Heading into the season, the Moose Jaw Warriors brass were hoping to be in the Western Hockey League playoffs right now.
They were also hoping that their young group of players would have made significant progress over the course of the season.
The playoffs proved to be of reach, but Warriors management is pleased with the overall progress their team made while they iced the youngest team in the WHL.
“We made some steps. We’re headed in the right direction, but by no means are we satisfied or believe that our work here is done,” said Warriors head coach Mike Stothers. “You would be doing yourself and your team a disservice if you didn’t expect to be in the playoffs and finishing higher in the standings. We knew this was not going to be a Memorial Cup season for us. I still believe that this is a team that should be in the playoffs.”
Which begs the obvious question: what went wrong?
For a start, the Warriors struggled to score. Their 182 goals scored was the lowest in the Eastern Conference. It also matched the lowest total in franchise history established in 2004-05.
Injuries caused veteran forwards Jordan Wyton and Torrin White to miss a considerable amount of time. A few other veterans saw their production dip, rather than increase, when they were expected to help supply some secondary scoring. When a team plays 35 one-goal games, as the Warriors did, the little things made a big difference in the final analysis.
“We’re not a team that was gifted offensively. We struggled to find the back of the net. When you look back at those 35 one-goal games and if we get some goals from some players ... it could have been the difference,” said Stothers.
“It doesn’t matter how good your season is, you’re always going to have some higher expectations of some players. Some of them, maybe we raised the bar too high, too quickly. Some of them fell short of their level. Even if some of them were returning players or veteran players, in some stages our lineup was extremely young and inexperience. At times some of those guys were trying to do too much.”
The Warriors season was ultimately lost during a 10-game losing streak shortly after the Christmas break. It wasn’t a coincidence that a big chunk of that streak came while star defenceman Morgan Rielly was at the world juniors and then at training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“That was a tough month and change for wins and for players that were maybe trying to assume the minutes that Morgs has and they maybe weren’t quite ready for that,” said Stothers.
The Warriors finished 10th in the Eastern Conference with a 25-36-4-7 record. They finished 11 points out of a playoff spot as the Kootenay Ice surged past them in the second half to finish eighth.
The Warriors finished the season with 12 rookies on their roster. Further to that six more rookies got into the Warriors lineup at least once. That doesn’t include goaltending prospect Zach Sawchenko who was with the team extensively backing up Justin Paulic after Daniel Wapple’s injury.
“As much as our challenges this year were, in all honesty, probably not about the players, not about the coaches, but more about the direction of our hockey club than anything else. The players understand that this needs to be one bump in the road. They know what our standards and expectations are moving forward,” said Warriors general manager Alan Millar.
The Warriors feel their young group all progressed as the season wore on. Stothers noted that they are all better players leaving than they were coming into the season. He also felt that some of their progress — in terms of defensive zone play, play away from the puck and other finer points — has improved and there was progress beyond what shows up on the stat sheet.
“I’m pleased with where a lot of guys are. In saying that there are certainly some guys that need to be better and certainly didn’t take the steps that we hoped,” said Millar. “We believe that some of those guys are going to be good players at 18 and 19, but they have to understand how we want to play the game and what our expectations are. I think the exit meetings were a bit wake-up call for a handful of players.”