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AJHL Names Awards Finalists

By Neil Hilts on February 24, 2017

Cale Makar is up for defenceman of the year and league MVP as his Brooks Bandits have locked up the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s best record for 2016-2017. (Courtesy of the Brooks Bandits)

Despite a few weeks left in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) regular season, last week, the league revealed the finalists for their league awards, selected by coaches and general managers from around the league. 

The Calgary Canucks have the most nominations, while Cale Makar (Brooks Bandits) and Logan Drackett (Calgary Canucks) are up for MVP and the best at their position, respectively.

Here are three categories and their nominees. See Part 2, with breakdown of the rest of the finalists, here.

Most Valuable Player - Alberta Old Time Hockey Players Trophy:
2016 winner: Bobby McMann (Bonnyville)

Cale Makar (D) - Brooks Bandits
Not only is Makar in the top 10 for scoring despite missing time for the World Jr. A Challenge and injury, but the defenceman has 12 more points than the next closest rearguard, teammate Dennis Cesana. He cut his PIMs in half from last year and has vaulted himself into possible top-10 consideration for the NHL entry draft. He plays every situation and is the driving force for the league-best Bandits.

Logan Drackett (G) - Calgary Canucks
Drackett ranks sixth in the league (min. 15 games played) for goals against average at 2.44 and a .913 save percentage - generally not a rank you’d expect from an MVP candidate. However, he’s appeared in the second most games for goalies and has had the Canucks fighting for the top of the South for the entire year. Now, he’s got to turn in a strong finish to help Calgary claim second, signalling a massive turnaround from last season.

Justin Young (C) - Whitecourt Wolverines
In Young’s final year of Junior A hockey before he leaves for the University of Alaska - Fairbanks, the 19-year-old surpassed his point totals from last year and is a goal away from matching his career high. He’s the second leading scorer on the Whitecourt Wolverines, the second place team in the Viterra North, and ranks eighth in league scoring. After being passed over in last year’s NHL draft, he’s made a strong case to have his name called this summer. Young sits third in both even strength scoring and game winning goals.

Ian Mitchell (D) - Spruce Grove Saints
As the AJHL’s second best chance at an NHL draft pick this summer, Ian Mitchell is fourth on the Spruce Grove Saints in scoring with 32 points in 47 games, surpassing last year’s totals. He has one more year in the AJHL before heading to the University of Denver in 2018 and will expect to lead the Saints and contend for MVP and defenceman of the year once again. Despite being a second round pick in the WHL in 2014, Mitchell has proven he made the right choice and will further cement that by getting drafted this spring.

Rookie of the Year - Dick White Trophy:
2016 winner: Cale Makar (Brooks)

Kyler Kupka (F) - Camrose Kodiaks
The youngest of all nominees, Kupka has been a terrific secondary scorer for the Camrose Kodiaks. He’s averaged just under a point per game and has only seen 34 matches due to injuries, but he’s a dangerous player. He’s lit it up at every level, so it’s no surprise to see the him nominated here. 

Oliver Chau (F) - Brooks Bandits
Chau should be the favourite here as he ranks fourth in the league in scoring with 77 points in 54 games, just behind Tyrell Mappin for the team lead. His age may work against him since he is a 19-year-old rookie, but the next closest first year in the scoring race is other Bandit Dennis Cesana with 47 points. Chau has 17 power play goals, four more than the next closest player, and is a special teams weapon.

Jake Gresh (D) - Bonnyville Pontiacs 
Gresh, of Avon, Connecticut, just turned 19 at the beginning of February but played like a seasoned veteran all year long. He is the highest scoring defenceman on Bonnyville with 33 points in 45 games, and will head to the University of Alaska for 2018, giving him one more year to patrol the Bonnyville blueline.

Austin McGrath (G) - Lloydminster Bobcats
McGrath did not come into a good team for his first year of Junior A hockey. The Bobcats, who last year hosted the RBC Cup and lost in the finals, completely retooled and sit last in their division and second last in the league. He won an Alberta Midget Hockey League championship last year but was thrown to the wolves with the Bobcats. Despite the team’s record of 14-39-3, McGrath has managed 10 wins, two shutouts and nearly two-thirds of the team’s games. Also, Lloydminster allows 3.3 goals against when McGrath plays, compared to 3.6 when he doesn’t.

Top Goaltender - Friends of Alberta Junior Hockey League Trophy:
2016 winner: Matthew Murray (Spruce Grove)

Logan Drackett (G) - Calgary Canucks
In Drackett’s first year, his Canucks finished sixth in the South with a -62 goal differential. This year, Calgary has swapped that to +61 and a likely second seed for the playoffs, and Drackett is a huge part why. He’s second in wins and shutouts, just outside the top five for GAA and save percentage and has appeared in nearly 80 per cent of the Canucks’ games. 

Riley Morris (G) - Okotoks Oilers
Morris’ stats have increased in huge swings across his three years with the Oilers. In year one, Morris had a 3.13 GAA and .889 save percentage. Flash forward to campaign No. 3 - Morris has a 2.44 GAA and .922 save percentage while keeping the Oilers in the hunt for home ice in the South. Without him, the Oilers are likely sitting further down the fixtures.

Patrick Gora (G) - Camrose Kodiaks
Gora has played in an astonishing 50 of the Kodiaks’ 56 games, good for 89 per cent. He’s tied for second in the league in wins, first in shots faced and fifth in save percentage. Gora will likely face a tough first round opponent in the playoffs in the high-scoring Canmore Eagles, so he’ll need his body to hold up.

Eric Szudor (G) – Fort McMurray Oil Barons
Szudor’s Oil Barons are the second best team defensively, behind only Brooks, and the 20-year-old netminder is a huge reason why. After playing for a struggling team that missed the playoffs last year, Szudor has evolved into one the AJHL’s best, sitting second in save percentage, goals against average and shutouts, plus fifth in wins.

Pierce Diamond (G) - Whitecourt Wolverines
A member of the 2015-2016 AJHL All-Rookie Team, Pierce Diamond was acquired by the Whitecourt Wolverines from the Lloydminster Bobcats at the end of last season, following coach Gord Thibodeau. Diamond won the starting job for Whitecourt and has delivered, guiding the team to second in the North while putting up premier goalie numbers: 2.24 GAA (fifth), 24 wins (sixth), .908 save percentage (eighth) and five shutouts (second).

Despite having one of the best stat lines in league history, Brooks goalie Mitchel Benson was not nominated. He is first in all major goalie categories: wins (33), goals against average (1.67), save percentage (.930), and shutouts (six). It could be the bias that coaches and general managers tend to send towards Brooks in awards voting.

The final stage of voting will occur during the last week of the season, with the awards being announced prior to the start of the playoffs.

Part two, with a closer look at the rest of the nominees, is coming up soon.

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