There are few things in sport as meaningless as Western Hockey League preseason results. That is especially so with 116 WHL players, all eligible to return, away at National Hockey League training camps. Many other WHL veterans are played only intermittently in exhibitions because of the regular-season grind to come. So it’s mostly an exercise to scout future talent.
That makes it difficult to read too much into the Victoria Royals’ 4-1 exhibition record after preseason closed with a 3-2 loss in Langley on Sunday to the Prince George Cougars. The Royals dressed 10 rookies and nine veterans for their final exhibition game.
“Preseason gives you a chance to assess your younger players but you can’t take away too much from the results,” said Royals GM Cameron Hope.
“What I got out of it was that our 2002- and 2003-born players showed why we drafted them.”
But none of the 2003s and only one of the 2002s will play regularly this season. The Royals are sending back 16-year-olds Kaden Reinders, Carson Golder and Noah Lamb, while keeping around lone 16-year-old Ty Yoder.
Hope said Yoder reminds him of 18-year-old returnee Kaid Oliver, a Royals forward who also made the team when he was 16.
The very presence, however, of 15- and 16-year-olds in WHL camps is the reason for the strange configuration of the WHL preseason — in which the Royals played five games before now having a nearly two-week break before the regular season opener Sept. 21 against the Cougars at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.
“It’s so the high-school age players [who don’t make WHL rosters] can get back to school,” explained Hope.
“At the other end, teams are missing a lot of players to NHL camps, and would be playing with depleted rosters anyways during the final two weeks heading into the regular season. So teams find it better to instead use that as practice time. Some WHL teams will still be playing exhibition games this weekend, but we prefer not to.”
Older players, several of them new to the Royals, did get some ice time during the preseason and Hope said there were some takeaways.
“Phillip Schultz [the Danish U-20 international selected by the Royals in the 2018 import draft] showed he can play in all different kinds of situations,” said the Victoria GM.
“And Tanner Sidaway [acquired in the off-season from the Regina Pats] took on a real leadership role with this group.”
Returning Royals forward D-Jay Jerome had himself quite a preseason with five goals and five assists for 10 points in five games.
The Royals added another newcomer who is a WHL veteran with the addition Monday of six-foot-three, 19-year-old blue-liner Jameson Murray from the Everett Silvertips for a 2019 seventh-round bantam draft pick. Murray has two goals and nine points in 70 career WHL games with Everett and Calgary.
Meanwhile, all 22 WHL teams will be represented in NHL training camps with players eligible to return. Much of the Royals’ outlook for 2018-19 depends on whether the Calgary Flames think undersized yet dynamic forward Matthew Phillips will be better served by another season building up his body in junior hockey as an over-age 20-year-old or by a step up to the pros in the AHL in Stockton, California.
“The question the Flames will ask is whether there is anything more to be accomplished by Matthew in the WHL,” said Hope.
Over-age forward Tanner Kaspick is definitely pro-ready and unlikely to be returned to Victoria from the St. Louis Blues. The same can’t be certain for overage-forward Lane Zablocki in Detroit Red Wings camp and the third-rounder’s pro versus junior prospects are still to be decided. The Royals have the maximum 20-year-olds already in forward Dante Hannoun, defenceman Ralph Jarratt and goaltender Griffen Outhouse. Having any 20-year-olds return from NHL camps would give Hope trading chips to acquire younger prospects.
“That’s a bridge you cross at the time, if it happens,” he said.
The Royals’ 19-year-old defenceman and third-round Canadiens draft pick Scott Walford is in Montreal but will not be skating with contact. Walford is only just partially returning from the injury that kept him out of last season’s playoffs.
“We’re hopeful for a full return [by Walford] by the beginning of October,” said Hope.
The Portland Winterhawks lead the WHL with an impressive list of 10 players at NHL training camps. That includes four Winterhawks players taken in the first round of the NHL draft — Cody Glass with Las Vegas Golden Knights, Kieffer Bellows with New York Islanders, Henri Jokiharju with Chicago Blackhawks and Dennis Cholowski with the Red Wings.
The Regina Pats have eight players in NHL camps with the Everett Silvertips, Spokane Chiefs, Swift Current Broncos and Tri-City Americans with seven players each.