The St. Louis Blues will forever be remembered for winning the Stanley Cup in a year that saw them sit dead-last in the NHL midway through the campaign. But they were by no means the most impressive champions this season.
The Alberta Jr. A League's Brooks Bandits went on an absolute tear this season, winning 57 of their 60 regular season games for one of the greatest campaigns in junior hockey history.
But the team wouldn't have been able to do it without the play of defenseman Luke Bast. Bast was one of the focal points of the Bandits D-corps this year, a group that allowed just 125 goals in 60 games, the fewest in the AJHL. The Bandits finished with the league title, but that wasn't the real goal: the Bandits wanted to win the National Junior A Championship as the CJHL's top team. With a team that good, Bast knew the team couldn't let up, even though they had an automatic spot in the NJAC as hosts of the tournament.
"We didn't earn that privilege to play in the National Championship. We were just kind of given it and I think that was the big thing for us," Bast said. "We wanted to earn our stripes and earn the opportunity ourselves. And then the chips fell where they were supposed to."
The Bandits won that championship, too.
His play on such a dominant team caught the attention of scouts, with Bast also playing at the World Jr. A Challenge for a Canada West squad that was defensively impressive. Not only did he have a good showing with three points in six games, but Bast was often the best player on the ice. But many scouts have pointed at his 5-foot-9 frame as something that will push him farther down the rankings. Bast has helped to use that as motivation to get better.
"At the start of the year, it was pretty draining on me," he said. "I kept checking (the rankings) and was so focused on it. It was eating me alive. Then when the playoffs arrived, I just kind of stepped back and kind of realized that instead of me focusing on the draft, I should just focus on myself and worrying about getting better every day."
Bast finished the season with seven goals and 35 points, good for first among all AJHL defenseman entering the draft for the first time. A power-play specialist, Bast's slapshot is among the best among Jr. A defensemen and his quick speed and two-way play make him an intriguing young prospect. But again, it all comes down to the size factor: is he worth the pick now, or will teams wait a bit to see what he becomes? Bast does play a very similar game to Minnesota blueliner Jared Spurgeon, a fellow Albertan who went to the New York Islanders in the sixth round in 2008 (156th overall) before embarking on a tremendous career year with the Wild. At 5-foot-9 himself, he isn't the prototypical defenseman in terms of size, but his skill level makes up for it.
And that's what appears to be the case with Bast. His talent outweighs his flaws, and he could be a very tantalizing late-round pick. Teams are definitely interested in his services. Bast recently came back from visiting with the Montreal Canadiens at a mini-combine and says he has talked to a bunch of teams leading up to the draft. Teams do have the luxury of being patient with Bast, who will join North Dakota of the NCAA next season as a highly-rated recruit.
Ryan Papaioannou, Bast's coach in Brooks, had tremendous praise for his star defenseman.
"Luke brought our group an offensive element that helped us create and sustain offensive zone pressure," Papaioannou said. "He is extremely active in the offensive zone and makes smart reads to allow our attack to be more dynamic."
It's still an upward battle for Bast. This year's defense crop looks impressive heading into the draft, with as many as 13 looking like legit threats for the first round. NHL teams see value in small, speedy skaters, but opportunities for petit defensemen are still limited. Bast will have to wait for late in the second day to have his name called, but that just makes it easier for him to prove people wrong.
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