Less than four years have passed since the Prince Albert Raiders lifted the Ed Chynoweth Cup on home ice in 2019, climbing to the top of the Western Hockey League’s mountain.
The road back to that point hasn’t been easy, as the franchise has reckoned with a season of change, including in its head coaching ranks.
WHL champion and longtime Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid departed the organization last summer to take a coaching job in Austria, opening the door for associate coach Jeff Truitt to take over the reins.
“We’ve made a few moves with some younger talent coming in here with some skill and are really energetic,” said Truitt. “They’ve done a good job now that the group is formalized.”
That group faces a tall task over their final 19 games of the regular season, aiming to make up a nine-point gap between them and the Medicine Hat Tigers for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.
The Raiders, who were eliminated in five games by the Winnipeg Ice in last year’s opening round of the post-season, have struggled with consistency in 2022-23 with a 19-27-3 record through 49 games.
Already without star Ozzy Wiesblatt who graduated to the American Hockey League this past fall, the Raiders looked towards the future trading away captain Nolan Allan and forward Carson Latimer mid-season for picks and prospects.
Those moves have opened the door for Prince Albert’s crop of burgeoning rookies, such as 2021 first-rounder Ryder Ritchie who has been one of the league’s most productive 16-year-olds with 13 goals and 31 points in 42 games.
“The first 20 or so games in the league you got to get used to the pace, the physicality,” said Ritchie. “All of the guys are just way bigger, stronger and older. So, I think after my first 20 or so games I flipped the switch a bit and feel more confident and better with the puck now.”
Along with Ritchie’s breakout performance, the Raiders say they’re also prioritizing the development of their other rookies on the roster, including Cole Peardon, Justice Christensen, Seth Tansem and Grady Martin.
“They’ve taken the bull by the horns and stepped into a different setting from what they were used to,” said fourth-year forward Evan Herman. “And, I think they’ve handled it very well.”
Herman is among the group of Raiders asked to take on new roles following the departures of Allan and Latimer, as he inherited the captaincy from the former after Prince Albert’s blockbuster trade with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
He now follows a lineage of Prince Albert captains including Allan, Reece Vitelli, Kaiden Guhle, Zack Hayes and Brayden Pachal.
“They taught me everything I know from a junior setting,” said Herman. “I think it’s a little underappreciated how much they actually do for a young guy stepping in and that’s what I’m looking to do here…. It’s a huge honour to be here. I’m doing my best to teach everyone what they need to know and leading them the right way.”
For Truitt, he’s back in a head coaching role in the WHL for the first time since 2007 with the Kelowna Rockets after a decade as an associate or assistant coach with the Raiders and Red Deer Rebels.
Those stints working with Habscheid and former Rebels bench boss Brent Sutter have made the transition back into a head coaching position a little easier, according to Truitt.
“The partnerships we’ve had over the years with some of the guys that I’ve coached with, they’ve prepared me well and I continue to learn,” said Truitt. “Even though you’re getting a little bit older in this league, you’re still learning and I still appreciate it.”
To make the WHL playoffs for another season, the Raiders will have to leapfrog three teams in the standings.
Truitt added that there’s still plenty of belief in their locker room, however, that the post-season is within reach and will require their best stretch of hockey of the year so far.
“Now, we’re going to call on that skill to get us that one more goal that we may need,” said Truitt. “Hopefully, the push is on here in getting us up in the standings.”
Returning from their road swing through British Columbia, the Raiders kick off a home-and-home weekend series in Swift Current on Friday night visiting the Broncos.