After three low years, a pervasive sense of optimism hangs over the start of the 2023-24 Western Hockey League season for the Victoria Royals. A revamped front office has something to do with it. But mostly it’s about a veteran roster that returns after having been through the wringer with a team that finished dead last in the 2021 bubble season and missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
“This is the year for us. It’s going to be a huge year for us to take it to another level. I think we can take it far,” said Royals defenceman Nate Misskey, who has returned from the NHL rookie camp of the Edmonton Oilers.
The Royals, who went 3-1 in the preseason, open the 2023-24 WHL regular season tonight at the Langley Events Centre against the Vancouver Giants and Saturday night at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett, Washington, against the Silvertips.
“We stack up well and are going to come out rolling. These are big games his weekend. They are huge for us,” said Misskey.
Royals forward Reggie Newman has returned from the NHL rookie camp of the Arizona Coyotes and concurred: “We have lots of returning guys and high expectations for this season. We have lots of experience. It is going to help a great deal. I am really excited to get going.”
The club did not give the status for opening weekend of the other three Royals players in NHL training camps, but all WHL teams in the early going are annually missing key players who have gone on to NHL main camps from rookie camps.
Misskey and Newman were free-agent invitees. Royals defenceman and Minnesota draft pick Kalem Parker is in Wild camp and Victoria blue-liner and Arizona draft selection Justin Kipkie in Coyotes camp. Royals captain and 2022 Sharks fourth-round draft-pick Gannon Laroque is in the San Jose camp from a potentially-loaded Victoria blue line.
“Defence is a strength but we’ve got depth in all three positions,” said Misskey.
“We want to keep the puck out of our D zone and get working in the O zone.”
While all the talk surrounds the Victoria blue line, Newman said not to give the front end short shrift: “We have a great forward group with lots of depth. There are going to be some big surprises once the season starts.”
Both Misskey and Newman say they came back from NHL camps as better players.
“It’s fast up there. You learn to move the puck a lot quicker,” said Newman.
Added Misskey: “Guys are fast up there and guys are strong. You have to play up to that level and be ready when up there. You bring back that high level of intensity to your [junior] team.”
Now on pro radars, the individual pressure ratchets up, as well.
“There were lots of eyes on you in Penticton [Young Stars Tournament last week featuring Oilers, Canucks, Flames and Jets prospects] and there will be lots of eyes on you this [WHL] season,” said Misskey.
“Everyone has to improve on something.”
Newman played for the Coyotes in a Las Vegas rookie tournament and knows he too will be tracked this season by pro scouts: “Obviously there’s little bit more pressure coming back from that [NHL camp] but you don’t let it worry you too much.”
The Royals’ home openers are Sept. 29-30 at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre against Prince George.