A couple of notes from Tuesday's pre-season rookie game against the Swift Current Broncos…
In case you were wondering, Swift Current's Brandon Arnold picked up a hooking minor and Moose Jaw's Josh Uhrich picked up a 10-minute misconduct on the same play. I'm told that Uhrich's misconduct came because he didn't have his mouthguard fully in his mouth. It's a new point of emphasis this year and could affect a lot of players. Torrin White is pretty bad for having his fully in his mouth. I'm not sure I've seen anyone worse than former Warrior Dylan Hood who had his dangling off his bottom lip like a cigarette, but there are plenty of players who are more chewing it than wearing it during games.
After regulation time, the zamboni came out and did a dry scrape of the ice. It's basically the same thing they would do before a shootout, except they do the entire ice surface. After that full scrape, the ice wouldn't be touched before a potential shootout. The NHL will adopt the change this upcoming season. The WHL is doing it as a trial during the pre-season. Tuesday's experiment was not positive. It took nearly 12 minutes to do the dry scrape — two-thirds of a normal intermission — and they played 34 seconds of overtime. It would be one thing in an NHL rink where they have two zambonis and could do the dry scrape in little more than five minutes, but the dry scrape Tuesday took entirely too long.
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As expected the battles in goal and on the blue line haven't been too surprising.
In goal, Justin Paulic has looked very sharp so far in camp. Zach Sawchenko has been solid, but has had some tough moments though it isn't easy coming from winning with Canada in international competition straight into a camp scrimmage in a near-empty building.
Brody Willms has a bright future, but he doesn't look ready to make the jump to the WHL level yet. That's not a huge shock — most 16-year-old goalies aren't — but can play better than he's shown at times in camp. Willms has actually been pretty solid for the most part, unfortunately his worst outing came in Tuesday's rookie game. Willms didn't look very sharp or confident in the pre-season contest. He failed to catch three shots with his glove and one of those bounced over his head and in. He also looked to be playing pretty deep in his net. When a goaltender isn't out on the edge of his paint, that's usually a sign that he's a little tentative or uncomfortable — though each goalie is a little different. Hopefully Willms gets the start Thursday in Regina to try to have a bounce-back game.
It's been Mitchell Adamyk from Winnipeg that has really shone. The 98-born goalie had been very consistent throughout camp. At spring camp, the six-foot-two Adamyk showed he had good mobility and consistently stopped what he should stop. This year in training camp he looked even more dynamic making some excellent saves using a strong lower body.
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The biggest surprise on defence has been Austin Adam. The 19-year-old six-foot-six blue line was acquired from Everett for a conditional eighth round pick. When you get a big defenceman for next to nothing you start to make assumptions about their game. So far Adam looks like a steal.
I spent a few scrimmages watching him on the ice trying to figure out what flaw he had that would allow him to be dealt for so little. For one he has 11 points in 127 career WHL games. He doesn't look *that* offensively challenged, but clearly he's a defence-first kind of guy. Secondly, at six-foot-six he doesn't look like he's going to put the fear of God into a forward coming across the blue line with his head down. He isn't an open-ice hitting menace like a Dylan McIlrath.
That being said, he skates much, much better than you would think and is composed and makes a nice first pass. It's training camp, so it's too early to draw too many conclusions, but he looks smart, composed, he skates very well and he can clear the front of the net and win battles along the walls.
The other five veterans have all looked about as expected so far. Tyler Brown was note-worthy for a strong Black-White scrimmage. He was steady and was able to get his shot through traffic and on net consistently — one of which led to a goal.
Ryan Gardiner was in the pole position to win the seventh spot on defence and he's done nothing to change that. If anything he's improved his chances. Gardiner has good offensive upside and can skate well, but in camp he has been far more physical than he was a year ago and has finished a lot of checks and won some puck battles.
Nick Leitner was the other big surprise on the blue line. The Bemidji, Minn. product is a 98 and looks like he can absolutely play in the league. He went home after the intrasquad game, but the 5-11 defenceman made almost no mistakes. He skates well and kept his game simple. He made smart and safe passes and read the game very well for a young player.
First round pick Josh Brook was very simple. The comparisons to Morgan Rielly are abjectly unfair in my opinion, but Brook has been very good. He didn't try to rush the puck or go coast-to-coast, instead he made smart, simple passes and used his quickness to keep him out of trouble. He's a smart, savvy player who wasn't flashy, but was very consistently good.
If the Warriors end up deciding to keep an eighth defenceman it will surely be a battle between Dustin Perillat and Christos Zinis.
Perillat has had a strong camp, but remains essentially the same player — he can look very dynamic skating with the puck, he's a strong skater, he has good puck skills, but there is a lot of risk in his game. He also plays the point a bit like a three-point shooter on a basketball court — he gets the puck and he rips it. Even if it isn't always the right decision. He has been pretty good in his own end and his skating has been very strong.
Zinis has been a little less consistent. He has the size to play in the WHL and has moments where looks ready and others where he gets caught flat-footed and beaten for pace. He has very good vision and passes the puck well, but took two penalties and had some other less impressive moments against the Broncos.
For Perillat and Zinis — if the Warriors are interested in keeping an eighth defenceman, their battle is in the pretty early stages still.
Colin Paradis has had a strong camp and earned a WHL contract because of it. He has been good in his own end and has shown a pretty good active stick to steal the puck and break-up rushes. Against Swift Current he had some struggles and looked like he could use another season in midget AAA. It's possible he can fight his way into the battle for an eighth spot, but he seems a long shot at this stage being a year younger than Perillat and Zinis.
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Up front is where the real battles continue to unfold.
Firstly, Jiri Smejkal had a very good game Tuesday night which was good to see after a couple of indifferent outings during camp. Smejkal isn't 100 per cent healthy and I try to not make too many big conclusions about import rookies in the first couple of months of the season — to say nothing of the first week.
Smejkal is big, but he looked soft on the puck in some early scrimmages. He was much better in game action against Swift Current. At one point he used good body positioning and technique to beat Jake DeBrusk to a puck and get in front of DeBrusk before skating away from him. Smejkal has tremendous vision and is a great passer. In fact he and Brett Howden were both looking to pass first and shoot second on the same line. Ryan Bowen was the big benefactor as he scored twice and had a couple of other great chances, but Smejkal definitely looks like more of a provider.
On the first shift of overtime he made a nice outside-in move to cut to the front of the net and show another dimension to his game. He's a big body, but he's a finesse player, but so far has been willing to get to the dirty areas.
Side note on Smejkal: do Czech players get their turtlenecks issued to them at birth or do they have to earn them as they grow up?
The entrenched veterans — Brayden Point, Tanner Eberle, Jack Rodewald, Jaimen Yakubowski and Torrin White — have all been about what you would expect. They have all been solid while still looking like the have another gear to kick into if they needed to. Eberle deserves credit for playing a more robust physical game than most 20-year-olds might during this stage of camp.
Scott Cooke is a long shot to stick around as a 20-year-old with Rodewald, Yakubowski and Eberle around, but to his credit Cooke is doing everything he can to make the team. He was consistently one of the best and hardest-working players during the camp scrimmages. He scored a couple of goals and a more gifted goal-scorer might have had six or seven goals over the course of the four games. He's been giving it his all.
Speaking of scoring goals, Blake Bargar scored five in three games. He told senior scout/manager U.S. scouting & player development Bob Bartlett that he didn't know what it was, that the puck just went in for him in Moose Jaw. Bargar had 12 goals in 40 games with the Arizona Bobcats 15U team last season. He nearly had half that many in one day at maine camp.
Bargar is 16 and looked good on a line with Jayden Halbgewachs and Noah Gregor. The small, speedy trio caused no end of problems for the Broncos in their own end.
Halbgewachs has been inconsistent in camp, but was arguably the Warriors best player Tuesday. Conversely Gregor has looked tremendous at times in camp, but wasn't quite at that level Tuesday. That being said Gregor is battling an injury and still managed to score against the Broncos. Gregor, Halbgewachs and Howden have all looked very good and have done nothing to hurt their chances.
Howden didn't have a great Black-White game, but was very good Tuesday using his skating and his vision to great affect. He made some great outlet passes to Smejkal to help create some chances.
The Warriors four 98 veteran forwards — Kolten Olynek, Josh Uhrich, Ben Duperreault and Colton McCarthy — have been a bit of a mixed bag. I don't think any of those four should feel too safe at this stage. Olynek has been more consistent in his work rate and effort, but struggled to make much of an impression Tuesday. Uhrich has been working hard and added a physical element during camp. He remains much the same as he was a year ago, but he's been working hard and making more of an impact than some.
The Warriors obviously wanted to give some young players a look in more prominent roles Tuesday, but putting Duperreault and McCarthy on the fourth line felt like a message being sent. Both were effective on the penalty kill, with Duperreault having a couple of excellent penalty kill shifts. There was no doubt both players were trying to make plays and have an impact, but to date neither are playing as well as they did at the training camps where they made the team in the first place.
Brandon Potomak has been working hard, but it may not be enough. The 19-year-old is in a dangerous position since it seems unlikely that the Warriors will be keen to employ a 19-year-old in a fourth line role. Whether Smejkal, Howden, Gregor and/or Halbgewachs are ready to play in the top-nine every night remains to be seen. They may be eased into the WHL and the lineup and not play every night. However if those four are every night players from the start of the season and are in prominent roles (they all seem highly likely to end up in prominent roles sooner than later), then it's hard to see the Warriors keep Potomak ahead of grooming a younger player in a similar role.
It will be Bowen, Bargar and Ethan Lazaro looking to to Potomak's spot or possibly one of the 98 veterans. Lazaro is a year older and a more complete player at this stage and probably more physically ready, but Bargar and Bowen have been scoring. Bowen is 6-1 and had no trouble skating with Smejkal and Howden.
It's still very early in this process, but I do think that if Olynek and Uhrich keep working hard they should be fine. Howden, Halbgewachs and Gregor all look ready to play this year and all look like they're ready to contribute.
Duperreault, McCarthy, Potomak, Bowen, Bargar and Lazaro look like they're going to be battling for the final three spots.
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It was no surprise to anyone who knows them that Moose Jaw's Josh Uhrich and Swift Current's Brayden Uhrich fought Tuesday. The elder Uhrich (Josh) won pretty handedly. The tilt landed them on TSN's Sportscentre for the novelty factor, but the guys seemed to have fun with it. Josh took Brayden's helmet off for him before they started and then mussed his hair after it was over.
This is the second straight year Uhrich has fought in the rookie game.