The AJHL's Spruce Grove Saints have produced a plethora of well-known NHL players. Starting with Mark Messier, who played for the team when they were known as the Mets in 1976-77, the organization has continued to develop quality players – Stu Barnes, Mike Comrie and Steven Reinprecht to name a few.
Carson Soucy and Doug Morris are hoping to add their names to that list.
Both in their first year with the Saints, Soucy and Morris were recently listed on Central Scouting's Watch List.
“It's pretty big news actually,” said Soucy after a game against the Lloydminster Bobcats earlier this month. “You don't really expect it and then all of a sudden it's there, that's huge, that's the NHL, that's what you strive for.”
As exciting as that honor can be, both players have obstacles to overcome, not only as their careers progress, but in this season alone.
A talented softball player, Soucy missed nine games earlier this season as he was in Argentina playing for the Canadian Junior Softball team. He returned with a fourth place finish and a desire to return to the ice; unfortunately, in his first game back with the Saints he suffered what was later diagnosed as a torn MCL.
“A late hit took out my one knee and that's pretty much it,” said Soucy. “It's getting a lot better now, it was rough walking the first couple days, but I can walk on it now and I'll start riding the bike at the rink and it'll be day-by-day I guess.”
That was weeks ago, but Soucy is still expected to be out until after the New Year, which is certainly discouraging for the 6'4” defenseman who put up 10 points (3 goals, 7 assists) in his first 18 games. He has not played a full game since October 20.
Once healthy, Saints head coach Jason McKee is expecting Soucy to once again help anchor the team's blue line. It's no small feat for an 18-year-old rookie defenseman, but his play prior to the injury suggests he can do so.
“He's played in all situations right from the start of the year, has played against the other team's top lines, he's done a real good job for us, he thinks the game well, he has a good reach, he's just real reliable and real consistent in his play,” said McKee of Soucy.
A native of Irma, AB, Soucy can be described as a complete defenceman who doesn't particularly stand out in any aspect, but does everything well. As evidenced by his production early in the season, he can add offense, he's used on the Saints penalty kill, and with his size he can play a physical game, as well.
“I'm a big guy, most people expect you to be pretty physical,” Soucy added with a laugh.
It's going to take some time for him to fine tune all those aspects of his game, but because he plans on taking the university route where he can develop over a maximum four years, he becomes that much more of an attractive prospect. And that doesn't mean he wasn't highly-touted by teams in the WHL; he was wooed by the Edmonton Oil Kings two years ago, and he turned down the Calgary Hitmen prior to this season.
Morris, on the other hand, an awkward-skating forward with a knack for goal scoring, is unsure of where he will be playing next year.
Recently his rights, which belonged to the Kootenay Ice, were traded to the Vancouver Giants.
“I think next year I'd think about going there, but I really like it here, it's good,” said Morris about his future intentions.
Although, given his recent struggles, Morris might be thinking a change of scenery couldn't hurt. He scored 11 goals in his first 16 games with the Saints, which, as a rookie in the AJHL is almost unheard of; however, since then, through 12 games Morris has failed to even record a single point. He has 11 goals and just two assists on the season.
“I just haven't been finding the net, I've been getting the chances just not putting it in like I have been,” said Morris, who said his game is centered around going to the net and jamming home loose pucks.
“The one thing about Doug is he's very good from the ringette line down,” McKee said. “He's got very good hands, very good mitts in tight, he reads the play very well, he's a guy that could create offense for us for sure. We're just working on the other parts of his game, but that's what all young guys need is some work away from the puck, but you know, he's open to coaching, open to feedback.”
Unlike Soucy, who can do a little of everything, Morris is more of a specialty player. Focusing on him alone, you might wonder what's so impressive about the 17-year-old. His skating, in particular, is something that needs to improve quite a bit if he is going to have a career in the sport, but that's something that he acknowledges and knows can be improved.
“Definitely my skating and my defensive game probably (can be improved), just get quicker feet and work harder on D,” said Morris.
And though it's been a disappointing stretch for Morris, a break over Christmas may be all he needs to get going again. After all, he has a very strong pedigree of success through his early hockey career; in fact, just last year he finished fourth in scoring during the Telus Cup with 11 points in 7 games, leading the host Leduc Oil Kings to a fourth place finish.
“That was a great experience, I wish I could do it again… I just went and played my game and got some points,” said the soft-spoken Morris.
At this point, it's unclear whether either of the players hear their name called in June's NHL Draft, but it's clear teams are more willing to draft from Junior A franchises, particularly in Alberta – last year four players were selected directly out of the AJHL, a record high. And of course, playing for an organization like Spruce Grove, who not only continue to pump out NHL talent, but continue to be at the top of the league, doesn't hurt either.
“The biggest thing is the culture that's been established in the last six, seven years and we've tried to carry that over,” said McKee. “There's a certain type of player that we try to go after when we recruit, we just kinda' feel that everything is team first and guys who buy into that really flourish in Spruce Grove.”
Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7