of the regular season. Hunt obviously brings qualifications along with optics to the position. One of the challenges as it is with every coach who moves into the front office is letting the coaches coach, while also holding them accountable. However Hunt’s vast experience behind the bench makes him fully aware of what Habscheid, Manson and assistant Kelly Guard need from their boss. Hunt has already spoken of getting guidance from Habscheid and company on their wants and needs before making roster moves.

And there are assets for potential trades. The Raiders have four solid goaltenders. Veterans Nick McBride and Rylan Parenteau were the only two goaltenders to survive last year’s training camp and battled adversity to have excellent endings to the 2014-15 season. They will be pushed by 16-year-old Ian Scott (selected 6th overall in the 2014 bantam draft and an invitee to Hockey Canada’s program of excellence goalie camp) and Curtis Meger the 17-year-old grad of the Western Canada Midget AAA champion Regina Pat Canadians.  Chances are also very good one overager will be trade bait. Forwards Jordan Tkatch and Craig Leverton along with defensemen Jesse Lees and Hunter Warner are likely to be in the mix for the three 20-year-old positions, but there is a glut of overagers available around the WHL this season. It looks as if the Vancouver Canucks want MacKenze Stewart to start a pro career as a winger.  

The Raiders have 19 WHL experienced players eligible to return but will have to fill the top six forward role that would have been occupied by Kris Schmidli. The 19-year-old will turn pro in his Swiss home town and replacing his potential 30+ goal potential will be difficult.  However veterans Matteo Gennaro, Austin Glover, Simon Stransky and sophomore Sean Montgomery look poised to have breakout seasons.  Lees and the soon to be NHL drafted Brendan Guhle should be the prime puck moving quarterbacks on a back line that could include rugged, hard to play against characters like Warner and Dalton Yorke.

Although Hunt also inherits a stable business operation led by the hard working and creative Saskatoon Blade transplant Mike Scissons, along with arguably the hardest working staff in the WHL. 

Hunt, Habscheid and Manson have four year contracts meaning the road to stability is under construction. All that’s needed to “pack the plex” like back in the day when Manson, Hunt and President Dale McFee were winning a Memorial Cup is wins. The team has a 3-16 record in just four playoff appearances over the past ten seasons, meaning the Raider fan base is ready to jump back on the bandwagon.

Bruno, Big Stew, and business too

      - Drew Wilson, May 19th 2015

The Bruno Campese era ended Friday with the team’s confirmation of his decision to leave the organization rather than accept the offer from President Dale McFee and the board to stay one for at least one more season.

The 52-year-old was with the Raiders for eight seasons, taking over as General Manager partly through his first campaign. The tenure of the 52-year-old was eventful on both sides of the positivity-negativity spectrum. The Cole Cheveldave trade and hiring of Cory Clouston at the wrong end and moves like landing Leon Draisaitl as well as many good trades like the Craig Leverton, Jordan Tkatch and Dakota Conroy deals on the right side (Conroy acquired for a 7th round pick became a 30 goal scorer but also quit after last season’s overage deadline).  The team’s ability to find good free agents under Campese was another highlight, none better than MacKenze Stewart (more on Big Mac later).

The biggest challenge for Bruno’s successor will be matching his business acumen. The only reason the Raiders will turn a small profit for 2014-15, a season that saw declining attendance without playoff revenue is Campese’s relentless and constant line-by-line review of the budget. The second biggest challenge will be matching Campese’s work ethic.  He is as close to a 24/7, 365 day worker as I’ve ever met. Bruno also deserves credit for many of- ice improvements in support services like billeting.

I agree it is time for someone new.  It’s also time for the Campese detractors, those who said they wouldn’t renew their tickets or come back to the rink until there was a new general manager, to ante up to the ticket wicket as early bird seasons tickets remain on sale until the end of the month.    

Congratulations to MacKenze Stewart for signing an entry level contract with the Vancouver Canucks (including a $175,000 signing bonus). It is just another hurdle in a great success story involving a young man who was deaf as a child and didn’t start playing hockey until age 12. The pleasant, articulate, hulking hockey player with the support of mom Colleen, who raised MacKenze and his sister as a single parent, worked extremely hard to make the Raiders after his second training camp. The Calgary product eventually became an effective regular on the Raider blue line late that season. The Canucks took a flyer on MacKenze, selecting him with their final pick in the 7th round of the 2014 NHL draft.

The Canucks were not pleased at first when the Raiders moved big Mac up to the forward line last season, but they have now changed their tune and rightfully so. Their plan is to start MacKenze’s pro career as a winger with their AHL team in Utica, New York. Stewart terrorized opposing defencemen while getting two goals and five assists with a plus-1 rating in 12 games up front in the Green and White. The excitement level in the media room increased considerably whenever we saw Big Stew penciled in as a forward. However, the move to the wing likely means MacKenze Stewart will not return as an over-ager. There is no way the Canucks would send Big Stew to PA as there is little chance he would be used here as a forward.  The Raiders will have a tough enough time deciding on 20-year-old, which includes incumbents Tkatch and Leverton up front. Meanwhile Jesse Lees and Hunter Warner are strong candidates on the back line. Good luck Big Stew, we are all pulling for you.

Finally, the Raiders hit a home run with the hiring of Business Manager Mike Scissons. The former Blades staffer has essentially spent the last 12 seasons in the same role in Saskatoon and will bring experience, energy and creativity to the job in Prince Albert. He is also one of the most pleasant and positive personalities I have met in my 11 years in the WHL.   

No Second Thoughts on Draft Draft for Raiders

      - Drew Wilson, May 11th 2015

The aftermath of the 2015 WHL Bantam draft appears to be calm. There is little to be critical about with the selections of two Saskatchewan boys in the first round who have already expressed excitement at the prospect of becoming Raiders in the fall of 2016.

Cole Fonstad of Estevan and Carson Miller of Yorkton selected 5th and 21st overall have a lot in common, in addition to their province of birth. They are both around five-foot-nine and 150-pounds and piled up the points in Bantam AA hockey and are in fact friends, which could be good for future team chemistry.  Fonstad registered 36 goals and 67 point in 29 games, while Miller was the province’s top scoring Bantam with 49 goals and 107 points in 31 games.  A step up to Saskatchewan Midget AAA hockey next season will be good tests for the fledgling 15- year-olds and an indication toward their abilities to make the jump to major junior a year later.  

There are hopes that every draft class produces at least one diamond in the rough, and there are two good candidates.  Minnesotan Gavin Hain fired 67 goals and 119 point in 52 games with his Bantam AA team this past season, well worth a shot in the 8th round and the back story of the Raiders final pick is newsworthy before he even steps on to the ice. In addition to having one of the best names in the draft, Yauheni Astrouski is one of many Raider draft choices from Edmonton.  The big difference is the six-foot forward moved to the Alberta capital last year from Belarus. The fact he will already be a 16-year-old player next season means he could play in the WHL next season. The well travelled teen scored 18 goals and 48 points in 37 games last season with the SSAC Minor Midget AAA Bulldogs.

The best candidate to crack the lineup from the 2014 draft class is first round pick Ian Scott, who along with recently signed Curtis Meger of Regina, should push incumbent goalies Nick McBride and Rylan Parenteau. Burly third round pick and defenceman Cody Thompson along with Penticton, BC forward Josh Maser, selected in the 4th round could also push the veterans at training camp and at least get good long looks from the coaching staff. Maser was a point a game player at the Okanagan Hockey Academy this past season while Thompson had an impressive camp last summer as a 15-year-old, making it all the way to preseason.    

Regardless of what you think about the Raiders record on draft day, the team has done an excellent job finding impact players through free agency. Andrew Herle, Chance Braid. Carson Perreault and MacKenze Stewart are just a few examples.

Raiders forge a fascinating and phenomenal financial turnaround

      - Drew Wilson, March 24th 2015

There is cause for celebration in the wake of the 2014-15 Prince Albert Raiders season even without playoff hockey. The organization will do something remarkable amid the disappointment of missing the post season. The team will not post another substantial loss on the balance sheet.
General Manager Bruno Campese told the 900 CKBI audience during Monday’s final face-off program of the season, the organization will come close to the break even point when the final dollars and cents are tallied and may even post a small profit.

The thought of that happening earlier this season was nothing short of preposterous and even appears farfetched today.

Even though attendance increased down the stretch the team averaged 2,431 fans this season, a decrease of 65 a game from 2013-14, a season in which the team lost $262,680. It’s also mind boggling considering the Raiders will pay fired Head Coach Cory Clouston for the entire season on top of the salary for new bench boss Marc Habscheid who was hired on November 1st.

An ambitious budget was struck for 2013-14 based on the previous season’s posting of a $78,896 profit, which was partially responsible for the financial folly. The dollars-and-cents forecast was struck before a schedule with an abnormally high number of mid-week dates was released. The result was a drop in average attendance of 178 fans per game from the season before. The team also took a hit on extra revenue like alcohol sales which also decreases during Tuesday and Wednesday night games.

 Healthier Days May be Ahead for the Raiders

      - Drew Wilson, February 27th 2015

Overage winger Jayden Hart may make his return to the lineup this Friday in Red Deer having spent the last 11 games recovering from an upper body injury. The power forward’s absence is an indication of the type of season it has been for the Raiders and what makes matters worse is the fact some of the injuries to the Raiders and other WHL teams are preventable.

Hart was hurt while Raiders were playing their fourth game in eight nights. Kris Schmidli who is no where near ready to return picked up his lower body injury while playing his seventh game in 13 nights and 6th on the road. Schmidli who was the team’s leading scorer with 6 goals and 9 assists in 12 games following the trade from Kelowna probably won’t be back for another three weeks. The Raiders would have had two straight weeks with four games recently if not for the postponement of the Regina game due to weather. That included the Sunday afternoon game in Brandon which was scheduled after a Saturday night game at home. The WHL’s new and (not) improved computerized scheduling system also had the Raiders playing an additional two road games following the early December bi-annual trip through the B.C. division which brought the grand total to 7-games in 11 nights while wheeling from Prince George to Medicine Hat. In those two extra games the Raiders suffered an overtime loss in Kootenay followed by a fatigue filled 7-4 setback in Medicine Hat the next night. The five hour trip from Cranbrook had the team arriving in the gas city at about 3:30am on game day.         

 Former Rockets rockin’ it with the Raiders

      - Drew Wilson, January 12th 2015

A collective sigh of relief went through the Raider bus at 1pm Saturday on its way to Regina, when no one was called up to the front to be told they were traded. However it was a month of significant change in the Raider dressing room leading to the January 10th trade deadline.

There are six new name plates in the Raider dressing room, four have been installed in their new homes and the team has landed four additional draft choices, one in each of the first four rounds.

The two blockbuster trades with Kelowna have garnered the most attention and rightfully so. While other league general managers praised Raider GM Bruno Campese for the Josh Morrissey trade, many fans, armchair and otherwise were critical of its lack of a first round draft choice. The timing of the trade was dictated by Morrissey’s pending unavailability because of the World Junior championships and the recent long term injuries to top four defensemen Sawyer Lange and Hunter Warner.

The addition of Jessie Lees and Austin Glover (as well as 2nd and 3rd round draft choices) has helped. Lees has produced 7 points in 11 games and has quarterbacked an improving first power play unit. Glover’s game is rounding into shape as he looks fully recovered from an injury. The 18-year-old winger been named third star in consecutive games while scoring in each. He also made a win saving shot-block in the dying seconds Saturday night in Regina.

 Anonymous on-line critics who panned the Leon Draisaitl deal calling Kris Schmidli and Dalton Yorke castoff fringe players who couldn’t cut it in Kelowna will continue to hide in cybersace as opposed to those who have the courage to put their names next to their comments. Anyone who has seen them play have witnessed their immediate impact. Yorke plays a physical stay-at-home game on the backline and doesn’t not hesitate to defend team mates. As for Schmidli..Holy Hannah this kid can play! Schmidli’s flu-ridden debut Wednesday against Moose Jaw was pretty good. The two games since? A pair of performances primed by dirty dangles at high speed that netted three goals and three assists, including an unassisted shorthanded goal and the setup of Glover’s shorty in Regina. Schmidli who paid tribute to the former Raider logo by gripping his stick in his teeth after his first goal in a Prince Albert uniform, is also a star in front of the microphone with a quick wit behind a huge smile.

Colton Heffley started the Kelowna exodus to the Raiders with his acquisition during the B.C. road trip.  The overage defenseman has added stability and grit to the Raider blue line.

Considering he is the only former Rocket ineligible to return next season you can safely say the deals involving Draisaitl (who wasn’t coming back), Morrissey (who will be a pro next season), and Gage Quinney (who could return to Kelowna as an overager) has enhanced the near future of the Raiders, because if you look at the lineup eligible to come back, you can see the potential for a pretty good hockey team. The longer term will be depend on the performance of the General Manager and scouring staff at the draft table.

It will take several seasons to fully examine the work of Bruno Campese leading up to the trade deadline, but you can safely say, based on what we have seen on the ice …so far…so good. However those looking to find fault will find a way. They always do

 Memorable First Half? A Huge Understatement

      - Drew Wilson, December 18th 2014

Recapping the notable from the Raiders first half of the season could rival the Harry Potter series for the number of story lines.

The controversy began with the early season defection of overage winger Dakota Conroy who according to former head coach Cory Clouston was unhappy with his line mates. The former 30 goal man left with 1 goal and 1 assist in 10 games. Conroy departed after the team decided to trade Centreman Calder Brooks who has flourished in Spokane. Conroy and defenseman Sawyer Lange were overage locks heading into the 20-year-old deadline, meaning the final decision came down to Brooks and Jayden Hart. You can't argue with the decision to keep Hart who is tied for the team lead with 17 goals to go along with 13 assists as a true power forward who can play both wing and centre.

An impressive 5-0 win in Kootenay one night followed by an equally unimpressive 5-2 loss in Lethbridge the next night was the type of inconsistency that cost Clouston his job . Enter Marc Habscheid who has loosened the reigns on defensemen to jump into rushes and play a more puck possession game.

There has been a four game home ice losing streak, a five game win streak and a league high seven game run of success on the road, followed by a five game slide to close out the longest and most arduous road trip in the last several years of Raider hockey That foray into futility featured three straight shutout losses including back to back 1-0 setbacks despite outshooting and out chancing Kelowna and Victoria respectively. Then there were the three trades that saw the additions of four players including the blockbuster. Captain Josh Morrissey and Gage Quinney said their emotional goodbye's to team mates following the Vancouver game and after 13 hours through a blizzard, freezing rain and fog along curve filled two-lane highways in B.C. the remaining Raiders met new team mates Jesse Lees and Austin Glover in Cranbook at about 11:30 in the evening before their next game. The true assessment of the deal can't be made for at least two seasons. Lees and Glover are good additions as his overage defenseman/forward Coltan Heffley. Raymond Grewal has played well in his two appearances. These deals were influenced at least in part by the injuries to d-men Hunter Warner and Lange. Warner is gone for the season, Lange won't be back for at least a month. When he does return a decision will have to be made on the blueline suggesting more deals are at least a good possibility.

 There were several opportunities to panic and make changes to systems, styles and the new approach to the game but Habscheid remained patient calling it a process and more importantly remained positive through a very adverse period.

The Raiders closed out the first half with a solid 5-1 win over Moose Jaw in front of less than 22-hundred at the Art Hauser Centre who got a bit of everything including a final minute line brawl.

The fact the Raiders still have a chance at a playoff spot amid this challenge ridden first 35 games is reason for encouragement in itself and the schedule becomes much more friendly in the new year.

This is a team that plays with pace and tempo that can exhilarate you on one shift and frustrate you during the next, but isn't that what Junior hockey is all about? Regardless of the outcome what we can say for sure is there has been no questioning the effort under the Raiders new regime and that's really all any coach, media member or fan can ask for.        

 Raiders hope to get into a "Habby" of winning

      - Drew Wilson, November 6th 2014

Marc Habscheid has started assume the reigns as head coach of the Prince Albert Raiders. The new bench boss has been taking a crash course in Raider hockey since his arrival Saturday morning and is tweaking the systems that have been in place since the beginning of the season. Despite Wednesday night's 4-2 loss to Calgary the early reviews are good. If not for two goals posts and two cross bars the the Raiders could be celebrating a third straight win. The effort was there and Habscheid told the 900 CKBI post game audience they will work on the mistakes made while executing a new puck control high tempo game plan.

The team won in his debut (Saturday's 5-2 win over Saskatoon) overcoming the turmoil of a coaching change as well as a fourth game in five nights with over 750 mile of bus travel mixed in. Habscheid's positive outlook and personality with an affinity for humor is also an early hit with staff, players, fans and the media.

Habscheid's persona presents a stark contrast to outgoing head coach Cory Clouston. There is no questioning Clouston's work ethic and desire to win. On game day he was all business with intensity and focus. However it appears his approach didn't connect with the players who performed inconsistently through Clouston's tenure. As someone who has been fired, I can tell you it is a kick in the gut and even though WHL hockey is a performance based business, it doesn't minimize the human factor even though fans all over the hockey world constantly clamor for the canning of their respective coaches.

 Cory Clouston was a different person on off days. He spoke often about his family as well as topics like music and boxing and is passionate about personal fitness. He could also smile and crack a joke contrary to the impression held and expressed by many including those who never met him. However, the team's inconsistent play and waning confidence from a vocal portion of the fan base who expressed their dissatisfaction by staying away from the Art Hauser Centre at a time when the team just announced a significant financial loss for last season, leaving the board with little choice but to make the move.

The Raiders responded by winning impressively in Moose Jaw, turning an early 2-0 deficit into a 6-3 victory in a rink (Mosaic place) that has not been kind to them over the past few seasons. Make no mistake, the players won that game for Dave Manson, who was interim head coach for that game only. The proof is the players left the Trojan like helmet for the game's most valuable contributor at Manson's spot on the bus before the ride home. Dave promptly gave it back to the players.  They were also very good the next night against the Blades. The crowd (2440) was an improvement over recent games, but not nearly good enough for a Saturday night against the Raiders biggest rival. The same can be said for the crowd of just over 22-hundred on Wednesday against the Hitmen. It's time for those who sincerely called for Clouston's firing as a condition to return to the rink to come back. Others will find any reason possible to continue to allegedly boycott Raider games while spouting their self professed hockey expertise.  

It is still the honeymoon period in the Habscheid era and there will be adversity, we saw evidence of that against Calgary, but the team is playing intense, physical, high tempo entertaining hockey and isn't that what it's all about?          

 Morrissey Sent Back - The Right Move

     - Drew Wilson, October 6th 2014

The Winnipeg Jets did the responsible thing by sending Raider captain Josh Morrissey back to Prince Albert. There were valid arguments for both keeping the Calgary Kid in the NHL and sending him back to Junior.

Morrissey posted 72 points in 59 games last season including a franchise record 28 goals. He also put up 2 goals and 7 assists in the 20 game AHL playoff run to the league final by the St John’s Ice Dogs. Throw in his experience playing for Canada at the World Junior championships and you could justify keeping Morrissey in the show considering he is sporting a bigger and stronger body to go along with a ton of skill.

However instead of spot duty and some nights in the NHL press boxes, the Jets have opted for the chance to have Morrissey continue to develop through about 30 minutes of ice time a game in all situations. Morrissey said upon arriving back in PA he will continue to work on the attributes that made him the 13th overall pick by the Jets in the 2013 NHL draft, namely a fleet of foot and fast puck moving game while quarterbacking the power play and anchoring the penalty kill.

Bums in the Seats; The Best Solution

       - Drew Wilson, October 1st 2014

First of all, 2.395 simply is not good enough.

That was the attendance for last Saturday’s 4-3 Raider loss to Regina at the Art Hauser Centre.

While staff and fans were contemplating what went wrong on the ice that night, team staff was bracing for the annual general meeting just two nights later, knowing they would be revealing a substantial financial loss for the 2013-14 season.

The number was a shocker, $210-thousand when you compare expenses with revenue and $262,680 when you add in depreciation of assets

And they will need more walk-up ticket sales since season subscriber numbers came close, but fell short of the goal of 1.650.

The team is also hoping a revamped game night experience will help attract young adults, a demographic missing from the Art Hauser Centre on game nights. The organization is working hard toward making 2013-14 an expensive one year blip on the radar, but ultimately it’s up to fans to respond by finding reasons to come to games instead of staying away.

Campese points out expenses will continue to rise meaning at some point, maybe by the end of the decade, even a sold out Art Hauser Centre every night won’t generate enough cash to make ends meet, therefore the need for a new arena whether it’s stand alone or part of a multi-use facility.

However the future is now. With 34 home games remaining, this team needs more fans to meet a 2014-15 budget of around 2.1 million dollars.