It’s a new hockey season and hope springs eternal.
But for the Moose Jaw Warriors the disappointment of last season still lingers.
“As a coaching staff we want guys who want to compete. I think there’s a bitter taste still in our mouths from not making the playoffs,” said Warriors head coach Mike Stothers. “You don’t forget that and we’ll remind them if necessary.”
The Warriors finished with a poor 25-36-4-7 record a year ago in a season that featured a painful 10-game losing streak after the Christmas break.
“The guys were disappointed. They took it hard. That’s what you want as an organization, is for them to realize that our goal is always to make the playoffs and that we’re not going to settle for anything less than that,” said Stothers.
The Warriors will begin training camp Thursday morning with 75 players taking part in fitness testing at the Yara Centre. Rookie camp will feature 50 players and the first rookie scrimmage will take place Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Mosaic Place.
The top players at rookie camp will move on to join the veterans at main camp which will begin Saturday morning. The Black-White scrimmage will take place Sunday (6 p.m., Mosaic Place).
For the players at rookie camp, the goal is to advance to the next level — whether that means getting listed by the team or signing a WHL player agreement. For others that will mean getting the chance to play in the rookie game or advancing to main camp.
“In terms of rookie camp we feel we have a strong group coming in from the last couple of drafts,” said Warriors general manager Alan Millar. “We really like that process: rookie camp, graduate to main camp, graduate to the Black and White game.”
The Warriors will only have 24 players who were born in 1996 or older in camp.
They will be pushed by a number of 16-year-old who are getting their first crack at making a WHL roster.
“That’s where the balance comes: is it going to be best for them in the WHL or is it best for them to play another year of midget. I think we have some guys who are in that 16-year-old group who are probably ready to play in the league, but is that the best development decision for them? A lot of times it’s not,” said Millar. “The best decision a lot the time is for them to a dominant player and to play in all situations in midget.”
All told there are 33 players who have signed their standard Western Hockey League player agreements who will be fighting for a roster spot.
“We’ve got a lot of signed players,” said Stothers. “If they come in thinking that they’re just going to be slotted in without working, they’re going to be sadly mistaken.”
In goal Justin Paulic is penciled in as the starter, but veteran backup Daniel Wapple with get a good push from young Zach Sawchenko.
The Warriors have five regular defencemen eligible to return, plus Dallas Valentine who played 13 games last season and Russian rookie Alexei Sleptsov. Royce Rossignol, who played four games a year ago, plus a quartet of signed 16-year-olds will try to fight their way into a blue line spot.
Up front the Warriors have 10 returning players, but 20-year-old Todd Fiddler whom they acquired from Spokane in the summer. The Warriors hope Russian Alexander Chirva will be able to join them soon, while another six signed forwards — including 16-year-old Jayden Halbgewachs — will look to crack the roster.
“I think the 16, 17 and 18-year-old group is going to be a really interesting part of camp — whether that’s Sawchenko and the goaltenders or our four 16-year-old D and Doucette and Johnson or some similar scenarios up front,” said Millar. “That group (of 16-year-olds) is a talented group. All of those guys are signed and they’re coming in to make an impact.
“It’s no secret that some of our 17-year-olds last year didn’t quite live up to expectations. That was a key group that was challenged at the end of the year (and told) that they had to be better. It will be very interesting to see how they respond.”
The Warriors have 19 veterans who finished last season on a WHL roster. Stothers isn’t overly worried about complacency setting with so many established players returning.
“The players vowed that they were going to come to camp in the best shape of their lives and be prepared to compete,” said Stothers who said that in some cases the battle will be more about the pecking order in the lineup more than actually fighting to make the roster.
“You have a lot of guys who want to be top-six forwards and outside of maybe a couple of givens, there is going to be some really good in-house competition for ice time and where they fit in,” said Stothers.
The Warriors have plenty of players with experience, but only have four 19-year-olds and two 20-year-olds in camp.
“We stressed to them last year in our exit meetings that we were happy with the development and progression of a youthful team, but we were disappointed in the end result. We’re determined to come in and make sure we’re a playoff contending team this year. We realize that we are going to be a young team, but we’re going to be more experienced,” said Stothers.
“With the conference the way it is, I really feel it’s wide open for the taking. I think we should be one of the teams who is serious about making a run.”