Red Deer native Collin Valcourt had barely arrived in Saskatoon when he was struck with the reality that his new club was performing far below its capabilities.
The struggling Saskatoon Blades, set to host the Memorial Cup tournament in May, picked up Valcourt from the Spokane Chiefs at the Jan. 10 trade deadline and also added fellow left wingers Erik Benoit from Kootenay and Michael Ferland from Brandon.
Still, the club continued to stumble.
“After we (including Benoit and Ferland) got here we lost four in a row and collectively we looked around the room and called each other out as a team,” said Valcourt, prior to Tuesday’s 4-0 win over the Red Deer Rebels at the Centrium.
“The message was ‘we have the skill to be a Memorial Cup team, so why aren’t we playing that way?’ We’ve been doing really well lately and we have to stick to it.”
The Blades posted a 2-1 record after the players-only locker room meeting and were ready to soar when they hosted the defending WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings Jan. 23. Saskatoon fell 4-2 , which earlier in the month might have sparked another downward spiral; instead the Blades have posted 17 straight conquests since that loss more than five weeks ago and are looking very much the part of a league championship contender.
“We made some pickups at the deadline which helped out a lot, but there were some games right after that we kind of let slip away,” said towering defenceman Graeme Craig, another Red Deer product whom Blades GM/head coach Lorne Molleken acquired from the Swift Current Broncos in mid October.
“I think we were developing chemistry during that period and have kind of taken off here as of late,” Craig continued. “We’re playing the way we need to be playing to win.”
Along with the acquisition of Craig and his deadlne deals, Molleken has brought in 13 new players since last summer. That’s ironic, considering the Blades — with 16 players 19 years of age and over — will lose a minimum of 13 from the present roster next season.
The six-foot-four, 217-pound Craig was somewhat surprised when he was informed of the trade that would end his extended time with the Broncos, whom he joined in 2009 as a 16-year-old.
“I was a little shocked to be traded. I wasn’t really expecting it, so it was a bit shocking having to leave the (Broncos),” he said. “But I knew that by coming to Saskatoon I would be playing in May, that it was a great opportunity for me. Then I was really looking forward to it.”
Molleken’s expectations of Craig were that the big blueliner would use his size and experience to help anchor the Blades back end.
“He just told me he wanted me to be reliable in my own zone,” said Craig. “As it turned out, I did start on the power play but haven’t played on it for three months. Now I’m on the penalty kill. I’m doing a lot of work there and just trying to be a solid, shutdown-type guy.”
Molleken hasn’t been disappointed with Craig’s contributions. The Red Deer minor hockey graduate has accumulated 15 points (1g,14a) and 67 penalty minutes in 62 games this season, and more importantly is a plus-8 in the plus/minus category.
“He’s a big body who plays a complete game,” said Molleken. “When Swift Current made him available, we took a long, hard look at it. We gave up a good player in the trade in Brent Benson who has unfortunately been hampered by a concussion all year.”
Valcourt was in his third season with Spokane when he was called into the Chiefs’ office.
“For sure, I was a bit surprised,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to get traded at all, but when I found out where I was coming to it was a very exciting time for me . . . just the thought of being able to play in the Memorial Cup.”
And what was Molleken’s messsage for Valcourt upon his arrival in Saskatoon?”
“He brought me in and told me to play the same way I did in Spokane — be a physical guy, a presence, put a couple of goals in here and there and be strong defensively,” said the six-foot-two, 195-pound winger. “I listened to what he said and so far I feel I’ve been playing that way.”
Valcourt has broken through offensively this season with 20 goals, including seven in 24 games with the Blades. He’s also a plus-10 player since joining Saskatoon and has racked up a total of 96 minutes in penalties between Spokane and the Blades.
“Everyone is playing with confidence right now and the guys I play with (linemates Benoit and Lukas Sutter) have helped me out every night,” said Valcourt.
“He’s a big power forward who plays in the tough areas,” said Molleken. “That was something we were lacking and that was the biggest reason we brought Collin in. Along with Ferland and Benoit . . . all of them have extended playoff experience and two of them have played in the Memorial Cup.
“We’re pleased with our group right now. We feel like we have good depth up front and certainly (goaltender Andrey) Makarov has been real good upon his return from the world juniors.”