VANCOUVER - If the cellar-dwelling Vancouver Giants need a pick-me-up, perhaps they can find it across the ice Wednesday night when they face the Prince Albert Raiders at Pacific Coliseum.
A year ago, the Raiders were the worst team in the Western Hockey League and now they sit atop the Eastern Conference's East Division. Turnarounds can happen quickly in junior hockey and that's exactly what the Giants have in mind.
This season, by design, GM Scott Bonner dealt older players like David Musil, Nathan Burns and Trevor Cheek for younger players and bantam draft picks. They made 16-year-old Payton Lee their No. 1 goalie. They have taken considerable lumps in the process and enter Wednesday's outing on a six-game losing streak. They've dropped nine of their last 10 and lug around a wretched record of 12-38-0-0.
“This is unacceptable and you can't go through it more than once,” Bonner said Tuesday at the team's Ladner training facility. “We won't choose to go through it again. We're going to get back to making some hockey trades, not just sell-the-farm type trades. We have to do something similar to what Prince Albert has done and take a huge leap this summer.”
The Giants have 23 players eligible to return next season and all are basically auditioning for a spot on the 2013-14 roster.
“As of the Jan. 10 trade deadline, the philosophy I had as a manager was that this is training camp,” Bonner continued. “I'm watching the last 25 games or so to see where everyone fits in, who battles through adversity, who leads and who doesn't lead. We've got lots of picks for the next two drafts (four firsts, three seconds) so we're going to have to give up some of those to get players along the way here.
“We're going to have room for a couple of imports and at least one over-ager. We probably have 23 guys returning next year so it will give us the option of maybe moving two guys for one.”
Behind the bench, head coach Don Hay is handing plenty of ice time to players even if they aren't quite ready to handle the roles. The hope, of course, is they will take a quantum leap by next season, although nothing is guaranteed.
“Guys improve in stages and just when you think they're starting to take off, they sometimes take a step backwards because their confidence is shaken,” Hay said. “I think the big thing is to stick with it and give them the opportunity to play in different situations, whether they're having success or not, and see if they can fight through times when it's a little rougher for them.”
There are some pieces in place for next season. On the blueline, the Giants feel they have offensive defencemen in Brett Kulak, 18, and Tyler Morrison, 17, and a shutdown blueliner in Mason Geertsen, 17. Leading scorer Jackson Houck, with 43 points in 50 games, is only 17. Goaltending is in the hands of the aforementioned Lee.
“They should be key players next year,” Hay noted. “We have five 16-year-olds in our lineup now and they have to continue to grow and gain confidence. You always worry they might lose some confidence if there is too much losing so you hope the energy and the spirit stays high and that the work ethic is there.”
Houck, eligible for this summer's NHL entry draft, is an excellent example for the young players. He was a rookie last season and managed just 20 points. He's already more than doubled his output and may wind up tripling it.
“I feel that it helps I was able to make a jump from age 16 to 17 so guys can see it's possible,” said Houck, a North Vancouver native. “If you work hard in the summer and do the right things, it is possible.”
G-NOTES: Injured captain Wes Vannieuwenhuizen, who broke a finger Jan. 5 in Edmonton, is close to returning but is not expected to be back for the weekend home-and-away against Kelowna. Centre Anthony Ast and abrasive right winger Scott Cooke remain out with shoulder ailments.
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