To say the Saskatoon Blades dropped the ball in the start to their MasterCard Memorial Cup-host season would be an understatement. The Bridge City Boys are sitting second-last in their conference with an 8-10-0-1 record.
It is easy to throw head coach-GM Lorne Molleken under the bus. He is the man that put this team together and is guiding them. The architect and engineer has to be held responsible for a collapsing bridge.
Nevertheless, one can lead a horse to water, but can't make it drink. Coaches are blamed for their players' poor efforts on too many occasions.
Molleken, the Blades' head coach and GM since 2004-05, was put into a tough position as a general manager this season. Even with lots of tweaking, it appears his squad isn't capable of competing with the Western Hockey League's top clubs such as the Kamloops Blazers and Edmonton Oil Kings. This would have been a great year for Saskatoon to go into rebuild mode. It would have made sense to deal 19-year-old assets such as Colorado Avalanche first-rounder Duncan Siemens and Montreal Canadiens second-rounder Dalton Thrower for draft picks and prospects for the future. A roster blowup could have paved the way for the Blades, who took their shot at the brass ring in 2011, to take a strong run at the Ed Chynoweth Cup in about three years. But with a free ride to the CHL's Big Dance, Molleken was put into a position where he had to try to quickly turn a subpar team into a contender.
Molleken has tried to revamp his club by making several trades. He brought in New York Rangers prospect Shane McColgan and overage sniper Brenden Walker in the offseason, followed by landing overage winger Adam Kambeitz, 6-foot-5 blueliner Graeme Craig, and 19-year-old grinder Nathan Burns.
It is clear Molleken is feeling the pressure on his shoulders after sending the Vancouver Giants a 2014 first-round bantam pick, 2013 third-rounder and 18-year-old Travis McEvoy for Burns. Precedents suggest Molleken greatly overpaid for a depth forward in Burns, who scored 34 points last year.
This is somewhat history repeating itself for Molleken. He was behind the Regina Pats' bench in 2001 when they got off to a poor 7-8-4-0 start on their road to hosting the Memorial Cup.
That being said, Molleken turned their ship around in the second half, leading them to a 40-27-5-0 record. Regina did, however, lose out in the first round of the playoffs to the Calgary Hitmen in six games. They went on to lose to the Val-d'Or Foreurs in the Memorial Cup semifinal.
Problems on the ice
Canadiens prospect Darren Dietz has been Saskatoon's most reliable defenceman. He has been strong as both ends of the ice, notching six goals and five helpers in 19 games. Dietz being the Blades' top defender is a testament to his strong efforts, but also to Siemens and Thrower not exactly delivering the distinguished performances one would anticipate from high NHL draft picks.
Despite his less-than-appealing 3.23 average and .897 save percentage, puck-stopper Andrey Makarov has been one of Saskatoon's best performers. He has made several keys save to keep them in games.
However, Makarov might not be as good as he was hyped up to be after his outstanding performance for Russia at the world junior championship, where he made 57 saves in a 1-0 overtime loss to Sweden in the gold-medal game. It would be a stretch to call him one of the WHL's top five goalies. Therefore, the Blades might not be able to rely on the Buffalo Sabres prospect as much down the stretch as once expected.
The Blades are on the upswing. They're 6-3-0-1 in their last 10 games. It seems it is just a matter of time before Saskatoon gets back into the Eastern Conference's top eight. They should be able to make some noise in the second season. It seems knocking off the CHL's best clubs in the Memorial Cup will be a different story, though.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen.
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