Raiders take step forward, show optimism more good to come

Photo by Darren Steinke. The Prince Albert Raiders on the ice following their Game 5 loss to the Saskatoon Blades.

Stanks On Sports

The glass is more than half full for the Prince Albert Raiders.

With the 2023-24 campaign coming to an end on Friday with a 6-2 loss in Game 5 of a first-round post-season series to their archrivals the Blades in Saskatoon, you can rightfully have an optimistic feeling. After a one season absence, the Raiders returned to the WHL Playoffs.

A core group of players has been formed on the roster with Ryder Ritchie, Aiden Oiring, Justice Christensen, Terrell Goldsmith, Eric Johnson and Max Hildebrand. It’s possible Ritchie, Oiring, Christensen and Goldsmith could be together for the next two seasons without discounting Goldsmith could play in the system of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes in 2025-26.

It is fairly safe to say Johnston, who is the Raiders captain, and Hildebrand, who is the team’s star goalie, will be outstanding and motivated 20-year-olds in 2024-25. Hildebrand was one of the WHL’s best stories rising to be one of the circuit’s top five goalies posting a 25-20-4 record, a 2.88 goals against average, a .907 save percentage and two shutouts in regular season play. He is doing pretty well considering he was taken in the 13th round and 286th overall or second last in the then 2019 WHL Bantam Draft.

As 16-year-old rookies this past season, wingers Oli Chenier and Luke Moroz showed flashes of possible breakout potential as they gained more game experience. Chenier showed consistent sparks throughout the year and Moroz played some really good minutes the second half of the season.

Of course, 16-year-old rookie campaigns are learning seasons for any player. Still, you start wondering what Chenier and Moroz will look like as they keep getting stronger and faster in off-season workouts and they gain more experience.

On the back end, Doogan Pederson and Tyrone Sobry equipped themselves well as 17-year-olds rookies. In hockey, defence is the hardest position to learn and make adjustments to every time you go up a level. Coaches really need to do their share of work with defencemen in the video room along with having the patience to allow them to sink and swim on the ice and learn from mistakes.

They had their moments where you could see them becoming these composed and steady blue-liners.

Also among the forward group, Brayden Dube and Harrison Lodewyk, who were both 18-year-olds this past season, and Cole Peardon and Grady Martin, who were both 17-year-olds this past campaign, made strides too. By the end of the season, they seemed to be a little bit more comfortable with trying to make more creative plays, when they realized they were in a position where they had time and space on the ice.

As the 2023-24 campaign went along, the Raiders had the starts and stops you would expect from a younger team. They jumped out to a 7-3-0-1 start, and one began to wonder if they were going to make a really big jump.

The grind of the season caught up to the young group at various points of the campaign. A skid would occur followed by a winning streak, another skid and another heater in the win column. They finished the regular season with a 31-32-2-3 mark to place eighth overall in the Eastern Conference and capture the conference’s final post-season berth.

The Raiders also played the Blades, who finished first overall in the WHL with a 50-13-2-3 mark, more times than any other club with 10 head-to-head regular season meetings. Prince Albert went 2-7-0-1 in those encounters. If you take away the games against the Blades, the Raiders were 29-25-2-2 against the rest of the WHL.

In the first round of the WHL Playoffs, the Raiders opened a best-of-seven series with the Blades taking Game 1 in Saskatoon 4-3 thanks to a 41-save performance from Hildebrand. It could be argued that the Raiders played their best game of the set in a 4-1 loss in Game 2 in Saskatoon having held a 32-30 edge in shots on goal. The Blades went 3-for-4 on the power play to account for the three-goal win.

One of the experiences the young Raiders roster learned was that post-season series can swing on outcomes of overtime games. The fact the Blades claimed Game 3 in Prince Albert 4-3 in overtime turned out to be the big swing game in the set.

The Raiders had a slow start in that contest falling behind 2-0 in the first, while the Blades had a 16-4 edge in shots on goal. The Raiders played well in the second and third periods of that contest outscoring the Blades 3-1 over that 40-minute stretch where shots on goal were tied 17-17.

Had the Raiders been able to pull that contest out of the fire, it would have changed the complexion of the series. If the Raiders had won, they would have been up 2-1 in the set and belief in a major upset would have increased a lot. In that scenario, the Blades would have had to go into deep waters knowing the series would have to go six or seven games for them to win it.

After taking a 2-1 lead in the series, the Blades, to their credit, were much stronger closing out the series with a 4-1 win in Game 4 in Prince Albert and the 6-2 victory in Game 5 this past Friday in Saskatoon. It could be argued the Blades most complete performance was their Game 4 win at the Art Hauser Centre.

Still, the Raiders continued to battle, and despite falling behind 4-0 early in Game 4, they battled back to cut the gap to 4-2 in the third. The Blades sealed victory with two empty-net goals in the final four minutes of the third.

The Raiders will miss their three players that completed their 20-year-old campaigns in 2023-24, especially star winger Sloan Stanick. Stanick led the Raiders in scoring with 84 points coming off 30 goals and 54 assists to go with a plus-two rating in the plus-minus department appearing in all of the club’s 68 regular season games.

After being acquired early in the 2021-22 campaign from the Regina Pats, Stanick appeared in 196 career regular season games with the Raiders recording 81 goals and 112 assists. You have to believe a professional opportunity will come his way.

Defenceman Jacob Hoffrogge joined the Raiders in a trade early in the 2023-24 campaign with the Edmonton Oil Kings. As a 20-year-old blue-liner, he was steady and helped Pederson and Sobry get more comfortable on the back end.

Centre Turner McMillen was released by the Kelowna Rockets on October 11, 2023 as part of the 20-year-old shuffle that annually happens in the WHL. Just two days after that release, he was added to the roster of the Estevan Bruins joining the junior A ranks of the SJHL. He returned to the major junior ranks being added to the Raiders roster on January 5.

McMillen’s experience showed through, and he added a composed and savvy presence up front often centering a line with Ritchie on right-wing and Polish import Krzysztof Macias on left-wing. As a 19-year-old rookie, Macias was one of the great stories of 2023-24 finishing fourth in Raiders team scoring with 47 points coming off 22 goals and 25 assists to go with a plus-nine rating in 65 regular season games.

One wishes that Macias was an 18-year-old, because you would like to see what he could do in a second season in the WHL. At the moment, it appears he will be caught in the shuffle for the Raiders last 20-year-old spot in 2023-24 with standout winger Niall Crocker and sturdy defenceman Easton Kovacs.

Czech winger Matej Kubiesa completed a 17-year-old rookie learning season and played well enough to consider bringing him back.

Raiders general manager Curtis Hunt and head coach Jeff Truitt are going to have to make some difficult decisions in the off-season, but you want your players to perform well enough personnel decisions become difficult. The Raiders players performed well enough that managers and coaches will have that lingering ill feeling when it comes time to move someone out.

Overall, the Raiders got some good progression out of their squad in 2023-24. It is onward and upward for more progression in 2024-25.

Darren Steinke is a Saskatoon-based freelance sportswriter and photographer with more than 20 years of experience covering the WHL. He blogs frequently at