It’s time for a preview! Honestly, I am so excited to write an honest-to-goodness preview, for a real hockey team, playing a real hockey season. Awesome.
Wednesday’s announcement of the final schedule for play at the Regina Hub was another crucial step toward Game Day No. 1 on March 12, which for the Moose Jaw Warriors will be a lead-off afternoon tilt with the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Find the details here:
Our complete 2021 East Division Hub Schedule has been released.
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) March 3, 2021
The DUBNetwork caught up with Moose Jaw Warriors’ Head Coach Mark O’Leary on a wide range of topics Thursday, the whole conversation of which you can catch on the Neugsie Sportscast HERE
Here’s Part 1. Check out Part 2 next week.
From general manager Alan Millar all the way down, last year’s 14-44-4 record, and a fifth-place finish in the division did not sit well at all.
It is a new day though as the Hub games approach, and O’Leary knows that while the development of this young crew of Warriors is still at the fore, they simply must do better than a .226 win percentage.
“(The balance of development and being competitive) is something Alan and the front office staff and our coaches have talked lots about,” he said.
“In any given year there is a part of you that is pushing hard for the development, whether that’s younger players or any of our players. Then there’s that aspect of winning, it’s a game, it’s competitive, and we have a job to win our fair share of games.”
“It’s important to note that part of development is to be in a culture where you earn what you get,” he continued, “where you’re competitive and win games. We took it in the chin a lot last year, and that’s hard to do and develop at the same time.”
O’Leary noted that while the focus of the club remains on building and development, it will be the likes of captain and top defenceman Daemon Hunt, and Ryder Korczak, the projected NHL first-rounder and offensive dynamo, who will be on the ice in the key, game-winning situations at the end of games.
That being said, with 24 games shoved between March 12’s opener vs. Brandon, and the finale on Apr. 26 against Saskatoon, there will be all sorts of time (and need) for the 10 players on the squad born in 2003 and younger to contribute.
With all 25 players on the roster in the Hub, O’Leary anticipates all sorts of line-up mixing and matching.
“It was important to us to have enough bodies,” he said.
“So, we feel with five lines and eight defencemen, like it’ll serve us well to make sure there is competition for spots number one, that makes everybody better, but we are also anticipating some bumps and bruises along the way here, and therefore we’ll be able to slide guys in and out of the line-up. It’ll be a great opportunity for younger guys to get in and play with some older guys as well.”
Milar has gone on the record in saying that .500 is the bare minimum in terms of expectations.
Moose Jaw’s future champion?
NEWS: 2020 1st round pick Brayden Yager has committed to the Warriors & WHL w/ the signing of a Standard Player Agreement.
Yager was selected 3rd overall at the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft. Last season w/ the Contacts he had 18-24-42pts in 44GP.
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) April 24, 2020
The history of the ‘Trans-Canada Clash’ between Moose Jaw and Regina is full of big names in the role of champion for the respective clubs. Most recently, it has been the likes of Moose Jaw stars Brett Howden and Brayden Point, vs. Sam Steel and Adam Brooks from the capital, and storylines like these clashes of titans are big parts of what makes this rivalry so compelling.
So, enter the present day, and while it is far too soon to anoint Brayden Yager, Moose Jaw’s 2005-born third overall pick from the 2020 WHL draft, as the club’s standard-bearer in that conflict vs. Regina’s ‘Wonder Boy’ Connor Bedard, O’Leary, and the Warriors are not afraid to shy away from that soon-to-come narrative either.
Neither Yager nor Bedard have played a second of junior hockey, or faced each other in a meaningful game, with the former coming straight out a year and a bit with the Saskatoon Contacts U18s, and the latter a spell in Sweden after crushing the prep level with West Vancouver Academy last season.
So the question is this: does Yager think he is as good, if not better than the already anointed ‘generational’ superstar Bedard?
“Absolutely,” O’Leary said.
“I don’t want to speak for Brayden, but I know his competitiveness, and I know that he gets a little more excited when he’s playing against a guy like Connor. For sure that isn’t lost on him, it’s not lost on me, and it’s good for the game. It’s certainly good for Moose Jaw and Regina to have two elite players like this that are going to play head-to-head for many years. It’s good for the rivalry, so why not start when they’re 15?”
O’Leary was clear that Yager is going to be treated like any other member of the club, with the potential to earn ice time, spots on special teams, etc.
“I told Brayden right off the hop,” he said, “as soon as we knew he was going to come here: ‘you’re a Moose Jaw Warrior now, you’re not a call-up, you’re not a midget player just along for the ride, you are part of us now.’
“He’s still a young guy, but I have watched him on video, I watched some of his games from earlier this year, and I think he’s certainly ready. He’s a competitive kid, he just loves the game, and he is going to be a great player for us. I expect him to climb up and earn more ice time as these games go on.”
“Obviously we’re still in the process of getting to know him in this hub, quarantine situation,” added his new teammate and assistant captain Korczak.
“But the things I’ve heard about his abilities on the ice are incredible. He’s definitely a big guy, with a big shot, and I am expecting a lot from him.”
For the record, and the prospect hardcores out there, Yager’s long-time teammate and pal Riley Heidt, who went second overall between the south Sask-based adversaries, has been signed by his Prince George Cougars, though they have not announced their roster for their hub in Kamloops expected to start March 26.
O Captain my captain
While tomorrow is about how far Yager might take the Warriors, Moose Jaw’s champions of today are far from slouches.
The first name on the team sheet is the aforementioned Hunt, who does not turn 19 until mid-May, and has Team Canada pedigree from the 2019 IIHF U18s, and Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
A forearm injury from an errant skate in Dec. 2019 led to surgery, and a return only late in the 19-20 campaign, by which time the season had gotten away from the Warriors. Yet the Brandon, MB native impressed enough in his 15-point, 28-game campaign to earn an opening-night spot on the Iowa Wild’s roster, before his early Feb. recall to Moose Jaw as the Hub took shape.
Daemon Hunt (@DaemonHunt22) has been named the 34th Captain in Warriors history.
Tate Popple, Logan Doust, Ryder Korczak, & Calder Anderson have been named Assistant Captains
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) February 18, 2021
For O’Leary, having Hunt back is Christmas come early.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Daemon is our best player, and the face of our franchise,” he said.
“He has the ability to take a good team and make it a great team. He’s a well-respected guy in our dressing room, even last year as a 17-year-old. He has a big voice in the room, it’s not always loud, but players lean on him, and look up to him. His leadership is all about influence, he’s got an opportunity to have a huge influence on all of our players, whether it’s on or off the ice and that’s what makes him a great captain. He’s so competitive, he practices and plays as hard as anyone I know, and is going to make us a better team. I’m really excited for him to start the season fully healthy with the confidence of coming back from a pro debut.”
An explosive skater with a serious physical edge, O’Leary noted that while Hunt is only scratching his potential as an offensive force, his maturity means his impact is felt at an enormous level whenever he is on the ice.
Moose Jaw’s best prospect you might not have heard of…
Denton Mateychuk has signed a WHL Standard Player Agreement with the @MJWARRIORS!
— The WHL (@TheWHL) June 3, 2019
All the noise around Yager might be good news for the Warriors’ other Top Prospect, Denton Mateychuk, as it could take some of the pressure off of a rookie who will be counted on to support Hunt on the back end.
Mateychuk, 16, is an elite skater who, while not overly tall at 5’10, gets the job of keeping the puck out of the net done like many modern undersized defencemen: by having the puck on his stick.
O’Leary could not speak highly enough of the 2004-birth year from Dominion City, MB, whom he was able to watch closely during a strong seven-game call-up last season.
“Denton stepping into the lineup last year, even with Daemon out of the line-up…and really solidified our defence, even when he was just a 15-year-old,” he said.
“He’s got that ability to break out pucks on his own with his speed and deception, he’s dangerous in the offensive zone too, he kind of plays hard in all four corners of the rink. He’s exciting to watch and he has a work ethic to match all of that, so he’s a real dynamic player, and between him, and Brayden Yager, and Jagger Firkus, and all the young players on our team, it’s a real exciting time for the Moose Jaw Warriors.”
Mateychuk played a prominent role to start the 2020-2021 season with the Steinbach Pistons Junior A of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and is one of 14 Warriors who found various places to play at different points since September. Moose Jaw players have a combined 57 games played over that span, at the Junior A, B, and U18 levels, which ranks near the top of the teams at the Hub.
For O’Leary, there are pros for guys who played, and pros for those who did not.
“I think (having played games since September) only helps, but I wouldn’t look at it as a big problem for the guys that haven’t,” he said.
“I am not going to let it bother us a whole lot, because no matter who we’re facing on a given night, we’re all in the same situation. I also look at the fact that junior hockey players don’t always have a long off-season where they can build up that strength, through these years where they can build it up so quickly. I think the extended off-season, whether they played games or spent more time in the gym, can be a positive if you let it be that, so I feel real good about our group, and what they did in the off-season whether they were playing or training.”
More next week!