Raiders forcing WHL competitors to weigh options

As of early this week, the Prince Albert Raiders had just one loss in 27 games to open the 2018-2019 Western Hockey League regular season. Their success may be forcing teams like the Brandon Wheat Kings to re-evaluate their roster strategy heading into the New Year.

It’s the Prince Albert Raiders’ world and we’re all just living in it. That seems to be the case as we approach the midway point of the Western Hockey League season.

The Prince Albert Raiders are threatening to break the record for most wins by a team in a single season – a total of 60 set by the Victoria Cougars back in 1980-81 – with their incredible 26-1 start to the season.

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That’s not the best news for the Brandon Wheat Kings or anyone else in the East Division; or the Eastern Conference for that matter.

The 2018-19 edition of the Wheat Kings are a respectable 13-7-3-3 following the first weekend of December. That puts them fourth in their own division, just five points back of second-place Saskatoon and a mere two points back of third-place Moose Jaw.

If the playoffs were to start today, the Wheaties would take the top wild-card spot and face the Saskatoon Blades in the opening round. Considering their success thus far, no one wants to be seeded eighth and face the Raiders in the opening round. That spot is currently being held down by the Medicine Hat Tigers, who are three points back of the Wheat Kings in the overall conference standings.

The Wheat Kings have a lot going for them this year. Their team goal differential is solidly above zero at plus nine. They have the eighth-highest scorer in the league in 19-year-old Stelio Mattheos, who has an impressive 22 goals and 19 assists in 26 games. Netminder Jiri Patera is holding his own in goal, sporting a solid .915 save percentage and a 2.93 goals-against-average (GAA).

Brandon also sports the fifth-best power play unit in the WHL, operating at an impressive 25.5 per cent efficiency. Their penalty kill, though, could use some work, as it sits dead last in the WHL at just 67 per cent efficiency.

Overall the Wheat Kings have a solid team with offensive upside. There’s no reason to think they can’t climb into second place with a solid second half.

But should they? If the reward ends up being a third-round match up with the Prince Albert Raiders, is this a season worth going for it?

Consider these statistics for the Raiders. Their team plus-minus is an astounding plus-86. No team comes close to that mark. Prince Albert has only allowed 48 goals-against in 27 games – an average of 1.77 goals-against per game. Their penalty kill is operating at an unheard of 92.2 per cent efficiency – they have only allowed 10 short-handed goals against and, amazingly, have scored 15 short-handed goals.

The Raiders also have the top scorer in the WHL in Brett Leason, who has 60 points so far, and the league’s top netminder in Ian Scott, who has a .943 save percentage (virtually tied with Brandon product Trent Miner, who is playing with the Vancouver Giants) and four shutouts.

Prince Albert appears to be a juggernaut. The decision teams such as the Wheat Kings will have to make is this; do we try and load up and see if we can contend, or do we start looking at trading assets and better position ourselves for the future?

The Regina Pats already made their move, shipping Nick Henry and Jake Leschyshyn to the Lethbridge Hurricanes for two players and a boatload of draft picks. Other teams appear to be waiting to see how December goes then make their decision in early 2019 before the Jan. 10 trade deadline.

The Raiders already blanked the Wheat Kings 6-0 on Nov. 17. The East Division rivals have a home-and-home series coming up this weekend. The first game takes place at Westoba Place on Friday.

Perhaps these two games will give the brass in Brandon the information for which they are looking.

© Copyright Westman Journal