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Victoria Royals hoping bumpy two-year build-up pays off with breakthrough season

Victoria hosts Spokane in season opener Friday night
Tanner Scott is expected to carry a bigger offensive load this season as the Royals take aim at the WHL playoffs. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

So, where did matters leave off in April?

Uncanny echoes, from the closing weekend of the 2021-22 Western Hockey League season, will reverberate on Blanshard Street through the opening weekend of the 2022-23 season.

The capricious nature of fate has brought the Spokane Chiefs back to Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre to start the 2022-23 WHL season tonight and Saturday against the Victoria Royals.

The Chiefs, as Royals fans will bitterly yet vividly recall, denied Victoria a playoff berth in the final game of last season.

“We are hungry and super pumped and motivated to play the team that knocked us out last season,” said returning Royals defenceman Wyatt Wilson.

That is a widespread sentiment among the Royals group on the eve of the new campaign.

“Absolutely, that’s motivation,” said returning Royals ­forward Brayden Schuurman.

“The guys want to take care of that [lingering bit of ­business].”

And they just might. Theoretically, this should be the pay-off season for the Royals in the ­natural three-year cycle of major-junior hockey, after recording the worst record in the WHL in the 2021 pandemic bubble season and taking the playoff race to the final game before falling just short last season.

“Everyone is ready for these expectations,” said Schuurman, who returned this week from the NHL rookie camp of the Boston Bruins hobbled, and will miss the opening weekend.

“We are older now and know that to expect. The boys have grown together these past two years and the chemistry has grown along with that.”

Some intriguing buds have sprouted from the often-painful growing period, especially on the Victoria blue line. Bypassed in the WHL prospects draft, Gannon Laroque has emerged out of practically nowhere to be a commanding presence and drafted and signed in the NHL by the San Jose Sharks. Fellow Royals defenceman Kalem Parker was selected to the Canadian team for the 2022 IIHF world U-18 championship in Germany. Wilson was invited to the Winnipeg Jets’ NHL rookie camp and fellow Victoria blue-liner Austin Zemlak to the Hockey Canada selection camp for the 2022 Hlinka Gretzky U-18 tournament despite missing much of last season to injury.

“Our back end has lots of ­talent and it built up a lot of confidence over the summer because of [the national teams or NHL rookie camps] notice,” said ­Wilson.

Even with captain Laroque to miss the regular-season openers tonight and Saturday due to injury, there is abundance on the Victoria blue line, which returns all its players from last season.

“Once healthy, we are going to have a very strong defensive core,” said Zemlak.

“We have depth.”

With Schuurman out to start, and top-two 2021-22 scorers Bailey Peach and Tarun Fizer graduated, the Royals will need depth among the forward corps, as well.

“We have guys stepping up to fill shoes,” said Schuurman.

Among those is newcomer Teague Patton, acquired from the Medicine Hat Tigers in exchange for a conditional fourth round 2025 WHL prospects draft pick, and who scored four goals as Victoria went 3-1 in the preseason. Returning forwards Carter Dereniwsky and Carter Briltz also showed well on offence in the exhibition season that was bereft of many top WHL players away at NHL rookie camps.

With only a few new faces sprinkled throughout the ­veteran roster, the script is the same in the crease, with the solid duo of Tyler Palmer and Campbell Arnold as returning goaltenders.

“This season is an important step forward after two years of being a fairly young team,” said Royals GM and head coach Dan Price. “You feel a sense of the chemistry that has built up over the last two years and that this group is ready to take that step forward.”

Victoria, however, is in a very rugged and talented B.C. Division and Western Conference. The Kamloops Blazers, who will host the Memorial Cup national major-junior championship next spring, are ranked No. 5 in the Canadian Hockey League pre-season top-10 poll and the Seattle Thunderbirds No. 3. The Prince George Cougars endured their recent-seasons low spell in the standings — and in the process garnered Riley Heidt No. 2 overall in the 2020 WHL prospects draft and Koehn Ziemmer fourth overall in 2019 — and now are ready to pop as the B.C. Division’s team of the future whose time has arrived. The Vancouver Giants made the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, one point ahead of Victoria, and then proceeded to make a deep run into the playoffs last spring. The Kelowna Rockets, Portland Winterhawks and Everett Silvertips are always in the hunt.

“We recognize that but we also recognize we will be tough to play against, as well,” said Wilson.

“We are excited to play the top teams. We believe the sky is the limit for us and that we can do something very special, whether it’s a great regular-season record, or a long playoff run.”

A lot of that will depend on the team executing Price’s high-tempo, high-speed, high-pressure game in which the team attacks and defends as five-player units. “We want to be fast, ­aggressive, physical and ­versatile with players able to play each side of the ice,” said Price.

That requires some sacrifice in terms of individual-achievement goals and means checking your ego at the dressing-room door. But that is the only way it’s going to work for this group. Despite the Victoria team’s experience, which is a big plus, the pure talent level is appreciably higher on several other teams in the B.C. Division and Western Conference.

“We always work hard,” said Wilson, who added the veteran-laden roster now has had a few seasons to grasp Price’s unrelenting group approach.

“That’s a big part of who we are as a team. Consistency is going to be the key.”

So is proving the last two ­seasons were pointing to a ­payoff.