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Thursday, December 27, 2018

NEUGSIE'S CHRISTMAS AROUND THE SJHL

By: Jamie Neugebauer
Voice of the N.D.Hounds

Merry Christmas everyone! It has been a great time covering the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League for all of you in the first half of the 2018 campaign, and I can’t wait for it to kick off again!

Instead of doing another 10 things this week, I thought I would go through the 12 teams of the league, and make a wish (or more) that I think each club would ask Santa for this Christmas, especially as the trade deadline is not too far away on Jan. 10.

I will do it in order of the standings as of Christmas Day:

1) Nipawin Hawks – The defending champs have won a league-high 25 games this year, giving up only 1.9 goals-against-per-game – so the team defence and goaltending looks really set. At the same time, only one other team in a playoff spot has scored as few goals as the Hawks, so I expect Doug Johnson, and his relatively young crew, will be asking for a veteran dynamic offensive piece or two at the trade deadline. With the way the Nipawin community gets around the Hawks, I would not be surprised if they have the cabbage to bring in a goal-scoring star, to help a team that is doing a great job finding just enough offence.

2) Kindersley Klippers – Not too different of a situation to Nipawin. Head coach Clayton Jardine has done a masterful job leading a veteran-laden, extremely hard-working group of Klippers to second in the league, all the while lacking a real proven goal-scorer. Ty Enns has been a real boost offensively since coming in from the Alberta league, and the Klips come at you in waves, but I’m sure Jardine will be looking for another dynamic goal-scorer. That being said, this team has been playing playoff-style hockey since opening night, so don’t expect their style to change at all through the campaign, regardless of who they bring in (if that's the route they go).

3) Yorkton Terriers – Matt Hehr’s Terriers are very much the opposite to the Top 2, as they have absolutely no trouble scoring goals, boasting the SJHL’s second-best offence heading into Christmas (138 goals through 33 games), with four guys in the league’s Top 15 in scoring. As much as Ben Laidlaw and Ryan Ouellette have been better lately, I’m sure they are still looking around for a No. 1 they can count on for a long stretch of time for the right price. Brendan Mark plays a huge amount on their back end, and while Kurri Woodford has been excellent since making the move from Notre Dame, you’d think at least one veteran defender, as well as the aforementioned goalie, is on Yorkton’s wish list. As good as the Melfort dynamic duo of Justin Ball and Carson Albrecht have been, if I need one SJHLer to score me a goal on any given shift, I am picking Jared Legien all day, every day.

4) Melfort Mustangs – Melfort fans had a lot to cheer about in November and December, as the aforementioned Ball and Albrecht, as well as Kayle Tosh on the back end, and their goaltending tandem of Hunter Arps and Shawn Parkinson, continue to dominate the SJHL. The Mustangs are a veteran group top-to-bottom, but if they are going to make a run, you would think Ball, Albrecht, and Tanner Zentner will need some secondary scoring. How many great scorers are there to go around at the trade deadline? I guess we will find out, as there is no doubt the Mustangs – who always have ample resources – will go out and look for some depth scoring. How far can Ball and Albrecht take them? Can they even be stopped? It’ll be interesting to see, but for now, enjoy the ride Melfort fans!

5) Humboldt Broncos – Would it be too metaphysical for the Broncos to simply ask Santa to get them out of this funk that they currently are in? Nathan Oystrick’s crew is loaded on talent, even with the departures of Chase Lacombe and Rayce Ramsay to stints in the Western Hockey League (who knows how long those ever last?). I wrote about it last week – I have no idea what’s wrong with this group, one that, of course, many around the world hope do well. But eight losses out of 10 has Humboldt plummeting down the standings, and this break is probably at a perfect time for them. They have made a lot of roster moves, added a lot of veteran talent, so as I wrote about before, how does Oystrick keep everyone happy with ice time? I am not a coach, and he is a much, much better one than I! So, I have no idea!

6) Battlefords North Stars – Is there a more under-the-radar excellent team so far this year than Brayden Klimosko’s Stars? Battlefords is one of only three teams in the league with single digits in losses as of Christmas, and have mixed some brilliant performances with some very poor ones this campaign. Between the likes Braydon Buziak, Matthias Urbanski (one of my favourites in the league), MacGregor Sinclair, and Ryan Gil, there is more than enough up front on this team to make a real difference, so I think what is needed is some veteran depth behind Cody Spagrud on the back end. The great news for Stars fans is that Joel Grzybowski is starting to catch some real fire in net, so if he can stay in the SJ, and not get too many long-term call-ups from the Victoria Royals, then watch out for a great second half for Battlefords!

7) Flin Flon Bombers – An excellent, balanced attack led by Brandson Hein has the Bombers, and their great fan base, in a solid spot at Christmas, with their seventh-placed standing mostly due to the fact that they have played a league-fewest 32 games to this point. Pierce Diamond has also been great in net for the most part this campaign, so it’s a similar story to Yorkton; the Bombers will be asking for a quality defender to compliment the outstanding Calvon Boots on the blue line. Should be a great second half for Flin Flon as well!

8) Notre Dame Hounds – Coach Phil Roy’s men, the youngest team in the league, who also came into the season with the fewest Junior A experience of any squad in the SJHL by far, ended 2018 on a very high note, and simply need to get healthy to continue the resurgence. No. 1 on the list to Santa has to be the speedy return of Nolan Renwick, as the 2001-born centreman is as good a bet for Rookie of the Year as any in the league, and could definitely have made Team Canada West if he was healthy for selection camp. Riley Kohonick, like Renwick and big pivot Cole Stevenson a member of last year’s Telus Cup championship Notre Dame midget team, has been brilliant in net of late, while the likes of Charles Martin, Tim Gould, and Kyle Robinson lead a defence-corps that is really coming together. While health is No. 1 on the list to Santa, and while veteran Conor MacLean has been fantastic in his return to the team from the Maritime Hockey League, I’m sure the club is also on the hunt for a little more experience either up front or the blue line.

9) Estevan Bruins – It has been an unbelievably inconsistent season for a very talented group of Bruins, albeit one with an incredible amount of turnover from last year’s run to the final. One issue this club had was in net, with Jake Anthony not playing up to the expectations Chris Lewgood and company had after acquiring last year’s save percentage and goals-against average champion from the Nipawin Hawks in the off-season. Estevan has taken a bold move by dealing Anthony away, and choosing to roll with young Minnesotan Grant Boldt, and reigning Manitoba midget goaltender of the year Kadin Kilpatrick, so it will be very interesting to see how an inexperienced duo will do in their pressure-filled situation. That being said, Estevan pulled off a coup last year by purchasing a veteran, proven No. 1 from the BCHL at the trade deadline in the form of Bo Didur, and as the Bruins always have a lot of resources, don’t be surprised if Santa brings them an interesting deadline. One thought I heard is that Estevan is on the hunt for a pass-first forward, with gunslingers like Mike McChesney, Turner Ripplinger, and TJ Irey around.

10) Melville Millionaires – More of the same as of late, one would think! Kyle Adams, the new head coach whose interim tag has been removed, had his influence on the club even before taking over. Adams, who joined the club in the off-season after a stint with the Drayton Valley Thunder of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, has brought in five of his guys from his old team, and with the dealing earlier in the year of the likes of veterans Dayton Heino and Eric Soar, he now has a group that, as far as anyone can tell, actually wants to be in Melville. So, after three wins from four games heading into Christmas, the Mils will be asking Santa for the goaltending at Colby Entz is more than capable of providing.

11) Weyburn Red Wings – As much as it has been hard times in Weyburn lately, with the firing of coach Wes Rudy and a losing streak to match, there is still lots of time for the Red Wings to hatch a plan to turn things around. It all hangs on whether goaltender Riley Lamb, and captain Cade Kowalski truly want out, and if the club does in fact deal them, then Weyburn will have loads of pieces other teams will want to kickstart a great rebuild. I know that is not what the great fans there will want to see, but if those two go, then maybe it is prudence. If they stay, then as most around the league know, the Wings have a lot of talent, and if it can all get healthy at once – which has not happened in a long time – they can make a good strong run even this year.Of course job No. 1 in Weyburn is to find a new head coach, which I’m sure is keeping general manager Tanner McCall busy. Pick a Christmas wish out of all that!

12) La Ronge Ice Wolves – Kind of similarly to Melville, I think Evan Vossen is doing a solid job dealing veterans, and bringing in younger guys that can come back and make a difference next year. Solid pieces like Jake Gudjonson, Antonio DiPaolo, Zach Bannister, and Jordan Mish are all 99s, though the club still needs more quality around them to kick start their rebuild. Defender Stephon Perreault is a good veteran, is very underrated in my opinion, and would help many teams in the league, so the wish to Santa is to keep moving guys for quality youngsters in return.

(Follow Jamie on Twitter at @neugsie)

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