Recent wins make Vancouver Giants optimistic about WHL future
Throughout much of a long, dark Western Hockey League winter, it appeared the Vancouver Giants would have to settle for moral victories as they played out the string without the prospect of playoffs and began preparing for brighter days ahead.
But a strange thing happened on the way to their early off-season: actual victories materialized.
The late season surge isn’t enough to change their postseason path. But with six wins in eight games and five straight wins on home ice, the Giants head into the final weekend of their WHL schedule (March 15 versus Kelowna, and March 16 in Kelowna) with renewed optimism that the growing pains they have endured, and the tough lessons they’ve been forced to learn along the way this year, are starting to pay dividends.
Instead of hanging their heads as they scatter for the summer, head coach Don Hay wants his Giants to use the late run of positive results as a springboard to success next season.
“For our players, it’s important to gain confidence here and go home in the summer enthused about coming back,” Hay tells the Straight in an interview at Pacific Coliseum. “The one thing our team has played with all season is spirit. They’ve competed hard; they’ve worked hard. We haven’t always had things go our way, but they would come to the rink the next day and want to work to get better. The confidence they’ve gained here in the past month playing and finding ways to have success will help us next year.”
When it became apparent a while back that this year’s group wasn’t going to qualify for the WHL playoffs, the Giants made the difficult organizational decision to begin their rebuild. Although overmatched on many nights, the team stuck with its young players to see exactly what they had in the form of a foundation for the years ahead.
With 16-year-old goalie Payton Lee as the cornerstone moving forward, the Giants are high on youngsters Carter Popoff, Alec Baer, Luca Leone, Thomas Foster, Tyler Morrison, Taylor Vickerman, Mason Geertsen, Arvin Atwal, and Reid Zalitach. All are in either their first or second seasons of major-junior hockey and all have been given opportunities to play in almost every situation.
Those are the guys around which the future team will be built, yet they’ve also been the players the Giants have been counting on in recent weeks.
“The younger guys are getting a lot of ice time and they’re probably getting thrown into some situations that they’re not quite ready for and maybe at times they’re a little bit overwhelmed,” Hay says. “But as far as them growing and getting better and what they’re going to look like next year, I think there are lots of positive signs. Usually, their 17- and 18-year-old years are when players really make the big improvements. I really see a lot of the kids are close to making that step. I think the biggest thing is that it doesn’t happen automatically. They have to come back and really push at training camp.”
But before Hay can worry about next year, he has two games left in which he hopes his team can continue to build off the momentum it has created lately. The coach likes the way his players are adhering to his system, and the positive results are proof that the Giants are doing things the right way.
“Guys are getting stronger; they’re around the net more, figuring things out, and they’re getting rewarded,” he says. “That’s a big thing when you haven’t had the success with wins and losses like we have [for most of the year], that players are still finding ways to find rewards and little victories. That’s really important. And I think it’s important for them that they see improvement in themselves, and for the organization it’s important to see improvements too as they move along.”
And that’s what has the Giants organization enthused. The franchise isn’t used to losing and will miss the playoffs for just the second time in its 12 years of existence. But the hope is that by making sacrifices this season, the team is moving in the right direction once again. In addition to the up-and-comers, the Giants should have leading scorers Cain Franson and Jackson Houck back again next season to shoulder the offensive load. And because the team has opted to live with its youth movement, there won’t be a significant amount of turnover in the lineup. The expectation is that continuity will pay off next year.
The Giants believe that the way things are going right now is proof that, despite the struggles, this has not been a wasted season. And they’re excited by the way they’ve played the past few weeks and believe it’s a glimpse of a bright future.
When the final whistle sounds, the players will all be sent home for the summer with specific instructions about areas in which they can get improve. And Hay has been at the coaching game long enough to know the difference that a solid off-season can make to player development at this level.
“The summer is one time when you can really improve in all aspects, whether it’s size, strength, or conditioning: things that make you eager to come back,” he says. “Even in the summertime when you’re working hard, you gain confidence from that.”
And, clearly, the team is gaining confidence from the way it’s finishing the season. The results can’t be applied to next year, but the process can. In that sense, the Vancouver Giants already like the way next season is shaping up—even before this one has ended.