In the Western Hockey League, there are teams that have developed reputations as strong development organizations. No matter how their teams do from year to year, some clubs just keep sending players to the National Hockey League. Over the last few seasons, the Moose Jaw Warriors have elbowed their way into the conversation as one of the most consistent developers of talent in the WHL.
In recent years, a trio of high-end forwards have been selected from Moose Jaw. Tampa Bay selected Brayden Point in the third round of the 2014 Draft. In 2016, Brett Howden went late in the first round to the Lightning, while teammate Noah Gregor went in the fourth round to San Jose. This season, three players made their debuts on the annual preliminary Central Scouting watch list: import forward Nikita Popugayev (a B-rated prospect), winger Ryan Bowen and blueliner Josh Brook. (Goalies Zach Sawchenko and Brody Willms returned to the list as C-rated players after not being selected in the 2016 Draft.)
While credit for the team’s development success stories should primarily reside with the players themselves, a lot of credit should also be given to general manager Alan Millar and head coach Tim Hunter. As the primary architects of the Warriors over the past few seasons, Millar and Hunter have been able to attract and mold some very strong WHLers.
This season’s crop of draft eligible Warriors is headlined by Popugayev, but both Brook and Bowen have excelled thus far this season in secondary roles.
Brook, a right shot defenseman from Manitoba, has bounced back from missing roughly 40 games last season due to a string of injuries. He’s been utilized as an all-around, all-situations defenseman by Moose Jaw so far this season.
“He’s really played well for us,” said Hunter. “[We’re] trying to make sure that we manage his development. Josh is a highly skilled, good skating, puck moving defenseman and he’s done a lot of that so far. Trying to put him in the right situations where he’s comfortable and has success, and I think he’s going to have a great year for us.”
I’m liking Josh Brook today for Moose Jaw. 99 birthday, 2017 eligible. Serviceable, well-rounded RHD that’s been relied on a lot
— Derek Neumeier (@Derek_N_NHL) October 16, 2016
A product of the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs, Bowen has almost matched last season’s offensive production in a fraction of the time. One reason for that could be his excellent on-ice chemistry with Popugayev, his rommate last season.
“Ryan’s really skilled from the top of the circles down,” said Hunter. “He gets the puck, he’s able to make some plays in tight areas, find the net as well. He’s scored some beautiful goals so far for us. Ryan’s a head’s up, play-making hockey player that can finish as well.”
Developing Confident Players
Reflecting on his team’s ability to produce NHL-ready players and his team’s on-ice confidence early in the WHL season, Hunter noted that he can’t hand out confidence to players but tries to put them in situations where they can develop it.
“I don’t really manage their confidence,” said Hunter. “I manage their ability to focus and play hard and compete hard, since those are the things they haven’t learned yet: how hard they have to play and how hard they have to compete to play. When they’re prepared and when they’re focused and when they’re competing hard and playing hard, they get confidence from that. I’m a coach. I don’t hand out confidence, I help build it, and I’ll give these guys an opportunity when they’re prepared, and they focused and they’re ready.”
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.