The Regina Pats are 100 per cent Memorial Cup-bound in 2018

Sports | by Gregory Beatty

Regina Pats Home Opener vs. Brandon Wheat Kings
Brandt Centre
Saturday 23

You don’t need to be a psychic to know how the Regina Pats will fare this season. That’s because they’re the host team for the Memorial Cup. When  the tournament starts May 17, they’ll be taking the ice against the other finalists from the QMJHL, OHL and WHL.

The Pats came tantalizingly close to reaching the Memorial Cup last season. Ranked #1 in the CHL for most of the year, they fell in six games in the WHL final to the Seattle Thunderbirds.

While GM and coach John Paddock had plenty of talent on the roster last season, he was somewhat hamstrung at the trade deadline. In any other year, he would have been looking to acquire some veteran talent to solidify the team’s position as a contender. But because the Pats were in the running to host the 2018 Memorial Cup, he needed to keep this season in mind too.

That may have hurt the Pats chances last year, but the good news is that the players the team did acquire are poised to be key contributors now, says Pats play-by-play man Phil Andrews.

“Every trade John Paddock made was in the interest, last season, of getting better, but also bringing in players who would be here this year,” says Andrews. “Defenseman Josh Mahura was the biggest acquisition. He’s going to be huge on the back end. You look at Jonathan Smart and Dawson Davidson, those are their top three guys on defense. Then there’s Jeff de Witt and Wyatt Sloboshan up front. All five of those guys were acquired last year.”

That doesn’t mean the Pats don’t have some questions heading into the season. The biggest is the status of star centre Sam Steel. The first-round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2016 is at their training camp now, and there’s no guarantee he comes back.

“They’ve got some injuries up front, so you could see Sam getting some games in the NHL, and maybe the Pats don’t see him for who knows how long,” says Andrews.

Assuming Steel makes the Ducks out of training camp, under NHL rules, once he plays 10 games the first year of his pro contract kicks in. So Anaheim could send him back then.

There’s also the world junior tournament to consider, says Andrews.

“You look at how well Sam played at the summer development camp, where they had him as their first line centre, everyone would be dumbfounded if he wasn’t a big part of the Canadian team this year. Even if he’s in the NHL for the first half, you’d probably think the Ducks would say, ‘Okay, go play world juniors, then go back to Regina after that.’”

As much as the Pats would miss Steel should he stick with the Ducks for a time, it gives other players a chance to show what they can do.

Andrews puts Jake Leschyshyn in that category.

“Already, the Pats have announced him as an alternate captain, and his play speaks for itself,” says Andrews. “He works hard on the ice, and is incredibly smart. As a 15-year-old, he played upwards of 20 games if you include the playoffs. Then he played a full year as a 16-year-old, and 47 games last year [before tearing his ACL]. But he was still drafted in the second round by the Vegas Golden Knights. So he’s a guy who’s going to have to be huge, especially early on.”

Another key player, says Andrews, is centre Matt Bradley.

“He was a big acquisition this summer from Medicine Hat. He was drafted by Montreal a few years back. They didn’t sign him, and he’s currently attending the Minnesota Wild training camp as a free agent. He scored 34 goals last year on a good Tiger team, and he’s going to fill the role Adam Brooks had at centre so the Pats don’t miss a beat there.”

Tyler Brown is back in goal, so the Pats seem set there. And George King is a solid prospect on right wing, says Andrews: “Last year, he had 35 goals with the OCN Blizzard in the MJHL. So there’s some real excitement about him.”

Last season, the Pats got big production from their two Europeans. Russian defenceman Sergey Zborovskiy was plus-72, while Swedish winger Filip Ahl scored 34 goals. They’ve both moved on to pro careers. Replacing them are 19-year-old Finnish winger Emil Oksanen and 17-year-old Russian defenceman Egor Zamula. How they will perform as WHL rookies remains to be seen.

Even though the Pats, as host, have already qualified for the Memorial Cup, Andrews doesn’t see that impacting on how they approach the season.

“The goal of every host team is to go in the front door. It’s going to be there all year that the Pats are Memorial Cup hosts,” he says. “But the goal of everyone in the organization is to be back where they were last year in the WHL final, but just win two more games.”

One thing that will be different is that Paddock will have more flexibility at the trade deadline, says Andrews.

“I think there will be some retooling. There always is in a Memorial Cup year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they go looking for another top defenceman. Then probably a winger, although that could change depending on Austin Wagner’s status.

“He led the playoffs in goals last year with 20,” says Andrews. “In any other year he’s going pro as a 20-year-old with L.A. But because he had major shoulder surgery he’s not going to play until November or December. Instead of burning a year without him having been at training camp, do the Kings send him back to Regina?”

One thing Andrews knows for sure is that Regina hockey fans are in for an exciting season.

“After the run last year, we’ve seen an unbelievable response at the box office, where the team sold out of season tickets with 5,000 in three hours. It doesn’t get much better than this,” he says. “The 100th Memorial Cup is coming to Regina, and the Pats are celebrating their own centennial. So there’s a lot going on.”❧