The Saskatchewan Shockers are in unfamiliar territory. For the first couple of years of the SHL’s existence, the Shockers were the joke of the league; they piled up losses left and right and were better known for wacky promotions and player hijinks than for anything they did on the ice. The last couple of seasons, they were considered a team on the rise, but one that never quite managed to live up to its promise.
This year, under new coach Morris Thompson, the Shockers are in genuine contention in the West. Instead of looking to sell at next week’s trading deadline, Saskatchewan will be looking to buy. Instead of looking up at Michigan and Anchorage, the Shockers are side-by-side with them in the standings.
“It’s almost like ‘Hey, Pinocchio, you’re a real boy now,’” said Shockers D Chris “Lightning” Oflyng, who has been with the team since its inception.
What has driven Saskatchewan’s success? Many around the team are giving credit to Thompson. When the team fired the well-liked Myron Beasley last season, GM Cooper Matthews said that the Shockers needed to get tougher and more disciplined. That’s why he chose Thompson, a longtime assistant coach in Michigan, to apply the lessons he learned from Wolves coach Ron Wright.
So far, Matthews said, Thompson is living up to expectations. “I couldn’t be happier with what Morris has done for this team,” said the Shockers GM. “Watching games last year, you could tell the talent was there, but we needed a little more focus on the little things, the hard and unglamorous work that builds champions. That’s what Morris has been teaching our team.”
The improvement has been obvious on both sides of the puck. Last season, the Shockers struggled badly on offense, both in terms of generating shots and quality scoring chances. This season, they’re averaging 35.3 shots per game (fourth in the SHL) and 2.9 goals (sixth). “This year, we’ve been focusing on driving to the net more aggressively and looking for the right shot, not just the first shot,” said LW Troy Chamberlain. “By creating chaos in front of the net, we’re taking the goalie’s eyes away and increasing the chance of a tip-in or rebound for a greasy goal. It’s really paying off for us.”
The Shockers were solid last year on defense, but they’ve taken a step up this season. They’re allowing roughly the same number of shots per game as last season, but they’ve reduced their GAA from 2.71 to 2.60. Their penalty kill has also gotten strong, improving from 82.7% to 84.9%.
“We’ve gotten better about finishing our checks, denying zone entries on power plays, controlling the neutral zone,” said D Wyatt Barnes. “Pretty basic stuff, but Coach Thompson is death on letting the fundamentals slip.”
The Shockers are proud to note that they don’t rely heavily on one or two stars; instead, they rely on depth, including a number of homegrown players who came up through their farm system. “We don’t have a lot of big names on our team, but you don’t need big names to win the Vandy,” said Oflyng.
With that in mind, who might the Shockers pursue in trade? The biggest names likely to be available are Dakota Jackalopes Ds Rusty Anderson and Matt Cherner, and Sasktchewan has the prospects and cap space to acquire at least one of them. Will they go for such a big splash, given the fierce competition for playoff slots in the division? Or will they shun the big names and settle for smaller depth additions, and bet big on their team-first chemistry?
“I’m looking at pretty much every option you can think of, and probably some you can’t,” quipped Matthews. “The next few days are going to be interesting.”
In a lot of ways, Saskatchewan faces the same dilemma that the Hamilton Pistols faced a season ago: a young, rising team with promise gets its first chance at the postseason and has to decide whether to make a big move and go for the Vandy this year, or sit back and try to build a multi-year dynasty. The Pistols opted for depth moves, and wound up losing in the first round of the playoffs.
“We definitely don’t think this is our only shot at [a title],” said Thompson. “This team is no fluke, and not a one-year wonder. If there’s a move that can improve our chances in the short term, I’d be interested. But we have a foundation that will let us contend for years to come. I wouldn’t want us to jeopardize that. I’m not just thinking about this year.”