Mon Apr 02 11:40am EDT
A year away from hosting the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup, the Saskatoon Blades went into the post-season hoping to send a message.
However, the message they sent wasn't the one intended. They were swept by the Medicine Hat Tigers. A couple games were close, but for the most part they didn't resemble a squad which is a year away from competing with the Canadian Hockey League's best.
Hearing the Blades underachieved in the playoffs is becoming more repetitive than a telemarketing call. They have made the post-season six of the past eight years and finished first in their division twice, including first in the entire league with 115 points last year. Yet they haven't made it passed the second-round once during that time.
These playoff woes go a lot farther back than the past eight years. The Blades have never won the Memorial Cup even though they're one of the original franchises in the Western Hockey League.
Saskatoon's hockey struggles are starting to take its toll on their fans. The volume of critical comments on columns on the Blades in the hometown StarPhoenix has increased of late.
The best sample of the lot came from a season-ticket holder named Gordon Shumwick in response to a Daniel Nugent-Bowman column title in which Molleken said he's planningg a roster shakeup. It read in part: "Great job of mentoring, Mr. Coach [Molleken]. First off, who brought these kids into the organization that doesn't seem to want it... that would be you. Who is in charge of getting the most out of his kids and having them want to do anything for the coach... that would be you. Who has had dismal playoff performances every year that they've been a coach... that would be you. As I've said before, the players change but the result is the same ... it's time that season-ticket holders and business partners stood up and said we are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore. Almost 50 years and this organization has never even won its league."
It's harsh, but that articulates the angst among Blades backers. Molleken is one of the most respected coaches in the Dub. He handles every situation with the utmost professionalism. His regular-season track record in Saskatoon is quite impressive. He has only missed the playoffs twice in his seven-year tenure. His playoff record has been a different story, though. Molleken has yet to lead this team as far as the Eastern Conference final.
Sometimes struggling teams do need a new bench boss to shake things up. However, coaches are often thrown under the bus unfairly because an easier out than a roster makeover. It's tough to tell whether Molleken is part of the problem or the solution. The Blades' problems could be because players aren't living up to the potential that Molleken saw in them when he recruited them through the bantam draft and trades.
Molleken shared his frustration with Daniel Nugent-Bowman of the StarPhoenix shortly after the Blades were eliminated from the playoffs. He also noted he plans on making some changes in the dressing room.
"It's the second year in a row we've gone out in four straight because of lack of determination," he said, referencing the second-round loss to Kootenay last year after the Blades won the Scotty Munro Trophy for their regular season supremacy.
"Moving forward into the Memorial Cup year, I've got lots of things to think about here over the summer. I'm not pleased and there are going to be lots of changes.
"It's two years now where we haven't been able to win with these players so we're going to have to look elsewhere and see what we can do in that category."
This "lack of determination" that Molleken pointed out was evident against the Tigers. No one scored at a point-per-game pace. Their three overages, Michael Burns, Jesse Paradis, and Jake Trask, combined for a single goal. Puck-stopper Andrey Makarov, who nearly stole the world junior gold medal for Russia when he made 57 saves in the 1-0 overtime loss to Sweden, looked average at best with 4.10 average and .872 save percentage. Depth players such as Brent Benson, Ryan Olsen, and Chris Collins were not able to make an impact.
It's way too early to speculate whether Molleken will be able to pull off a major blockbuster deal in the off-season, let alone the trade deadline. It must be noted the Blades are not flush with trade chips. They traded their first-round bantam pick and import picks to Brandon for present-day Philadelphia Flyers rookie Brayden Schenn at the 2011 trade deadline. They do, however, have all their picks in the 2013 bantam draft.
Breaking down the team
The Blades' greatest need seems to be down the middle. Their top scoring centre was Lukas Sutter this season. He netted 28 goals and 59 points. Sutter's breakout season proved he's a vital asset upfront, but he still doesn't seem to possess the skills necessary to become a scoring star.
Prince Albert Raiders star Mark McNeill would be an ideal fit in Saskatoon. He would fill their gaping hole in the first-line centre position, add character and leadership in the dressing room, and obviously help the Blades find the back of the net at a more consistent pace. All that being said, it's unclear whether McNeill will even be in the WHL next year. He could make the Chicago Blackhawks. It seems unlikely, but a lot can change over a summer.
The Raiders underachieved this season with their last-place finish in the East. They have enough talent in their dressing room to make the playoffs next year. Therefore, the Raiders likely won't be looking to trade their star centre in hopes that he'll lead them back to the promised land.
Matej Stransky and Josh Nicholls led the Blades in the offensive department this year. The scoring duo combined for 69 goals and 149 points. Both snipers are expected be back next year. Stransky will head to Dallas Stars training camp, but he should to return for his 19-year-old season. Nicholls is yet to sign a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If he goes unsigned by June 1, he will become a free agent. Whether Nicholls inks a deal or not, it seems very likely he'll return to central Saskatchewan for his overage season.
Rookie forward Nick Zajac was a bright note for the Blades in the playoffs. He showed great effort and hustle. The 17-year-old was able to muster four goals and 11 assists in 64 games this year. It appears the stars are aligning for Zajac to breakout next season. It seems possible he could blossom similar to Sutter this year. Sutter improved his point total by 40.
On the back end, Saskatoon appears to be in fairly good shape, as long as Duncan Siemens returns from Colorado Avalanche training camp. Siemens, the team captain, plays a consistent hard-nosed game. He will be vital to shutting down opponent's top scoring units next year. A task that isn't easy.
Dalton Thrower did an excellent job of helping lessen the blow of losing Stefan Elliott to the pros last off-season. Thrower quarterbacked the Blades' power play and helped transition the puck out of his own zone smoothly. He scored 18 goals and 54 points in 66 regular-season games.
Thrower, 18, was also one of the few that played with heart in the playoffs. He fought through a nagging upper-body injury.
When Makarov is hot, he's nearly unbeatable. He showed that in this year's world juniors for the Russians. However, he's had consistency problems between the pipes in Saskatoon. He let in five or more goals in 10 different occasions this season.
Makarov could make or break this squad in the Memorial Cup. If he's at the top of his game, the Blades could pull off some upsets. But if he plays like he did in this year's playoffs, the Blades' hopes of making some noise against the CHL's top clubs seems quite bleak.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen