The Moose Jaw Warriors will be heading into their game on Friday night against the Prince Albert Raiders with a far, far different looking line-up than they had on opening weekend in the Western Hockey League.
And they have the National Hockey League to thank for it.
All seven of the team’s NHL drafted and training camp invites have been returned to the team as of Thursday afternoon, with the announcement by the Columbus Blue Jackets that defenceman Denton Mateychuk and forward Martin Rysavy had been re-assigned to Moose Jaw.
While Mateychuk and Rysavy’s presence in the line-up will depend on how quickly they can make it back to the Friendly City, what is certain is the rest of the team’s NHL prospects will be taking the ice.
That includes defencemen Max Wanner (Edmonton) and Cole Jordan (Calgary) along with forwards Jagger Firkus (Seattle) and Eric Alarie (Los Angeles), who join Atley Calvert (Buffalo) in taking part in NHL camps over the last few weeks.
Seeing all those players back on the ice at the Moose Jaw Events Centre has been a welcome scene for Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary, especially after playing opening weekend with a rookie-laden line-up.
“I think we had some real excitement when they first got into town and obviously it changes things around here a bit more when they leave,” O’Leary said after practice on Thursday afternoon. “But we said it when they left and we’ll say it again now, the time they spent there is important and they came back better players than they left, but we certainly are feeling new energy with them back here in the building.”
The Warriors came into the 2022-23 season with their current reinforced line-up in mind. That means players taking the ice in roles and positions that are plenty familiar to the veteran crew, especially with the amount of experience they have playing together the last few seasons.
“With so many guys returning, there are guys who are used to playing in certain spots and with certain players and that’s a luxury we have this year and haven’t had the last couple weeks with them away,” O’Leary said. “So now guys are starting to slide into slots we had envisioned over the summer, and it’s exciting for the players and exciting for the coaches to see how they look.”
The even better news is the guys making their return have also looked plenty impressive in the few days they’ve been back -- as it turns out, spending some time alongside the best players in the world can have a positive effect on youngsters looking to reach that level someday.
“We were talking about it as coaches, even the way they practice when they come back, watching how good the pros are in terms of preparation and diligent in how they practice, they bring it into our group,” O’Leary said. “We’ve seen that with the players in our group and that’s good for our team.”
Now for the part of it all that really matters -- regardless of the level of talent the Warriors might have this season, the wins aren’t going to pile up on reputation alone. There’s still plenty of hard work ahead, against teams with no interest in just rolling over for one of the WHL’s pre-season favourites. And that means seeing everyone performing to their level.
“That’s certainly something we’ve talked about, it’s not just going to happen,” O’Leary said. “These are just names on a piece of paper until we actually put in the work. It’s habits and details but you actually have to do it, and it’s one thing to talk about it and have the excitement, but what we do is who we actually are and that starts [Friday] night.”
One thing that’s for certain, if everything goes according to plan, all that aforementioned excitement could be very well placed.
“We have high expectations this season, and those expectations start with the line-up we envisioned,” O’Leary said.”We know there’s a lot of work to do, we’re not the team we want to be with how we’re playing, but job number one is to get everyone into the mix here so we can start building as a team.
Puck drop for Friday night’s game against Prince Albert is 7 p.m. at the Moose Jaw Events Centre.