The Latvians never say die: 2014 Memorial Cup Champions, Edgars Kulda and the Edmonton Oil Kings

Living in Eastern Ontario has its perks especially when it comes to hockey. I get the best of both worlds with complete Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League coverage almost 24/7. Same with the NHL, most games I watch are from teams on the east coast. Naturally, I’ve developed a bit of an east coast bias if you will.

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The beauty of tournaments like the Memorial Cup, Subway Supers Series and even the Stanley Cup Playoffs allow me, well, more like force me to pay attention and watch west coast teams. It’s fantastic because it’s like watching hockey and following teams for the first time all over again.

Case in point: Edmonton Oil Kings.

I’m not up to snuff on my Western Hockey League prowess as I’d like to be. I have an OHL bias as most Ontarians do but I’m not ignorant to the fact that there are some mighty powerful teams on the other side of the country.

The Oil Kings fit that bill. What they pulled off in the 2014 Mastercard Memorial Cup was nothing less of extrodinary. They faced and conquered elimination twice on their journey and with elite level goaltending pulled off a championship upset over my OHL’s Guelph Storm. Long story short, on paper, they weren’t supposed to get this far.

The MVP of the tournament however came as another shock. Edgars Kulda, an undrafted Latvian out of the capital city of Riga, proved that one should keep a watchful eye on this emerging hockey country. He notched an impressive four goals and totaled seven points. Three came at the hands of the Guelph Storm in the championship game.

kulda_edgars_edmonton_oil_kings_2012-13_oilkings_ca_11Maybe it was the memory of his fellow countryman and Oil King team mate, Kristians Pelss, who drowned last summer that encouraged his impressive game. Whatever the case Kulda has made his mold this year and maybe, just maybe, an NHL team will take notice and select him this year in Philadelphia.

It seems like 2014 has been the year of Latvia. From Kristers Gudlevskis becoming the first goaltender to suit up for an ECHL, AHL, NHL and Olympic game in one season, from the Ted Nolan coached Team Latvia that narrowly conquered the might team Canada at the Sochi Olympics to the emerging presence in the junior ranks of Edgars Kulda, the hockey world shouldn’t be shocked no longer.

Latvia knows its hockey and they’re only going to get stronger.

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50 years of Saskatoon Blades hockey

whl-saskatoon_blades_2006-07The 2013-2014 season in a monumental one for the Saskatoon Blades hockey club. Ushering in 50 years of hockey and being the last remaining Western Hockey League club still playing hockey out of their original city, you can see why. While the team doesn’t boast a WHL Championship, nor a Memorial Cup, (and currently have the longest championship drought streak going in the CHL), there are plenty of things to be proud of in this team’s storied 50 year history.

Take a look at their NHL alumni for example. The Blades have molded and spit out legends such as Mike Babcock, the greatest Leaf of all time Wendel Clark (I’m biased), Richard Matvichuk, Darcy Hordichuk, Brad McCrimmon, the late Wade Belak, Brain Skrudland, hell I could go all day. How about tough guys Tony Twist and Joey Kocur? Legends in their own special fist fighting way.

There’s also plenty who are making their names in the show right now. Devin Setoguchi, Brayden Schenn and Braden Holtby just to name a few. There are also plenty playing overseas.

This year is no exception.

Nikita Scherbak. (Photo: Steve Hiscock)
Nikita Scherbak. (Photo: Steve Hiscock)

Currently leading the team in points with 36, first year player and right winger Nikita Scherbak is bound to make a name for himself. 26 games in, the Moscow, Russia native has already bagged 16 goals and 20 helpers. As of the latest NHL “Players to Watch” list ahead of next year’s entry draft, they have Scherbak listed as an ‘A’ skater. Second to him is Nathan Burns out of Edmonton, Alberta. Burns himself is a centreman who has a strong skating ability to go along with his veteran presence. His second season with Saskaton and 5th overall in the WHL, Burns is over a point a game with 33 in 27 games.

The community of Saskatoon have the upmost support for their junior franchise and have continued to do so throughout the years. This is a dominating feature as to why the Blades have stayed in one spot for 50 years. The fans are die hards and passionate and well, they bleed blue. A solid support system can only come from the top and the Blades ownership is an exceptional one at that. Mike Preistner has shown tremendous support and ability in building up the already storied Saskatoon Blades brand since taking over.

Here’s to another 50 years of Saskatoon Blades hockey. Bleed blue.

Kavan’s Crease: 2014 NHL Prospect Profile: Sam Reinhart

So lately I haven’t really posted anything, and the reason for that (besides having a 60-hour work week) is because I have been working on preliminary rankings for next year’s draft. Yes, I know that’s a bit ahead of schedule, but few people realize the importance of the draft and what these kids mean to the future of our sport. I want to profile certain players; some for their ridiculous talent level and hype, and some who are lesser known who I believe will jump up the standings pretty quickly.

The first player I chose to profile, is the current standout for No. 1 overall in 2014: Sam Reinhart.

sam-reinhartBackground

Reinhart was born in North Vancouver, British Columbia and was raised there with his 2 brothers, Max and Griffin, who are also NHL draft picks (Max: 3rd rd, 64th overall in 2010. Griffin: 1st rd, 4th overall in 2012). His father Paul also played over 600 games with the Flames and Canucks.

Sam started playing youth hockey at a at a young age and would eventually play with the Hollyburn Huskies, from the Hollyburn Minor Hockey Association. From there, he would suit up for the Vancouver NW Giants of the BCMML, posting 80 points in 39 games before being drafted by the WHL’s Kootenay Ice.

Awards are something Reinhart is probably already used to receiving. In 2011-12, he won the Jim Piggott awars as WHL rookie of the year,
Skills

Having bloodlines in the NHL isn’t the only reason Reinhart is a highly touted player; in two seasons with Kootenay, he put up a staggering 147 points in 139 games scoring 63 goals. What makes him such a special player is his ability to play both sides of the puck. Offensively, he has great vision and can shoot or pass, as well as draw defenders to him. He knows when and where to shoot and if he gets open in front of the net, chances are the puck is going in. Defensively, he’s a hard backchecker and can strip the puck from you just as quick as he can fire it off.

If there’s a downside to Sam Reinhart, it is his size. Standing at 5’11” and weighing in at 165 lbs, he is not the biggest guy on the ice and will need to put on around 20 pounds before making any NHL team.

Teams

At this point in the offseason, predicting which teams will end up where in the standings is tough, but if we’re judging by the current rosters and team outlooks, expect Calgary, Colorado and Buffalo to have a real chance at Reinhart.

That concludes the first prospect profile! Check back real soon for a sneak peek at Barrie Colts blueliner Aaron Ekblad. As always, thanks for reading, cheers!

Kavan’s Crease: 2014 NHL Entry Draft Overlook: Picks 11-20

Welcome back! Last time we looked at prospects 21-30 for next year’s NHL Entry Draft. Just as a recap, those picks were:

21. Nikolaj Ehlers
22. Shane Gersich
23. Nick Ritchie
24. Jack Ramsey
25. Kyle Jenkins
26. Sonny Milano
27. Josh Ho Sang
28. Jakub Vrana
29. Pierre Engvall
30. Spencer Watson

This time we’ll be taking a look at picks 11-20, starting at 20 and working down.

20. Jared McCann, C, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
6’0″, 174 lbs
Shoots: L

McCann-was-injured-in-Sault-Ste.-Maries-playoff-opener-Claus-Andersen-Getty-Images
(Photo: soogreyhounds.com)

2012-13 stats:
64 GP, 21G, 23A, 44 pts, -6, 35 PIM

McCann is a big centreman who protects the puck well, has a good shot and great vision. Extra muscle will be expected, but that will come with time.

19. Ryan Falkenham, RW, Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
5’10”, 172 lbs
Shoots: R

2012-13 stats:
45 GP, 10G, 11A, 21 pts, +17, 14 PIM

Ryan Falkenham is a shorter, stocky forward who doesn’t have a problem heading to the dirty areas in front of the net and plays with a style similar to Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens. Playing alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin didn’t hurt his development, but it will be interesting to see how he plays without them this season.

18. Haydon Fleury, D, Red Deer (WHL)
6’3″, 203 lbs
Shoots: L

2012-13 stats:

66 GP, 4G, 19A, 21 pts, +4, 21 PIM

Fleury is a big bodied, hard-nosed blueliner with an offensive upside. He is a plus player on a minus team, has a howitzer of a shot and is disciplined in his own end. His agility may come into question, but defensemen take longer to develop and his skating should come around.

17. Daniel Muzito-Bagenda, LW, Modo J18 (Sweden)
6’1″, 198 lbs
Shoots: L

2012-13 stats:
20 GP, 16G, 16A, 32 pts, +30, 32 PIM

tVjO9p8I7REy6lnJc1QXA hulking winger, Muzito-Bagenda is a big sniper who has no trouble finding the back of the net. Another Swede who plays a great defensive game, but will have to work on discipline, since almost a penalty per game average won’t be acceptable at the NHL level.

16. Tyson Baillie, C, Kelowna Rockets, (WHL)
5’11”, 190 lbs
Shoots: R

2012-13 stats:
67 GP, 26G, 30A, 56 pts, +36, 53 PIM

One of, if not the smallest player in the draft, Baillie lets his on-ice play do the talking for him. A Martin St. Louis-type forward, he is a passer first, but can still find the twine pretty often. Size will be a concern for sure, but if his point production stays consistent and he can put on some pounds, there will be a team that will feel lucky that this guy was still available.

15. Alex Nedeljkovic, G, Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
5’11”, 190 lbs
Catches: L

2012-13 stats:
26 GP, 19-2-2, 2.28 GAA, .923 SV%, 2 SO

Nedeljkovic straight up4248
(Photo: plymouthwhalers.com)

Nedeljkovic is the first and only goalie in the top 30, and he is here for a reason, backstopping his team to the conference finals before bowing out to eventual champions, the London Knights. Nedeljkovic’s Whalers led the OHL in goal differential, scoring 90 more times than they let in. He is not the tallest goalie, but is a big boy at 190 lbs. and has good movement in spite of that. Only 5 goalies had a better save percentage, 3 of whom have already been drafted by NHL teams (Malcon Subban, Boston; Jordan Binnington, St. Louis; John Gibson, Anaheim) and only 3 goalies had a better goals against average (Subban, Binnington and Kitchener’s Franky Palazzese). If Nedeljkovic can improve his puck handling and rebound control, he should be a solid starter one day.

14. Michael Dal Colle, C, Oshawa Generals (OHL)
6’2″, 170 lbs
Shoots: L

2012-13 stats:
63 GP, 15G, 33A, 48 pts, +19, 18 PIM

Michale Dal Colle is your typical big, power forward centreman. He can shoot, pass, hit and skate and plays just as well on the other side of the puck. He still needs to put on some weight, but once he fills out, he should turn out to be a number 1 or 2 centreman, depending on the team that drafts him.

13. Joni Tuulola, D, HPK U-18 (Finland)
6’1″, 165 lbs
Shoots: L

2012-13 stats:
41 GP, 10G, 21A, 31 pts, 26 PIM

Tuulola is a big offensive defenseman who has a hard shot and a good first pass out of his own zone. He can move opposing forwards away from his goaltender and takes few penalties. As many others, he will have to gain some weight before hitting his full potential, but should round out a top 4 nicely.

12. Chase De Leo, C, Portland Winterhawks (WHL)
5’7″, 130 lbs

2012-13 stats:
71 GP, 18g, 38A, 56 pts, +28, 24 PIM

srx_chiefs2_t940
(Photo: portlandwinterhawks.com)

Chase De Leo is currently the smallest player who is draft eligible. At 5’7″, he will need to gain at least 30 pounds before he can safely play in the NHL. If he does, however, this kid will be dangerous. He uses his small size and speed to squeeze through defenders, essentially blazing a trail through other players. He has soft hands and good vision and should be a solid top 6 forward one day.

11. Leon Draisaitl, C/LW, Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
6’2″, 198 lbs
Shoots: L

2012-13 stats:
64 GP, 21G, 37A, 58 pts, +22, 22 PIM

Draisaitl is another player in the growing trend of big power forwards at next year’s draft. The 6’2″, 198 lb versatile forward is the whole package. Soft hands, wicked shot, sees the ice well and plays well in his own zone. Needs to work on his speed a little but still an effective top 6 guy nonetheless.

That’s a wrap on picks 11-20. I feel some players in this third of the first round may climb a bit by the time the draft rolls around, but the surprise is part of the fun! Check back soon for picks 1-10; the good stuff!

As always, thanks for reading and, Cheers!

Vancouver Giants Season Preview

With the new WHL season not too far off, I figured I would step out of my comfort zone of NHL-only writing and do a preview for the local WHL team here in Vancouver, the Giants.

VancouverGiantsLogo250.jpg-797190Perpetual winners, the Giants had a rare off-year last season, finishing last in not only the BC division, but the WHL as a whole with just 44 points in 72 games; 6 behind their next closest competitor, the Prince George Cougars.

Despite the dismal team performance, there were certain individual bright spots that could be seen.

17-year-old Jackson Houck lead the team in scoring with 23 goals and 34 assists for 57 points in 69 games played. The sophomore winger scored 15 more goals and put up more than twice as many points than his rookie season, while adding 68 PIMs. Next season should be a breakout season for Houck after being drafted in the fourth round, 94th overall by the Edmonton Oilers. He will have something to prove if he one day hopes to crack the Oilers’ young lineup.

Another positive for the Giants is D Brett Kulak. Despite being a -34, the 2012 4th round pick of the Calgary Flames scored 12 goals and 46 points in 72 games played; good enough to earn him a call-up to the AHL’s Abbottsford Heat.

Being a minus player on last year’s Vancouver Giants isn’t a fair reflection of most players on the squad. All 4 goalies who suites up for the Giants this season seemed to have trouble stopping pucks, as Peyton Lee, the team’s leader in just about every category, still let in an average of 3.51 goals a game and only stopped 87.9% of the shots he faced. His backup(s) were no better and often the team was left high and dry coming back from 2-3 goal deficits.

Having one off year and finishing last in the league is never what you strive for, but it does have its positive. For example, coming in last means picking first at the bantam draft, which is exactly what the Giants did and selected LW Tyler Benson from the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League.

Benson was unreal in the AMBHL, breaking the league record for points by putting up 57 goals and 89 assists for 146 points in only 33 games played. The 15-year-old plays hard along the boards and will provide a huge offensive boost. He should be a key part of the Giants offense for the next few years.

The Giants open next season at home on Friday, September 20th, against the Victoria Royals. Fans are sure to pack the Pacific Coliseum that night in hopes of seeing their team start their bounce-back season with a vengeance.

Some dates to look out for are as follows:

Friday, October 18th:Giants play the Kamloops Blazers. The Blazers had the Giants’ number last season, beating them 7 out of 8 times. The worst was a 6-0 beatdown which saw 4 fights throught the course of the game. The Giants will be poised to avenge that one.

Wednesday, January 14th: CHL Top Prospects game. Giants players Peyton Lee and Jackson Houck have a chance at making it, so watch their development throughout the season.

Saturday, March 15th: Final game of the regular season against none other than the Kelowna Rockets. Depending on standings, this could be a barn burner.

So, as I said before, junior hockey is not my area of expertise, but I will continue to do my homework and provide more in-depth coverage as I go along! As always, thanks for reading, leave me some comments and come back soon!

Cheers!

NHL Unveils 2014 Who To Watch Prospect List

As early as ever the NHL has unveiled a “who’s who” of who to watch for in next year’s draft. 20 players have been selected from the OHL including three from my beloved Kingston Frontenacs.

The QMJHL and WHL also have their fair share of players as well. Take a look at this VERY EARLY prediction. Just click on this year’s first overall pick, Nathan MacKinnon.

Nathan MacKinnon (Photo: puckingopinion.flickr)
Nathan MacKinnon (Photo: puckingopinion.flickr)

Jersday: Calgary Hitmen

Hitmen LogoI don’t care who you were in the 90’s, male  or female, you watched WWF Raw. Religiously. And you either loved or hated Bret Hart.

The Hitmen were formed in 1994 by Graham James (…..), Theo Fleury, Joe Sakic and of course the Hitman himself, Bret Hart. They currently play in the WHL and the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Yes, they started out in pink thanks to Bret but that didn’t give them anything less to be intimidating. Combined with the killer logo, they stood apart from the crowd.

whl_Calgary-Hitmen_HOME

Currently they’ve thrown out the pink and added in red and it looks phenomenal. Combined with the stripes on the side, this sleek jersey in most definitely a collectable to get your hands on.

2013 Draft Profile: Seth Jones

Well either the Colorado Avalanche or Florida Panthers are going to select this guy.

(Photo: Arian Durst. flickr.)
(Photo: Arian Durst. flickr.)

The 18 year old defenceman for the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL is in for an exciting and nail biting draft experience. Jones would be an asset to any team dying for a strong defenceman (*cough*FLYERS*cough); his size and demeanour on the ice is intimidating. In 61 games for Portland, he amassed an astonishing 56 points.

He also has tons of experience in high calibur and highly stressful games. He won back to back U18 gold with Team USA in 2011 and 2012 and just recently collected another gold at the World Junior championships. At the U17’s in 2011, he was named to the All Star Team. Quite a resume for an 18 year old with only one year of WHL experience under his belt.

He’s been projected to go first overall by several scouting reports. If he still will though remains to be seen as both VP of Hockey Operations in Colorado, Joe Sakic and head coach Patrick Roy has stated they are going to pass on the defenceman.

Should be an interesting first couple of picks in the draft.

 

Canadian Hockey League’s Banning Of European Goaltenders.

Well here’s a touchy subject. For lack of a better reason and for a few years of failed World Junior Championship gold, the Canadian Hockey League has put in a ban of drafting European goaltenders. Apparently ours suck and need a wee bit of conditioning.

I’m gonna look at this from both sides of the table though.

Justin Pogge. (Photo - Sylvain Nadeau, flickr.)
Justin Pogge. (Photo – Sylvain Nadeau, flickr.)

First off, tell me something. Let’s say you were General Manager of oh…I don’t know…let’s say the Erie Otters. And let’s say you formed one hell of a team, you had the next Sidney Crosby, the next Pavel Datsyuk, the next Al McInnis (How come everyone’s forgotten about Al?!), hell, even the next Wayne Gretzky. All you’re missing from your piece of the Memorial Cup puzzle is one hot goaltender. Are you really going to care where this guy is from??? Who would you rather, Mika Samsoniteov  with a GAA of 0.02 from Russia or Johnny Canuck with a GAA of 10.93? I don’t know, but I’d be a little peeved.

Another question. Are they still allowed to draft American goaltenders?? Why sure they are! How is that really fair?

Sigh. But, as a patriotic Canadian I can see their point. Kinda. Our efforts at the World Juniors when it comes to goaltending the past few years have been dismal at most. While I won’t mention any names, (I’m sure you all know who they are), Team Canada has a HUGE reputation to uphold as the best hockey nation on the planet. They see that they are losing the goaltending battle and figure this is a way to save face.

Relax Bobby Lu. You're fine.
Relax Bobby Lu. You’re fine.

Last point though….no one’s saying these young Canadian goaltenders can’t go get signed over in the European leagues and get conditioned there. Hell, a bunch of the coaches are Canadian.

Second last point…..I hate to sound like a Don Cherry but, all you youngsters out there, STOP IT WITH THE BUTTERFLY. Stand up more, you’ll save more shots. But what do I know…..I’m just a woman, right?

Third last point. Kudos if you caught the Dumb and Dumber reference.