The Moose Jaw Warriors are gearing up for what is shaping up to be an exciting year for the club, as they are days away from opening up their 2022-23 Western Hockey League (WHL) season on Friday night.
They start the season with a TransCanada Showdown against their arch-rivals – the Regina Pats on Friday night at the Brandt Centre with a 7:00 p.m. puck drop.
Head coach, Mark O’Leary has seen enough through four preseason games to say that coming into Friday night the team is ready to get underway.
“We've got to our identity and I think it helps with so many guys returning from last year that we’re not that far removed from playoffs and we worked hard last year to build that identity,” says O’Leary. “I’m really pleased with the steps we’ve taken this year to get back to that style of play quickly.”
The Warriors will be led this year by a handful of returning players on forward and defense including Denton Mateychuk, Cole Jordan, and Max Wanner on the back end, and then upfront having star forwards Jagger Firkus, Brayden Yager, and Eric Alarie back in the lineup.
As you remember both Yager and Firkus took the WHL by storm last year. Yager notched 34 goals and 59 points in his rookie season, and picked up CHL and WHL Rookie of the Year honours, while Firkus led the team in scoring with 80 points and was selected in the second round of the 2022 NHL entry draft by the Seattle Kraken.
In the net Jackson Unger returns for his sophomore season in the WHL. In his first full season in the league, he posted a 3.60 GAA, .891 SV %, and one shutout in 18 games. He also picked up a win in the 2022 WHL Playoffs. Moose Jaw has brought in a veteran goalie in 20-year-old Connor Unger via a trade with Red Deer in the summer. Unger went 21-9-1-0 with the Rebels a year ago.
Like all teams in the WHL, Moose Jaw is looking to the future, as they have a number of talented rookies looking to break out this season.
“Our GM and our scouting staff do a great job of bringing in good people with a high amount of skill and then it’s our job as coaches to put that skill to work.”
Their 2021 first-round draft pick Marek Howell will look to find his role on the blueline in his first season with the big club. Howell picked up a goal and an assist in five regular season games with Moose Jaw a season ago.
Another 2021 draft pick was 6’5” forward Lynden Lakovic who last season put up 27 points in 33 games with the West Van Academy U18 Prep.
“Lynden is a guy that can skate for days, for a big guy that moves that well is rare. He's another guy that’s put-up points everywhere he’s been. He’s a crafty player that for that size and have that touch in and around the net, it’s going to go well for him as he matures.”
Another promising prospect is Ben Riche who was drafted by the Warriors in the second round of the 2020 WHL Prospects Draft. Riche is coming off a 60-point season with the Regina Pat Canadians of the Saskatchewan Male U18 AAA Hockey League (SMAAAHL).
“I think if you look at the past and you look at any good young prospect eventually that scoring will find its way to our league through development. Certainly, that speed will put you in good places.”
Opening weekend will look a little different for the Warriors as they will be missing nine players who are off at NHL training camps. Denton Mateychuk, Jagger Firkus and Atley Calvert – will be attending NHL training camps for the first time, while six other players – Max Wanner, Cole Jordan, Eric Alarie, Martin Rysavy, Daemon Hunt and Ryder Korczak – will be heading to camps for the second straight season.
The hope for O’Leary and his staff is that those players missing will come back to Moose Jaw hungrier after competing at the NHL level.
“As long as they are away that only helps us. They’re going to come back better players than they were when they left.”
O’Leary hopes the Warriors will stick to their identity on Friday night, which he classified as “winning races and battles”. They will be taking on a team that some may say is looking for their own identity in the Regina Pats. Regina has their own scoring threat of its own in exceptional status player Connor Bedard who put up 100 points in his second season in the WHL.
"We know how Regina plays; they have guys that are willing to work and compete. Obviously, they have Connor [Bedard] and his skill level, anytime he's in the game they have a chance to score goals and win the game. It's going to continue to be about us and us getting to our identity as early as we can come Friday night and bank on our skill that we'll be there in the end if we can win our fair share of races and battles."
On Saturday night, the Warriors will host their home opener at the Moose Jaw Events Centre with puck drop at 7:00 p.m. The team will be hosting a pre-game party at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday with live music, deals on drinks, food, and much more.