Deeper Victoria Royals primed for battle

The Victoria Royals are down the I-5 in Everett, Washington, tonight to open the 2019-20 Western Hockey League season against the Silvertips. But the Royals can be excused if their minds are more focused, in the longer view, on other side of the border and a B.C. Division that is looking to be wickedly tough this season.

The Kelowna Rockets offer up an example. They led the WHL with four players selected in the 2019 NHL draft, including two in the first round and two in the second round, and will host the 2020 Memorial Cup. But the Rockets are generally regarded as only the third-rated team in the B.C. Division.

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The Kamloops Blazers are ranked No. 5 and the Vancouver Giants No. 10 in the Canadian Hockey League preseason national top-10 poll, the latter after going to overtime in Game 7 of the 2019 WHL final. That would appear to leave the Royals and Prince George Cougars scrambling for crumbs in the five-team division. It might just be the toughest division this season in the CHL, which encompasses the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

So, are the Royals despondent over their chances?

Far from it.

“We’d like to crash that party in Kelowna next spring [Memorial Cup],” said Victoria general manager Cameron Hope.

That’s quite a bold statement and doesn’t smack much of despondency.

“I was less optimistic last year at this time than I am this year,” said Hope.

“All the moves we made over the summer improved something about our team.”

The Royals never go into a full-on, foundational rebuild. They prefer to restock, which is why the Royals, Silvertips and Portland Winterhawks are the only three teams in the 22-team WHL to make the playoffs every season since the Royals came to the Island in 2011-12.

The Royals have never been willing to kiss a couple of seasons goodbye in order to rebuild from the ground up with a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds. They aren’t about to start this season.

“Our average age last season was under 18. Our average age this season is 18.5,” said Hope.

“Being a half-year older is a huge difference in junior hockey.”

There are 18 veterans on this Royals team, 11 returnees from last season’s divisional second-place squad, and seven veterans acquired from other WHL teams, including all three allowable 20-year-olds. That’s why nobody is writing off this veteran-laden Royals team. These guys are older, by junior standards, and won’t be intimated playing in the Langley Events Centre, Prospera Place or the Sandman Centre and plan to be in the thick of it every game in a supremely talented division.

“This is an older group with a ton of depth and a lot of WHL experience from different places,” said 19-year-old Royals forward Carson Miller, acquired midseason last year from the WHL-champion Prince Albert Raiders for veteran Dante Hannoun, who has aged out of junior.

Dan Price enters his third season as Royals head coach and brings the same total-team approach of former Victoria bench boss Dave Lowry.

“Every move we made has improved us. Our veteran leadership is outstanding,” said Price.

“The B.C. Division is strong this season. As in past seasons, we will focus on good preparation.”

Also in the Royals’ and Cougars’ favour against the Big 3 of the Giants, Blazers and Rockets is that it is possible for all five B.C. Division teams to make the playoffs. That’s what happened last season when all five U.S. Division teams made the Western Conference post-season, leaving the Cougars and Rockets out of the dance. The power in the conference has shifted to the B.C. Division and it is quite possible that two U.S. Division teams could be left out in the cold this season.

Two years ago, the talent-laden Tri-City Americans could only make playoff wildcard status in the difficult U.S. Division and the Royals were actually the higher conference seed out of the weaker B.C. Division, with home-ice advantage, before being swept by the Americans in their second-round series.

What has been happening in the U.S. Division the last couple of seasons could play out this season in the B.C. Division.

“The teams in the B.C. Division will be cannibalizing points off each other,” said Hope.

Indeed, like the 1980s group Fine Young Cannibals. Since most of the regular-season games are against divisional opponents, win-loss records will almost certainly flatten out even for the Giants, Rockets and Blazers, who play each other often.

Here is a look at the 2019-20 Victoria Royals:

• GOALTENDING: The Royals addressed the loss of graduated star Griffen Outhouse by trading for 20-year-old, six-foot-two veteran Shane Farkas from the Portland Winterhawks. That gives 17-year-old, six-foot-four American Shane Gould another year as understudy before taking over the crease next season in the planned succession.

• DEFENCE: The surprise move of former Montreal Canadiens draft pick Scott Walford to the Saskatoon Blades has led to a major makeover of the Royals’ blue line. But the newcomers are hardly raw. Will Warm, a 20-year-old acquired from the Edmonton Oil Kings, skated in the NHL training camp last week of the Vancouver Canucks at the Memorial Centre. The 19-year-old Jacob Herauf was a 2015 first-round WHL bantam draft pick and was in Pittsburgh Penguins training camp last year, and came in a trade with the Red Deer Rebels. Nolan Jones, acquired from the Lethbridge Hurricanes for forward Dino Kambeitz, is an 18-year-old the Royals have coveted after missing him initially in the second round of the 2016 WHL draft. The trio will join veteran returnees Mitchell Prowse and Matthew Smith, along with touted hometown prospect and 2018 first-round WHL bantam draft selection Nolan Bentham and fellow-rookie Noah Lamb, who showed fearlessness as an undersized dynamo driving into the opposing zone as a playoff call-up last spring, drawing comparisons to a young Joe Hicketts.

In the wake of Walford has been formed a surprisingly veteran and deep blue line unit that won’t be intimidated by any opposition forwards.

FORWARDS: Another veteran grouping of this team, but whose depth will immediately be tested with crucial veteran returnees Kaid Oliver and Phillip Schultz beginning the season on the injury list.

Breakout seasons are expected, and needed, from promising returnees Tarun Fizer and Carson Miller. Gary Haden, part of the Walford trade, had 31 goals last season for Saskatoon. The Royals will win their share of games if the 20-year-old over-ager can get that to the 40-plus goal range this season. Returnee Brandon Cutler proved last season he can find the net in spurts and will be dangerous if he finds consistency. Rookie Swiss-import Keanu Derungs has shown flashes in training camp and exhibition games, as has six-foot-three Island-product River Fahey, acquired from Red Deer.

“This is a 200-foot group,” said Royals bench-boss Price.

• SPECIAL TEAMS: The Royals team appears to boast a lot of different types of players, which Price says allows for different sorts of looks on both the power-play and penalty-kill units.

“It gives us depth and versatility and allows us multiple looks,” said Price.

• HOME OPENERS: They are next Friday and Saturday at the Memorial Centre against Prince George, to begin the season set against the Cougars, a series which will pretty much be imperative for Victoria to win if it hopes to be successful this season.

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