Even if he’s not yet ready for prime time, Sawyer Lange believes it’s showtime just the same.
The 16-year-old defenceman from Prince Albert steps onto the ice today as his hometown Raiders begin their WHL training camp at the Art Hauser Centre.
And the boy from next door is knocking on the Raiders’ door in his first bid for a roster berth.
“I’m just hoping to come out and surprise people a little bit,” Lange said Wednesday before an evening skate at the Art Hauser.
“Maybe show them that I might not be ready to make the step yet, but that I’m working hard to make it, hopefully next year, or I’m getting pretty close.”
Lange was a rookie last season with the midget AAA Prince Albert Mintos, whose dressing room is across the hallway from the Raiders’ locker-room. He was a fourth-round draft pick in 2009 after captaining the bantam AA Prince Albert Pirates.
The Raiders tracked Lange’s progress as recently as this summer at the provincial under-17 tryouts in Wilcox.
“Sawyer had a real good camp,” said Raiders coach and general manager Bruno Campese. “I think our (scouts) were a little bit surprised at how much he’s improved over the course of the year, so that was a real good sign.
“He could make things interesting. He’s one of those guys that’s still 16 and probably not ready to play yet, but whether he earns a contract out of training camp, that’s something that should be closely watched.”
The Raiders have been most impressed with Lange’s skating development.
“Sawyer has always had good offensive instincts,” Campese said. “He passes the puck hard and he shoots the puck well.
“But his skating (progress) is something that I was really pleased with, because it was a little question mark. But I think he’s worked hard to address it.”
Lange refined his skating this month while attending a two-week camp in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., along with Mintos teammate Jordan Swenson, a defenceman trying out for the Spokane Chiefs. Former NHL defenceman Dave Manson, one of the Mintos’ coaches, strongly recommended the U.S. camp.
“It was a really high-quality skating camp,” said Lange, who noticed the results last weekend during the Mintos’ training camp.
“I feel like a much sounder skater. I feel I’ve improved a lot. My stride has gotten longer. I’m lower in my stride, so I’m a lot more stable. I feel it’s benefited me a lot.”
Manson, who works closely with Mintos head coach Tim Leonard, has passed on tips from a long pro career.
“Dave has been huge,” Lange said of the former Raider. “I’m really glad he’s around. He’s helped us out so much with everything, from passing, keeping your head up (and) little plays that you wouldn’t think would be a big deal, but in the long run, they add up a lot. He’s helped with mental preparation.”
Another one of Lange’s resources is Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, an Emma Lake neighbour during the summer months.
“He’s got a lot of insight for me, so it’s nice to have him around,” Lange said of Babcock.
Lange has had such a busy summer that he didn’t have much time for lake country. Along with hockey camps and training, he played competitive lacrosse. He’s a box lacrosse standout with his father’s junior B Prince Albert Predators and he won a provincial midget championship with the Prince Albert Fury.
Last spring during the Raiders’ prospects camp, Lange juggled workouts with his lacrosse schedule. And he might have to do likewise next week, depending on the length of his Raiders’ tryout.
Lange and fellow Prince Albertans Matt Anholt and Brennan Boruch are part of Team Saskatchewan for the national under-16 field lacrosse championship, set for Labour Day weekend in Saskatoon.
“I think it would be pretty exciting, if I could earn a spot on the (Raiders’) pre-season roster and play a couple of exhibition games,” said Lange, who is almost five-foot-11 and 176 pounds. “That would be pretty cool, to get a bit of experience and see what I’d be up against for the next couple of years.”
The Raiders’ camp roster includes six returning defencemen. Yorkton Terriers junior A product Austin Bourhis, one of the players acquired in the Ryan Harrison trade with the Medicine Hat Tigers, is among the newcomers expected to make a strong bid for a job on Prince Albert’s defence. Bourhis is 18.
Lange’s turn in the Raider rotation is likely later, but he comes to his second WHL training camp with more confidence, and a good buddy to boot. Mintos forward Tyson Dallman, a former Calgary Hitmen prospect, has been invited to the Raiders’ camp.
“Since Tyson got picked up by the Raiders, we’ve been talking a lot,” Lange said. “I’ve made buddies with a few (Raider prospects) who are my age, but it’s nice to have someone at camp that you know real well and see every day.”
Lange showed his versatility with the Mintos last season, playing at forward on occasion before settling back on defence, which is his natural position. This season, it’s expected he would be an anchor on the Mintos’ blue-line in the Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League.
“I think we’ll be really strong defensively,” Lange said of the Mintos. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get that offensive touch that we’re looking for.”
Lange is going into Grade 11 at Carlton Comprehensive High School, which is the same school where the younger Raiders attend classes.