Voice of the N.D. Hounds
Two weeks of the regular season in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League are left, and there's still so much we don't know! Here are my 10 things for this week:
1. Kudos to Carson Albrecht! – What a week it was the for the league in the area of commitments, as Melfort’s dynamic forward and captain Carson Albrecht has committed to the always top-of-the-heap Division I program at the University of North Dakota for next year. It is super impressive, and well-deserved, and further confirms the point I’ve been harping all year: that the SJHL is an excellent breeding ground for players ready to contribute right away at the NCAA Division I level. The only question I have is where league scoring champ Justin Ball, Albrecht’s linemate all year, is going to commit? Surely Ball’s blend of speed and skill will be too much for a college coach to ignore. Either way, well done Carson!
2. Kudos To Justen Close! – Similarly, the SJHL is flush with outstanding goaltending, and the Kindersley Klippers’ 20-year-old starter is the best of the bunch if you ask me. Close’s consistency for his hometown club has earned him a commitment to the prestigious University of Minnesota Golden Gophers for next season, and I have to say, he’s been ready to play at that level from Day 1 this campaign. Right now, he has a league-best 22 wins, and an SJ second-best save percentage of .929, to go with a goals-against average of 2.14. Kindersley head coach Clayton Jardine has done a brilliant job with the club this year, but he would absolutely be the first to admit that Close is their most valuable player. In fact, he might be the MVP of the whole league!
3. First-Place Race Neck-and-Neck – Speaking of the Klippers, they are one of five (yes, FIVE) teams that, with only between four and seven games left in the campaign, still have a realistic chance at the No. 1 seed, heading into the post-season. Nipawin is in the pole position at time of writing, holding a three-point edge on the Klips with 74 points through 52 games played. Kindersley and Humboldt at 71, and Melfort and Battlefords at 68 all have reasonable shots at the spot as well. Melfort plays Humboldt, and Kindersley faces Nipawin, all on Friday night (Feb. 22). Get out to the rink, get your HockeyTV packages right now, or beg someone who does, because those will be playoff games.
4. Regular Season Award Nominees Announced – The SJHL has announced the nominees for the various player awards over the course of the regular season, and you can find the full list here: https://www.sjhl.ca/news_article/show/995491. As a media member, I got to vote, and my votes, for your information, went as follows: Rookie of the Year: Nolan Renwick, Notre Dame Hounds; Player of the Year: Carson Albrecht, Melfort Mustangs; MVP: Justen Close, Kindersley Klippers; Top Goalie: Justen Close, Kindersley Klippers; Best Defenceman: Cody Spagrud, Battlefords North Stars. Feel free to disagree with me if you’d like!
5. Survivor Series Home Ice? – One of the two Survivor Series are all-but set, as it looks very likely that the Notre Dame Hounds and Yorkton Terriers will do battle in the No. 8 vs No. 9 best-of-three series. Both teams are on 55 points through 52 games played, with Yorkton holding a clear edge in the tie-breaker due to regulation-plus-overtime wins. I have no clue which team will get that home-ice-advantage No. 8 spot, but I was also wondering if ND bench boss Phil Roy or Terriers coach Matt Hehr will be too bothered either way. A couple ways to look at it, and of course ND especially would like to play on their big rink as much as possible, but if your team does finish ninth, then to steal a road win in Game 1, it would mean that you can take the series at home in Game 2. Obviously, both the Hounds and Terriers will want to go into the post-season as hot as possible, and it should be a very interesting series either way, so I am probably just overthinking this.
6. Global Ag Risk Dogfight Continues – Speaking of the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division, the teams above ND in the group – Kindersley, Humboldt, and Battlefords – are locked in as epic a dogfight-to-the-end as anyone could have asked for. You can see the point totals at time of writing in my Point No. 3, but the Broncos have won 10 of 11, Kindersley seven of 10, and the Stars have seven points out of a possible eight in their last four games. Humboldt only has four games left, and they are all very tough, while the Klippers have a similarly difficult schedule remaining. Battlefords’ fixture list is probably the most manageable of the three, but those three teams have been so consistent in the 2019 calendar year so far, so who would place a big bet on any of the three to take the division right now? Kindersley has the best goalie, so I’ll run with them, but who knows!?
7. Humboldt Finally Beaten – I talked just there about the Broncos winning 10 of 11, well they actually had won 10 in a row, before finally falling to the Klippers in last Monday’s matinee in front of almost 1,300 at the Elgar Petersen Arena in Humboldt. What a job Scott Barney and Troy Smith have done with those Broncos since taking over just after the new year! Humboldt had fallen to the survivor series spots at one point, and were mired in a nine losses out of 11 games streak, but look at them now. They are exceedingly healthy, really look like they’re pulling on the same rope, and, just as importantly, are getting outstanding goaltending from near-future Kamloops Blazers net minder Rayce Ramsay.
8. Flin Flon’s Slump Setting Up Fantastic Round 1 – Injuries to Flin Flon’s Top 2 defenders Calvon Boots and Tyler Higgins have the Bombers mired in a rut to the tune of two wins out of their last nine games, though the super-talented Manitoba-based outfit can get themselves out of the Survivor Spots still with a great run to end the year. That being said, if they do end up in the play-in round against either Melville (likely) or Weyburn (slightly less likely), and get past said team, then that should set up a pretty uncomfortable Round 1 for the league’s No. 2 seed. No matter what happens in the regular season, going up to the Whitney Forum in Flin Flon is an uncomfortable preposition come playoff time, and with the intense parity in the league this year, things are going to get spicy very quick in early March. Stay tuned folks!
9. ND’s 3-Headed Monster – I got to send out more love to Notre Dame’s line of Marshall Wilton, Jakob Breault, and Jarrett Penner. The first two are on eight-game point-scoring streaks, with the Quebec-born Breault – the son of former NHLer Frank – looking almost unstoppable, with 15 points over that span. Also, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder Wilton is a real load for anyone in the league to handle, as he can protect the puck as a well as anyone in the SJHL, has a cannon of a shot, loves to pass, and can hit and fight equally as well. Penner has been a perfect complement, scoring goals by getting his nose dirty in the blue-paint, working his behind off, and is the No. 4 rookie scorer in the league at time of writing. Love watching those guys play!
10. Notre Dame Bringing in Elite U15 (bonus) – And to end it off, I have to tip my cap the College of Notre Dame for announcing that they will be adding an Elite U15 program to the campus. It will be a place for top 15-year-olds to go, and really shine by getting good ice-time instead of necessarily biding their time in midget behind 16- and 17-year olds. I have a lot to say about this, but it’s a great move by ND and I can’t wait to watch this program kick off next year!
On a related note, it’s about time for the Western Hockey League started drafting from 15 year olds instead of 14s, if you ask me, but that’s for another time, and I’ll leave the WHL stuff for Darren Dupont, who did an awesome job kicking off his ‘Dub’ column on this very site!
(Follow Jamie on Twitter at @neugsie)