By Darren Steinke
Stanks On Sports
Too many close losses led to the undoing of the Prince Albert Raiders playoff hopes in 2022-23.
Hitting the ice with a young team this past season, the Raiders will benefit from the lessons they learned in the 2023-24 campaign. In 2022-23, the Raiders finished with a 28-37-3 record to finish 11th in the WHL’s Eastern Conference 10 points behind the 30-29-8-1 Medicine Hat Tigers for eighth place and the conference’s final playoff berth.
The Raiders finished 18th in the WHL’s overall standings for the 22 team circuit. While the Raiders were last in the six-team East Division, they had the best record among the clubs that finished last in their respective divisions. That meant the division and conference the Raiders were playing out of was highly competitive in 2022-23.
One area that kept the Raiders back this past season was their record in one-goal games, where they posted a 10-11-3 mark. Out those 11 losses in regulation and three in overtime, Raiders head coach Jeff Truitt and his staff have probably done some mental gymnastics of what combinations of those one-goal losses would have gotten the Raiders into the post-season.
The Raiders were only six wins away from being in the post-season. Ultimately, experience would have been the thing that likely would have gotten the Raiders over that hump to be in the post-season.
Still, the Raiders had strong growth this past season. In their first 34 games, the Raiders posted an 11-20-3 mark. Over their last 34 games, they posted a 17-17 record.
In the second half of the season, you could see the Raiders team play come together. They believed they could beat any club in the WHL. When February came to a close, the Raiders had a 25-29-3 record and were in position to make a move into a WHL playoff spot.
Over the month of March, the youthful Raiders learned some hard lessons about urgency and desperation. Unfortunately, some of those intangible lessons can only be learned when you live them. As a result, the Raiders posted a 3-8 record in March and subsequently fell out of post-season contention.
The Raiders had a good 20-year-old class to help lead the way for the younger players. Star offensive-defenceman Landon Kosior and captain Evan Herman were regulars at the start of the 2019-20 season and hung in with the Raiders during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shutdowns. Sorensen was acquired in a trade on August 17, 2021 with the Red Deer Rebels, and along with Kosior and Herman, he helped lead the Raiders back into an era of full 68-game regular seasons and once again playing in front of supportive crowds in their storied home rink in the Art Hauser Centre.
Kosior finished second in team scoring with 63 points coming off 17 goals and 46 assists to go with a plus-three rating in the plus-minus department in 60 appearances. Sorensen finished fourth in team scoring posting career highs in goals (25), assists (28), points (53) and plus-minus (plus-five) in 64 games. Herman was fifth in team scoring posting 38 points coming off 18 goals and 20 assists in 64 games.
The Raiders were so young this past season that they only have two players for the three 20-year-old spots next season all WHL clubs are allowed to have. One of the returnees will be left-winger Sloan Stanick. Stanick led the Raiders in scoring this past season posting career highs in goals (31), assists (33) and points (64) in 67 appearances, and he has the potential to be a really good 20-year-old.
Netminder Tikhon Chaika will take up both a 20-year-old spot and an import spot, but he will give the Raiders comfort in net. As the Raiders went with a more youthful roster, Chaika’s statistics took a hit from the season before, but they were still respectable as he posted a 17-23 record, a 3.28 goals against average, a .894 save percentage and one shutout in 45 appearances.
Barring trades, he has the potential to continue to form a strong tandem in net with Max Hildebrand, who will be in his 19-year-old season in 2023-24. In 32 appearances in 2022-23, Hildebrand posted an 11-14-3 record, a 3.71 goals against average and a .871 save percentage, but those number don’t show the improvement he made.
Two of the younger players who really turned heads with past season as rookies were left-winger Ryder Ritchie, who was 16-years-old, and centre Aiden Oiring, who was 17-years-old. Ritchie finished third in team scoring with 55 points coming off 20 goals and 35 assists in 61 games.
Oiring was acquired by the Raiders on December 31, 2022 in a trade with the Winnipeg Ice that saw right-winger Carson Latimer head to the Manitoba capital. Buried on a deep Ice roster, Oiring had five goals and three assists in 26 games with Winnipeg. He was given a lot more opportunities with the Raiders and recorded seven goals and 16 assists in 31 appearances with Prince Albert.
On defence, the Raiders six potential returnees should give them a good base in Eric Johnston, Seth Tansem, Justice Christensen, Easton Kovacs, Terrell Goldsmith and Owen Boucher. Johnston and Goldsmith could make up a top pairing, and Christensen turned heads with his physical play. It would also help that group if someone emerged as an offensive-defenceman to help make up for Kosior’s graduation.
Before the 2023-24 campaign rolls around, every team in the WHL will go through a shuffling of the deck. Looking at who the Raiders can bring back, they had a good potential to make solid gains due to the experiences they went through in 2022-23.
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.