April 30, 2014
There was an eyebrow-raising moment at the Western Hockey League’s annual awards luncheon in Calgary.
It seemed Saskatoon Blades winger Nikita Scherbak was a lock to take home the Rookie of the Year award. The Russia native, who turned 18 in December, had a commanding 19-point lead on Everett Silvertips forward Ivan Nikolishin for the rookie scoring title with 28 goals and 78 points in 65 games. In addition, he managed to rack up his impressive stats on a rebuilding Blades club with sparse high-end talent.
Nonetheless, Kelowna Rockets soon-to-be 17-year-old Nick Merkley won the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy despite Scherbak’s compelling case. Just to be clear, this isn’t meant to diminish Merkley’s superb rookie season. The 5-foot-10, 176-pound centre, who notched 25 goals and 58 points in 66 contests, deserves praise and was more than worthy of the Western Conference’s nomination. The point is Merkley’s rookie season was clearly a shade behind Scherbak’s. The 6-foot-2, 174-pound Blade, who's ranked 15th among North American skaters by NHL CSS, netted 20 more points with a lot less support. Not to mention, Scherbak meant more to the Blades than Merkley to the Rockets. Saskatoon would have quite likely finished in last place without Scherbak while Kelowna would have still been a powerhouse without Merkley.
It is, however, not that surprising to see the Dub choose Merkley over Scherbak because of a 2011 precedent. The league voted to give then-Red Deer Rebels defenceman Matt Dumba the rookie honour over then-Portland Winterhawks winger Sven Baertschi. Dumba’s physicality, speed and 26 points did make a case for him to win the award. Baertschi, though, took the league by storm with 34 goals and 85 points in 66 matches. Much like this year, Dumba was an impressive 16-year-old rookie, but Baertschi, who turned 18 in October of that year, took the cake.
This undoubtedly shows a trend of the WHL preferring to give the honour to a 16-year-old rookie rather than a 17 or 18-year-old. It’s understandable, but why not then change the requirements for the award? The league should make only 16-year-olds eligible if age is going to remain a major factor. The current system is simply not fair to the most deserving rookie.
Before the awards ceremony even started, the league announced the approval of the sales of the Regina Pats and Prince George Cougars.
“The WHL is fortunate to have attracted two very high calibre ownership groups who are fully committed to whatever is necessary to take the Prince George Cougars and the Regina Pats franchises to a new level," said WHL Commissioner Ron Robison. "We are confident that fans will enthusiastically embrace the local ownership groups and bring long-term stability to these WHL markets."
Kootenay Ice superstar Sam Reinhart left Calgary with an award in each hand. He was named the WHL’s Player of the Year and took home the Brad Hornung Trophy (most sportsmanlike player). The 18-year-old centre ultimately was the best bet to win the MVP award because he meant more to his club than any other player in the league. The 6-foot-1, 183-pound Reinhart led the Ice to a sixth-place finish while netting 36 goals and 105 points in 60 matches. He beat out Spokane Chiefs overage Mitch Holmberg for both accolades.
Of course, Holmberg won the Bob Clarke Trophy. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound winger comfortably led the league in points with 62 goals and 118 points in 72 games. Holmberg is the first Chief to win the honour since long-time NHL forward Ray Whitney did so in 1991.
Portland Winterhawks star Derrick Pouliot edged Prince Albert Raiders captain Josh Morrissey for the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy (top defenceman). This award could have gone either way as both slick puck-moving blueliners made strong arguments. Pouliot, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2012 first-rounder, scored 17 goals and 70 points while Morrissey, the Winnipeg Jets’ 2013 first-rounder, notched 28 goals and 73 points.
Rockets netminder Jordon Cooke took the Del Wilson Trophy (Goaltender of the Year). The overager, who posted a 2.28 average and .922 save percentage, got the nod over Edmonton Oil Kings puck-stopper Tristan Jarry, who maintained a 2.24 average and .914 save percentage. This one was essentially a tossup.
It is fair to point out, though, that the goalie who made strongest case for the accolade - Tri-City Americans superstar Eric Comrie - wasn't nominated. The Jets prospect carried the retooling Americans to the playoffs by standing on his head game in and game out. The proof is in the pudding in his 2.57 average and .925 save percentage.
Nelson Nogier won the Darryl K. Seaman Memorial Trophy (Scholastic Player of the Year). The 17-year-old Saskatoon native managed to maintain a 96 percent grade average while playing a steady defensive game on the Blades’ back end.
Moose Jaw Warriors overage Sam Fioretti took home one of the most underrated awards, the Doug Wickenheiser Memorial Trophy (Humanitarian of the Year). He was described as a “driving force behind the Warriors’ partnership with the Moose Jaw Police Service that saw him and others visit schools to speak out against bullying.” He also was heavily involved in the CIBC’s Read to Succeed Program and the Warriors workouts program.
The Victoria Royals cleaned house in the hockey operations awards. Dave Lowry won the Dunc McCallum Memorial Trophy (Coach of the Year) and Cam Hope captured the Lloyd Saunders Memorial Trophy (Executive of the Year). It is fitting that they both were rewarded for the Royals' 100-point season because they joined the organization at the same time in the summer of 2012.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen