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Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League Preview

Illegal Curve recently sat down with Weyburn Red Wings executive Brad McNeil to discuss the state of the SJHL.

Brad, you have been around the SJHL for some time now, give us a quick run down of how the season is going to shape up. Who is expected to contend, who will be also rans?

Well Kyle, we have now completed the first week of the SJHL schedule so it is pretty much a guessing game at this point. I would expect that the Humboldt Broncos will be the favorites again in the Itech conference. The Broncos of course are the defending Royal Bank Cup champions and return a good number of players from the national championship team. They will rely on the likes of Matt Kirzinger, Tory Allan, and the Schroeder twins – Scott and Steven, as well as the recently acquired Nick Kalnicki to lead the offense. The Broncos will be led on the back end by Brady Wacker and are hoping to re-acquire the rights to defenseman Tanner Vandesype. Vandesype was a member of the Royal Bank Cup champion team but his rights reverted back to the Notre Dame Hounds at the end of the season. Vandesype has made it clear he wants to play for the Broncos again. The Broncos hope that Andrew Bodnarchuk will be able to handle the bulk of work between the pipes as last years’ goaltender Taylor Nelson if off to Ferris State on a scholarship. The Flin Flon Bombers also deserve some consideration in the Itech conference as the Bombers have a good mix of veteran forwards and good young up and comers. Cole Wilson had a four goal game on opening night for the Bombers and a big year is expected from him. Last year’s scoring machine Reid MacLeod and Tommy Castonguay will also be relied on heavily by head coach Mike Reagan to put the puck in the net. The Bombers will have two veteran goalies this year as Calvin Bartel and Ryan Kerpan (who spent last year with the Battlefords North Stars) will handle the duties. The Bombers also return a solid defense crew with the likes of Michael Young, Harley Garrioch and Jean-Sebastien Bergeron all returning for another season. The Hawks do return a good chunk of last year’s team including the very reliable Derek Kleinsteuber in goal. Torrie Dyck will be leaned on to provide a lot of the offense with helps from the likes of Jordon Miller, Kenton Miller and Matt Schneider. Kyle Cowan and Taylor Thiessen will anchor the Hawks defense. In Melfort, some may consider it to be somewhat of a rebuilding year. The Mustangs top player from last year was goaltender Ilia Ejov. Ejov will be playing in the KHL league in Russia this year. Replacing him will be a couple of rookie goaltenders in Jordan Washburn and Pete Karvouniaris. The Mustangs do return one of the SJHL’s top defenseman in Tommy Brown. Brown will also be the top returning scorer for the Mustangs as he had 39 points in 50 games last season. The Mustangs hope rookies such as Owen Roschuk, Shay Neufeld and Devon Stillar will be able to pick up some of the offensive slack this season. In La Ronge, head coach Bob Beatty also loses a lot of scoring touch from last years team as Jordie Johnston and Jarrid Dowhay both graduated from the junior ranks. The key to success this year for the Ice Wolves will be the play of third year goaltender Jonathan Jobin. When Jobin is on his game, he is arguably the SJHL’s best goaltender and he will need to be that way all the time if the Ice Wolves have designs on post season success. Rounding out the Itech is the Battlefords North Stars. It was a long year last season in the Battlefords as the team only managed to win five games. Ken Pearson takes over behind the bench this year. Pearson has had past success in the MJHL and the Stars organization is hoping that can spread to their situation. It could be another long year for the North Stars but they seem to be heading in the right direction with some good offseason recruiting and trades.

In the Sherwood conference it really is a crapshoot. I could ask every media guy in the division to rank the teams 1-6 and we would probably have different results every time. The Kindersley Klippers are the defending Sherwood conference champions and have a good shot at repeating this feat. They return there leading scorer from last season, Brett Leedahl, and will have the benefit of having Jordan Braid for an entire season. 20 year old goaltender Ryan Nieszner should get a bulk of the work in goal after Matt Weninger decided to head to the NAHL this season. Nieszner has battled inconsistency at times throughout his SJHL career but can be very solid when he needs to be. In Weyburn, the Red Wings have an exciting mix of veterans and youth as the season begins. The Wings, led by the CJHL’s winningest coach, Dwight McMillan, hope that last year’s SJHL rookie of the year and MVP nominee AJ Whiffen can return to the form he displayed last season. Whiffen is the definite key to success for a successful season. The Red Wings also have some firepower up front as they have scored an average of five goals a game through there first three games. The line of Preston Shupe, Rhett Bly and Torrey Lindsay could be amongst the league’s top units this season. The Red Wings are also excited to have a talented set of twins in the lineup – Rodney and Scott Cowie. Rookie defenseman Joey Bergen and Rhys Thomas should both have bright futures in the SJHL. Down Highway 39 in Estevan, the Bruins have got off to a rough 0-3 start but should be a better team than their current record indicates. Kyle Stroh, Chad Filteau and Riley Tetreault should provide some offense for the Bruins. The Bruins added some size and toughness to the lineup when Josh Elder was assigned to the team by the WHL’s Regina Pats. Acquired from the Nipawin Hawks in the offseason, Todd Panchyson will log a lot of minutes on the blue line. Former QMJHL goaltender Tommy Legault appears to be the Bruins starting goaltender this year. In Notre Dame, the Hounds have a young exciting team that should be able to put the puck in the net. The Schwartz brother – Rylan and Jaden should be amongst the leagues top scorers this season. They will be complimented by the likes of John Esposito (Angelo’s little brother) and Kyle Ireland just to name a few. The Hounds will rely for steady play on the back end by veteran SJHL defenseman Kirk Moore, Marc-Andre Nadeau and Blayne Stevenson to name a few. The Hounds have SJHL veterans Mark Currie and Andre-Michel Guay to split the goaltending duties. In Melville, the Millionaires lose some offense from last season but still have some talent coming back with the likes of Kale Dolinski and Levi Lind returning. The Mils also expect big things from towering cousins Michael and Tayler Jordan. Tayler spent most of last season with the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks. The 6’7” giant will likely start the season on defense paired up with another tall guy in Curtis Beech. They should definitely intimidate some of the smaller forwards bearing down on them. Travis Bosch should get a bulk of the work between the pipes this year. Finally, in Yorkton, the Terriers look to move back towards the class of the division after a bit of an off year. Derek Serdachny and Bryan Hull will be expected to handle a lot of the scoring duties for the Terriers. The Terriers have some solid returnees on the blue line with the likes of Kirk Byczynzki and Greg Coburn (Brayden’s little brother). SJHL rookie Jordan Barry looks to have the inside track on the number one goaltending duties although former Prince George Cougar Joel Danyluk could also factor in.

In terms of players currently in the league, are any generating a buzz? Any kids who could make their way to the NCAA?

A few players have already locked up scholarships for next season. Melfort’s Tommy Brown will be headed to Michigan Tech. Rylan and Jaden Schwartz have both committed to Colorado College. I would expect you will see some other players receive some strong consideration as the season unfolds. In Weyburn, AJ Whiffen and Preston Shupe would be definite considerations. I would think guys like Esposito in Notre Dame, the Schroeder twins in Humboldt, Reid MacLeod in Flin Flon and Jonathan Jobin in La Ronge would also face some consideration from NCAA scouts. This may be an easier question to answer three months from now but definitely the guys I have mentioned would have to receive some consideration.

Notre Dame typically has some impressive talent from all over Canada and the world. Any interesting prospects in Wilcox this year?

Kyle, I guess I have touched on that already but obviously Rylan and Jaden Schwartz along with the young Esposito kid should be fun to watch. I had a chance to watch Notre Dame play on Sunday against Weyburn and if they get some strong goaltending this year, the Hounds could take some teams by surprise.

Narrowing the focus to your hometown Weyburn Red Wings, who will be leading the team this year and do you expect any them to move on the NCAA?

Again, I expect AJ Whiffen, the Red Wings goaltender to get a lot of attention this year. Hopefully he can respond with a similar type of season this year. I think the early playoff exit left AJ with a bit of a sour taste in his mouth and he would like to help in carrying this team a lot further. As I mentioned earlier – Preston Shupe and Rhett Bly are both guys that I think would have a shot at furthering their hockey careers at the NCAA route. 18 year old defenseman Rhys Thomas and Joey Bergen could also see some consideration down the road.

Its been a few years since I regularly attended SJHL games, is the style of play still very physical, or has it become a skill league like much of the rest of Canadian Jr. A?

Well, just when you think some of the physical style might be leaving the game, we have a situation like what occurred last night in Estevan between the Bruins and Red Wings. I think the SJHL may be the most physical league in Canada. I have talked to players that of come from the eastern leagues as well as the BCHL and AJHL and they all seem to agree that the SJHL is the most physical league. That being said, we have a number of very skilled players in our league.

Are there still a lot of fights?

As for the fights, in comparison to other leagues and levels of hockey, I would say yes there are still a fair number of fights. Almost every team has their “goon” type player in the lineup to take care of things when need be. Although, one thing I have noticed in the last five years or so is that a lot of these goon type players are a lot stronger, better skaters, and more skilled players then they used to be and are more than one-dimensional players. Of course there are always exceptions to that as well.

In recent years, the BCHL and now the AJHL have become breeding grounds for NHL talent while the SJHL seems to produce few NHL players. Do you think the SJHL will eventually catch up?

That is really tough to say. I don’t think the SJHL prides itself on producing NHL players. Obviously, it is great to see guys like Brad Richards and Rod Brind’Amour move on to the NHL, the focus of this league is developing young men and allowing them to move ahead in their hockey careers either at the NCAA or Canadian University route. You also have to look at the demographics. There are not as many young future NHL stars growing up in rural Saskatchewan as there are in places like Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. I do think events such as the World Junior A Hockey Challenge have help put more of a spotlight on all of Junior A hockey in Canada and I think you will continue to see more SJHL players and other Canadian junior A players ascend to the NHL at some point.

Illegal Curve would like to extend its thanks to Brad McNeil for taking the time to answer our questions. We are still looking for people interested in doing a preview on the other Canadian and US junior leagues. If you know someone, please send their name on to us!