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After solid season, Warriors’ Ripplinger cautiously optimistic for bigger things in 2023-24

Plenty of decisions to be made with number of returning 20-year-olds but potential returning skill has Moose Jaw hoping for big things next season
The Moose Jaw Warriors put together an impressive WHL season in 2022-23 and will be looking to take another step further when the new campaign begins in the fall.

The Moose Jaw Warriors will be heading into the 2023-24 Western Hockey League campaign as a team with all sorts of potential.

With a core of incredibly talented veterans joining a group of up-and-coming youngsters, there’s a good chance it could be another stellar season for the local club as they look to build on their 41-win campaign this past season.

But for all the potential, there are an equal number of question marks, and Warriors general manager Jason Ripplinger plans to find as many positive answers as he can when the team returns to the ice this fall.

“As a manager, I’m looking for more positives than negatives, and going into next season with (Denton) Mateychuk, (Brayden) Yager, (Jagger) Firkus and (Atley) Calvert, those guys are right there,” Ripplinger said. “Obviously we have some decisions to make on the 20-year-olds, but that core group coming back is exciting for us. I’m not putting too high of expectations, though, because you want to make sure we’re getting guys back. Sometimes they don’t come back, for whatever reason, and you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself. So we’ll get into training camp and see who’s coming back and see some younger guys take the next step as well.”

The biggest decisions will surround the team’s aforementioned overage situation. A total of six players will be heading into their 20-year-old season, including forwards Atley Calvert, Eric Alarie, Riley Niven and Josh Hoekstra along with defencemen Max Wanner and Lucas Brenton. Only three can be kept, meaning the team will have to say goodbye to at least three players who have been with the Warriors for three or four seasons.

“When you have a lot of 19-year-olds, that’s how it is,” Ripplinger said. “The 19s we had played hard for us and were important to the team, and those are always hard decisions.”

Of course, how things shake out that way will depend on what happens with professional opportunities. Wanner is signed by the Edmonton Oilers and will likely end up playing professionally to start the season, and Calvert could very well get another pro look after putting up a 40-goal campaign. 

As a result, there will be a bit of wait-and-see before things shake out, and that’s if Ripplinger doesn’t solve the situation with trades in the off-season.

“I want to give everybody an opportunity to plead their case, we all know what they can do, it’s just whether or not younger guys have stepped up into that position or something like that,” Ripplinger said.

That’s always a huge question mark every season -- who will take the jump in their game? 

“I’m expecting good things from guys like Lynden Lakovic and Marek Howell, they’re two young ‘06 high picks that we’ll be expecting a lot from,” Ripplinger said. “Then Ben Riche scored a lot of goals in his minor hockey days, so if those guys can take the next step it’ll make our team better. Players at this age can develop a lot over a single summer, so we’ll see what happens.”

One thing fans can expect to be different this off-season is the goaltending situation. The past two seasons saw the Warriors trade for overager netminders, with Carl Tetachuk and Connor Ungar each going on to stake a claim as the best goaltender in the league.

As of right now, though, the crease belongs to 18-year-old goaltender Jackson Unger, and it’s just a matter of what the team does around him.

“It’s time for Jackson to take the next step, and whether or not he’ll be the starter is kind of up to him,” Ripplinger said. “Whether we go out and get another goaltender so we have an older tandem or go with an 18-year-old and 17-year-old, that’s a lot of things we can think about over the summer. And I don’t want to miss out on anything, either, so I’ll be proactive to see what’s out on the market.”

The next major event for the Warriors is the WHL Prospects Draft on Thursday, May 11, with Ripplinger looking to make a splash early given the team’s lack of late-round picks.

“I think it’s a depth draft and we’re picking 16th overall so we might not get the really high-end skill guy but I believe there are some good players out there at that spot,” Ripplinger said. “The goal is always to go off your list and take the next player that’s on your board. We have picks in the first four rounds, and I believe we’ll have to be bang-on with those picks since we’re missing five, six and seven right now. So we’ll need to make sure we get solid players with the picks we have.”

The Prospects Draft is followed by National Hockey League Entry Draft on Tuesday, June 27 and Wednesday, June 28 -- with Yager expected to be a first-round pick and Unger a potential late-round selection -- after which the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft will take place Wednesday, July 5.

Then it’s into the fall and the 2023-24 campaign proper.

“Right now, the goal is to make the playoffs like it always is, and if we can make a push, we’ll do what we can to make that push,” Ripplinger said.


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