The turning point of the Estevan Power Dodge Bruins 2016-17 season may have come one week before the team’s fall camp began.
On Aug. 26, the Bruins traded newly-acquired defenceman Nicholas Sutter to the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Drayton Valley Thunder for 20-year-old forwards Matt McNeil and Jason Miller as well as defenceman Zach Sherburne. While Sherburne only played 13 games with the Black and Gold before being shipped to the AJHL’s Lloydminster Bobcats for future considerations, McNeil and Miller have proved to be major catalysts in the Bruins rise to the upper tier of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League standings.
“Miller and McNeil have provided some experience to our team and obviously some offensive output,” said Chris Lewgood, head coach and general manager of the Bruins. “They’re both guys that we key in on offensively and they both play on the power play and they both put up pretty good numbers playing with good offensive players. Miller is (also) a guy we like to line up against the other team’s best players on a regular basis and he’s got one of the best 200-foot games on our club.”
The first step of Miller and McNeil’s path to the Bruins began on last season’s trade deadline day when defenceman Nathan Peabody and future considerations, which eventually turned out to be left wing Zach Paxman, were traded to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Waywayseecappo Wolverines for high-scoring forward Landon Gross.
After completing the season with the Bruins, Gross indicated that he’d like to return to his home province of Alberta to play out his graduating year and was subsequently traded to the AJHL’s Olds Grizzlys for goaltender Kurtis Chapman, who suited up for two games for the Bruins this season before getting shipped to the MJHL’s Portage Terriers for future considerations, and Sutter.
“I got the first phone call (about the trade),” said Miller, who is third on the Bruins in scoring with 18 goals and 39 points in 36 games. “Then the first person I called was Matt and then literally while I was on the phone with him he said he was getting a call too. So, it was a little bit of a surprise for us, but it was good that we came together.”
McNeil and Miller have been teammates since the 2009-10 season when they both suited up for the Alberta Minor Bantam AAA Hockey League’s Spruce Grove PAC Saints. Since the beginning, the two forwards have occupied different roles on their teams and almost always played on separate lines.
“I was a big penalty kill guy out there,” said Miller. “Same as I am here, but I feel I play a bigger role here which is awesome.”
McNeil leads the Bruins in scoring through Dec. 23 with 15 goals and 42 points in 36 games, which is also good for fifth in the SJHL. The power forward and power-play specialist said his role is to own the puck, protect it and take it to the net and a solid off-season of training as well as a couple of good linemates in Kaelan Holt and Lynnden Pastachak has helped him do just that.
“I want to obviously do well for myself and put myself in a good position to play college next year,” said McNeil. “Also I want to have a good drive in the playoffs to have something to remember in my last year of junior. With the great group of guys we have it would be fun to always remember this.”