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February 14, 2011
Up and Coming
The Saskatoon Westerns

by Iain Fyffe

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As many readers surely know, in the early 1980s the St. Louis Blues (owned by the Ralston-Purina Company at the time) were in severe financial straits. Before eventually finding a buyer willing to keep the team in the city, Ralston-Purina was all set to sell the franchise to a group headed by Bill Hunter (a founder of the WHA) who intended to transplant the team to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. As soon as the NHL approved the sale, work was to begin on a new arena that would have been ready in time for the 1983-84 season.

Of course, the sale had to be approved by 75% of the league's Board of Governors. Only 16% voted in favor of the deal. Suits and countersuits followed in the subsequent months, and the St. Louis Blues even sat out of the Entry Draft in 1983, since no one was really running the team at that point. Their first- and second-round selections were used, since they had previously been traded to other teams. Eventually another buyer was found, and the team stayed put in St. Louis.

But what if it hadn't? What if the governors had approved the transfer of the Blues to the Canadian prairies? Wouldn't this give us a fun bit of alternate history, and an entertaining way to illustrate the effectiveness of the Projectinator? Of course it would. Now that the Projectinator is being calibrated to cover a wide variety of draft-eligible players, we can examine its results from past years in some detail. Rather than simply providing dry lists of players and rankings, we can have some fun with it.

This is therefore the first in a series of articles which will ultimately provide a year-by-year discussion of the results of objective draft rankings, starting with the 1983 Entry Draft as a convenient starting point. Thus we begin the (completely fictional and in some ways rather unrealistic) story of the Saskatoon NHL franchise, called the Westerns for at least three good reasons.

The first step is to find a General Manager. This part is easy, since we can just make someone up. It turns out that a Saskatchewanian by the name of Ardal Ekrub fits the bill perfectly. A relatively young man of Irish and Hungarian descent, he's a hockey outsider with a clear vision of how to run a team. He will hire insiders to run the day-to-day bits of the operation and coach the players, but will clearly establish the club's overall direction and strategy. And best of all, he's a developed a system which he calls the Project-a-Tron, which he intends to use to select players at the Entry Draft each year. He believes that his system of objective drafting can produce sustainable success at the NHL level, in place of the typical cycles of success and rebuilding.

Mr. Ekrub has some guiding principles to establish his fingerprints on the team. First, he wants to bring in a good number of Saskatchewan natives in an effort to establish early support for the club. Second, he will focus on young players to build up the team at first; older players will be dealt for younger ones, or for draft picks. Third, he will almost never trade away a draft pick; he sees the Project-a-Tron as a significant competitive advantage, which is maximized by having numerous selections in the draft. Finally, he considers high-penalty players to be a commodity that many teams value much more highly than they are actually worth. Such players will be dealt to cash in on this.

Ekrub knows he's already at a disadvantage. His first selection in the 1983 Entry Draft will be 48th overall, since his predecessor traded away the team's first two picks. But to begin with, he'll try to address some of his other strategic ideas. A coaching staff from Saskatchewan is a good place to start: let's say Dave King (from North Battleford) and Lorne Henning (from Melfort). First-line center Bernie Federko is coming home in the team's move from St. Louis; he was a star player as an amateur in the province before turning pro. Federko will be the centerpiece of the team's marketing leading up to the 1983-84 season, and additional players from Saskatchewan would be a nice addition. Before making any personnel moves, Ekrub reviews the player roster he inherited. Then, like any good fantasy GM, he can go about completely redefining his team through trades.

Saskatoon Westerns Opening Roster

Position	Name			Age (1983-84)
G		Heinz, Rick		28
G		Liut, Mike		27
G		Skidmore, Paul		27
D		Bothwell, Tim		28
D		Brownschidle, Jack	27
D		Donnelly, Gord		21
D		Dore, Andre		25
D		Hagglund, Roger		21
D		Julien, Claude		23
D		Kea, Ed			35
D		Lapointe, Guy		35
D		Pavese, Jim		21
D		Peerless, Blaine	21
D		Posavad, Mike		19
D		Ramage, Rob		24
D		Ruff, Marty		20
D		Smyth, John		21
D		Stewart, Bill		25
D		Taft, John		25
D		Vigneault, Alain	22
D		Wilson, Rik		21
C		Brooke, Bob		21
C		Callander, Jock		21
C		Federko, Bernie		27
C		Gilmour, Doug		20
C		Klassen, Ralph		28
C		Lemieux, Alain		22
C		Patey, Larry		30
C		Tudor, Rob		27
C		Turnbull, Perry		23
C		Zuke, Mike		29
LW		Anderson, Perry		21
LW		Brackenbury, Curt	31
LW		Carlson, Jack		29
LW		Dunlop, Blake		30
LW		Eades, Cary		21
LW		Hickey, Pat		30
LW		Pettersson, Jorgen	27
LW		Rabbitt, Pat		21
LW		Skjodt, Charlie		27
LW		Sutter, Brian		26
LW		Wilson, Bert		33
RW		Babych, Wayne		27
RW		Chapman, Blair		27
RW		Crawford, Bob		23
RW		Crombeen, Mike		26
RW		Ganchar, Perry		19
RW		Markell, John		27
RW		Mullen, Joe		26
RW		Reeds, Mark		23
RW		Robb, Doug		25
RW		Wood, Dan		20
RW		Zemlak, Richard		20

The roster is already fairly rich with Saskatchewanians. Besides Foam Lake native Bernie Federko, Jock Callander (Regina), Blair Chapman (Lloydminster), Perry Ganchar (Saskatoon), Ralph Klassen (Muenster), Rob Tudor (Cupar) and Richard Zemlak (Wynyard) were all born in the province. But not all of these are NHL-caliber players, so will not necessarily be at the forefront of the fans' affections.

Ekrub's first order of business is to clear some of the chaff off the roster. Guy Lapointe is a free agent, and at his age is not worth keeping; he would later sign with Boston. Blair Chapman, Ed Kea, Curt Brackenbury, Doug Robb, John Taft and Bert Wilson would all retire over the summer, trimming the roster some more.

To fill in some holes, Ekrub goes in search of some minor-league free agents. He wants high-scoring players who are often on the small side, and therefore undervalued by other teams. Right wing Dirk Graham is a no-brainer; he's only 23 years of age, coming off a 70-goal, 125-point season in the IHL, and is a native of Regina, Saskatchewan. Left wing Paul Fenton has similar credentials, other than his birthplace. The 22-year-old scored 60 goals and 111 points in Peoria of the IHL. Center Tim Tookey, another 22 year old, fills out a small-size free agent line, after recording 67 AHL points in 53 games. Defenseman Jim McTaggart doesn't have the quality resume of these men, but fills out a spot on the blueline depth chart and hails from Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

Blake Dunlop is traded to Detroit for a third-round draft pick. Meanwhile Larry Patey, Pat Hickey and Jim Pavese are traded to the Rangers for second- and third-round picks. Wayne Babych is sent to Winnipeg for a third-round pick. Jorgen Pettersson is shopped around due to being a bit too old for the team's purposes, but little interest is found so he remains with the team.

Rough-and-tumble blueliner Alain Vigneault is packaged with Dan Wood and traded to Washington in exchange for skilled but "soft" defenseman Lee Norwood and Saskathewanian goaltender Dave Parro, who is expected to fill the backup role for the Westerns.

More spare parts are traded to Hartford: Mike Zuke, Mike Crombeen and Tim Bothwell and sent away, and in return Ekrub receives defenseman Darren McKay (who's skilled, small and from Saskatchewan), center Michel Galarneau (who's young and can fill in the fourth line) and a third-round draft pick.

Perry Turnbull is shipped to Montreal for three players: center Doug Wickenheiser, right wing Greg Paslawski and defenseman Gilbert Delorme. Though young and a good goal-scorer, the offer from Montreal is too good to pass up: two Saskatchewanians in Wickenheiser and Paslawski and a skilled young defender in Delorme. Note that this trade happened in real life as well; we're just pushing the date up from mid-season to the beginning.

All of these deals change the complexion of the team a bit at a time, but Ekrub has a couple of big ones up his sleeve to completely alter the makeup of his club. Looking to get younger, and not being afraid of small players, he sends former Lester B. Pearson Trophy winner Mike Liut, tough left winger Jack Carlson and and throw-in defenseman Blaine Peerless to the North Stars in exchange for goalie Don Beaupre and blueliner Curt Giles, both of whom stand less than 5-foot-9, and a third-round draft pick.

But he's not done yet, and has his biggest deal yet. Perhaps the two biggest assets on his roster, at least in terms of trade value, are former first-overall selection (1979) Rob Ramage, and feisty left winger Brian Sutter. Still quite young and already having a 20-goal season in the NHL, Ramage also spent 193 minutes in the sin bin in 1982-83, which is more than Ekrub would like; he prefers his best players to be on the ice, not in the penalty box. Brian Sutter scored 46 goals in 1982-83, but also recorded 254 penalty minutes. He would like to capitalize on the apparent value of these players, by finding a team that values truculent players such as these.

The Philadelphia Flyers are a perfect trading partner for these players. Testosterone is a defining characteristic of Flyer hockey; they're also a team probably looking to shake things up after losing three straight playoff series, and have two very desirable players that would be perfect for the Westerns: high-scoring left wing Brian Propp and defenseman Brad McCrimmon. They are better fits in the Saskatoon way of doing things. By including violent blueliner Gord Donnelly in the deal as well, Ekrub also receives young right winger Dave Michayluk, who put up good numbers in the AHL. The icing on this trade? All three players obtained are from Saskatchewan.

After all is said and done, Ekrub has increased the numbers of Saskatchewanian players on the roster from seven to 14, and reduced the average age on the roster by almost two years, from 24.96 to 23.15. Not a bad summer's work.

Saskatoon Westerns 1983-84 Roster

Position	Name			Age (1983-84)
G		Beaupre, Don		21
G		Heinz, Rick		28
G		Parro, Dave		26
G		Skidmore, Paul		27
D		Brownschidle, Jack	27
D		Delorme, Gilbert	20
D		Dore, Andre		25
D		Giles, Curt		24
D		Hagglund, Roger		21
D		Julien, Claude		23
D		McCrimmon, Brad		24
D		McKay, Darren		21
D		McTaggart, Jim		23
D		Norwood, Lee		23
D		Posavad, Mike		19
D		Ruff, Marty		20
D		Smyth, John		21
D		Stewart, Bill		25
D		Wilson, Rik		21
C		Brooke, Bob		21
C		Callander, Jock		21
C		Federko, Bernie		27
C		Galarneau, Michel	22
C		Gilmour, Doug		20
C		Klassen, Ralph		28
C		Lemieux, Alain		22
C		Tookey, Tim		22
C		Tudor, Rob		27
C		Wickenheiser, Doug	22
LW		Anderson, Perry		21
LW		Eades, Cary		21
LW		Fenton, Paul		22
LW		Pettersson, Jorgen	27
LW		Propp, Brian		24
LW		Rabbitt, Pat		21
LW		Skjodt, Charlie		27
RW		Crawford, Bob		23
RW		Ganchar, Perry		19
RW		Graham, Dirk		23
RW		Markell, John		27
RW		Michayluk, Dave		21
RW		Mullen, Joe		26
RW		Paslawski, Greg		22
RW		Reeds, Mark		23
RW		Zemlak, Richard		20

At a press conference to introduce the team to the people of Saskatoon, Ekrub says "I'm very excited to have been able to bring so many Saskatchewan players back to their home province. I know they will make the fans proud, and I'm confident our coaching staff will make sure they always put 100% effort in, like good prairie lads. The fans in Saskatoon and across the province will have plenty to cheer about this season, regardless of where we finish in the standings."

With the dealing done, Ekrub can now prepare for the 1983 Entry Draft, which is his primary focus. Besides his own team's picks (numbers 48, 69, 90, 111, 132, 153, 174, 195, 216 and 237), he has acquired two from the Rangers (numbers 33 and 54) and one each from the Jets (43), Red Wings (46), Whalers (62) and North Stars (56). He believes his Project-a-Tron ratings will allow him to draft quality players with these acquired picks. Next time, we'll see if he's right.

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Premium Article Shots On Goal (02/13)
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Premium Article Up and Coming (02/07)
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Up and Coming (05/25)
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Premium Article Illegal Curve (02/14)

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