Victoria Royals fans can be excused for rubbing their eyes as they do a double take when looking at the Western Hockey League standings. The table appears to be turned upside down from the previous three seasons.
The Royals (16-11-2) are fourth in the Western Conference after missing the playoffs the last two seasons and placing dead last in the bubble season before that. The defending WHL-champion Seattle Thunderbirds (11-10-1), who host the Royals tonight in Kent, are ninth in the Western Conference and currently out of a playoff position.
The Royals got the best of another recent powerhouse and now-rebuilding team by taking six of a possible eight points in their four-consecutive games against the Western Conference bottom-dwelling Kamloops Blazers (7-16-5), culminating in Sunday afternoon’s 6-3 victory before 3,903 fans at the Sandman Centre in Kamloops.
The Royals’ season has been driven by blue line play, even offensively, and that was again evident Sunday as Justin Kipkie scored twice, Austin Zemlak once while Nate Misskey added three assists.
Misskey with 27 points and Kipkie with 23 are in the top 10 for points by WHL defencemen.
“I think our D corps has been doing well and moving pucks up,” said Misskey, during a practice session.
“We can always be better in our D zone and will keep working on that.”
Kipkie, selected by the Arizona Coyotes in this year’s NHL draft, has seven goals and is tied for third among WHL blue-liners. The Coyotes sent former NHL defenceman Kurtis Foster from their player development staff up to work with Kipkie last week during Royals practices at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.
“Every NHL team now has two-to-five development coaches,” said Royals head coach James Patrick.
“Last season with Matt Savoie [when Patrick coached the Winnipeg Ice], we had someone from the Buffalo Sabres at 65 of our 68 games. They came to a lot of our practices, too. These are the resources NHL teams are putting into development.”
Patrick doesn’t mind the added NHL developmental eyes and help on the ice but with a stipulation: “I have no problem having them on the ice. All I ask is come and work with your player but if you have any advice for other players [impart that, too]. They know we are the coaches here and we have our system. But they have a lot of helpful feedback. They want to work with us.”
It also doesn’t hurt for undrafted players — such as Royals forwards Tanner Scott, Reggie Newman and Escalus Burlock who also scored Sunday in Kamloops — to help get noticed up close in practice by NHL personnel.
Misskey, meanwhile, is showing why he was invited to the NHL rookie camp of the Edmonton Oilers.
“We have to work and do our jobs and play our systems,” said Misskey, of the five-game road trip, which began with the two-game sweep in Kamloops followed by tonight against the Thunderbirds in Kent and then Friday and Saturday in Prince George against the CHL national top-ranked Cougars.
“Battling and competing is the key to us having success.”
That is being reflected in the standings, much to the relief of previously-suffering Royals fans, who are beginning to see a glimmer.
“[To] get those six points [against Kamloops] is huge as we move on to the rest of the road trip,” said Kipkie, in a statement.