When Mark O'Leary was pondering his choice of whom to partner with No. 1 defenceman Daemon Hunt, he came to an inescapable conclusion.
He would pick the kid.
That would be Denton Mateychuk, a 16-year-old rookie from Dominion City who, when he's wearing skates and holding a hockey stick, appears to show no panic or nerves. Ever.
"He's just an exciting player," explained O'Leary, the second-year head coach of the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors, earlier this week. "Every time the puck touches his stick, something's gonna happen. I (love) his skating ability, first and foremost, and he has a real confidence in that so he tries things. Sometimes young guys come in and are kind of afraid to do things and they resort to just trying to get by. But he tries things."
Mateychuk admits he has an experimental aspect to his game but it's probably also true he's better prepared for the major-junior ranks then most 16-year-olds.
In the past 18 months, while playing a full season with the Eastman AAA U18 Selects he had seven games as an affiliate with the Warriors, suited up for Canada at the Youth Olympics in Switzerland and added another eight games of seasoning with the MJHL's Steinbach Pistons in fall.
Moose Jaw was dead last in the East a year ago, but a group of nine Manitobans led by the 5-11, 192-pound Mateychuk and second-year forward Eric Alarie, helped to spark the club to three straight wins in the WHL's East Division hub prior to Thursday's action, which culminated in a 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Ice.
Now, there's a new respect from outsiders but the Warriors are feeling better about themselves, too.
Alarie, an 18-year-old from Winnipeg, is a prime example of that.
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The nine Manitobans skating with the Moose Jaw Warriors outnumber the homegrown Saskatchewan players on the WHL club's roster. Here's the list:
Defenceman (5): Daemon Hunt, 18, Brandon; Denton Mateychuk, 16, Dominion City; Lucas Brenton, 17, Winnipeg; Cory King, 18, Souris; Cole Jordan, 18, Brandon.
Forwards (4): Tate Popple, 21, Brandon; Bryden Kiesman, 19, Winnipeg; Calder Anderson, 18, Brandon; Kade Runke, Grunthal, 18.
He struggled as a rookie as the losses piled up and his belief in his own abilities suffered. The long layoff during the pandemic gave him time to recreate himself, losing five pounds while working with local skating and skills coach Jon Cara.
He emerged faster and more mobile. O'Leary also noticed Alarie was smiling more.
"I used to get down on myself every time I had a bad game or the team lost," said Alarie. "I know this year I'm not trying to be OK with losing a game or not playing badly but I'm just not getting down on myself and enjoying the process and enjoy being with the team."
After a modest output of seven goals and 21 points in 61 games as a rookie, Alarie has three goals and five points in three games to start the hub. His first goal was a tap-in after a rebound on a power play. The second coming on a partial breakaway when he blew the puck past Regina Pats goaltender Roddy Ross.
His third, coming against Winnipeg, was a nifty snipe on the power play. Alarie had six shots on goal and hit at least one post against the Ice.
"We had high hopes for what he was going to look like this year in terms of the step that he could take," said O'Leary of Alarie, the club's first-round draft pick in 2018. "That, coupled with the fact that he's so driven and just wants to be a player so bad... We knew he was gonna have a real good off-season and I'm just so happy for him, because I know he's hard on himself.
"But he's had a really good start here and he's really added a step to his skating but also the agility, which was job No. 1 this off-season. That lateral movement has freed him up a little bit, get some space and he's got a shot that makes goalies miss."
Alarie's excellent training camp earned him a spot on the left wing on a line with centre Ryder Korczack and uber-talented rookie Brayden Yager. In their brief time together, the combination has shown game-breaking potential.
"I'm more confident for sure," said Alarie, a 6-1, 192-pounder. "I know sometimes last year, if I made a mistake I wouldn't try the same move twice. This time around, I know if I fail I know I should get out and try again... Last year I had good teammates but I feel I have more chemistry with my two linemates, and that really helps because we know where we are out there and we can find each other pretty easily."
O'Leary believes modern players fall into a trap of evaluating themselves based on a thinnest of evidence -- video clips.
"I don't know how many of these players actually watch full games and I know in the (hockey) world now, whether it's Instagram or watching highlights, you compare yourselves to other people's highlight reels," said O'Leary.
"I know for other first-rounders, whether it's Eric or anybody, you're looking around the league at the other first-rounders and all you see is their highlights, their best games, their best goals and that sort of thing. You (end up) comparing your tough times to their highlight reel."
As for the seemingly unflappable Mateychuk, he's content with his role as a student apprentice to the Brandon-born Hunt.
O'Leary said Mateychuk is logical fit for the pairing, even if it means he has a lefty playing on Hunt's right side.
"We don't have a lot of right-handed D-men but with the way that he plays, with his hip mobility and the way that he carries the puck, he's able to play on the right side, even though he's a left shot," said O'Leary. "It was just a natural fit."
Mateychuk, Moose Jaw's 2019 first-round pick, appreciates Hunt's fearlessness and natural feel for the position. He's been watching and learning from the captain.
"It's the way that he sees the game — he always seems to be in the right position at the right time, either in the defensive zone or the offensive zone," said Mateychuk, who has two assists in his first four games. "And he's always in a position to play defence but also make an offensive chance out of it."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.