By Dave Leaderhouse
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League will try and get back to normal on Friday after a rare week where activities off the ice dominated the headlines more than what took place on the ice.
Bitterly cold weather forced the postponement of Thursday’s lone game between the Kindersley Klippers and Humboldt Broncos leaving just two games having been played since last weekend. The Klippers, who begin a nine-game homestand when they host the Weyburn Red Wings on Sunday, might have to interrupt that month-long stay at home with a make-up date in Humboldt, but as of right now nothing has been announced for when that contest will be played.
Another reason for the lack of games this week was the annual trade deadline, which came and went on Tuesday with 14 separate deals taking place and a number of players finding themselves with new addresses.
If one takes into account the handful of transactions leading up to Tuesday’s deadline, every SJHL team was active in either moving a list player or shuffling the current roster with additions and subtractions to set the table for the stretch run of the regular season.
Of all the wheeling and dealing that took place, a quartet of moves stood out above the rest.
The league-leading Battlefords North Stars gave up three players, a first-round bantam pick and a player development fee to land Jared Blaquiere and Zach Nedelac from the La Ronge Ice Wolves. Blaquiere was not only La Ronge’s leading scorer, but a team leader leaving the impression that the struggling Ice Wolves have surrendered this season and are building for the future. The addition of Blaquiere only adds more depth to a North Stars team that is running away with the Finning Division and overall point’s race with just under a third of the schedule remaining.
The Melville Millionaires shipped their No. 1 goaltender, Brandon Wells, to Spruce Grove of the Alberta Junior Hockey League leaving the netminding chores in the hands of 18-year-old Colby Entz. This move was somewhat surprising as the Millionaires, who only got a player development fee in return for Wells, are battling with Kindersley, Notre Dame, Melfort, Weyburn and Yorkton for the final playoff spot and with a run of any kind could even get out of playing in the opening Wild Card round.
Flin Flon also went out west when they traded sniper Dondre Watson to the Canmore Eagles in exchange for forward Daylan Marchi. Watson was in his first year in the SJHL and had 17 goals with the Bombers, including two in what would be his final outing with Flin Flon last weekend, but with Marchi they get a player who is two years younger and also has some offensive upside to his game. The deal was also done to get down to the limit for overage players on the roster.
The final move that stood out was Notre Dame sending the team’s third-leading scorer in Tyler Podgorenko to the AJHL’s Bonneyville Pontiacs in exchange for defenceman Riley Perka and a player development fee. Again, the Hounds got younger with Perka being just 18 and Podgorenko completing his junior eligibility this season, but Notre Dame, which has struggled to score outside of their dynamic duo of Ben Duperreault and Adam Dawe, surrendered Podgorenko’s 36 points for some added size on the blueline (Perka is 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds).
It will be interesting to see how all of these moves shake out and that starts on Friday when eight teams get back to work with Notre Dame beginning their tour of the north with a stop in La Ronge and Weyburn settling in the Battlefords for the first of two back-to-back games against the North Stars. Yorkton also begins a brief swing up north when they visit the Bombers in Flin Flon and Nipawin heads to Melville to face the Millionaires.
On Saturday, the Hounds move over to Flin Flon, Yorkton heads down to Nipawin to hook up with the Hawks, Weyburn stays in the Battlefords to reacquaint themselves with the North Stars and Melfort makes the trek up north to face the Ice Wolves in La Ronge.
Notre Dame and Weyburn complete their hectic three-games-in-three-nights weekends when the Hounds visit Humboldt on Sunday and the Red Wings visit the Klippers in Kindersley. Just the Estevan Bruins are idle this weekend.
The final seven weeks of the regular schedule are going to be exciting as six teams – Yorkton (39), Weyburn (39), Melfort (38), Notre Dame (36), Melville (34) and Kindersley (33) – are separated by just six points in the battle for the final playoff spot and with that comes the jockeying for positioning to avoid the opening best-of-five Wild Card round.
As it stands right now, Yorkton sits in sixth spot overall, but they are tied with Weyburn and are just percentage points clear of avoiding the Wild Card round. Conversely, Melville is presently in the final playoff berth, but again, they are just a single point in front of Kindersley and with the Klippers set to play nine straight at home, a lot can happen in that stretch.
One cannot forget La Ronge, but with the Ice Wolves mired in a nine-game winless streak and the closest team in the standings being Kindersley – a monumental 16 points in the distance – the gap just appears to be too large to overcome.
The top end of the standings are a little less unsettled as the Battlefords, who have won six straight, hold a 21-point cushion on the Humboldt Broncos for the Finning Division lead while the Estevan Bruins appear to be on their way to a Viterra Division crown as they are 14 points ahead of Weyburn in that race. The only divisional battle that still exists is in the Sherwood Division where Flin Flon, winners of their last four, have a nine-point edge on Nipawin, but the Hawks hold three games in hand so if they utilize those then the race becomes even more intense.
Nipawin and Humboldt enter the weekend tied for fourth overall and with that position comes home-ice advantage in the quarter-final round. That carrot alone should give both clubs some incentive not too get too comfortable as a slump of any kind would bring those chasing them back into that race.
Notre Dame at La Ronge
Weyburn at Battlefords
Yorkton at Flin Flon
Nipawin at Melville
Melfort at La Ronge
Weyburn at Battlefords
Notre Dame at Flin Flon
Yorkton at Nipawin
Notre Dame at Humboldt
Weyburn at Kindersley