The Prince Albert Raiders are a third of the way through their Western Hockey League regular schedule and so far they are easily the biggest surprise of the season.
After finishing dead last in the 22-team circuit a year ago, and missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, the Raiders had nowhere to go but up and now that they have gone as far up as they can, it is just a matter of being able to stay there.
During the offseason the Raiders stressed they were going to go about business in a different manner and it looks like the plan they have developed is working.
The first piece to the puzzle was bringing in Tim Leonard as an assistant coach. Leonard had spent the past nine seasons coaching the Prince Albert Mintos of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League and during that time had won three provincial titles and two national crowns.
Leonard complements Raider head coach Steve Young and associate coach Dave Manson perfectly and his familiarity with the younger players has been crucial in moving the team in the right direction.
General manager Bruno Campese then brought in a couple of key players when he acquired goaltender Luke Siemens from the Moose Jaw Warriors and selected Leon Draisaitl with the second pick overall in the Canadian Hockey League import draft.
Siemens, a 20-year-old who has played with Moose Jaw, the Everett Silvertips and Prince George Cougars, has been nothing short of spectacular in posting a 2.57 goals-against average and 91.9 per cent save percentage this season. If voting was to be done today, I would venture that Siemens would be the runaway winner of the league’s most valuable player.
Draisaitl was just 16 years old when he landed in Prince Albert in August, but the Cologne, Germany, native wasted little time in showing the team and the fans that he is something special. Now 17 years old, Draisaitl led the team in scoring in the pre-season and trails just Mark McNeill during the regular campaign as he has collected six goals and added 13 helpers in 23 games.
McNeill has also shown why he is so valuable to the team as he not only leads the club in scoring with 8-19-27 totals, but he is inserted in every possible situation and when needed has provided a spark with his toughness. The 19-year-old from Edmonton would obviously have wanted a shot at making the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that selected him in the first round of the 2011 NHL draft, but he didn’t let the NHL lockout affect his play. Rather, he has taken the challenge of turning the team around and ran with it and his play was rewarded recently when he played for Team WHL in both games of the Subway Super Series on the west coast. Hopefully the coaching staff of the world junior team will also take notice and he can represent Canada in Russia next month.
Some other moves the Raiders made just before the season started, and shortly after it was under way, include Evan Morden and Andy Desautels coming to Prince Albert from Everett, Dakota Conroy moving over from Victoria and Davis Vandane being picked up from the Spokane Chiefs. All have been key factors in the Raiders surge to the top of the Eastern Conference.
With Siemens in net, the Raiders look like a more confident team. Last year when a goal was scored on them, you could just see the team sink and the outcome was pretty predictable. This year, if the Raiders are scored on they seem to work harder for their netminders because the team knows no matter who is in net, they will be there right to the end and they want to return the favour.
That point couldn’t have been clearer than the game in Edmonton on Saturday when Siemens made 47 saves to help Prince Albert knock off the defending league champion Oil Kings for the third time this year. The Raiders had built a 3-0 lead, but needed an overtime goal by Shane Danyluk to pull out the victory. It was Siemens who had given the team the chance to salvage the win.
Overall, the Raiders get an “A” on the report card. I could easily say “A+”, but I’m sure the team even admits there is room for improvement. Goaltending is not a concern, the defence has played solid and the forward units are getting better every game.
And, the fans are coming to the rink, but like the team itself, there is still room for improvement. It has been an unbelievable start and hopefully the next third of the schedule is just as rewarding.
Dave Leaderhouse is a reporter with the Prince Albert Daily Herald