Sawchuk entering stretch drive of final WHL campaign

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Riley Sawchuk moves into the offensive zone for the Edmonton Oil Kings during a game against the Prince Albert Raiders in January.

Prince Albert product an assistant captain for Oil Kings

During his three seasons as a member of the Tri-City Americans, Prince Albert’s Riley Sawchuk would only play in the Art Hauser Centre on two occasions with the way that the Western Hockey League regular season schedule works out.

The 20-year-old forward was able to double his trips to his hometown rink during the last two weeks as he came back as a member of the Edmonton Oil Kings.

“It’s always a lot of fun to come back home and it’s always nice to be able to see my family and friends,” Sawchuk said. “It’s kind of sad to know that this might be the last time I play here, but there’s always a possibility of us playing the Raiders in the playoffs.”

Sawchuk, who spent two seasons with the Prince Albert Mintos before joining the Americans in 2016, was dealt to the Oil Kings last May for a third round pick in the 2021 WHL Bantam Draft.

“The guys welcomed me right away and I felt like I was already brothers with them after a week of being there,” Sawchuk said. “I was able to bond so well with them and it’s been a lot of fun so far.”

In addition to being an assistant captain for the club, Sawchuk is enjoying his best season to date as he led the Oil Kings in scoring with 59 points in 49 games ahead of a home contest with the Brandon Wheat Kings on Tuesday night.

He was also tied for sixth in league scoring with Dylan Cozens of the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Connor Zary of the Kamloops Blazers.

“A lot of that comes from my linemates,” Sawchuk said. “Jake Neighbours and I have been clicking pretty good since the start of the year and lately we’ve been joined by Dylan Guenther, who can already do it all as a young player in this league.

“I’m just focusing on shooting pucks on net and moving my feet, which I think have been keys to my success.”

The Oil Kings are the team to beat at the moment in the Eastern Conference with a 32-8-6-3 record and 73 points, which is eight more than the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the Central Division and just two markers behind the Portland Winterhawks for the top spot in the league table.

“This team reminds me quite a bit of the one that we had in Tri-City back in 2018 when we swept our opponents in the first two rounds and made it to the Western Conference final,” Sawchuk said.

“We had a lot of depth on that team and I feel like it’s the same here in Edmonton.”

The majority of this year’s Oil Kings side made it to the Eastern Conference final last spring, where they lost to the eventual league champion Prince Albert Raiders in six games.

“I actually watched one of the games in that series here in person so I got a good sense of what we had coming back before training camp started,” Sawchuk said. “Everyone wanted the chance to go on another run.

“I think that experience allowed us younger guys to gain more confidence and it has helped us with our progression as we go through this season,” Neighbours added. “I also think it improved our leadership that much more as we all have a better idea of what to expect.”

In addition to gearing up for what he hopes is a run to the Memorial Cup in Kelowna this spring, Sawchuk is also preparing for what he will do next season as he will be aging out of junior hockey.

“Every kid dreams of signing a pro contract, so that’s the main focus right now,” Sawchuk said.

“On the flip side though, you need to have a backup plan, so I’ve been looking at a few schools and using that opportunity as a route to go on if the pro ranks don’t work out.”