As he winds down his WHL career with his third club in four years, Collin Valcourt feels that he’s in a good place.
“It’s been a good trade and a good year for me. I feel I’ve really grown as a player,” said the Red Deer native and Prince Albert Raiders overage forward, who was acquired in a late December deal with the Saskatoon Blades.
Since joining the Raiders, the six-foot-two winger has played on a line with Leon Draisaitl, a potential top-three pick in this year’s NHL entry draft, and Dakota Conroy and has piled up 15 goals and 35 points in 36 games.
“Saskatoon allowed me to take some offensive risks this season which really built my confidence and that helped me when I went to Prince Albert,” said Valcourt. “It’s been fun playing with such skilled guys as Leon and Dakota Conroy.”
The Raiders were well out of a playoff spot in February but heated up over the last month of the regular season and defeated the host Red Deer Rebels in a tie-breaker Tuesday for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
“We realized where we were at in our season and we knew that coming down the stretch we had to be a lot better,” said Valcourt. “We did a lot of team building that brought us closer together and I think that’s showing now.
“We’ve been very sharp because of the way we had to play the last month and I feel like we’re going to make a good (playoff) push.”
Valcourt and his teammates will open a best-of-seven conference quarter-final with the Oil Kings Saturday in Edmonton, where the Raiders were 2-0 this season.
“All of us enjoyed playing in Edmonton this year. The ice there is a lot faster than in a lot of rinks. Edmonton plays an upbeat tempo and that plays well to our systems,” said Valcourt.
The Oil Kings are heavily-favoured to end the Raiders’ season, with many media types calling for a sweep despite P.A.’s regular-season success in Edmonton.
Valcourt is confident his club has the scoring prowess and more to hang with — and eventually defeat — the top team in the conference.
“I feel that we have the offensive power that we need to be successful,” he said. “And defensively, I think a lot of teams underestimate us. Plus, (rookie Nick) McBride has been playing well for us in net and because of him we’ve won some games we shouldn’t have won. Coming down the stretch, that’s been huge for us.”
Considering that he’s in his final WHL season, it’s now or never for Valcourt in regards to winning a league title.
“About the last eight games I’ve been extremely excited just knowing these could be my last WHL games,” he said. “I’ve just been focused on playing my game and the prospects of continuing my career down the road. Hopefully I can play pro next year, but if not I’ll be going to school somewhere. So it’s been an exciting time for me. I really want to go far in the playoffs and all of the guys feel the same.”
Valcourt came into the league with the Spokane Chiefs as a 17-year-old in 2010. He played two and a half seasons with the Chiefs before being dealt to the Blades last season as the team was building for the Memorial Cup tournament in Saskatoon.
“The time has gone unbelievably fast,” he said. “I can remember my first game, my first shift, my first goal . . . it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been through a lot of ups and down with teams. I’ve made playoff pushes, played in a Memorial Cup and now I’ve played in a tie-breaker game. I’ve been in all the situations you could possibly be in.”
Speaking of Tuesday’s tie-breaker, it was Valcourt who kick-started a three-goal Raiders third-period rally with the tying marker early in the frame.
“That was extremely exciting for me,” he said. “I don’t think we played as well as we could have earlier in the game and our line of (Calder) Brooks, (Reid) Gardiner and (Jayden) Hart kept us in it. But when we had to be good everyone stepped up and met the challenge.”
• Overage defenceman Graeme Craig, another Red Deer product, was acquired by the Raiders from the Blades at January’s trade deadline and is out indefinitely with an injury.
Craig, though, skated with the Raiders this week in practice at the Red Deer Arena and Penhold Multiplex.