Saskatoon Blades’ new ownership group shakes up hockey operations

Buzzing The Net

The Saskatoon Blades’ new ownership group, which is led by Edmonton car dealer Mike Priestner, made their first big move since buying the team last September. They announced that they aren't renewing head coach Dave Struch’s contract and are parting ways with general manager Lorne Molleken.

With a 16-win season following a Memorial Cup face-plant, the timing is ultimately right for the ownership group to shake up the hockey operations. The change former owner Jack Brodsky made last year by having Molleken relinquish his coaching duties to Struch wasn’t enough for a fan base that hasn’t seen their club win two consecutive playoff rounds since 1995.

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There are two sides to the Molleken story in his 10-year reign in Saskatoon. On one hand the Blades made the playoffs in seven of his nine years as the head coach. On the other hand, however, year after year Saskatoon fell flat in the post-season following strong regular-seasons. The proof is in the pudding in how they’ve been swept in their last three playoff rounds (2012-13 vs. Medicine Hat Tigers, 2011-12 vs. Tigers and 2010-11 vs. Kootenay Ice). This has undoubtedly put into question Molleken’s coaching abilities with the rosters of those respective teams changing year to year.

Meanwhile, Molleken has made more good moves than bad ones in the general manager chair. His best trade is arguably landing Stefan Elliott and the third pick of the 2008 bantam draft, which he used to draft Duncan Siemens, in return for Devin Setoguchi, who was heading into his 19-year-old season at the time. But like all architects, he made some questionable moves such as sending his 2014 first-round bantam pick to the Vancouver Giants last year for then-19-year-old Nathan Burns. It’s fair to point out that Molleken made the Burns deal while having a lot of pressure on his shoulders to put together a competitive team in a year where they were hosting the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup.

Struch was essentially in a lame-duck position as a rookie head coach this year. He simply didn’t have the horses in the stables to lead the rebuilding Blades to the second season. Therefore, Saskatoon’s 16-51-2-3 record doesn’t represent how Struch fared behind the bench. It more so exemplifies where the Bridge City Boys stood this season on paper as they were in their first year of a major rebuild.

Assistant coach Curtis Leschyshyn announced earlier that he won’t be returning to the Blades because he took the Saskatoon Blazers’ head coach opening in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League. In addition, goalie coach Tim Cheveldave has went on record to say he won’t return next year if Struch isn’t given a new contract.

In the hunt for the Blades’ next head coach and general manager, Priestner and company have added TSN analyst and former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button to their brain trust.

“I’m not here to make decisions,” Button said in an interview. “I’m just saying, ‘Here are some things to think about. Here are things that from my experience bear out along the different path.’

“The Saskatoon Blades have been a storied franchise in junior hockey forever. To try and help a new ownership group – a group of people that I like – it’s more or less trying to lend a helping hand.

“I can be an ear they can bend.”

Button has a lengthy hockey resume. The 51-year-old got his start in the NHL in 1988 as scout for the Minnesota North Stars. He was the Dallas Stars director of player personal when they won the Stanley Cup in 1999. (StarPhoenix)

Even though Priestner said he wouldn't hire his friend Dean Clark, who formerly coached the Prince George Cougars, in a September interview with StarPhoenix reporter Daniel Nugent-Bowman, team president Steve Hogle wouldn’t remove Clark from the running at the press conference.

The bottom line is the ownership group, which didn't rule out hiring one man to do both jobs, needs to do this front office revamp the right way to the have any shot of capturing Saskatoon's first WHL championship. They have to do a thorough search and can’t let personal relationships cloud their judgment. It’s also important that the ownership group doesn’t have one hand on the new GM’s wheel. The architect and head coach deserve complete trust from their owners and at least four-year contracts.

Regardless of who is hired, the road to being a contender will be an uphill battle as the Blades are still paying for their Memorial Cup push. The Brandon Wheat Kings hold their top pick this year, which happens to be the first-overall selection, and the Spokane Chiefs have their 2015 first-rounder. But Molleken did replenish some draft choices at the trade deadline by acquiring 2014 second-round picks from the Swift Current Broncos and Prince Albert Raiders and a 2015 first-rounder from the Kamloops Blazers.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen

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