Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013
After more than three weeks of training camp, the Moose Jaw Warriors are preparing to make their final cuts before opening the season Friday at home against Brandon. While some of the key camp battles became clearer, there are still some pretty hard decisions ahead for the Warriors brass. GOAL: In the big picture, this is quite simple: Justin Paulic is going to start. He was very sharp Saturday and looks ready for the regular season to start. He will assume most of the load in goal, at least to start the season. The battle for his back-up position hasn’t been decisive either way. Zach Sawchenko came in nearly 25 pounds heavier than he was a year ago. Sawchenko is still 15 and growing, but his fitness testing results didn’t do anything to remove the impression that those weren’t a real healthy 25 pounds that he put on. Personally, I think a goalie probably should be the least-fit guy on your roster — Joey Perricone wasn’t going to win a two-mile race against many of his teammates, but he helped lead the Warriors to their only Eastern Conference title — but for a young player looking to steal a spot from a veteran, I don’t think it makes a great early impression at camp. Meanwhile, veteran Daniel Wapple had a really rough start to camp, but has started to round into form as camp progressed. He looked much more like himself in the pre-season games and posted a .900 save percentage and a 2.99 GAA. Sawchenko has a 5.09 GAA and a .821 save percentage in pre-season action. I think the safe choice is to send Sawchenko back to Notre Dame and let him play a lot while allowing Wapple to continue to develop in the WHL. Wapple is still a young goalie and far from the finished product. Early in camp it almost seemed possible that American Alex Corley from Shattuck St. Mary could fight his way into contention, but it’s hard to get a long look at a goalie who is still looking to maintain his NCAA eligibility. After he gave up four goals in the Black-White game it was hard to see how the Warriors could offer him any sort of guarantee to stick around to play in the pre-season. This year’s draft pick, Brody Willms, might have actually had the best camp of any of the goalies and he signed with the team after camp. DEFENCE: Heading into the opening weekend, the blue line appears to remain status quo. Nowhere was there more opportunities for someone to come in and make some noise, but it doesn’t look like there was much fluctuation on the depth chart. Right now Morgan Rielly is in Toronto for at least another couple of weeks minimum, possibly as long as six or seven more weeks, and has a very good chance to make the Maple Leafs roster and not be back in Moose Jaw at all. Rielly will be with the Leafs for their final seven pre-season games (the last one is Sept. 28) and can stay up with the Leafs and play nine regular season games at which time his NHL contract kicks in. When that happens, the Leafs have to pay him his full salary, but just as significantly he becomes a restricted free agent a season earlier, his rookie contract is year closer to being up, etc. If Rielly plays that 10th NHL game he won’t be back. So basically Rielly will be in Toronto until the end of the month at least. The Leafs’ ninth regular season game is on Oct. 22, so if he stays in Toronto to start the season he likely won’t be back until November, if at all. Travis Brown will almost assuredly be back from Chicago’s training camp sooner than later. Tyler Bell will play in the top four and Russian rookie Alexei Sleptsov has shown enough to warrant a top-four role. Sleptsov makes mistakes — he is, after all, still only 17 — but his movement (Mike Stother’s comparison to a hovercraft seems quite apt), skating and composure are impressive. With Rielly gone, there was plenty of room for someone to assert themselves and jump into a role there on a top-two pairing. Instead the Warriors went outside the organization and grabbed Zach Hodder to fill the void. Hodder was a very promising young player who battled injuries early in his career and never really found a home. He played pretty well in Medicine Hat in the second half of last year. Early impressions on the 20-year-old are that he skates well and moved the puck well. Braiden Doucette and Kirk Johnson were expected to possibly be pushed to retain their spots. Both 18-year-olds looked a step ahead of the younger players pushing them, but rarely looked like they were ready to move up the pecking order either. Doucette had a pretty consistent camp, while Johnson has gotten better as camp progressed and was good Saturday night. Those five veterans and Sleptsov should form the six to start the season if Brown if back from Chicago. Dallas Valentine still only weighs 195 pounds and is nearly 6-4. A smart, technical player, he is still developing physically. The physical side of the game will be Royce Rossignol’s trump card. He got off to a fast start at camp, playing with an edge and trying to add an element that the Warriors don’t have a lot of. If Valentine and Rossignol both break camp with the team that would leave them with eight defencemen. That might be serviceable, but if Rielly comes back, something is going to have to give. Ryan Gardiner and Tyler Brown were able to separate themselves a little from the other 16-year-old defencemen. Brown struggled physically early on in camp, but both were able to move the puck and limit their mistakes better than their young peers. Given the eight names above it’s hard to see who they beat out for a spot, but the staff gave them a long look for a reason. Forwards: Finally an area that is far less complicated. In the first home pre-season game Brayden Point, Sam Fioretti and Todd Fiddler combined for four goals and generally looked good together. All three are guaranteed top-six forwards, but it might be a little too top-heavy to keep them together on the same line. If I had to guess right now, I’d suggest Tanner Eberle, Brandon Potomak and Alexander Chirva would also fit into a top-six role. Though maybe not as a line. The Warriors are looking to use Chirva in an offensive role and Eberle and Potomak both add a lot of speed. Bryson Gore and Torrin White played well together in Brandon in the first pre-season game and would be a decent fit with Carter Hansen on a third line. Saturday, Miles Warkentine, Josh Uhrich and Colton McCarthy played together and seem like a good fit on an energy line. I think Brandon Del Grosso has played well enough to earn a roster spot and adds some size. He The big questions are what to do with Jayden Halbgewachs and Ben Duperreault. Halbgewachs would play his midget hockey in Regina and Duperreault would be in Moose Jaw with the Generals. Halbgewachs has had a good camp, but another year of midget definitely wouldn’t hurt the development of the small former first round pick. Duperreault is a year older and has an unquestionable work ethic. He’s constantly moving his feet and he looks ready to play in the WHL. Would he be better off being in and out of the lineup in the WHL or playing a lot in midget AAA for a team hosting the Telus Cup. It’s still a fairly young group, but with the exception of the Russians, nearly everyone left in camp has played a WHL game. All told the Warriors could have 20 returning players from last season. Inexperience can’t be an excuse any more and there looks to be some strong internal competition for ice time.