The rebuilding Pats are in a solid spot after big recent runs
Sports | by Gregory Beatty
Last season, the Regina Pats celebrated their 100th anniversary and came agonizingly close to winning their fifth Memorial Cup, falling 3–0 to Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the final at Brandt Centre. So what do they do for an encore in 2018–19?
Well, if they follow the pattern of most Memorial Cup hosts they’ll struggle. How could they not, with pro-calibre talent like Sam Steel, Cam Hebig, Libor Hájek, Josh Mahura and Matt Bradley all gone?
Steel came up in the Pats’ system, but the others were acquired via trade as the Pats bulked up to contend for the cup. To get those players, they had to sacrifice prospects and draft picks. Typically, that means a few lean years.
The Saskatoon Blades, for instance, hosted the 2012–13 Memorial Cup and haven’t made the playoffs since. Fortunately, the Pats are in a better position, says play-by-play announcer Phil Andrews. “You compare this team to where Saskatoon was five years ago, the Blades just didn’t have the type of talent coming back that the Pats do.”
The big guys up front this year, says Andrews, will be Jake Leschyshyn and Nick Henry.
“Jake was a second round pick by the Vegas Golden Knights and Nick was a fourth round pick by Colorado,” he says. “They’ve been a big part of the success the team had the last two seasons, going to the WHL championship in 2016–17, and the Memorial Cup final last year.”
Robbie Holmes is another forward to keep an eye on, says Andrews.
As for defence, 20 year-old Cale Fleury is a potential anchor. Although he’s currently at the Montreal Canadiens training camp and there’s a chance he could turn pro and play in the AHL.
“If Cale does come back, he’ll be the leader on defence and play a ton of minutes,” says Andrews. “He’s complemented by two other 20 year-old defencemen: Brady Pouteau and Liam Schioler. Aaron Hyman is back too, and there’s a really good import Nikita Sedov from Russia. So the Pat’s strength, I think, is going to be on the back end.”
After spending time at the San Jose Sharks training camp, Max Paddock (G) is back too, which is another plus, says Andrews.
“If you look around the league, there’s not a lot of top-end goalies. But Max proved last year he’s that. In the second half of the season, he had the third-best goals against average in the league, then with his incredible play in the Memorial Cup.”
Despite the wheeling and dealing the Pats did, their prospect cupboard isn’t entirely bare either. Some players have already seen game action as injury replacements last season, while others scrimmaged with the Pats during the team’s six-week layoff before the Memorial Cup.
Cole Dubinsky (F) is one player to watch, says Andrews. “He’s the only 16-year-old who will play with the Pats this year. He looked incredibly good last year, so despite not being a high [bantam] pick — he went in the fourth round — he looks like he’ll be able to contribute.”
The Pats are also high on their second European import, Russian forward Sergei Alkhimov. “Both he and Sedov played with Team Russia at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup this summer,” says Andrews. “They’re only 17 and the Pats are going to have them for three years. So they’re going to play some big minutes.”
Defenceman Ryker Evans, also 17, is another player to keep an eye on, says Andrews. “He was a late pick because he was undersized at 14 going into the bantam draft. But he’s coming off a great year with Notre Dame Hounds who won the Telus Cup and he was named tournament defence MVP.”
One final change for the Pats, of course, saw GM/coach John Paddock relinquish the latter job to long-time assistant Dave Struch. The change, says Andrews, has been seamless.
“If anyone ever watched a practice over the last four years you might even think Dave was head coach. He ran practice, that was part of his job.
“It’s the perfect transition, I think. They’ve been together for four years, so it’s the same team, it’s just a different guy on the bench and John will do his thing as GM. I’m biased, but I think we’ve got the best three-man group in the league with those two and Brad Herauf as an assistant coach.”
Last season, the Moose Jaw Warriors (regular season points leader), Swift Current Broncos (WHL champ) and the Pats (Memorial Cup finalist) all had exceptional years. That made life difficult for the other three teams in the WHL East: the Brandon Wheat Kings, Prince Albert Raiders and Saskatoon Blades.
This season, Andrews expects the tables to turn. Swift Current, in particular, he predicts, will struggle, while Moose Jaw is in the same boat as Regina — still competitive, but missing a lot of talent from last year.
Brandon, Andrews thinks, is the team to beat. P.A. will contend too. Both teams enjoyed solid playoff runs as wild cards last year (the Wheat Kings lost in the second round to Lethbridge after upsetting Medicine Hat in round one, while the Raiders took the Warriors to seven games in round one).
Saskatoon should snag a playoff spot too, although with top talent such as Kirby Dach (F) and Nolan Maier (G) only 17, they’re still young.
Summing up the season ahead for the Pats, Andrews says it’s a turning of the page.
“When the ownership group came in four years ago, the big moves were made to build toward the last two years. Now they’re on to the next century, and I think there’ll be some moves like we saw four years ago where some high end talent will go to contending teams, and the Pats will restock for another run — which they hope won’t be too far down the road.”