How often does a team with “sleeper potential” actually live up to, let alone exceed expectations?
Well, if you’re struggling to come up with an answer, try on the 2018-19 Sherwood Park Crusaders for size.
Picked by few in the offseason to win the Viterra North Division, the Crusaders stumbled out of the starting blocks by dropping back-to-back games to the Drayton Valley Thunder on opening weekend. From there, they shut the lights out on the AJHL, powering through to the best regular season in franchise history at 44-14-2 by beating Grand Prairie in the final game.
I asked Crusaders general manager Kyle Chase if he thought this was possible back in September.
“Not in the infancy, no,” Chase said. “The more we started playing and the more we started winning one-goal hockey games, we thought ‘hey, we’ve got something special here’.”
So how did this all come to be? Let’s explore that.
This season isn’t possible without several players taking major steps forward. Look no further than Will Zapernick, Jacob Franczak and Garrett Clegg.
Zapernick is your typical energizer bunny on the ice, meaning even if he wasn’t producing offensively he’d still be a valuable puzzle piece. He did produce offensively, though, earning a commitment to the University of Alabama-Hunstville mid-season. He finished up with 62 points in 59 games and was always impactful on the ice. I don’t say that with hyperbole…he was constantly noticeable out there.
Jake Franczak is your prototypical third-line centre and is my pick for the next Crusader to get a NCAA commitment. He jumped from 14 points last year to 33 this year and was a reliable 200-foot player who thrived on the PK.
Then there’s Clegg. He was named to the AJHL’s all-rookie team last year, registering 32 points in a full season. The point total doesn’t stand out but the potential was clearly there. This year he he equaled that in the goal column alone en route to a 70-point sophomore campaign.
Dream deadline deal
If you didn’t know Reid Irwin’s name on January 9, you likely do now. And so do NCAA-D1 schools. Irwin totalled 22 points in 21 games with the Crusaders after scoring just 12 in 39 with the lowly Lloydminster Bobcats prior to the Jan. 10 trade deadline. Safe to say he was more than they bargained for?
“Did we predict he’d have this much offensive upside? No,” Crusaders GM Kyle Chase said. “We knew that he could skate well and we knew he was a good player but we had no idea we’d get this much this soon.”
“I always believed in my abilities,” Irwin told me in an interview for Crusaders TV.
“It’s all about my teammates,” he continued in typical hockey player fashion. “Them finding me and them putting the puck in the net too. It’s a whole different league playing with these guys.”
The funny part? He was an add-on to a deal for then-captain of the Bobcats, 20-year-old Zach Kaiser.
The Orangeville, Ontario product had 15 points in 16 games with the ‘Cats but broke his wrist back in October. He returned from injury with the Crusaders to tally ten goals and nine assists in 19 games. Yes, another point-per-game player.
Must’ve been a big haul going back to Lloydminster with this kind of acquisition, right? We’re not even sure yet…it was for future considerations.
Chase, 1 – Bobcats, ???
I know you’ve read about them before. Michael Benning and Carter Savoie. Best friends for years, both committed to the University of Denver, and both named Rookie of the Year by the Crusaders.
Savoie, in fact, won the AJHL’s Rookie of the Year honour, registering 73 points in 58 games. Benning could’ve been considered for the same honour and you could make a case for him as the Defenceman of the Year as well. I wouldn’t argue.
“We expected maybe 50 points out of Carter Savoie and maybe 30 out of Benning,” Chase said.
“These are top-end guys in their division…they always have been. For whatever reason, not being in a major junior program seems to be affecting where they are with the Hockey Canada part of it,” Chase said. Note: Both Savoie and Benning were passed over for the World Junior A Challenge roster and for the U17 competition.
These two are the cornerstones of the Crusaders future and will be a tremendous selling point for future recruits. These two bring scouts to the stands and I wouldn’t hesitate to put them in the same conversation as your Cale Makars, Jacob Bernard-Dockers, Ian Mitchells, etc.
Update your 2020 NHL mock draft accordingly.
PS. Rookie goaltender Carter Gylander is expected to go in the 2019 draft after committing to Colgate University this season as well. He’ll be in contention for Goaltender of the Year next year.
Kudos to the coaches
Any hockey fan knows that you can have a talented roster but if nobody is there to find the right chemistry, strategy and motivation, it won’t matter. Cue Adam Manah and Jeff Woywitka.
“Our coaching is high-end. Adam [Manah] does a fantastic job…so does Jeff [Woywitka]—Jeff played in the National Hockey League for seven or eight years. Those guys come to the rink, they’re pros, they do an excellent job on the coaching end of it and we like to think we treat players very well. They should want to come to Sherwood Park,” Chase said.
You won’t find more well-spoken, approachable coaches than these two–from a media perspective or otherwise. Don’t discount what they mean to this accomplishment.
Always the bridesmaid…
I feel like the remarkable regular season has been overshadowed by a loaded Brooks team, who I’ve said all year long was able to recruit so well with the pitch of “Hey, come play in the National Junior ‘A’ Championship.” Credit to them and their eye-poping 57-3 regular season, which ended with a 33 game win streak.
“Winning 33 games in a row in any league…it’s crazy to think that can happen,” Chase said. “And they don’t let up. You don’t know if you’re playing their first line, their fourth line, their top D pairing, their third pairing. It’s amazing, the job they’ve done, and I like the fact a lot of the focus is on them”
As far as being relatively unsung in the Junior A spotlight, Chase is just fine with that.
“Taking the focus off of us for a while isn’t a bad thing. We’re just hoping we can keep it rolling,” Chase said.
Imagine how electric that Inter Pipeline Cup series would be.
Etched in history
After five consecutive season placing 5th in the Viterra North Division, it appears the Crusaders have set a new standard.
It was a slow build to this point, but with the league gaining more and more notoriety and and the 2019 draft class containing as many as six potential picks, the arrow continues to point straight up fo the Crusaders and the AJHL as a whole.
Names like Arjun Atwal, Jack Hamly, Tyler Jette and others weren’t highlighted in this article, simply to keep this as short as possible. But trust when I say everyone from fourth line centre Tanner Fincaryk right up to Atwal who had a ridiculous 1.6 points per game (2nd in the AJHL) all contributed to the success. I don’t care if that’s cliche, it’s true. Atwal was the team MVP and is likely the frontrunner to wear the “C” next year with Jette ageing out.
The team has some time off to prepare for whomever they get in the second round, but it likely won’t matter. The Crusaders are a force in the North and have created their own winning brand of hockey.
Exciting times may be an understatement.