Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Victoria Royals contemplate another lost season while looking to future

Victoria preparing for Wednesday’s WHL prospects draft
Ryan Spizawka and the Royals hope for better things next season. (ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST)

The near-capacity crowd of close to 7,000 over the weekend to see out another Victoria Royals losing Western Hockey League season shows their fans are hungry for more than what they have been getting the past three years. And deserving of it.

The Royals missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season after placing last in the bubble the season before that. And this is in a Western Conference in which only two of the 10 teams don’t make it to the post-season.

With a roster maturing into mostly 18- and 19-year-olds next season, Victoria should do better in 2023-24. But this group has shown so little over the past three seasons that the ceiling appears so low that the Royals’ so-called pay-off season will likely mean vying for the fifth-to-eighth playoff positions next year and nothing remotely approaching a championship.

“It’s a good question, and it’s true we haven’t proven anything yet,” conceded Royals GM and head coach Dan Price.

But he believes this group, hampered by injuries the past two seasons, has more to show.

“It takes three-to-six years in major-junior hockey and Seattle, Prince George and Kamloops are at the top of that five-six-year cycle and we just completed year three and will be entering our fourth next season,” said Price.

He described Sunday as a “powerful day” of exit interviews.

“It was two-way dialogue and the words were sincere,” said Price.

“There is a real burning desire, after all this adversity and with the all the trials and tribulations we have gone through, to return as older players with a sense of purpose and mission. There is a big difference in the WHL between a team of mostly 17-18 year-olds and a team of mostly 18-19 year-olds. The city is ready for it and the team is ready for it.”

The Royals lose ­graduating 20-year-olds Riley Gannon, a native of Nanaimo, Alex Thacker and leading-scorer Jake Poole, whose injury to end his breakout season was indicative of Royals woes. Of the potential three-allowable 20-year-olds next season are captain Gannon Laroque, Matthew Hodson, Luke Rybinski, Danish junior national team import Marcus Almquist and goaltender Braden Holt.

Among the key returnees will be 2022 Canada U-18 players Brayden Schuurman and Kalem Parker, the former a forward invited to the Boston Bruins rookie camp last fall, and the latter a defenceman ranked as the 113th North American skater for this year’s NHL draft.

“We have the returning personnel to be a good team next season,” said Schuurman, whose raw pro potential has been evident when healthy.

“It’s a process. We have had a lot of conversations among the core group and we understand that and have learned a lot over the last couple of seasons.”

Parker continued to evolve individually on the blue line and make an impression on NHL scouts, even if team success has proved elusive.

“The results have been tough the last few seasons and we’ve had a lot of injuries. It’s been super-stressful. But you learn a lot through the hard times. You learn more through the hard times than you do when everything is sunshine and rainbows. Fingers crossed, we stay healthy next season.”

Team captain Laroque has been Exhibit One of Victoria’s almost unholy injury situation the past few years. He has been almost a rumour to Royals fans. They never saw in-person Laroque’s breakout rookie season, which was played entirely in a 21-game bubble in Kelowna and Kamloops. The blue-liner showed what an impactful player he is last season in 63 games but off-season surgery limited him to just four games this season. Laroque’s three-season Victoria career consists of just 88 games. The biggest question next season will be whether the San Jose Sharks of the NHL return Laroque to junior in Victoria or assign him to the pro-affiliate Barracuda of the AHL.

“We are preparing for both contingencies,” said Price.

With or without Laroque, the Royals will hit a transitory sweet spot in the Western Conference in 2023-24, in which this year’s heavy-hitters Seattle and Kamloops will be down due to going all-in for this season, while it will take a few seasons for WHL-draft rich teams such as the Everett Silvertips, Vancouver Giants and Spokane Chiefs to see that young first-round draft talent develop.

The Silvertips, Giants, Chiefs and Kelowna Rockets traded veteran assets for future draft picks and will be on the rise in future seasons. By failing to make similar moves, and retaining veterans for futile runs that did not result in the playoffs, the Royals can’t be counted in that group. That was a strategic mistake that has been pointed out by pundits around the league. The Royals’ longer-term future seems more constricted because of it. So it is imperative the club again hit the right note with its lottery pick in this year’s WHL prospects draft, as it did last year by taking apparent star-in-the-making Cole Reschny third overall.

The 2023 draft lottery is being held Wednesday, with current third-spot Victoria able to climb up two spots and guaranteed not to drop more than two spots, so the Royals will select anywhere from first to fifth overall. The WHL draft is May 11.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks