If there was a trending topic list going into the upcoming Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League campaign, the word unknown would more than likely spring to the top of the charts.
As the 12-team circuit prepares to start their regular season on Friday, a host of questions still surround the league.
- How long will the 150-fan limit at games be in place?
- Will the loaned Western Hockey League players stay with their clubs longer than the current Dec. 20 date?
- Is the league going to stick with the traditional three-division format or will it go to two divisions as Commissioner Bill Chow said to CTV Regina’s Claire Hanna last week?
- What’s the playoff format going to look like and will the league champions have the chance to take on the Manitoba Junior Hockey League title holders in the Anavet Cup, let alone make the trip out to Penticton, B.C. for the Centennial Cup?
Regardless of how all of those issues turn out, the league itself does have a lot of talent from top to bottom at the moment, especially with the addition of major junior players for the time being.
As a quick aside, these previews were written with the rosters being as they were on Tuesday afternoon, so any changes made since then won’t be included in this piece.
Battlefords North Stars
Having won two of the last three Canalta Cup’s going into last year, the North Stars were heavy favourites to repeat as league champions after posting a 45-11-2-0 regular mark and held a 3-1 lead over the Nipawin Hawks in the quarter-final round when the season ended.
As Brayden Klimosko prepares for his third season as the head coach and general manager, he’ll do so with a side that will be dramatically different on offence and defence with many top players aging out or going to other teams.
The North Stars are helped by the fact that former Medicine Hat Tigers forward Jaxon Steele is returning for his overage campaign after averaging a point per game upon his arrival from the Prince George Spruce Kings, in addition to having netminder Kristian Lyon (acquired from the Langley Riverman at last year’s trade deadline) and Austin Schwab on the roster once again.
The club will also welcome two former Prince Albert Mintos in defenceman Zane Florence and forward Ty Bahm.
As they prepare to host the 2022 Centennial Cup, the Bruins made a change in the off-season as they let go of head coach and general manager Chris Lewgood and replaced him with Jason Tatarnic.
Tatarnic is familiar with building strong host sides for the Junior A national championship with his work for the Woodstock Slammers and the Chilliwack Chiefs, though he was fired from his job with the Chiefs just before they won the 2018 RBC Cup.
Even with a new bench boss, the Bruins appear to be in strong shape coming into the season with five blueliners and seven forwards returning from last year’s team that trailed the Melfort Mustangs 3-1 in the quarter-final round when the playoffs were stopped.
They’ve also welcomed some exciting new faces in 16-year-old Blainville-Boisbriand Armada defensive draft pick Owen Simmons and forward Calean Fitzpatrick from the Moose Jaw Under-18 Warriors, a veteran forward in former Battlefords North Star Quintin Loon-Stewardson and have landed WHL forwards Cole Fonstad and Eric Pearce on loan deals.
The one question mark is in goal as last year’s starter Keenan Rancier has moved to the NAHL’s Minot Minotauros, though Emerik Demers has the inside track for the job after coming over from the QJHL’s Valleyfield Braves.
Flin Flon Bombers
The second-seeded Bombers, who had the best offence in the SJHL last year, were the only club to have punched a ticket to the semifinal round in March as they swept aside the Humboldt Broncos.
The Bombers offence will take a massive hit with their top three players (Cole Rafuse, Alec Malo and Donovan Houle-Villeneuve) all aging out, while 2019-20 rookie of the year and Denver Pioneers committed player Tristan Lemyre has headed to the USHL to play for the Dubuque Fighting Saints.
While those faces will be hard to replace, Mike Reagan will be able to rely on twin brothers Chase and Easton Haygarth after they both broke the 50-point plateau last season, in addition to former Saskatoon Blade Zach Huber.
The defence will also have a new look to it with just two players returning, though it will be helped by the addition of Rhett Rhinehart from the Blades in a loan deal.
Jacob Delorme was expected to be back for his final season of junior hockey, but the netminder left a year early to suit up for the Concordia Stingers in U Sports, which leaves returning goaltender Cal Schell as the starter.
The Bombers have also welcomed former Prince Albert Mintos Marek Schneider and Ashton Ferster to the roster, along with former Beardy’s Blackhawks forward Cole Duperreault and defending Saskatchewan Under-18 AAA Hockey League goaltender of the year winner Jared Thompson from the Regina Pat Canadians.
As Scott Barney prepares for his third season as the head coach of the Broncos and his second as their general manager, he’ll be overseeing a side that could be the first legit contender to win the SJHL since the 2017-18 team that reached the semifinal round and Dean Brockman’s perennial title threats during the early part of the last decade.
The entire defence is slated to come back and has been strengthened by the return of Chase Felgueiras, who was reacquired from the Portage Terriers this summer after their ill-fated bid to host the 2020 Centennial Cup.
Although the offence has lost Logan Foster to the UBC Thunderbirds along with exciting young talent and future Vermont Catamounts forward Karter McNarland to the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede, they are still strong as Logan Kurki, Tristan Shewchuk and Luke Spadafora are all set to return, while Jarrett Penner has come over from the Notre Dame Hounds.
There are also three capable starters in between the pipes with the return of Michael Harroch, the arrival of Tanner Marshall from the Merritt Centennials and the addition of former WHL backstopper Dean McNabb.
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012, the Klippers have a new face behind the bench as they’ve brought in former Michigan Tech Huskies defenceman and one-time Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Ken Plaquin from the Okotoks Oilers Under-16 AAA program.
Having made a number of transactions last year to get younger, the Klippers offence lost two more key pieces this off-season as top scorers Liam Fraser and Scott McKenzie both moved on to the NAHL.
They are helped though by the arrival of Kyle Ford from the La Ronge Ice Wolves and the addition of Prince Albert Raiders prospect Logan Linklater from the Swift Current Legionnaires.
While the defence has a lot of new faces, netminder Matthew Pesenti is back with the club following a brief stint with the Yorkton Terriers.
La Ronge Ice Wolves
The arrival of new head coach and general manager Kevin “Killer” Kaminski resulted in a revival for the Ice Wolves as they posted their first 30-win season since 2012 and were tied at two games apiece with the Yorkton Terriers when the season ended early.
This year’s squad is going to look a lot different on offence as many players have aged out, though newcomer Narek Aleksanyan did put up 104 points last year for the Fresno Monsters, where Kaminski used to coach.
The defence loses top scorer James Philpott to the Maine Nordiques but they have added two big pieces in Prince Albert Raiders prospect Adam McNutt from the Saskatoon Contacts and current Raiders blueliner Nolan Allan in a loan deal.
The Ice Wolves biggest strength, however, is in goal. Xavier Cannon and Liam McGarva both return and local product Alex Bell joins the program after spending last season with the Lac La Biche Clippers.
The Mustangs, who are once again coached by Trevor Blevins, were one of the hottest clubs in the final weeks of the regular season last year, thanks in large part to the play of netminder Shawn Parkinson.
While Parkinson has aged out and Tanner Martin did not return to the team, the Mustangs have welcomed Steven Bacovsky from the Kindersley Klippers and former Prince Albert Mintos netminder Joel Favreau, who was impressive in pre-season play.
While the blueline is going to welcome four players back from last year’s roster, the offensive output is expected to take a hit as the top eight scorers from the 2019-20 squad have all aged out from the program.
The Mustangs are helped though by the arrival of WHL players as they’ve acquired Swift Current Broncos blueliner Alex Moar and forwards Ethan Regnier of the Everett Silvertips and Zack Smith of the Regina Pats on loan deals.
In addition to Prince Albert products Favreau, Moar and Regnier, the Mustangs have also brought in Mintos blueliner and Lethbridge Hurricanes prospect Chase Pauls for the upcoming season.
Having missed out on the post-season in four of the last five years, the Millionaires fired Kyle Adams and replaced him with Notre Dame Hounds skill coach Mike Rooney, who was behind the bench for the Kindersley Klippers during the late 1990’s.
In addition to a veteran blueline, the Millionaires will be aided in their quest to return to the playoffs by an improved forward core.
Leading scorers Zach McIntyre and Luke Nkwama are back with the team, Prince Albert Mintos forwards Chase Bertholet and Dawson Springer have moved up to the SJHL and Portland Winterhawks teammates Jaydon Dureau and Reece Newkirk have been loaned to the club.
The biggest factor for any success the Millionaires will have this season, however, will be in goal as Kaleb MacEachern and Alexis Giroux aim to replace SJHL goaltender of the year Berk Berkeliev, who has moved on to the NAHL’s New Jersey Titans.
A perennial contender under head coach and general manager Doug Johnson, the Hawks look certain to improve upon their eighth place result in last year’s league table.
Ross Hawryluk is back for his second season with the club in goal with Chase Hamm making the jump up from the Saskatoon Contacts as backup, while a blueline that features four returning players will play in front of the pair.
While the Hawks aren’t normally known for their offensive firepower, that narrative might change this season as returning forwards Jake Tremblay and Michael Makarenko could both eclipse the 50-point plateau.
The team has also welcomed back Red Deer Rebels forward Jaxsen Wiebe, who has been loaned to the club for the start of the year.
Notre Dame Hounds
With Philippe Roy leaving the Hounds for an assistant coach job with the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes, Brett Pilkington has been promoted from his assistant coach position with the Wilcox-based club as they look to return to the playoffs.
If that’s going to happen, the Hounds will have to replace the loss of graduating players and those who have been dealt to other teams, such as leading scorer Jarrett Penner (Humboldt Broncos) and starting netminder Riley Kohonick (Salmon Arm Silverbacks).
They are helped though by the return of blueliners Hardy Wagner and Zach Whittaker, while talent from the Hounds Under-18 program will look to fill the gaps left behind by the graduating talent.
The key new face is 2003-born forward Kevin Anderson, who had 43 points in 43 games last year for the Under-18 Hounds.
Weyburn Red Wings
Rich Pilon is hoping that his second season as head coach and general manager for the Red Wings goes a lot better than his rookie campaign, as the club missed out on the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
With a young roster that only mustered 118 goals last year, the Red Wings offence is expected to improve with Braden Birnie and Dace Prymak both returning, while Liam Antoniuk and Spencer McHardy have been added to the blueline from the Battlefords North Stars and the Humboldt Broncos.
Sophomore netminder Joseph Young was one of the most pleasant surprises in the league last year as he posted a 2.63 goals against average, a .924 save percentage and four shutouts despite having an 8-17-1-1 mark.
Although he didn’t play in the pre-season, Kamloops Blazers prospect Dylan Ernst is on the roster for his hometown team after suiting up for the Moose Jaw Under-18 Warriors last season.
It’s nearly impossible to try and replace the 58 goals and 51 assists that graduating forward and league MVP Chantz Petruic brought to the team last year, but the Terriers will attempt to do so with a host of WHL talent to start the season.
Jackson Berezowski (Everett Silvertips), Kishaun Gervais (Portland Winterhawks), Brett Kemp (Medicine Hat Tigers) and Carson Miller (Victoria Royals) will immediately find themselves in the top six, along with twin brother Kaeden and Keenan Taphorn.
Even if the WHL players don’t stick around for the whole year, the Terriers will be helped by a strong defence that includes returning players Ryan Granville and Tyson Janzen, in addition to Winterhawks prospect Ryan McCleary from the Swift Current Legionnaires.
The goaltending tandem is also strong as Philippe Bond is back for his second season and Jacob Herman makes the jump up from the Legionnaires.
A Sure-To-Be Wrong League Table (Because Who Knows What The Divisions Are Going To Be As of Writing)
- Humboldt Broncos
- Estevan Bruins
- Yorkton Terriers
- Nipawin Hawks
- Flin Flon Bombers
- Melfort Mustangs
- La Ronge Ice Wolves
- Battlefords North Stars
- Melville Millionaires
- Weyburn Red Wings
- Kindersley Klippers
- Notre Dame Hounds
Who Wins The League
Predicting who is going to win a Junior A league is always a fool’s game, but that’s especially true in the SJHL this season as we await to find out the playoff format and how long WHL players will be in the league, which could change things dramatically if more high-end talent (see Adam Beckman or Cole Sillinger) show up.
As things stand, the Broncos, Bruins and Terriers appear to be strong from top-to-bottom, while the Sherwood Division quartet of Flin Flon, La Ronge, Melfort and Nipawin will beat each other up on a regular basis.
If the WHL players return to their clubs as expected come Christmas time, the Broncos and Bruins seem to be the best bets to make the final, with the Broncos being my pick as the team to come out on top.