At this point last year, the Prince Albert Raiders were a sub-.500 team at 5-6-0. They went on to finish third-to-last in the Eastern Conference and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. This new season has been a different story. The Raiders are off to their best start in over 15 years and sit atop the WHL standings with 17 points (8-2-1).
The Raiders have a strong veteran core that has been producing in big ways. The team’s top five scorers have a combined 20 years of major junior experience, and three of those five have played four or more seasons in the WHL. In addition, the Raiders had relatively little roster turnover during the offseason and have 13 skaters who played at least ten games with the club in 2014-15.
Prince Albert acquired two key veteran presences in a blockbuster trade with Kelowna last year: forward Austin Glover and defenseman Jesse Lees. Glover is in his fourth full WHL season. He spent his first two with the Rockets but only recorded 12 points in 55 total games. However, Glover broke out last season, notching six goals and ten assists with Kelowna before moving to Prince Albert and tallying 23 points in 36 contests. In 11 games this year, he has six goals, seven assists, and a plus-8 rating.
Lees, who made his WHL debut as a 14-year-old in 2010-11, is now the most seasoned Raiders veteran. Like Glover, Lees spent his entire WHL career with Kelowna before being traded to Prince Albert in 2014. Between the Rockets and the Raiders last year, Lees averaged nearly one point per game. He has kept up the pace this season and leads all Prince Albert blueliners with 10 points.
The Raiders also have a number of homegrown talents. Forward Reid Gardiner, 19, led the team in scoring last season with 64 points (34g-30a) and has gotten off to a hot start in 2015-16; his 19 points are tied for the fourth most in the league. Simon Stransky, the 17-year-old winger from the Czech Republic, played in his first WHL season last year and scored 42 points in 70 games. So far in 2015-16, he is second on the team in scoring (after Gardiner) with 16 points. Jordan Tkatch continues to be a consistent scorer for the Raiders as well, with back to back 40+ point seasons, already adding five goals and 11 points in 12 games for the Raiders thus far.
Even though the Raiders have the best record in the league, they haven’t been dominating the opposition. The team has scored 44 goals, the third most in the WHL, but it has also surrendered 38, a differential of only plus-6. Most of the Raiders’ victories have been closely contested games. Four of their eight wins have come by one goal, and of those four wins, three came in overtime or a shootout. The Raiders’ biggest margin of victory came on October 13 when they shut out the Portland Winterhawks 4-0.
The Raiders also haven’t had a particularly difficult schedule to date and have only beaten three teams currently occupying playoff spots. None of those three teams are division leaders and only Saskatoon and Vancouver have more than ten points. In addition, the Raiders earned two of their wins at the expense of the Kootenay Ice, the WHL’s weakest team.
Prince Albert played (and lost to) the U.S. Division-leading Seattle Thunderbirds on October 10, but the Raiders have yet to face off against their strong East Division rivals, the Brandon Wheat Kings and Moose Jaw Warriors. Both Brandon and Moose Jaw have 16 points and, since they have only played ten games, actually have better winning percentages than Prince Albert. Moreover, the Wheat Kings and Warriors have allowed only 21 and 25 goals against, respectively, compared to the Raiders’ 38.
The Raiders are off to one of their best starts in team history, but they have yet to face any truly first-rate teams besides Seattle. Their core of experienced players bodes well for the future and suggests that Prince Albert may in fact be a playoff-caliber team again. To compete against Brandon and Moose Jaw, though, Gardiner, Stransky, and Glover will need to maintain close to a point-per-game pace and the Raiders’ defense will need to start shutting down the opposition more consistently.
The Raiders play their first game against Moose Jaw on October 23 and face Brandon for the first time on November 15.