Always smiling and optimistic, defenceman Jesse Zgraggen was a veteran leader and popular figure in the Victoria Royals dressing room.
But he is also 19 years old on a team loaded with emerging, young blueliners.
Junior hockey can be a cruel game when it comes to numbers. Zgraggen was traded Monday to the Calgary Hitmen for their fourth-round pick in the 2013 Western Hockey League bantam draft.
“It’s a credit to our younger defencemen, who have shown they can step in and play at this level,” said Victoria general-manager Cam Hope.
Royals blueliners Joe Hicketts and Ryan Gagnon have just returned from representing Team Pacific at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Quebec. American Jack Walker is also 16 years old and a natural defenceman, although he has been used more as a forward recently because of the Royals’ injury woes up front.
Keegan Kanzig and Kolton Dixon are 17-year-old rearguards the Victoria club really likes.
“This move was a luxury we had, but it was still a hard decision because Jesse [Zgraggen] was a really good veteran for us,” said Hope.
Zgraggen, a native of Lethbridge, Alta., played 157 games for the Chilliwack Bruins-Victoria Royals franchise with 22 points and 115 penalty minutes. The six-foot-one stay-at-home blueliner had seven points in 33 games with the Royals this season and 12 points in 62 games last season.
The remaining veterans on the Victoria blueline are 18-year-old Brett Cote, 19-year-old Jordan Fransoo and 20-year-old captain Tyler Stahl.
Meanwhile, WHL teams could be affected by post-lockout NHL training camp invitations for some of their players, although the Royals probably won’t be impacted.
The most likely Victoria candidates would be 2012 NHL draft pick forwards Steven Hodges (third round by the Florida Panthers) and Logan Nelson (fifth round by the Buffalo Sabres). Nelson is on crutches and out at least several weeks with a lower leg injury while the Panthers, like all NHL clubs, will go with the known veterans with no time to even remotely consider junior prospects like Hodges in such an abbreviated time frame.
“We don’t expect any of our players to be affected by the lockout ending,” said Hope.
Hope, however, is uniquely positioned to understand the pressures facing the NHL clubs in this situation. He joined the New York Rangers at the time of the last lockout to start a seven-year tenure from 2004 to 2011 as vice-president of hockey administration, research, development, and from 2007, as Rangers assistant GM.
“There are going to be a lot of sleepless nights in the NHL front offices in 30 cities across North America,” said Hope.
“It’s going to be a real challenge with logistics in deciding who you want in camp and getting those players to camp.”
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