Please find my season recap and future look podcast of the Moose Jaw Warriors on the Neugsie Sportscast with Kelly Remple here:
The Moose Jaw Warriors season ended Monday with an entertaining 5-4 overtime loss to the Saskatoon Blades, and they concluded the Subway WHL Hub with a record of 8-13-3, good enough for sixth out of the seven-team mini-league.
Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary saw the season in two lights at the year-end press conference following Monday’s game.
On one hand, the season had gone well, and mostly to plan for the club as a whole in that general improvement was made from the year before (2019-20 saw the club struggle to an abysmal .258 points percentage), and even more critically, that key young players either made impressive debuts, like rookies Brayden Yager and Max Wanner, or had taken clear steps forward in their development, like Denton Mateychuk, Jagger Firkus, and Eric Alarie.
“(Those young guys) made an impression on us for sure,” said O’Leary.
“It gets us excited about what we have coming. Just that they were able to get a 24-game season in here is big in that they now have something to build on for this off-season. They got that first year out of the way and they should be overflowing with confidence. It’s up to them as far as they want to go with us and beyond.”
On the other hand, he expressed disappointment in individuals (without naming them specifically), that certain players played well below expectations. It would be easy to throw mud at this writer’s best guess of who those players might be, but let’s just leave it there for now.
Overall though, it was overwhelmingly positive from O’Leary, and given the club’s plans to add import-drafted European stars and Top 3 round NHL draft picks in Swedish goaltender Jesper Wallstedt, and Czech sniper Martin Rysavy for 21-22, the future looks enormously bright in ‘The Friendly City’.
The next NHL draft will have at least one current Moose Jaw Warrior called, and as many as three – not to mention two European imports who WILL go high in the draft that General Manager Jason Ripplinger is going to try hard to bring in to Mosaic Arena this off-season.
Forward Ryder Korczak has been listed by NHL Central Scouting as an ‘A’-list prospect for a while now, while fellow forward Alarie and defenceman Cole Jordan are ‘C’ listed prospects.
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) April 10, 2021
It is without a doubt that the September, 2002-born Korczak will go somewhere in the first three rounds after a solid Hub season (16 points in 17 games); one that is made even more impressive by the fact that he was playing with what the DUBNetwork is led to understand is a pretty serious jaw injury.
“Ryder had a wild ride through this Hub,” O’Leary said at the press conference.
“I always talk about his drive, his love, and passion for the game, and I think we saw that with how fast he was able to come back from the injury when a lot of guys would not have. That right there helps him immensely.”
Alarie, an early 2003-born power forward, took a huge step forward this year and demonstrated an outstanding nose for the net by leading the club in goals with 10, in spite of the fact he missed the final four games of the season with an injury.
He has plenty of areas in his game that need shoring up, especially in the defensive zone, and still needs another gear in his foot speed, but if you can put the puck in the net, someone will find you a job more often than not.
Standing at the back-door Eric Alarie buries our 3rd goal of the game.
Highlight brought to you by Moose Jaw Ford pic.twitter.com/MqWwmLPnoR
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) March 12, 2021
Jordan, 18 and also of Winnipeg, had an up and down Hub, and is a high-risk, high-reward defenceman – but he’s 6-foot-2 and can really skate, so that will get some attention as well.
“Jordan was an unknown to a lot of people,” O’Leary added.
“(Scouts) were poking around about him earlier in the year, but I think he has done himself a service as well with his skating, and his game really took a step too. Lots of people have been asking about him, (so in terms of the draft stocks of those three guys) I think the year has been a real success as well.”
— The WHL (@TheWHL) March 17, 2021
It is in the opinion of this writer, and many others, that the highly anticipated first season of the club’s 3rd overall pick from 2020, Brayden Yager, was absolutely all the Warriors could have hoped for and more.
The 2005 birth-year from Saskatoon scored seven goals, and 18 points, stayed healthy, was a regular Top 6 forward almost from the start, a key element on a successful power play, started to develop chemistry with fellow rookie and offensive dynamo Jagger Firkus, and most importantly, got a taste of what it was like on and off the ice as a WHLer. That is not a complete list of his accomplishments this year by any stretch, but it is a great start.
“I think it was a success,” O’Leary said.
— AccessNow Sports (@AccessNowSports) March 17, 2021
“As crazy as this year has been, it turned out to be a perfect opportunity for him to play 24 games, and he should go into this off-season feeling confident that he can play at a high level in this league. It was great for me personally to get to know him a bit better on and off the ice. I was excited when we drafted him, and I’m even more now because I know the character of the kid and what drives him.”
It took exactly two games for O’Leary to put his money where his mouth is in terms of his belief in Yager’s mental maturity, to say nothing of his skill level. Game 2 of the Hub, Moose Jaw, and Prince Albert in a shootout, and who does the coach look to take the winning shot? The fresh-faced 16-year-old.
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) March 15, 2021
“He had a good look in overtime, so when we got to the shootout there was no hesitation,” O’Leary said post-game that day, March 15 to be exact.
“We knew he would be in the shooters, it set up for him really nicely and it was a really exciting moment for Brayden.”
He has already been compared to Nate MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche not too long into the Hub, and you can find the piece here that this writer pointed to it.
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) April 22, 2021
The biggest breaking news to come out of the final press conference of the year was that captain Daemon Hunt guaranteed his return to the Warriors in 2021-2022.
Hunt, who took the mantle of the ‘C’ even though he was only 18 and played in only 28 games in 19-20 due to a gruesome injury to his wrist, finished third in Hub points (18), and first in goals (8) among defencemen. A Minnesota Wild third-rounder, the Brandon, MB native played three contests with the AHL’s Iowa Wild to start the campaign, before he, like all eligible players in the minor pro ranks, was assigned to his junior club.
“I am excited for next year,” said Hunt.
“We brought a lot of young talent here, so I am thrilled that I’ll be back, and we should be so excited for the future here in Moose Jaw. I am really impressed by our young guys, they all got a lot better as the Hub went along, so I expect that next year we’ll be that much better.”
He has also represented Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, IIHF Under-18 World Championship, and World Under-17s.
Great work in the corner here by Quinton Byfield to fight his way to the net.
Love how Daemon Hunt (Canada #2) activated off the blueline for a backdoor chance. Terrific offensive instincts and he almost got rewarded with a goal. pic.twitter.com/hwHgHTV3rR
— Sam (@DraftLook) August 13, 2019
Despite Hunt’s relative youth, he has the confidence and pedigree to be the leader that the Warriors’ room will continue to look up to as they hope to make a real run at contending for the WHL championship in 21-22.
“I think leading is in my blood,” he said.
“I have led since I was young and to wear the ‘C’ on that jersey and for the city of Moose Jaw is extremely special, and I am not taking it for granted at all. I had lots of fun leading, we had a lot of ups and downs but I felt like I was there for all the guys every single of the way. It was a great time this year, and I am excited to do that next year too.”
To have Hunt and fellow Team Canada U-18 alumnus and rookie sensation Denton Mateychuk, who is away at the event in Texas at the time of writing, back next year is another great start for Warriors’ General Manager Jason Ripplinger and company.
One of the best stories that regularly recurring in junior hockey is that of the love story between a long-time player and his community.
Tate Popple, who as a 2000 birth-year aged out of the league, fits that bill to a tee.
Popple, who turned 21 at the beginning of March, played all 214 games of his Western Hockey League career as a Warrior, through the ups of that magical team in 2017-18, to the downs of 19-20.
It’s all the more impressive given that he was never drafted out of his Brandon Wheat Kings minor hockey system.
“Losing Tate is a tough one,” said O’Leary.
“He’s a guy that made it the hard way and I still remember his first training camp: his grit and determination helped him get noticed, and he has been great for us on and off the ice. The tougher the moment Tate seems to rise to the occasion, he’s a pleasure to be around, and I wish him all the best moving forward.”
POPPIN' TWINE! 🍾
— The WHL (@TheWHL) March 13, 2021
Riley Krane and Brad Ginnell, whom Moose Jaw brought in just for the Hub, also graduated from the Warriors due to their age.