This season’s Western Hockey League playoffs didn’t go how Colorado Avalanche prospect Duncan Siemens and his Saskatoon Blades teammates thought it would.
In the first round of the WHL postseason, Saskatoon was swept 4-0 in its best-of-seven series against the Medicine Hat Tigers – not the way a major-junior club comprised of a veteran group of eighteen, 19 and 20-year-olds envisioned going out.
However, they will get a second chance to end their season on a high-note as they host this year’s Memorial Cup, which begins Friday night against the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
The Memorial Cup features the championship teams among the Canadian Hockey League’s three sub-leagues – WHL, OHL and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) – and the team from the host city. Over the course of nine days, every team will face each other in a round-robin tournament to decide the best major-junior hockey club.
For Siemens’ Blades team, they’ll be looking to prove that the series against Medicine Hat was a fluke and that they belong in the category as one of the top-four teams in the CHL.
“I think it was a big wake-up call for us,” Siemens said of the Medicine Hat series. “We went in there thinking it was easy, and we have to give some credit to them – they came out and executed their game plan perfectly. They just wanted it more than we did.
“For having a really old team, we want to take advantage of every opportunity and we thought that series got away from us. It was one of those things that it happened and that we realized very quickly that we let it get away from us and we don’t want to let that happen again.”
The uphill battle of public opinion is nothing new for the Blades, as they’ve had to face the pressure of being a top team in the league all season long.
Siemens said this season wasn’t like any of his previous three in Saskatoon as the public’s eye and the pressure of competing at a high level every game was targeted to the team because they were hosting the Memorial Cup.
And it didn’t help that the season didn’t start off well as the Blades went 2-7 to begin the 2012-13 campaign.
“It seemed like every little mistake we made or if we had one bad game, everything got magnified,” he said. “Absolutely everything to do with us was magnified. It was just one of those things that everybody was paying attention to what you are doing where as before if you have a bad game, nobody even realizes it.”
However in the final half of the season, things turned around for the Blades as they won 18-straight games at one point and entered the playoffs with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at 44-22-6 (94 points).
On the ice, Saskatoon is one of the biggest teams in the CHL with 19 players at least six-feet tall, including all eight defenseman.
“We’re a fairly big team,” said Siemens, who is one of those big defensemen and is the second-biggest player on the squad at 6-foot-4, 209 pounds. “We play physical and we can wear teams out like that, especially if they like to play a run-and-gun style or if they are not as big and physical as we are.”
However off the ice (and maybe still on it as well), Siemens said the team’s biggest strength is being able to overcome adversity, which they had to do all season with the public pressure and will have to do it again in the Memorial Cup.
“We were faced with a lot of adversity at the start of the year and it kind of continued and ended that way,” he said. “I think it is a huge strength of ours, we can really come together when it really matters and I think that will play a big benefit for us.”
Long Time Off
Another question facing this Blades team is how rusty will they be after not playing a game in over seven weeks?
That is a question that Siemens doesn’t necessarily know the answer to.
“It’s something new for everyone involved,” he said. “It’s a long layover between games. I think its 51 days between games. It’s tough to try and get yourself into that game-type pace when you are just practicing.”
After the team was eliminated from the WHL playoffs, the coaches got the players away from hockey by sending them back home for two weeks. Since returning to Saskatoon, the team has been skating, working out and sometimes going through two-a-day practices to get back to game speed.
There is no doubt that Saskatoon will be healthiest team when the tournament begins, and maybe the team with the best scouting report on the other clubs, especially the ones from the OHL and QMJHL that they haven’t played all year.
“The bumps and bruises have some time to heal, your body is not already sore. We’ve been able to concentrate on the teams that we are going to play and watch what they’ve been doing in their playoff series and get a little bit of a scouting report on them,” Siemens said of the benefits of having seven weeks off.
They will also have the advantage of playing in front of their home crowd in what will surely be a packed Credit Union Centre, with the large majority of the 15,190 in attendance in the Blades’ navy and royal blue colors.
“There is a big buzz going on,” Siemens said of the city of Saskatoon’s excitement for the tournament. “The city has been tremendous with us and I’m sure we’ll have a fairly good showing when the tournament comes. I know us as players are anxious to get that first game going, and I’m sure the fans are itching at the bolt to watch it.”
Offensively this season, Siemens had a fairly normal production year as he had three goals and 29 assists for 32 points. Those are pretty typical numbers for a big, stay-at-home defenseman that is not necessarily known for his scoring.
Siemens said his biggest improvement from the previous season was his positional play and being able to read opposing teams’ rushes and break them up.
“I was put into a role that I’m going to look to pursue at the next level; being a steady, tough, hard defender,” he said. “But at the same point, I want to be able to chip in offensively when I can by getting my shots through or making a simple play so our forwards can have an odd-man rush.”
Maybe the most telling offensive number and improvement for him isn’t his 32 points, but his plus-31 rating. While plus/minus rating doesn’t necessarily tell the entire story of a player, Siemens’ rating was the second highest on the Blades and the highest among defensemen. The next highest rating for a D-man on Saskatoon was a plus-18.
“I’m definitely going to do what I can to get the puck in the right hands,” he said.
This season, he played 70 games with the Blades after dealing with injuries and playing 57 contests a year ago. He also played three games with the Avalanche’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, in 2011-12, which he said helped him see what it takes at the next level and how to be a professional hockey player.
“I think it definitely helped me this year and to get myself to improve in the right areas and to get myself as ready as I can to turn pro,” Siemens said of his short time with Lake Erie. “I was able to mature a lot with that short experience and learn a lot as well.”
Excited For Avalanche Training Camp
After the Memorial Cup is over, he is going to return to his hometown of Sherwood Park in the Edmonton, Alberta area where he will work on his power skating and with his trainer 6-7 days a week in preparation for Avs training camp in September.
Siemens was drafted in the first round and 11th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft, nine spots behind Gabe Landeskog, who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year and will be entering his third NHL season.
When talking about next season’s training camp, there was a clear excitement in his voice and an eagerness to go out and prove that he belongs in the National Hockey League.
However, if he isn’t one of the 23 players to make the Avs’ opening night roster, he wants to make sure it wasn’t an easy decision.
“I just want to go there and make a solid impression,” Siemens said. “Play to the best of my abilities as I can and make it the hardest decision by coaches and management as I can. Control what I can control, because at the end of the day it is going to be their decision, and if I go out there and put absolutely everything that I know that I can on the ice and it wasn’t what they were looking for, then it is easier to live with then maybe not working as hard as you could and have that ‘what if’ in the back of your mind.”
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