Year at a glance: young Raiders make stride in right direction

Herald File Photo. The Prince Albert Raiders celebrate a goal during the 2023-24 season.

The season may not have finished the way the Prince Albert Raiders would have liked, but the year was a positive step in the right direction for the young team.

The Raiders finished eighth place in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with a record of 31-32-2-3, good enough for 67 points in the regular season.

Prince Albert won their first playoff game against the Saskatoon Blades, who finished the regular season as the top seed in the Eastern Conference and won the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as top regular season team.

Saskatoon would win the series in five games, but the Raiders would push the Blades hard, including a 4-3 overtime game at the Art Hauser Centre decided by a power play goal from Blade overager Easton Armstrong.

Raider head coach Jeff Truitt says he was proud of how his team represented the logo on the front of the uniform.

“We’d like to push a little bit harder. But then on the other side, we’re really proud of our team and how that developed, getting into the playoffs and getting a game in Saskatoon against a real good team. There’s a lot of pride in our jersey and the way that we play and our identity as a team. I thought that that came through numerous times this year. Just the effort that our guys (brought) was tremendous.”

The Raiders were a younger team featuring seven rookies by season’s end (Luke Moroz, Oli Chenier, Matej Kubiesa, Krzysztof Macias, Tyrone Sobry, Doogan Pederson and Nathan Preston).

After not having a single game head to shootout in the 2022-23 campaign, the Raiders played in nine shootout contests this season, recording a 6-3 record. The last time Prince Albert had played in nine shootout contests in a season was back in the 2012-13 campaign where they went 5-4.

The franchise record for most shootouts in one season was set back in 2005-06 when the Raiders went to 16 shootouts, posting a 6-10 record.

In the month of January, all five Raider home games went to a shootout. Truitt says it wasn’t always easy to watch those contests from behind the bench, but those games provided invaluable experience to a young team.

“I think it was a little bit of a learning process for the younger guys, but they responded real well. It’s a credit to our older group that never showed panic, knew what to say, knew what to execute. It might have been exciting for the fans, it wasn’t so exciting for us behind the bench. Max Hildebrand in the net came up big for us. We got some great performances out of a lot of guys.”

From the start of training camp, the Raiders had their eyes firmly set on returning to the postseason for the first time in two years. A year after the Raiders posted a 2-6-2 start to the season, Prince Albert would get off to a hot start going 6-3-0-1 in their first ten games of the campaign.

Truitt says the season as a whole was an improvement in many areas from the 2022-23 season.

“It was like taking a step. We took the step to qualify for the playoffs. I think it was a huge development year. I think there were 10 or 11 guys that surpassed last year’s point totals. The emergence of Max Hildebrand as our starter. You see the leadership and Eric Johnston, (Justice) Christensen and there’s a lot more others as well. To see this group and how tightly this group bonded, and how well they got along, pulled us through a lot of adversities. Road wins, shootouts wins, whatever it might be. When the chips were down, that goes to show that team mentality is strong.”

It was the second full campaign as head coach of the Prince Albert Raiders for Jeff Truitt, who took over from Marc Habscheid after spending four seasons as an assistant coach.

Truitt has been coaching in either professional or junior hockey since the 1993-94 campaign when he started as an assistant with the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

Truitt says the season provided learning opportunities for the coaching staff as well.

“I think a year like this makes you a better coach, we might not have been the most offensively gifted team. We had to work for things. We had to manufacture things. what it made you do is it made you to be creative, to make decisions and firm decisions on personnel, who’s playing with who, strategies, the whole bit. When you get a veteran older group, you put it in place, but then that group takes over. This group here is a little bit of a younger group, where sometimes the leadership group is tremendous. But still as a coach, you have to get them through certain barriers and not too high, not too low type of situation. I think it makes you a better coach to manufacture things. So you’ve got to get creative here a little bit. I’m proud of our group, the way they accepted things this year.”

The Raiders will have plenty of competition heading into training camp next season. Prince Albert made five selections in the top 50 of the 2023 WHL Prospects Draft, headlined by first overall pick Daxon Rudolph. Players from that draft class will be eligible to make the Raiders as full time contributors next season.

Truitt says the Raiders are hoping to improve upon the results of this season heading into next.

“We’ve got a younger group coming in very skilled, and we’ve got some speed that way. I think we’ve got good older guys to lead the way. I think it’s going to be a little bit of a blend between older guys and younger guys. I think it’s going to be a good balance. I think that we can take another step next year, and that’s what we want. Talking to the players today, that’s what they want too.”

See future editions of the Daily Herald for feature stories on Jacob Hoffrogge, Sloan Stanick and Turner McMillen.