The Prince Albert Raiders will provide no shortage of storylines and should be a fun bunch to watch in 2023-24.
Excitement around the team’s youth moment provided much anticipation for the upcoming WHL campaign. Last season, the Raiders steered their ship in their reload towards their youth placing an eye to the future.
The squad missed the playoffs with a 28-37-3 mark, but players like Ryder Ritchie, Aiden Oiring and Terrell Goldsmith, who was selected in the fourth round and 102nd overall by the Arizona Coyotes in the NHL Entry Draft this past June, provided optimism about good things that could potentially come for the team. With the cyclical nature of junior hockey, the Raiders should be in position to make gains in the standings as various other teams go through resets.
One of the other big storylines centres around one of the WHL’s veteran good guys coming to “Hockey Town North” via the trade route. On August 23, the Raiders acquired 20-year-old netminder Chase Coward from the Red Deer Rebels in exchange for a fifth round selection in the 2024 WHL Prospects Draft.
The Rebels were dealing with the logjam of trying to get down to the league limit of having three 20-year-old players which resulted in Coward being set to the Raiders. Coward is trying to build on one of the WHL’s great comeback stories.
During the 2021-22 campaign, the Swift Current product emerged as one of the circuit’s elite goalies. Appearing in 35 regular season games with the Rebels, Coward posted a 22-10-2 record, a 2.51 goals against average, a .906 save percentage and two shutouts. The Swift Current product followed that up in the 2022 WHL Playoffs posting a 4-4 record, a 2.24 goals against average, a .925 save percentage and one shutout.
At that point, fate dealt Coward some bad cards. Following the 2021-22 WHL campaign, Coward was invited to attend camp with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. After a physical examination by the team’s medical staff, it was discovered he had minor hip dysplasia, which is a congenital defect.
He had operations on both sides of his hip in October and December of 2022. Coward missed most of the 2022-23 campaign appearing in his first game of the season this past March 8. He made 20 saves in a 2-1 victory over the Lethbridge Hurricanes at Peavey Mart Centrium in Red Deer.
Ultimately, Coward was used sparingly appearing in four regular season games posting a 1-2-1 record, a 2.98 goals against average and a .902 save percentage. He only got into two games in the 2023 WHL Playoffs as the Rebels elected to run with Kyle Kelsey in goal.
Upon rejoining the Rebels, Coward told Ian Gustafson of the Red Deer Advocate he hoped to be able to play hockey for a couple more years expecting to have to go back in for further surgery in the future.
On paper, Coward can give the Raiders goaltending that should allow the team’s younger roster to have hiccups and growing pains. He has the ability to bail the team out when mistakes are made.
In the bigger picture, you can bet a lot of people around the league are cheering for Coward to have success and write a good comeback story. Hopefully, he will still have many great hockey seasons beyond the 2023-24 campaign. For now, it is hoped it isn’t too much to ask the hand of fate to allow Coward to be great in the upcoming season.
Along with hoping the best for Coward, Raiders fans have to be excited about how their young roster will look now that most players have to the 2022-23 season of experience under their belts and another off-season of training to get stronger and faster. Ritchie was the team’s third leading scorer last season recording 55 points off 20 goals and 35 assists in 61 games as a 16-year-old rookie. There is lots of anticipation to see what he will do as a 17-year-old rookie.
Oiring grew a bunch getting way more opportunities in Prince Albert after being acquired in a trade on December 31, 2022 with the Winnipeg Ice, who are now the Wenatchee Wild. As an 18-year-old sophomore, it should be cool to see how much more improved Oiring is this year compared to last.
The Raiders have other youngsters like forwards Cole Peardon and Grady Martin, who will be 17-year-old sophomores and should find better footing in their second WHL campaigns. On the back end, Goldsmith as an 18-year-old and along with 18-year-old sophomore rearguard Justice Christensen should be cornerstones to build the blue-line around.
While there is hype around the youngsters, the Raiders will have a veteran presence that will help the club along. Winger Sloan Stanick topped the Raiders in scoring last season with 64 points coming off 31 goals and 33 assists. He should be a solid 20-year-old and 19-year-old right-winger Niall Crocker will look to build on the strides he made in the second half of last season.
On defence, 19-year-olds Eric Johnston, Owen Boucher and Easton Kovacs will fill the roles as the steady big brothers.
As far as rookies go, the Raiders faithful will be looking to seeing if 16-year-old rookie left-winger Luke Moroz can sneak in a highlight or two as he learns the ropes of the circuit and balancing school with playing in the WHL.
At the moment, it would be way too big of an expectation to except the Raiders to rise to the top of the WHL standings. Realistically, they should be in the mix to get into the post season and should give their foes a good battle on a nightly basis.
Fans should be able to watch with pride as they see this club grow, but should be mindful the team will still have some bumpy nights where lessons are learned.
Darren Steinke is a Saskatoon-based freelance sportswriter and photographer with more than 20 years of experience covering the WHL. He blogs frequently at stankssermon.blogspot.com.