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Drew's Diatribe

Frantic February Follies

      - Drew Wilson, February 2, 2016

A Frantic February unfolds Wednesday night for the Prince Albert Raiders when they host the Prince George Cougars.

The Raiders will continue their quest for a top-two spot in the WHL's eastern division and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs by playing 11 of their 13 games during the abbreviated month in just 19 nights.

Heading into Tuesday's action the Raiders held a three point lead on third place Moose Jaw with a game in hand on the Warriors knowing four of the five remaining head to head matchups are scheduled between February 10th and 27th. To say staying healthy is crucial throughout a wildy busy month capped with key contests is a gross understatement.

However the Raiders have a lot of company. The schedule making computer programmer has done few favors down the stretch. The Prince Albert-Prince George clash (The Cougars first visit to the Art Hauser Centre in two seasons) is the fourth game in six nights for the Raiders.

Meanwhile the eastern division leading Brandon Wheat Kings and Warriors play for the fourth time in five nights on Tuesday and when the Tigers host Swift Current Tuesday it will also mark the fourth game in five nights for the Medicine Hat mob. The Tigers who were already without three defensemen for Sunday's game in Moose Jaw, lost overage forward Brian Williams to an injury in the third period.

The reason for the jam packed schedule is two-fold. This is the third year of the WHL's experimentation with a computerized alternative to the General Managers annual day-long diatribe in June to hammer out a schedule and it's been a miserable failure. Teams continue to endure road trip travel plans that make little sense and play mid-week home games with open nights on the weekends. There also appears to be more long home stands which is problematic for small market teams who don't have enough hard core fans to keep the seats occupied .

The complicating factor is jamming in the entire 72-game regular season with one less week to do it. The teams decided to start a week later in hopes of getting their NHL drafted and invited players back in time for the regular season.

The biggest concern during the busiest month of the season which features the most important games is player safety do to fatigue.

It's time for the league's decision makers to get their heads out of the sand (or their backsides) and trim the schedule back to 66 games. Teams like the Prince Albert Raiders would benefit by saving money from three dollar devouring road trips and cut three mid-week games at home to focus on putting bums in the more well attended weekend seats.

This has been suggested several times before, but the big market teams who comprise the majority of the WHL's power brokers have refused to part with that revenue. Those owners should take a closer look at the most recent WHL injured list which is at 58 players and very likely to grow.


Raiders Ride the First Half Pendulum into the Final Weekend

      - Drew Wilson, December 17, 2015

If you asked Raider brass three months ago how they would feel about heading into the final weekend of the first half of the 2015-16 season sitting second in the Eastern division, seven games above .500, you would probably get a happy Riverdance performance as a reaction.

However the team is battling through a three game losing streak and four straight losses at the Art Hauser Centre with the defending WHL champion Kelowna Rockets and division leading Brandon Wheat Kings coming to Prince Albert Friday and Saturday.

This team is capable of beating anyone on any given night, cases in point road wins in Lethbridge (against the highest scoring team in the league with the best home record), and Brandon (pegged as the preseason favorite to win the WHL title).

The Prince Albert posse produced some of the most exciting hockey we have seen in many years, such as the stunning 3-2 win over Calgary as Reid Gardiner scored twice in the final 90 seconds. Goaltenders Rylan Parenteau and Ian Scott have already turned in highlight reel worth memorable performances and a couple both would like to forget.

Gardiner and defenseman Jesse Lees are having career years and sophomore Simon Stransky is making a case to be a first round selection in this summer's NHL draft, while 16-year-old rookie Parker Kelly who was a 7th round bantam draft choice, scored his first goal in the WHL earlier this week and is already becoming a fan favorite. Luke Coleman is also performing like someone older, bigger and stronger than a 17-year-old rookie.

The Raiders got off to a great start and as recently as last week were 10 games above .500, but how they approach the latest round of adversity will go a long way toward determining how the team will perform in the second half, when defenses tighten up and intensity increases.

Head Coach Marc Habsceid told Tuesday night's post game show audience on 900 CKBI after a heart breaking 5-4 loss to Lethbridge, a game they deserved to win, lessons learned from tough times like this are what makes championship teams and it appears the players are eager to learn.

Habscheid broke from the norm earlier this week with a 3-on-3 tournament instead of practice Monday and an outdoor session at Crescent Acres Wednesday, realizing that additional work on the forecheck, break outs, power play and penalty kill could be counter productive.
Even when the Raiders were rallying you could argue they weren't firing on all cylinders but had enough powering the engine into the winners circle.

Youngsters like Scott, Kelly, Coleman and Voytech Budik will continue to improve. Veterans like Gardiner and Lees will remain consistent and Parenteau will steal a few more wins on his own, while players like Brendan Guhle and Matteo Gennaro who have had flashes of brilliance and are due to break out.

Junior hockey at the best of times for the best of teams is still a walk into the unknown, but based on the first half of the 2015-16 season the Prince Albert Raiders, regardless of the final outcome, will be fun to watch this winter and spring.

Hey, What about Reid?

      - Drew Wilson, October 21st, 2015

What does Reid Gardiner have to do to get more recognition from Hockey Canada and NHL teams?

The former first round draft choice of the Prince Albert Raiders has fallen off Hockey Canada’s radar since his participation in the World under-17 challenge and despite high rankings by some scouting services in his draft year, Gardiner has been passed over in two successive NHL drafts. The 19-year-old from Humboldt has hit the ground running since his return from the NHL young guns tournament in Penticton B.C. where he scored his first professional goal with the Vancouver Canucks rookie squad. The right winger who has what many describe as a “pro” shot has already been a WHL player of the week and finished the 6 game US/Cranbrook road trip with 4 goals and 5 assists.

Earlier this season when the Raiders were hosting Vancouver, Shaw TV commentator and former NHL tough guy Jeff Odgers (who has seen Gardiner play many times), said he couldn’t believe some NHL team hasn’t either taken a flyer on Gardiner in the late rounds of the draft or signed the Raider assistant captain to a free agent contract. Now the hard working, all-purpose, point playing power play power house has been passed over for team WHL and its annual two game showdown with the touring Russians. The players named are outstanding and will represent the league well, but you have to think there should be room for a high scoring winger with a great shot and tremendous work ethic who just happened to be tied for first in the WHL points race when the roster was announced.  Gardiner should be the first player summoned if Calgary’s Jake Virtanen isn’t returned from the Vancouver Canucks and if an injury prevents one of the forwards on the team has to bow out.

However Hockey Canada is finally convinced Raider defenseman Brendan Guhle deserves as second look. The 18-year-old, like Gardiner fell out of favour with Team Canada bird dogs after a very good performance at the World Under 17 challenge as he was left off the Canadian Under-18 teams for the world championships and Ivan Hlinka summer tournament.

Buffalo Sabre scouts liked the speedy slick skating rearguard so much they went off the board drafting the lanky Edmonton area kid in the second round, much higher than his rankings. Guhle has responded by playing so well, the Sabres signed him to a 3-year entry level contract and kept him around for the beginning of the NHL regular season.

The Raiders have gone 4-0 with Guhle back in the lineup and he was promptly named to Team WHL for the two game series against the Russians November 9th and 10th in Kelowna and Kamloops. A good showing could earn Guhle and invitation to the Canadian National Junior final tryout camp in December.

Meanwhile, you would think the Raiders 4 game win streak, an unbeaten record at home, a showdown between two of the hottest teams in the WHL and potential first place Eastern showdown this Friday against the Moose Jaw Warriors should remove most remaining reasons for Prince Albert hockey fans to stay away from the Art Hauser Centre.

Gards, Leon and Empty Seats

      - Drew Wilson, October 8th, 2015

Raider assistant captain Reid Gardiner put on a show against Vancouver and Medicine Hat at the Art Hauser Centre.  It’s too bad more fans weren’t on hand to witness a two game effort that earned the 19 year old from Humboldt WHL player of the week (more on that later).

In addition to an assist and a bar down snipe to tie the game Friday, the Raider assistant captain snapped in the shootout winner in confident fashion.  The hard working right winger scored twice Saturday including the overtime winner which went in despite his stick snapping in two.  Gardiner was a warrior throwing hits, taking hits and worked the walls with determination.  The type of total game we have come to expect from three year veteran that remains under appreciated by pro scouts.  The Raiders will depend heavily on Gardiner’s skill, work ethic and leadership this season.

The Prince Albert crew could have used the same from German import Leon Draisaitl last season. It seems the only people in hockey who felt the big, extremely skilled but inexperienced prospect drafted third overall in 2014 was ready for the NHL, resided in the Edmonton Oilers coaching and front offices.  They didn’t figure out Draisaitl was better off getting more seasoning in junior hockey until his 37 game NHL experiment ended with 2 goals and 7 assists.  The Raiders who were beset with injuries and without their best player for the first half of the season were unlikely to make the playoffs, so the Oilers told GM Bruno Campese to trade Draisaitl to Kelowna or he isn’t coming back.

Draisaitl’s short tenure in Kelowna included 19 goals and 34 assists in 32 games while helping lead a power house Rockets team all the way to the Memorial Cup final. The new Oiler brass has decided Draisaitl still isn’t ready for prime time, sending him to Stockton of the AHL. It’s the final slap in the face the Raiders and their fans will have to absorb in the entire fiasco.

Finally, where are the fans? Attendance for the three home games was under 2,700 for the home opener and well under 2,200 for the following two games, two of which were settled in overtime, the other in a shootout.  This is astonishing considering the amount of positivity toward the team over the summer over developments like long term contracts for coaches Marc Habscheid and Dave Manson as well as the hiring of Curtis Hunt as GM.

These were weekend games and the Friday night contest against the Vancouver Giants featured free admission for kids accompanied by an adult courtesy of the Giant Tiger promotion. The team basically broke even  last season despite missing the playoffs and a decline in attendance.  However that was achieved by trimming the non-hockey budget to its bare bones.

The games are great entertainment. The staff is a small, terrific but overworked crew passionate about the team who are trying everything they can to get bums in the seats. The long term viability of the Raiders depends on more than 2,150 fans on a weekend.  The fact there have only been slight waves of improvement over the past decade makes me wonder it Prince Albert really wants WHL hockey?


 Vanstone called to the captaincy

      - Drew Wilson, October 1st, 2015

Tim Vanstone is a great choice as captain of the 2015-16 Prince Albert Raiders.

The 19-year-old from Swift Current is fiery and fearless with a tireless work ethic. The 3rd round pick from the 2011 bantam draft forechecks and backchecks furiously, blocks shots, kills penalties and is basically a pain in the backsides of Raider opponents. In addition to setting that kind of example, Vanstone is coming off a career season with 11 goals and 14 assists. Vanstone is most honored by the fact he was the choice in a team vote, which speaks volumes.

Last season’s leading scorer and this year’s quarterback of the first power play unit, Reid Gardiner and Jesse Lees were no-brainer’s as assistant captains. Dalton Yorke fills out the leadership group and is another great choice. The 19-year-old hard rock stay at home defenseman cares. First hand evidence came during the intrasquad game when he kicked the boards on the way to the bench after being on the ice for a goal against. Yorke’s spot on the team was not in doubt at that point but he wanted to win.

The Raiders overage situation was resolved with Craig Leverton’s heading home and await the outcome of his immediate hockey future. Two weeks ago when discussing the team’s 20-year-old’s during 900 CKBI’s face-off program head coach Marc Habscheid said it’s an aspect of the hockey business that sucks, well put. The team’s depth chart on defense prompted the decision to keep Lees and Hunter Warner. Centreman Jordan Tkatch cemented the third and final overage spot with two goals and three assists in the season opening home-and-home series against Saskatoon. That left Leverton, a 20 goal man from last season who earned the nickname “the Debden Dangler” as the odd man out.

On an unrelated note, it’s good to hear Brendan Guhle doesn’t have any concussion like symptoms from the monster hit delivered by Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf in a welcome to the NHL kid moment. The fact he is still with the Buffalo Sabres is a testament to the tremendous training camp and preseason the 18-year-old defenseman has had.

However, it’s my position that Guhle should have been back with the Raiders for the opening of regular season since he had no hope in H-E-double hockey sticks of being a regular in the Buffalo Sabres lineup this season. It’s another example that NHL teams really don’t give a rat’s rear end about the junior teams that stock their shelves.

Just how difficult is it for a young defenseman to crack an NHL lineup? The answer comes in Winnipeg’s shipping of former Raider captain and Jet’s first round draft choice Josh Morrissey to the AHL for his first year of post graduate work from the WHL.

There could be a positiive spinoff. If Guhle, the Raiders former first round pick who skates like the wind plays that well when he does return, he should earn a look from the Hockey Canada head honchos scouting for the national junior team. 


 Raiders resemble Jekyll and Hyde on opening weekend

      - Drew Wilson, September 28th, 2015

The Prince Albert Raiders’ regular season opening weekend split with the Saskatoon Blades swung severely to both ends of the junior hockey pendulum.

On opening night in the bridge city. The Raiders controlled the first five minutes of the first and second periods Friday night and in fact fought back with two goals late in the first to tie the game before the buzzer. However the game progressively went south after a Connor Gay goal on a mid-point screen shot which was the first of five unanswered Saskatoon goals that turned opening night into opening “nightmare on Thatcher street”.

The Raiders home opener on Saturday night was all you could ask for if you were one of the 2,627 Art Hauser Centre fans on hand. A fast physical game that featured a lot of scoring opportunities at both ends and high drama ending at 3:54 of 3-on-3 overtime with 17 year old sophomore centreman Sean Montgomery converting a Jordan Tkatch feed to send the crowd into a frenzy, the PA players pouring off the bench in celebration and the Blades “Running back to Saskatoon”.

Tkatch had a goal and three assists in the 6-5 victory and told us during the 900 CKBI post game show the last four point night he could remember was back in midget. He also scored in Friday’s season opener making a huge statement in the four way race for the three post October 15th 20-year-old spots on the team.

Head Coach Marc Habscheid told last week’s face-off audience (weekly 6:30pm talk show on 900 CKBI every Monday during hockey season), that the coaches are holding off on naming a captain until all players are back from NHL tryouts. Brendan Guhle survived another round of cuts this past weekend with the Buffalo Sabres, however was having Tim Vanstone take the ceremonial opening face off Saturday an indication toward who will wear the “C” this season?

The crowd was loud and engaged throughout the night Saturday providing an atmosphere that is difficult to duplicate in any other rink around the WHL. The harvest and warm weather were factors why the old barn wasn’t totally sold out. However, I’m sorry to say for opening night following an off season fueled by the winds of change and a positive vibe, that simply isn’t good enough.

I’ve said for many years demanding victories or the replacements of coaches, managers or players as conditions of attendance are unfair, and in some cases smoke screens for people who masquerade as hockey fans around the water coolers and in the coffee shops.

Junior hockey is entertainment provided by teenage boys and young adults who are well beyond their peers in athletic ability and maturity and if Saturday is any indication there will be no lack of entertainment at the Art Hauser Centre this season.

Pre-Season Premonitions

      - Drew Wilson, September 8th, 2015

The Raiders head into Friday's home preseason opener against Saskatoon with 27 players.

Considering there will eventually be two cuts in goal and one among the four overage candidates, barring trades the team is very close to it regular season contingent.

The first two pre-season games this past weekend at the Regina tournament was about giving the youngsters a long look and there are reasons to be positive.

While the youthful defence had difficulty with the pressure applied by the Pats in Friday's 7-4 loss, puck movement and neutral zone speed improved considerably the following night as there was a much more composed and poised performance.  

The 15-year-olds improved steadily which is what you would expect from the top three picks Cole Fonstad, Carson Miller and Spencer Moe who had a goal and as assist in Saturday's 4-3 loss to the more experienced Calgary Hitmen crew. However, defenceman Lane Kirk also left after making a big impression on Raider brass. The 5th round pick from Manitoba selected 97th overall played and played well in all situations.

16 year-old defenceman Ty Prefontaine was among the graduating training camp rookies who struggled on opening night and adjusted nicely to the picked up pace of preseason in game two. Cody Paivarinta who is a year older and a few inches taller had a strong weekend combining size and mobility. The next step for the Vancouver area product is packing on a few muscular pounds and increasing his strength.

Speaking of rearguards, Brennan Riddle had his biggest game in a Raider uniform against the Pats with a goal, two assists and a plus-4 rating and also looked regular season ready on Saturday.  

Luke Coleman sat out against Regina but the 17-year-old who played the final 14 games with the Raiders last season made up for it against the Hitmen. The power forward who had been nursing a training camp game induced charley horse scored an impressive unassisted goal and rung another shot off the cross bar while terrorizing Calgary defencemen all game. That type of effort will make the robust Red Deer area product a fan favorite at the Art Hauser Centre.  

It will likely take at least the next four games to sort out the goaltending situation. Curtis Meger shook off an obvious case of nerves in Friday's opener in his home town in which he surrendered 6 goals on 15 shots including a couple he would like to have back. The 17-year-old from Regina looked much more comfortable and confident Saturday. 16-year-old Ian Scott also played well enough to at least get further perusal over the next four preseason games and we haven’t even seen incumbents Nick McBride and Rylan Parenteau in game action yet.

The coaching staff now has a workable number of twenty-seven players to start teaching systems and set protocol while preparing for the regular season. Meanwhile expect to see a more veteran lineup in Friday's preseason home opener against the Saskatoon Blades. Admission for that game is free.

Thoughts of an Undefeated Coach

      - Drew Wilson, September 1st, 2015

The Raiders intrasquad game was a new experience.  For the first time in 11 seasons I got the coaches view as the celebrity bench boss alongside Associate Coach Dave Manson who was truly in charge. The terms “fish out of water” or “deer in the headlights” accurately described much of my first period. 

The speed and skill of the game at ice level in addition to the rapidity of line changes or in my case switching up the defense pairings was a real eye opener. I missed seeing three of our four goals because of the rapid activity on the bench.

Mine was a very easy task considering it was a roll-the-lines and defensemen type of game.  The players themselves did an excellent job of making quick changes on the fly, although I did get to call two of them including putting overager Hunter Warner and partner Zackary Hayes out while we were nursing a one goal lead with just over a minute to go and soon to face a last minute penalty kill. Otherwise I did my best to stay out of the way.

Under normal circumstances during regular season games coaches are keenly aware of complicating factors like line matchups especially on the road when the home team has the last change while also teaching on the fly when mistakes need to be corrected while the game remains in progress.  Coaches do hours of preparation before they even meet with players to review specifics like the specialty teams, in addition to systems and strategies tailored to the opposition. Coaches have an uncanny knack to do all of this while remaining focused enough to remember and deal with finite details of the game amid the chaos.

The exercise was a stark reminder just how important verbal communication is in today’s WHL, especially given the fact much of today’s teenage and young adult interaction is done by cellular and electronic means.

I enjoyed the chance to speak to the players before the game, telling them that I have the best job in the business, calling the games and being part of the hockey fraternity knowing my employment isn’t contingent on wins and losses.  However like most people my age still involved with the game, if we weren’t in our younger days, we wanted to be players with the type of opportunity those involved in the Raider intrasquad game had on Monday night.  

Thank you to the organization for the invitation to take a spot behind the bench for the first time and maybe the last time during my tenure as voice of the Prince Albert Raiders as I hope to retire from coaching with a 1-0 record. It was a truly rewarding experience, including the $20 side bet victory over opposing celebrity coach Jeff D’Andrea of panow.com.  It’s now back to the comfortable confines of the broadcast booth for Friday’s preseason opener against the Pats in Regina.

It’s Camping Season!

      - Drew Wilson, August 27th, 2015

Raider training camp is underway with a heightened sense of anticipation and excitement. The energy was infectious when many of the veterans gathered quickly Wednesday morning in the team’s weight room with high five’s all around.

Part of that has to do with the fact the Raiders closed out the playoff-less 2014-15 campaign by playing their best hockey of the season over the final dozen games and the resulting chemistry that was built in the dressing room.

The beginning of training camp means the debuts of several new faces at the Art Hauser Centre, the most significant being General Manager Curtis Hunt.  A clear direction will be set by Head Coach Marc Habscheid from day one.  Habscheid, Associate Dave Manson and Assistant Kelly Guard developed a synergy over the final four months of last season and it will be bolstered by the very capable alumnus Mark Odnokon who returns to the Raider coaching ranks.

In addition to stability in the front and coaching offices the team will have 18 returnees when main camp breaks, meaning the top rookies and free agents will essentially be pushing some veterans for a precious few roster spots on opening night September 25th.

The biggest question mark is in goal, not who are capable, but who are the best available puck stoppers. Nick McBride and Rylan Parenteau return as the front runners with the vast experience both gained last season with stellar and sometimes shaky performances, but both had very strong finishes. McBride gets the early nod based on the fact at 18 he is a year younger and showed well at the recent Los Angeles Kings development camp.  He also is motivated by being passed over in the NHL draft.

Parenteau looks to be in fantastic shape and based on the compete level he showed last season will be ready to battle for the number one spot.  They will be pushed by 16 year old Calgarian Ian Scott who was the Raiders first round pick in 2014 and Curtis Meger, the 17 year old who helped lead the Regina Pat Canadians to a bronze medal at the Telus Cup.  This has led to considerable trade speculation but Hunt is no hurry to solve what is a nice problem to have.

The other major question surrounds the overage situation.  Jesse Lees and Hunter Warner are among the returnees on defence with Jordan Tkatch and the Deben dangler Craig Leverton potentially coming back as top six forwards.  Meanwhile don’t rule out the possibility of the Vancouver Canucks sending recently signed MacKenze Stewart back for additional seasoning in the dub.

In addition to determining who are the top 20 year old’s from that group the question remains where do they fit in the 2015-16 Raider ensemble, specifically will their experience and capability be better served scoring goals or keeping them out of the net.   Lees jumps to the front because of his ability to play defense and forward in addition to quarterbacking one of the power play units from the backline. The speculation becomes moot if Stewart and Warner (signed last year by the Minnesota Wild), stay in the pros after their respective training camps.

The overage and goaltending solutions may not come until well into the regular season.