It's a new era at Mosaic Place as Tim Hunter takes over behind the bench for the Moose Jaw Warriors.
The Warriors opened main camp Saturday and unlike recent training camps the fight for roster spots shouldn't be as hotly contested in previous seasons. That may seem counter-intuitive for a team that has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. However, with 19 possible returnees and nearly a handful of high-end prospects who seem like virtual locks, there just aren't many spots up for grabs.
Goal: Brody Willms (98) was invited to a pair of Hockey Canada camps and clearly has a bright future with the Warriors. Last season Zach Sawchenko was still 15 when he earned the back-up spot behind Justin Paulic (95) and necessitated the trade of Daniel Wapple. Wapple ended up having a better GAA and save percentage than Paulic or Sawchenko.
Paulic will be looking to bounce back after a poor 13-14 campaign though he showed flashes of his A game down the stretch. Sawchenko had a solid rookie campaign, but with a Dec. 31 birthday is still very young. By keeping both goalies from last season it takes the pressure off of Sawchenko to be the No. 1 goalie out of the gate and gives the Warriors a veteran presence in Paulic — who was the Warriors goalie of the future only two years ago. Having Willms play a lot at the Okanagan Hockey Academy won't hurt his development either.
Defence: This looked like it was going to have some interesting battles until 20-year-old Cole Wedman went to the University of Alberta rather than returning for his overage season.
The Warriors have five returning defencemen: Alexey Sleptsov, Spenser Jensen, Dallas Valentine, Reid Zalitach and Tyler Brown. When they acquired six-foot-six 19-year-old Austin Adam from Everett for a conditional eighth round pick this past summer it looked like a low-risk move to add some size. Now it looks like the Warriors are going to lean on Adam to play a pretty significant role. He and Jensen are the only '95-born defencemen in camp.
That gives the Warriors six defencemen. Ryan Gardiner (97) went back to midget AAA in Manitoba last season to get get a lot of playing time and round out his game. He was named the league's top defenceman and looks ready to step into the lineup.
That may be the seven that the Warriors move forward with. They may also keep eight players which should leave Christos Zinis and Dustin Perillat battling for the eighth spot on the blue line. Both are 97s. Zinis missed half of last season after having shoulder surgery, but is more physically mature than Gardiner and Brown. Perillat was released by the Moose Jaw Generals after missing part of the start of the season in midget AAA and then played 11 games in the SJHL with Flin Flon (scoring twice).
Zinis would seem to have the inside track by bringing more size and less risk in his game to the table.
Ben Shushovsky (97), Collin Paradis (98) and Nick Leitner (98) are the only other defencemen left in camp who are even eligible to make the roster.
Sleptsov, Jensen, Adam and Valentine are all right-handed shots for what it's worth. So is Perillat. Zalitach, Brown, Gardiner and Zinis all shoot left.
Barring any changes, the Warriors are putting a lot of faith in the 96s — Zalitach, Sleptsov and Valentine — all taking a big step forward and that Adam and his 127 games of WHL regular season experience is ready to play a big role and log a lot of minutes.
Forwards: The forwards will be the most fascinating battle during the pre-season as the competition for roles and the pecking order will be hotly contested. The fight for the 14 or 15 spots should be much less complicated.
Brayden Point will be back and will be the first line centre. That's about as close to a certainty as there is. Jack Rodewald, Jaimen Yakubowski and Tanner Eberle should occupy the 20-year-old spots unless Eberle is able to parlay his trip to Montreal Canadiens camp into a pro opportunity and doesn't end up returning to Moose Jaw. That is highly unlikely and it's hard to imagine a scenario where Scott Cooke can beat one of the other 20s for a roster spot.
Czech rookie Jiri Smejkal (which is pronounced Schmeichel btw) will on the team. So will veteran Torrin White. That's six forwards.
Brett Howden, Jayden Halbgewachs and Noah Gregor should all make the team without too much difficulty. Given the question marks at the No. 2 centre position, it's possible Gregor could be on the second line. Howden didn't look out of place playing the wing with Point and Rodewald during his five-game cameo last season and could also find himself playing the wing in a top-six role. Howden can also play centre, but seems like a more natural fit on the wing at this stage of his development. That's nine forwards though the youngsters won't necessarily be in top-nine roles to start the season.
Kolten Olynek (96) was acquired for Miles Warkentine in the summer. He and fellow 96s Josh Uhrich, Ben Duperreault and Colton McCarthy will need to prove they deserve to retain their roster spots. None of those four are particularly on the hot seat, but they also can't afford to take anything for granted.
That leaves Brandon Potomak as the only other veteran we haven't mentioned. If Potomak also retains his spot, that's 14 forwards — which is the number the Warriors want to carry. With Bryson Gore staying at home for personal reasons this season, that uncomplicated the situation. However, Potomak is 19 and if he can't entrench himself in a top-nine role and as an every-day player, you can imagine the Warriors deciding to go with someone two or three years younger to develop them.
Potomak's speed is his trump card. He is probably the fastest player on the team, but he only played 30 games in an injury-filled 13-14 season.
Ethan Lazaro (97), Blake Bargar (98) and Ryan Bowen (98) have all signed WHL education contracts and would be the likeliest candidates to either keep one of the three rookies out or unseat a veteran. All three have grown to the point where they could be ready to make the jump physically. Lazaro has filled out and adds some speed to the equation. Bowen is now 6-foot-1 and Bargar is up to 190 lbs. So far all three have been pretty sharp in rookie camp with the younger Bowen and Bargar maybe shading the competition ahead of Lazaro. That being said it's still rookie camp and there is a lot of hockey left to play to make an impression.
Gianluca Esteves and Matthieu Gomercic both had strong training camps last year. Gomercic is missing camp this year due to injury and Esteves (97) has to be considered long shots to find their way into the hunt for a roster spot.
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As mentioned Eberle will attend camp with the Montreal Canadiens for a second straight year. Valentine also earned a free agent camp invite from the New York Rangers and will play in the annual Traverse City rookie tournament in Michigan.
Valentine leaves Sept. 10 and Eberle leaves Sept. 11.
Point will also be heading to the Tampa Bay Lightning's camp after they selected him in the third round of last year's NHL draft.