Photo credit: Nick Pettigrew/Moose Jaw Warriors

After attending Penguins training camp last fall, Brayden Yager returned to his junior team with plenty of confidence – which helped Pittsburgh’s 2023 first-round pick put together an excellent season from an individual and team perspective.

The forward finished with 35 goals, 60 assists, and 95 points – a 17-point increase from his previous career high – in 57 regular-season games before leading Moose Jaw to a Western Hockey League championship and the first Memorial Cup bid in franchise history.

“TK [Penguins director of player development Tom Kostopoulos] was always telling me to use my legs and use my shot, too,” Yager said. “So, I thought I did a pretty good job of shooting the puck more, and obviously when you shoot more, you're going to score more.

“It helps when you're playing with good players. Firk [Seattle’s 2023 second-round draft pick Jagger Firkus, who led the entire Canadian Hockey League in scoring] had a really good year, and I played with him every game. But I think it's also a kind of a mindset of having confidence in yourself to shoot the puck or make plays, and it ended up being a really good year.”

During training camp, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan told Yager he was playing on Sidney Crosby’s team for a reason, “and that was to try and kind of just be a fly on the wall and be around him as much as I can without being annoying, obviously,” he laughed.

The 19-year-old soaked up so much knowledge from the Penguins captain, saying, “I think the cool part for me was to be able to learn what he does coming up to a skate or after a skate or how he treats his body – the hot and cold tubs, the nutrition. Especially this year, one thing I tried to bring back with me was treating my body the right way. I think it definitely helped with staying healthy and making my body feel good, especially with such a long run.”

During Yager’s interview with Penguins personnel at last year’s NHL Scouting Combine, they asked him to complete the sentence, “I play my best hockey when…” Yager responded, “in big moments, the playoffs, the high-pressure moments.” Yager certainly delivered in the postseason, being named to the Memorial Cup All-Star Team with three goals and six points in four games after recording 11 goals and 27 points in 20 league playoff games.

“I like to think I'm a player that can kind of rise to the occasion or step up when our team needs it most,” said Yager, an alternate captain for the Warriors. “I just try to be a leader on the team.”

While the Warriors lost in the Memorial Cup semifinals, Yager appreciates all the positives from the run, particularly growing up with the same core group of guys and learning through their experiences – namely a tough first year in the bubble, followed by back-to-back seasons of getting eliminated in the second round by Winnipeg.

“I thought this past year, we showed a lot of resilience,” Yager said. “Especially having a couple of bad runs – like losing streaks, and a couple games in the playoffs where we kind of got smoked – and just getting right back up and coming back and winning a big game. I think the group of guys was just so special. Just being with them for the past four years, finally getting to win was really cool.”

After leaving the host city of Saginaw, Michigan, and returning to Moose Jaw for the parade to celebrate their season, Yager and his teammates were talking about how it almost meant more to the fans, “because we came in and it’s four years that we're there, and we finally get the job done. Then you realize that there's people crying in the crowd after we won, because they've been waiting forty years for it. So, it's crazy.”

Yager will forever cherish the support the Warriors received from the community during their run, particularly when the guys would go out to eat at local restaurants like Rosie’s on River Street. Fans would ask for autographs, wish them good luck, and pay for their meals, “which was kind of nice,” Yager grinned. “We had to keep going out for supper [laughs]. It was fun. Just the reaction of the city was the coolest part.”

The boys got some free all-you-can-eat ribs one night at Montana’s, a BBQ joint, which inspired Warriors defensemen Denton Mateychuk and Lucas Brenton to try and set a record. “Me and Firk, obviously we're a little lighter than those guys. We had like, two racks each or something like that. But Brenton and Mateychuk were going nuts,” Yager laughed.

“I think they had four racks each. The staff kept coming out and asking what flavor they wanted next, and you could just tell that they were like, sick. Mateychuk started ordering plain ribs because he was so sick of the sauce filling them up. He was just shoveling them down. It was hilarious. I don't think he ate for like, another day and a half.”

Ribs might have to stay in the rotation as Yager, currently listed at 5-11 and 166 pounds, looks to gain strength and weight over the coming weeks. “Obviously, it's a short summer, so I'm going to try and to recover quick and get back into the gym and stuff,” he said.

Next up on the schedule is prospect development camp in July before training camp in September. Penguins president of hockey operations and GM Kyle Dubas said at his year-end availability that he expects young players like Yager and 2022 first-round pick Owen Pickering to “push, have a huge summer, assert yourself. We’ve shown here in this last stretch that if you're a young player and you're willing to push through the summer, you have a massive opportunity, you can have a shot here with us. And that's what we need, desperately.”

Yager said hearing that gives him even more energy and motivation heading into his routine, where he’ll continue to work with longtime strength and conditioning coach Blaine White at Ignite Athletics in Saskatoon and skate with a group that includes NHLers Darcy Kuemper and Braden Schneider.

“Obviously, I want to make the team,” Yager said. “The biggest thing is the stuff in the gym, getting stronger, bigger, faster. The guys in the NHL are some of the best athletes in the world, so going to have to prepare myself physically for that. It's a longer season, 82 games, so you also have to be ready mentally, being a young guy in the league. I think it starts with the work ethic in the gym, and coming to camp with confidence and knowing that I have a good shot to make the team if I really work hard.”


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