The depth of the team is the key to the perfect start of the Cougars

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Despite a young roster, the Southwest Cougars are a perfect four-on-four in the Manitoba Under-18 AAA Hockey League.

Heading into a round-trip series with the Yellowhead Chiefs this weekend, the Cougars are tied for first place with the 4-0 Brandon Wheat Kings and 4-1 Eastman Selects.

PERRY BERGSON / THE BRANDON SUN

Ashton Cuvelier of the Southwest Cougars, seen here in a Manitoba Under-18 AAA Hockey League game against the Brandon Wheat Kings at the Sportsplex last October, is tied for first in scorers in the team with his compatriot Luke Mackenzie.

“If you look at our roster this year, there wasn’t a single guy on our team who had more than eight games of U18 league experience,” Cougars head coach Troy Leslie said.

“We have been impressed with how quickly they have improved and how well this group can lead. We see improvements every week and we are happy with our departure. There is still a long way to go of course. and there’s a lot of challenges ahead, but we’re happy to go. ”

The Cougars started the season with 4-0, 2-1 wins on September 25 and 26 in Thompson against the Norman Northstars.

They followed up with a 3-2 victory at Dauphin over the Parkland Rangers on October 1 and secured a 6-1 decision in a rematch the next day in Souris.

“In our first two games of the year we were missing a few defensemen (Josh Fluker and Darren Hunt) who were at a provincial camp, but it was a good opportunity for the guys to step up and we played well at Thompson to get four points, ”Leslie said.

“There are still a few issues to sort out, especially after a long absence, but I think everyone in our league is right now.”

The Cougars’ defense was the key to their successful start, with goaltender Owen LaRocque also being an important part of his team’s back.

The 16-year-old from Wawanesa, who was the league’s most recent player of the week, is 3-0 with a 0.67 goals-against average, 0.975 save percentage and shutout .

“Owen makes us feel like if we defend well and keep things out of the ice, he will give us a shot at winning every night,” said Leslie.

“He’s done it so far and we also have (2006 born goaltender) Kai (Bennett) in the net in our season opener, where he had a very solid game. which we have to defend well if we are to have any chance of winning. ”

A balanced offensive offense has also been a big part of the Cougars’ success so far.

Forwards Ashton Cuvelier and Luke MacKenzie lead with five points, while Nicholas Cullen has four points in four games.

Full-back Brett Laing is tied with forwards Kylan Anderson, Dawson Andries and Jayce Thompson for fourth in team scoring with three points apiece.

“I think it’s a credit to our guys and the way they’ve come to terms with the way we want to play,” Leslie said. “We have a group of guys who are very determined to play a good team game.”

Four players from last year’s cropped campaign, which saw the Cougars go 3-2-3, could have returned, but are plying their trade elsewhere.

Defensemen Zach Turner and Dexter Whittle are in the Western Hockey League with the Brandon Wheat Kings and Everett Silvertips, respectively, while forwards Brayden Knox and Luke Robson have moved on to OCN Blizzard and Waywayseecappo Wolverines from the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

“We don’t think we’ll get Brayden or Luke back and while there is a chance that Zach or Dexter will return from the WHL there are obviously some Junior A teams out there who would love to have them too,” said Leslie.

“This is a situation that is beyond our control. If they were released, we don’t expect them to be back with us.”

In their place – with holes left by graduate goaltender Eric Reid (Virden Oil Capitals), defenders Brayden Mossett and Nolan Wickham (Dauphin Kings), and forwards Andrew Andries (Dauphin Kings), Parker Korman (Neepawa Titans) and Hunter Wallace (Brooks Bandits) – are 11 players eligible to be selected in the WHL Prospects Draft in December.

This squad includes goalie Kai Bennett, defensemen Jesse Brown, Fluker and Hunt as well as forwards Kylan Anderson, Regan Anderson, Kelby Diehl, Jackson Hofer, Luke MacKenzie, Nate Robson and Drew Shiels.

“Between now and the draft (which will take place in December) there will be a lot of eyes on them, especially with how the draft is going to go this year,” said Leslie.

“It’s a little different for our league too, because generally we get guys from U15 teams who have already been drafted into the WHL or MJHL. At the same time, we realize that the strength for us is to play well as a team, that everyone can show what they can do to the scouts. ”

Fluker and Hunt will also have another opportunity to showcase their abilities later this month as they compete for the Manitoba Under-16 team at the WHL Cup in Red Deer.

“It’s good for our club and it’s good for these guys personally,” Leslie said. “Going to Red Deer and having that experience is something that they can bring back to our team and really benefit everyone on the list.”

The Cougars’ big goal for the 2021-22 season is to prepare for the Telus Cup Western Regional Championships, which will take place in Virden from March 31 to April 3.

The team was supposed to be the host team for the event in 2020 and 2021, but that was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our goal is to make the playoffs and finish a round, which will bring us a little closer to this tournament,” said Leslie.

“This event is always on your mind, but it’s important to keep your feet on the ground and take things one week at a time. We know we’re going to play at the end of the year, so it’s important for us. to stay grounded and keep improving. ”

The Cougars are back in action on Friday as they travel to Shoal Lake for a 7:30 p.m. clash with the Yellowhead Chiefs.

A rematch is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Souris.

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