© Herald photo by Perry Bergson
Prince Albert Mintos prospect Jack Green watches as a puck he backhanded past Tisdale Trojans defenceman Liam Chornawka toward netminder Kye Steinke heads past the net during a AAA midget preseason game at the Art Hauser Centre on Saturday. The Trojans won 3-1.
With three weeks until their season opener, a lot of questions remain unanswered for the Prince Albert Mintos.
For coach Ken Morrison, that's just part of AAA midget hockey as he looks to replace 60 per cent of last year's roster.
"We've done a pretty good job of trying to recruit some defencemen to come in that didn't play with us last year but we think are going to be real good," Morrison said. "With the forwards, the year before we lost about half and kept half. It's a pretty normal year as far as turnover goes I would say."
The team still has more than 40 players auditioning for jobs, down from 120 in the spring camp and 80 in the main camp last month. The numbers are not uncommon because some kids go to multiple camps, but this year seven camps were held on the same weekend.
"We thought our numbers might drop but they stayed the same so that's a good sign," Morrison said.
Morrison said that speaks to the way players are treated by the Mintos and also to the team's track record in recent years.
In the regular season, they've finished first the last three years, second in 2009-10 and fourth in the two years before that.
"I think kids want to play here," he says.
About 25 to 30 players can attend practices regularly, while other players from farther away will be looked at in games.
"It's a process of throughout these six exhibition games of juggling the roster and trying to get some kids in," Morrison said.
During the season, the team will carry two goalies, six defencemen and 12 forwards, with additional affiliate players available in case of injury. The team can designate an unlimited number of local affiliate players and an additional six out-of-town players who live within 160 kilometres.
Morrison ultimately makes the final decision on the roster but has a team around him -- including assistant coaches Todd Becker and Brad Bergen, manager Don Fauchoux and the scouting staff -- who help with the evaluations.
With less than three weeks until the season opener, decisions will have to be made soon.
"We have a couple spots open and if you don't make decisions soon enough they could end up on another team," Morrison said. "It's a tough process. On top of that you don't know if other guys are coming back. It's tough to promise a kid a spot and then say a veteran player from last year gets released and wants to come back and play with us, you have to be pretty careful. You don't want to be ruining a guy's chances of playing somewhere else."
The roster has to be virtually nailed down by month's end, although a player can be released if a veteran returns late.
Among the notable 17-year-old graduates from last year's squad are Jason Duret, Kylar Hope, Justin Boyer, Joel Blaquiere, Adam Oszevski, Eric Young and Tanner Burghardt. Players with remaining eligibility who are leaving to try out in other leagues include leading scorer Lance Yaremchuk, Bryton Sayers and Lochlan Morrison.
While most of last year's leading scorers have left, Morrison is optimistic.
"We think we have some guys that can step up and fill that role," Morrison said. "And the guys that are back from last year will be counted on more as well to be putting up some points."
Those forwards include Ryan Duret, Teal Sobkowicz, Zac Paziuk and Kody White.
"Those guys are going to have to be real good for us," Morrison said. "I think they're excited about being the guys this year."
Goaltender Lane Michasiw, a veteran of last year's team, was joined in main camp by nine other netminders, a number now down to three, Saskatoon's Derrick Hucul, and local players Connor Ingram and Logan Morhart.
Hucul is being looked at as the potential goalie of the future, but may not play here until next season.
The players, who are aged 15 to 17, are not committed to a program to the exclusion of other teams. Even veterans can be granted releases if they seek one.
Among the young players to watch, Morrison points to Connor Ingram, Rhys Kipling, Brody Reimer, Braxx George and Braden Lozinski.
This year, the team has the added benefit of hosting the 2014 Western Regional hockey championship, which features the provincial champions from Saskatchewan and Manitoba along with the top team from Northern Ontario and the host team. The winner of the Western Regional qualifier then moves on to the Telus Cup, which is the national championship for Midget AAA hockey.
As it works out, Moose Jaw hosts the Telus Cup in 2014 so the Generals are automatically guaranteed a spot in the national tournament. The two-time national champ Mintos now have an automatic chance to join the Generals if they can prevail in the Westerns.
They last competed in the Western Regional in 2011.
Morrison says it's hard to tell at this time of year who the perceived powerhouses in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League will be, although he expects the Saskatoon Contacts, Telus Cup hosts Moose Jaw, Tisdale and Yorkton should all be good.
"It's hard to say without seeing some of the teams because there's a lot of turnover for most teams," he says.
He'll get that chance soon with his team's home opener against the Generals coming on Sept. 28 at 1:30 p.m.
"I'm real excited," Morrison says. "We'll see what happens with guys coming back over the next week and if they don't come back, we have guys coming back from last year who can do a job. We'll fill in what spots we have hopefully with some good kids that work hard.
"I think we're going to be OK."