It was what you might call a calculated risk. When the Winnipeg ICE selected Matthew Savoie with the first-overall pick in the WHL Bantam Draft, there was no guarantee he would ever suit up for the organization. Truth be told, there was no guarantee he’d even play in the league. Committed to the University of Denver for the 2021-22 season, where his brother, Carter, is set to begin play in 2020-21, Savoie appeared either NCAA bound or in a position to potentially leverage his commitment into landing with a WHL locale of his choosing.
But that didn’t stop ICE GM Matt Cockell from making Savoie the top choice and the first player drafted by Winnipeg, which became the WHL’s newest team upon their relocation from Cranbrook, B.C., to Manitoba’s capital.
Winnipeg’s hope was that Savoie could be convinced, that he would see what the ICE have to offer and change his mind, change his commitment and realize that the WHL franchise could provide him with what he needs to develop into the star some believe the 15-year-old will inevitably become. During a trip to the city, Winnipeg showed Savoie the training facilities. They outlined a plan for his development. He and his family took in a Jets post-season game. They began to understand what Winnipeg could offer, the passion the city has for hockey and the opportunity for his own personal development.
And that led to last week, when the ICE’s gamble finally paid off: Savoie decided to back out of his commitment to Denver and sign an agreement with Winnipeg.
“It was a really tough decision,” Savoie told The Hockey News. “Both (the NCAA and WHL) are great options. It was a long time process for my family and talking to everyone. I just felt that the development route, their facilities, their coaching staff and the players that will be surrounding me are first class, so I’m really excited for that.”
Landing Savoie was no small coup for the ICE, either. Cockell told The Hockey News that it was Winnipeg’s plan all along to draft the best players available and then put in the time and effort necessary to “attract those players to the program.” That’s exactly what they’ve done with Savoie, who cited the team’s training facility – which includes one full-ice sheet two smaller sheets for skill work, which impressed the top pick – as elements that excited him about the opportunity with the ICE. And persuading Savoie, who could have easily pursued the college route, is a definite boon for the franchise.
“(Savoie’s) commitment means a lot for our organization,” Cockell said. “It signifies where we’re headed moving forward and allows us to start planning with Matt and the family for his development and be a little more involved with that as a signed player.”
The question now, though, is what comes next. Here’s what we know: Savoie applied for exceptional status, which would have allowed him to play the full season in the WHL in 2019-20 as an underage player. It was believed Savoie would receive that status, too, and become the first player to receive exceptional status in the WHL. This past season, he had picked apart his peers, scoring 31 goals and 71 points in 31 regular season games with Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep before potting another three goals and 12 points in five playoff games. His six-goal, 13-point output for Team Alberta at the Canada Winter Games also seemed to help his case.
However, despite the assumption he was shoo-in, Savoie was denied. That led to his now-inconsequential commitment to Denver, but Savoie isn’t about to dwell on the denial. “Obviously everything plays out for a reason,” he said. “I took that as more motivation that you’ve got to keep working towards your goals and you’ve got to keep training and putting in the extra work to get there. That’s just the way I took it.”
But given he was not granted exceptional status, Savoie and the ICE are presented with something of a roadblock as he’s only permitted to appear in five games next season. That said, there is the possibility for an exception to be made in the event of injuries or other circumstances. Top 2019 NHL draft prospect Kirby Dach, for instance, played in 19 games during the 2016-17 WHL campaign. That came as the result of injury issues the Saskatoon Blades ran into.
So, what comes next for Savoie? When asked, he said nothing is finalized yet and that he and his family are keeping his options open for next year, but Cockell specified that Winnipeg will begin the process of putting together a development plan for the 15-year-old, adding that the ICE believe having him around the team is what’s best. Does that mean he plays with the WHL club at some point during the ICE’s inaugural season in Winnipeg? It sure seems that way, and it sure seems that he could be pulling on an ICE jersey come opening night.
“We’re certainly going to want to have Matt involved as much as possible,” Cockell said. “We expect Matt to be with us, of course, at the start of the season. Depending on once we finalize a development plan for Matt and what that all entails, I think we’ll be in a better position to confirm those details. Our intent and focus is to have Matt around our team as much as possible.”
And getting the budding star in the lineup next season – and into action full-time the season after that – will be the ultimate payoff following Winnipeg’s draft-day risk.
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