Previewing the 2020-21 Saskatchewan Male Under-18 AAA Hockey League season

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Forward Gage Helm moves into the offensive zone for the Prince Albert Mintos during their pre-season game against the Tisdale Trojans at the Art Hauser Centre last fall.

In addition to the ever-evolving protocols and rules that are in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot will be different in the Saskatchewan Male Under-18 AAA Hockey League this year.

The league itself has a new name, as the long-time Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League moniker is no longer in use following the renaming of age divisions by Hockey Canada last fall.

Also, two new squads have entered the fray as the Estevan Bears and the Warman Wildcats have joined the 12-team loop.

They will be replacing the Beardy’s Blackhawks and Notre Dame Argos, which were both dropped as a result of a restructuring by the Saskatchewan Hockey Association last fall.

While teams in the North and South Divisions aren’t scheduled to play against each other during the regular season, and the lineups for each squad could change dramatically if the Western Hockey League starts their campaign as planned on Jan. 8, the intra-division contests that are slated from Nov. 1 to March 21 should provide some great action ahead of a yet-to-be announced playoff format.

North Division

Battlefords Stars

As they look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016, the Stars will welcome a new voice behind the bench as longtime Beardy’s Blackhawks head coach Dale Grayston has joined the program.

Although they lose their top three scorers from last season in Carson Dobson (aged out), Vaughn Watterodt (joined the Yorkton Terriers as a 16-year-old) and Jake Southgate (aged out and joined the Battlefords North Stars), and saw their leading defensive scorer Tanner Willick move over to the Prince Albert Mintos, the Stars will have some strong returning faces.

Mason Bueckert had 26 points in his rookie campaign at the Under-18 level and Jackson Fellner posted three shutouts last year, which was tied for the second most in the league.

The Stars have also added Edmonton Oil Kings fourth round pick Ryan Taylor from the Under-15 Battlefords Barons to their blueline and Lethbridge Hurricanes late round pick Rylan Williams, who had 66 points for the Swift Current Under-15 Broncos.

The program has three Prince Albert products in returning forward Matthew Henry, former Blackhawks forward Nathan Flodell and Ryan Lepitzki from the Prince Albert Dairy Queen Chill Under-18 program (who are now known as the Prince Albert Lakeland Towing Vulcans).

Prince Albert Raiders draft pick Liam Rodman is also with the team for his second season on the blueline.

Prince Albert Mintos

As Danton Danielson begins his second season behind the bench, he’ll do so with a vastly different lineup that looks to advance past the quarter-final round for the first time since 2018.

Netminders Joel Favreau and Spencer Welke have both aged out of the Under-18 ranks, three of the team’s potential returning blueliners (Chase Freidt-Mohr, Chase Pauls and Marek Schneider) could make the jump to the WHL and only one of their top 10 scorers (Gage Helm) is back with the club.

While two pre-season games are a small sample size, the Mintos look to have answered the offensive questions with returning forwards Kody Willick and Raiders draft pick Dallyn Peekeekoot leading the way, in addition to rookies such as Zach Bansley, Tysen Durant, Tanner Howe and Trae Johnson.

The blueline now features Kody’s twin brother Tanner, who played for the Stars last year, and WHL Draft picks Nate Misskey and Rhett Ravndahl, in addition to returning player and Raiders prospect Tre Fouquette.

Kris Johnson and Ty Shumanski make up the goaltending tandem this season, but both have experience in the league with Beardy’s and the Yorkton Maulers respectively.

Saskatoon Blazers

The Blazers had the second-best record in the league last year, but their playoff run came to an early end as they were upset by the Tisdale Trojans in four games.

On paper, the Scott Scissons-led side might have the best defence in the Under-18 AAA circuit. They welcome back five players from last year’s squad, with four of them (Hunter Mayo, Logan McCutcheon, Kalem Parker and Dylan Wiegel) all being signed by WHL teams.

They’ve also added Medicine Hat Tigers first round pick Reid Andresen, who had 51 points for the Saskatoon Generals Under-15 program.

The offence has also added some big weapons to replace their graduating players, with Victoria Royals prospect Matthew Hodson moving over from the Saskatoon Contacts, last year’s league scoring champion Nolan Doell joining the club following a 77-point campaign with the Blackhawks and Everett Silvertips draft pick Roan Woodward entering the Under-18 ranks after putting up 100 points last season with the North East Wolfpack.

The goaltending will be different though as Zane Winter and Brett Mirwald have both moved on. Alex Garrett and James Venne will now lead the way after being brought up from the Generals and Saskatoon Riverkings Under-18 AA teams respectively.

Saskatoon Contacts

The Contacts might have the most frightening forward core in the league as they look to improve on a semifinal sweep they suffered against the Moose Jaw Under-18 Warriors.

After playing as underage players and being picked second and third overall by the Prince George Cougars and the Warriors respectively, Riley Heidt and Brayden Yager are back for their second go-rounds, in addition to Red Deer Rebels prospect Kalan Lind who put up 120 points for the Swift Current Under-15 Broncos.

The big new piece, though, is Berkly Catton, who is the lone 2006-born player in the league. He had 108 points for the Under-15 Saskatoon Bandits last year and is expected to be the first overall pick in the 2021 WHL Draft.

Besides the big four, returning players Alex Bernauer and Tye Spencer are also strong performers up front, along with newcomer Luke Korte who had 59 points with the West Van Academy.

While Saskatoon Blades prospect Ethan Chadwick appears to be the new starter in goal with Chase Hamm aging out, the defence will have a dramatically different look to it as Logan Barios, Jacob Hoffrogge, Kevin Korchinski and Raiders prospect Adam McNutt have all moved on.

The Contacts will also have a new head coach this season as Dale Lambert will be replacing Marc Chartier.

Tisdale Trojans

When the 2019-20 season came to an end, the seventh-seeded Trojans were down 2-0 to Regina Pat Canadians in the semifinal round, which they had reached for the second straight season.

While this year’s team will welcome back netminder Hunter Lolacher and feature a strong defence (which included Prince Albert product and Seattle Thunderbirds pick Cole Tanchuk), the offence for Dennis Kubat’s squad will be very different.

In addition to seeing Mackenzie Carson, Trenton Curtis and Kalen Ukrainetz age out, the Trojans lost Noah Willis to the Melville Millionaires and saw committed player Ashton Ferster of the Mintos join the Flin Flon Bombers.

They do welcome back Victoria Royals prospect Carter Briltz to the lineup, but will be looking for improved performances by their returning and new faces as they look to make another playoff run.

Warman Wildcats

The first-year club will feature a local product behind the bench as former Raiders forward Ryan McDonald helps to establish the Wildcats program at the Under-18 level.

That learning process will be aided by some strong 2005-born players in goaltender Alex Worthington, defenceman Rylan Pearce and forwards Connor Gabriel, Jeter Korte and Dustin Renas.

The Wildcats were also supposed to welcome in former Minto and Saskatoon Blades prospect Marek Schneider to their blueline, but he’s currently suiting up for the Flin Flon Bombers.

South Division

Estevan Bears

Jeff Smith, who was previously an assistant/associate coach with the SJHL’s Estevan Bruins, will coach the other first-year team in the Under-18 AAA circuit.

Like the Wildcats, the Bears have a mix of youth and experience on their roster, which includes two former Prince Albert Mintos forwards in Cooper Chisholm and Kelowna Rockets prospect Turner McMillen.

One of the fresh faces that’s worth keeping an eye out for is Red Deer Rebels draft pick Carson Birnie. The cousin of Swift Current Broncos prospect Brady had 28 goals and 39 assists last season with the Regina Monarchs Under-15 team.

Moose Jaw Warriors

When the 2019-20 season came to abrupt halt in March, the Warriors had already clinched a spot in the league final after sweeping aside the Hounds and the Contacts.

As Trevor Weisgerber gears up for his second season as head coach, the Warriors will have a different lineup to work with. Goaltenders Chase Coward and Dylan Ernst have moved on, while forwards Caelan Fitzpatrick and Keagon Little (who was supposed to join the team from the Tisdale Trojans) both moved up to the Estevan Bruins.

The club will benefit from the delayed start to the WHL season, however, as Warriors prospects Atley Calvert and Max Wanner are both going to start the year in the Under-18 ranks.

The team will also welcome Victoria Royals forward prospect Anthony Wilson from the Northern Alberta Xtreme and Brandon Wheat Kings first round pick Quinn Mantei, who had 52 points on the blueline last year for the Weyburn Wings Under-15 program.

Notre Dame Hounds

The Hounds, who won three of the last five league championships going into last season, saw their quest for a third straight title end in the quarter-final round last year as they were swept by the Warriors.

This year’s team, which is being coached by Devin Praught for the fifth year in a row, is yet another diverse group of talent as it features players from Canada, Denmark, Russia and the United States.

Danish netminder Marcus Bjorn returns to the team and is joined by Saskatoon Blades prospect Austin Elliot, who had a strong season for the Hounds Elite 15’s program that plays in the Canadian Sports School Hockey League.

While Arizona State Sun Devils prospect Dominick Campione graduated to the AJHL’s Brooks Bandits, the backend will welcome American Jackson Lucia, who was part of the Hermantown High School program that played for a Minnesota state championship in March.

Up front, the Hounds will lose Kevin Anderson to their SJHL counterparts, but will welcome back Red Deer Rebels prospect Jhett Larson and have added Regina Pats prospect Braxton Whitehead from the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 15’s program.

Two young pieces to watch are Swift Current Broncos prospect Van Eger and QMJHL draft-eligible forward Thomas Chafe, who both played for the Hounds Under-15 squad.

Regina Pat Canadians

Fresh off of winning their second straight regular season title, the Pat Canadians held a 2-0 series lead over the Tisdale Trojans in the semifinal round when the season ended due to the pandemic.

Darren McKechnie’s squad will lose a lot of offence from last year’s lineup, especially with league MVP Cal Caragata aging out and joining the AJHL’s Camrose Kodiaks, but he will welcome the two top scorers from the Under-15 circuit in Seattle Thunderbirds prospect Sam Oremba (133 points) and Swift Current Broncos prospect Brady Birnie (128 points).

Thanks to the delayed start to the WHL campaign, the Pat Canadians will also have Prince George Cougars prospect Kyren Gronick back in their forward core, while 50-point blueliner and Brandon Wheat Kings prospect Logan Hammett returns to the blueline.

Although they have lost graduating netminder Jared Thompson and his sparkling 1.61 goals against average to the Flin Flon Bombers, Dryden Ramage is back between the pipes after winning 18 games last year and pitching three shutouts on his way to posting a 2.06 goals against average.

Swift Current Legionnaires

Following two straight setbacks in the quarter-final round, the Legionnaires have a new coach this year as Chris Keleher was promoted from the Under-18 AA Hurricanes program.

While the Legionnaires have lost a lot due to graduation or players moving up to other leagues, such as Raiders prospect Logan Linklater joining the Kindersley Klippers, their new faces should help to fill the gaps that have been left behind.

After posting a 2.33 goals against average and an 11-2-0 record with the Saskatoon Blazers, Zane Winter will take over the starting duties in goal, while fellow Blazers alumni Spencer Bell will become their top weapon on offence after a 41-point season and will be joined by Swift Current Broncos draft pick Tyson Yaremko.

Local product Carter Herman moves up to the Legionnaires after a 39-point season for the Under-15 Broncos and former Prince Albert Venice House Pirates blueliner Brady Smith is heading south to start his career at the Under-18 level.

Yorkton Maulers

Since making the playoffs in 2018, the Maulers have posted a combined 10 wins over the last two years and mustered only three triumphs last season.

While there is once again a lot of turnover on the roster with players moving on or aging out, the Ed Zawatsky-coached team does have two young talents to build around in returning forward Connor Hvidston and rookie forwards Jaxon Sperling and Carter McKay, the latter of which was taken by the Prince Albert Raiders in April’s WHL Draft.

The Maulers also feature two members of the Prince Albert Venice House Pirates in blueliner Caden Dunn and forward Roper Blanchard, who were picked by the Nipawin Hawks and the Battlefords North Stars during the 2020 SJHL Draft.

Sure-To-Be Wrong Predictions

North Division

  1. Saskatoon Contacts
  2. Saskatoon Blazers
  3. Prince Albert Mintos
  4. Tisdale Trojans
  5. Battlefords Stars
  6. Warman Wildcats

South Division

  1. Regina Pat Canadians
  2. Notre Dame Hounds
  3. Moose Jaw Warriors
  4. Swift Current Legionnaires
  5. Estevan Bears
  6. Yorkton Maulers

Who Wins The League?

A lot of this will depend on how the playoff format is structured, as it has yet to be announced by the league.

If it’s done by a divisional format, the Contacts and Blazers could meet up in the semifinal round in a series that could easily be a league championship if it was done in the traditional one-to-eight setup.

In this writer’s opinion, the two Saskatoon squads look to be the best on paper, while the Pat Canadians are right in the mix and the Hounds, Mintos and Warriors lurking in the weeds.

If everything goes as planned and COVID-19 doesn’t bring proceedings to a screeching halt, the Contacts offence should put them over the top to capture the championship.

As we all know though, titles aren’t won on paper.