Did you expect this? Nationally ranked for the better part of the last two months? How about battling for first place in the Viterra North Division? Or 21 wins through the first 29 games?
Even the most optimistic of Crusaders fans likely couldn’t have predicted this start to the season for the Cru.
“We weren’t sure how all the pieces were going to come together,” head coach Adam Manah said. “Luckily for us, things have come together nicely in terms of the western league pieces we’ve got back and the additions we’ve been able to make.”
You’d have to go as far back as 2002-03, the Nick Holden days, to find a time the Crusaders were as high as fifth in the CJHL national rankings…so what’s different about this group?
Here’s the recipe:
1. Just add goaltending.
It’s not as if the Crusaders haven’t been a talented team in the past, but somehow it seems that when they get a Tommy Nixon in goal, the team can’t produce, and when the team is producing, goaltending is an issue.
That’s not a problem this year as 20-year-old WHL veteran Matt Berlin has been a top goaltender in the league, carrying a 2.18 GAA and a .930 SV% through 18 starts. He was a WHL champion with the Seattle Thunderbirds in 2016-17, and that experience shows both on the ice and around the rink.
His backup, Carter Gylander, isn’t too shabby either. He committed to Colgate University last month and has been lights out in his own right this year, making ten starts to the tune of a 2.46 GAA and a .916 SV%. He’s also 6’4″ at 17. Attn: NHL Central Scouting.
2. Mix in some rookie studs.
I’m so damn sick and tired of talking about Carter Savoie and Michael Benning. And trust me, that’s a good thing. There was a lot of hype about these kids in the offseason, and they’ve completely exceeded expectations at 16 years old. Both are committed to the University of Denver, and after 29 games of elite production, nobody is surprised. Gylander is a rookie goaltender, for the record. Not a bad crop of youngsters, hey?
Oh. Savoie is fourth in AJHL scoring with 37 points (18G, 19A) in 29 games. Otherworldly.
Second-year sniper and Robert Morris University-commit, Garrett Clegg, is fifth.
3. Add veteran insulation.
Berlin, Atwal, Jette, Zapernick, Wallis, Platz and now Nick Bowman. All veteran players and guys that are integral in the success of your Savoies, Bennings, Wieschorsters, etc.
Fun fact, despite missing the past 16 games with an upper-body injury, Arjun Atwal currently has the longest point streak in the league at 11 games.
Nick Bowman, another guy with plenty of WHL experience, has four points in his first two games and is a big body. I see a pattern here with the recent acquisitions: veteran leaders who can score, but guys who aren’t afraid to smash you in the teeth either. Sounds like a good guy to have on your team in a North Division playoff series, am I right?
4. One dose of an organizational commitment to this window to win.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many roster moves within one half of a season at any level. Crusaders GM Kyle Chase is seemingly always working the phone lines (as a good GM should) and has made several transactions I would call splashy, if not blockbusters. All of this points to his desire and the team’s desire to make a run at this season as well. The emphasis seems to have shifted away from a younger, more skillful roster to a big, experienced roster with very few holes.
Case in point: The most recent trade that shipped out power forward Tyson Scott (who was acquired in September) for 20-year-old centreman Jack Hamly from Fort McMurray. I could tell you what Hamly is about, based on the couple of games I’ve called between the Cru and Oil Barons, but he can explain it himself.
“I’m a bigger body, and I’m playing centre right now so I’m just trying to play a 200-foot game and hopefully bring some offensive touch to the Crusaders,” Hamly said. “This is a group that I think is going to go on a long playoff run, so I think [my] leadership is going to help along the way.”
The last time the Cru and Oil Barons played, Hamly had three goals, one assist and 12 penalty minutes. Can’t beat him? Trade for him.
All of this adds up to where the team is at right now. Trailing the surprising Bonnyville Pontiacs by only two points with plenty of time to make up ground this season.
On paper, this is the time to get it done. The Spruce Grove Saints aren’t the dominant force of the past, and the Fort McMurray Oil Barons aren’t blowing the roof off the division either. We’ll see what the second half has in store for the Pontiacs as they continue to prove they’re a legitimate contender.
“We’ll be pushing,” coach Manah said. “We know we’re right there. We’re in the mix. Obviously, there’s a lot of good hockey teams in the league, pushing in the South and in the North, but we’re right there.”
“We’ll be going for it not only this year but we feel we’re setting ourselves up, with the additions we’ve made, for next year as well,” Manah added.
I have no doubt that GM Kyle Chase isn’t done tinkering with the roster either. This team needs one more shut down defender to bolster an offensively talented defensive core. The December 1st deadline has come and gone, and now I’m left to wonder how long Chase waits before the drop dead, January 10th deadline to shore up his defensive core.
Two big losses not so long ago to Bonnyville and the Brooks Bandits (on a back-to-back) were a reality check for a team that hasn’t faced much adversity. They rebounded with two huge road wins this past weekend.
It’s been made clear that the sky is the limit for this group, and the bar has been set for the second half of the season.