For the past few years, the Brooks Bandits have dominated the conversation in the Alberta Jr. A League. Having Cale Makar on the roster helped, as did their run to a national championship last season. And while the Bandits are once again riding high in 2019-20, there’s another team to keep an eye on: the Sherwood Park Crusaders. Led by 2020 NHL draft prospects Michael Benning and Carter Savoie, the Crusaders are serving notice to the AJHL’s reigning powers that a new challenger is emerging. And they’ve done it through savvy recruiting.
The AJHL does not have a draft, so enticing top talent to join your program is key. A team can only have four (non-Canadian) imports and a maximum of four players with more than 40 games of WHL experience. Teams must also dress at least five players who are 18 or younger, and according to Sherwood GM Kyle Chase, that rule has worked in the Crusaders’ favor. “Last year we had an embarrassment of riches in Savoie and Benning,” he said. “Because they were 16-year-olds who played like they were 20.”
This year, 2003-born center Ty Mueller hit the ground running with a surprisingly effective two-way game and near point-per-game offense. Which goes a long way to explaining why the Crusaders finished first in the North Division last season and started off the 2019-20 campaign with 19 wins in their first 21 games.
In Benning, the team has an offensively gifted defenseman with a considerable NHL pedigree: brother Matt plays for the Edmonton Oilers; dad Brian spent a decade in the NHL with teams such as Florida and Los Angeles; and, uncle Jim is the GM of the Vancouver Canucks. “His hockey IQ is through the roof,” Chase said. “He’s smart, he makes sound plays and he’s fearless in making plays. He’s super creative, offensively.”
Benning, a top-50 prospect for the NHL draft, came to Sherwood Park because of the team’s clarity of mission. “It was how they communicated,” he said. “They were really open-minded. In talking me through their systems and how they presented their style, I thought it would really fit my game.”
It was also nice that Savoie came aboard, too. The left winger has been best friends with Benning since they were little kids, and both players are committed to the University of Denver. Savoie’s younger brother Matthew is one of the best phenoms to come out of Western Canada in years, but Carter could also end up a top-50 player in the draft. “He has an elite IQ as well,” Chase said. “He’s very hard to move off the puck, he makes plays and he can shoot. He counter-hits as good as anyone in this league.”
Both Benning and Savoie are still working on their defensive play, but that’s why the Crusaders have Carter Gylander in net. The 6-foot-5 Detroit Red Wings prospect and Colgate University commit doesn’t get a lot of shots, but he’s there when the team needs him. “He’s athletic and he has a lot of confidence right now,” Chase said. “It can be hard, not facing a lot of shots and then facing a five-bell chance. When we give up chances, unfortunately they’re glorious.”
Add it all up and you’ve got a lot of wins. Chase believes the veteran Spruce Grove Saints are still the team to beat in their division, while Brooks lurks in the South, but the Crusaders are aiming high and their star defenseman is backing them up. “I’m a competitive guy,” Benning said. “I think we can win the league.”