A new era for the Prince Albert Raiders gets underway this weekend with the Western Hockey League club beginning another run at claiming a league championship when they play a home-and-home series against arch-rival Saskatoon.
The Raiders play their home opener tonight against the Blades before what is expected to be a capacity crowd and part of the excitement is the arrival of new threads as finally the team is going back to its traditional green colours and getting rid of a pirate-head logo and black uniforms.
Tonight’s game is also the inaugural appearance of new head coach Cory Clouston behind the Raiders bench. Clouston takes over a club that struggled mightily in the second half of last season and because of that former head coach Steve Young was told he wasn’t needed any longer. For some reason that still bothers me, but I have to be like everyone else and move on.
Big things are expected from the Raiders this year, but when a pre-season poll released last week had them listed in the sixth spot overall in the entire Canadian Hockey League prior to the drop of the first puck, I had to take a second look to make sure I read that correctly.
Yes, the Raiders will be a good team. They have a solid core of returning players to go with a great group of freshmen, but sixth best in the entire country? I don’t think the defending Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads made the list so to not have them on the initial prognosis makes me question the validity of the compilation.
With guys like Leon Draisaitl, Josh Morrissey (if he returns from the Winnipeg Jets), Dakota Conroy, Shane Danyluk, Sawyer Lange, Mike Winther and newcomer Cole Cheveldave the Raiders are strong in a number of areas.
Newcomers Brendan Guhle and Matteo Gennaro will certainly turn a lot of heads and journeymen like Reid Gardiner, Tim Vanstone, Carson Perreaux and Jayden Hart give the club some depth.
Prince Albert will definitely be a fun team to watch and should be a threat to challenge for the East Division title, but they have their hands full to be in the top three in the Eastern Conference and the top five in the entire league.
The Red Deer Rebels, to me at least, are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. They arguably have the best group of overage players in Lukas Sutter, Rhys Dieno and CHL goaltender of the year Patrik Bartosak. From my viewpoint your oldest players should be your best players and Red Deer’s certainly will.
Prince Albert’s list of 20-year-olds includes Cheveldave, Dylan Busenius and Evan Morden. All three are solid players, but are they game-breakers? Cheveldave had a lot of success in his two seasons with the Kamloops Blazers, but he is going to have to stand on his head in the Raider goal and do what his predecessor Luke Siemens did -- steal games on his own. He is also going to have to help 16-year-old Nick McBride get accustomed to the game at the WHL level.
Busenius and Morden are also going to have to show marked improvement from last year as both, I felt, were average on the blueline. These two are going to have to show the youngsters like Guhle, Tyler Dea, Tomas Andrilik and MacKenzie Stewart the ropes and if they are successful in bringing that young corp. of defenders to a high level then the Raiders should have no problem improving on their 35 wins from a year ago.
Prince Albert is going to need everyone buying into the belief that they are good enough to succeed because other teams will also show improvement from last year.
Aside from the Blades, the other teams in the East Division will all be better than a year ago. Expect the Brandon Wheat Kings to rebound with Kelly McCrimmon back behind the bench and the Swift Current Broncos, despite losing Adam Lowry, will also be a much better team. The Moose Jaw Warriors and Regina Pats will also be hungry after both missed the playoffs last spring.
Red Deer, as mentioned earlier, should run away with the Central Division title, while the Kelowna Rockets return 20 players from a year ago and most certainly have to be favoured to claim the B.C. Division pennant. The Portland Winterhawks, despite being banished last year for a list of infractions, will be strong for one more year before the consequences of their actions begin to show and the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips will both be stronger.
The long season begins now and only time will tell if the Raiders will be a contender when the playoffs begin in March. I tend to think they will be considerably better than last year, but a deep run in the post-season depends on how the team comes together under Clouston, associate coach Dave Manson and assistant coach Tim Leonard.
With that feeling comes one final word of caution: the deeper the Raiders go in the playoffs the less likely the club will have Clouston back for another year as the former coach of the Ottawa Senators has made no secret that he would like to get back to the professional ranks. A successful year in Prince Albert would likely have his phone ringing so as fans, let’s enjoy what the next six or seven months brings us. It should be an exciting year.
Dave Leaderhouse is a reporter with the Prince Albert Daily Herald.