Vancouver Giants hope work ethic will fill offensive gaps

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There isn’t much that Don Hay hasn’t seen in his decade of coaching major junior hockey. But it seems that almost every year, the head coach of the Vancouver Giants begins the hockey season figuring that one of the things he won’t see is his best player. In recent years, both Gilbert Brule and Milan Lucic made the jump to the National Hockey League as 18-year-olds. And this year, it’s looking like winger Evander Kane will be given every chance to turn professional with the Atlanta Thrashers, after being selected fourth overall in June’s NHL entry draft.

The fact that so many of the Giants’ best players leave town with junior-hockey eligibility remaining is a credit to Hay’s coaching and to one of the Western Hockey League’s model franchises. But it makes the challenge of winning hockey games that much tougher for the Giants, who open the 2009–10 WHL season on Thursday (September 17) in Kelowna.

However, Hay knows that he and the Giants are in the business of developing hockey players. So although he’s excited for the opportunity that Kane is getting in Atlanta, the coach fully recognizes that he can only work with the guys he’s got.

“We hope to get Evander back, but we’re not going to wait around for him to come back,” Hay tells the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview from the Giants’ practice facility in Ladner. “Atlanta will take it’s time. He’s a good player going to a very average team. Atlanta’s going to have to make a decision. He’s still only 18. Is he going to be a top-six forward on their team? If he is, then there’s reason to keep him. If not, I think they should send him back for another year so he can be a leader on our hockey team and take responsibility on our hockey club. But that’s not a decision we will make.”

One decision—really the only decision—that Hay asks anyone wearing a Giants uniform to make is to compete as hard as they possibly can. He’s shown over his years of coaching the Kamloops Blazers, the Tri-City Americans, and in Vancouver that he can mould a team of winners at this level as long as the players are willing to outwork their opponents.

Certainly, Hay would like to have the 48 goals and 96 points that Kane contributed last season. But instead of viewing his absence as a hole in the lineup, Hay prefers to see it as an opportunity for someone else to play a starring role on the hockey club.

“Every year, everybody always asks, ”˜Where are you going to get the goals from? Where are you going to get the offense from?’ ” Hay says with a chuckle. “People step up and fill different roles and take over ice time from the players who have left who scored the goals. It’s just a process you go through. We may not be quite as offensive as we’ve been in the past, but we’re going to be a team that comes every night to work hard.”

This year’s Giants will certainly have a different look from the team that set a franchise record for wins (57) and points (119) last year. Gone are Kane (at least for now), 2008–2009 WHL scoring leader Casey Pierro-Zabotel, captain John Blum, and offensive defenceman Brent Regner—the team’s top four scorers a year ago.

“We figure James Wright and Lance Bouma, who have been with us for a long time, are ready to give more, and we feel this is going to be their year to really step up into that role,” Hay says. “And veteran guys like Craig Cunningham and Mike Piluso are players who have to start producing some points.”

It’s going to be imperative for the Giants to get strong performances from their returning veterans up front, because the team appears to be going with a youth movement on defence. Other coaches might not be so bold, but Hay says he’s prepared to open the season with a trio of 16-year-olds patrolling the blueline: David Musil (whose father, Frantisek, spent 14 years in the NHL), Luke Fenske, and Zach Hodder.

“You really have to be sure when you start with three 16-year-old defencemen,” Hay says. “So far, they’ve shown really well in the practices and the training camp. You want to make sure that the young players are surrounded by really good players.”

In that regard, the Giants were more than fortunate that Vancouver Canuck third-rounder Kevin Connauton decided to leave Western Michigan University after just one season of NCAA hockey. The 19-year-old from Edmonton has done well in the early going at both Giants and Canucks training camps, and looks able to make an immediate impact in his first—and likely only—WHL season.

“He’s got a great set of legs, he can really skate the puck up-ice, and he passes the puck well,” Hay says. “Kevin’s not overly physical, but he can run the power play and pick up points on the power play. So to get a player like him is a real bonus for us.”

The Giants will need a player of Connauton’s calibre to anchor the defence in front of Jamie Tucker, who, in his second WHL campaign, assumes the starting goaltending duties from Tyson Sexsmith, who has turned pro.

Overall, the Giants will have a different look from last season. But with Hay behind the bench, they are always expected to be competitive. And if Kane makes his way back to Vancouver, don’t be surprised to see the Giants pushing for another Western Conference title when all is said and done.

Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at jeff.paterson@team1040.ca.

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