With puck drop on the Western Hockey League season just hours away, here are five questions the Vancouver Giants face heading into their second campaign out of the Langley Events Centre.
There is no denying Tyler Benson is a difference maker.
Over three seasons, the Giants captain has amassed 34 goals and 115 points in 125 games. The problem is, the nearest the now 19-year-old came to playing a full season was in 2014/15 when he finished with 14 goals and 45 points in 62 games as a 16-year-old.
Since then, Benson has played in 30 games (nine goals, 28 points) in 2015/16 and 33 games (11 goals, 42 points) last season, before injuries forced him out of the line-up.
The second round pick of the Edmonton Oilers — if healthy — has the potential to light up the WHL.
Benson is in camp with the Oilers right now while recovering from off-season hernia surgery. But unless he makes the Edmonton roster, he is only eligible to return to junior and the Giants.
The Giants are a young team: of the 26 players still on the roster, 10 are 1999-born players, eight are 00s and two are 01s. Vancouver has four 97-born players — teams can only carry three over-age players — and two 98-born players.
So will the lack of 19-year-olds hurt the team?
In addition to Benson, the other 19-year-old on the roster is defenceman Matt Barberis.
Take a look at the successful junior hockey teams, and the majority of them have six, seven or eight players from this age group.
This does give the team plenty of options in 2018/19 however. Benson has signed an entry-level deal with Edmonton already and would most likely play with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate. That leaves just Barberis as their only over-ager — barring any moves general manager Glen Hanlon makes this off-season — and means the Giants could pick up players released by other WHL clubs to fill the spots.
The Giants are going young in goal after this week’s trade of Ryan Kubic.
With the trade, the team is turning over the reigns to the tandem of David Tendeck and rookie Todd Scott.
Scott is a 17-year-old while Tendeck turns 18 in November and while the pre-season was a small sample size, both sparkled.
Scott appeared in four of the six games and had a 2.45 goals against average and a .927 save percentage. Tendeck played in two games and in his 60 combined minutes, allowed just one goal and finished with a .967 save percentage.
Vancouver has four 20-year-olds on the roster but must be down to three by Oct. 10.
Darian Skeoch would appear to be a lock for the final roster.
Before an ankle injury cost him the second half of the season, the six-foot-four, 216-pound Skeoch was Vancouver’s steadiest defenceman and most physical force. That should make him a good bet for this year’s team.
The other three potential 20-year-olds are Ty Ronning — last year’s leading scorer with 25 goals and 53 points in 68 games — Jack Flaman (15 goals, 22 points in 71 games) and new acquisition Brad Morrison (21 goals, 52 points in 61 games for Prince George last season).
Ronning and Morrison returned from NHL camps with the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames, respectively, earlier this week.
Which rookie will step up?
Two years ago, James Malm managed a pair of assists in 25 games as a 16-year-old and last year saw Malm make the most of the increased opportunity, finishing second on the team with 20 goals and 51 points in 69 games.
So is there a candidate to make that sort of a jump in their contribution?
Up front, perhaps Tyler Popowich?
The six-foot-four, 196-pound forward had seven goals and nine points in 53 games as a 16-year-old. With a bigger role, could the power forward blossom into a 20-plus goal scorer?
And on the blue-line, there are several candidates.
Sixteen-year-old Bowen Byram and 17-year-old Alex Kannok Leipert both have the potential to step up.
Each was named the top defenceman in their respective leagues, Byram with the Yale Lions of the Canadian School Sport Hockey League and Kannok Leipert of the Regina Pat Canadians in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League.
Season opens Friday
The Giants kick off the 2017/18 WHL campaign with a visit to the provincial capital tonight (Friday) for the start of a home-and-home series against the Victoria Royals. The teams then return to the Langley Events Centre on Saturday for a 7 p.m. puck drop.
The home opener, presented by CIBC, will celebrate the Giants’ 2007 Memorial Cup-winning team.
Each fan will receive a commemorative poster of the championship team and members of that team will be on hand for a ceremonial puck drop. There will also be video excerpts from a reunion the team held earlier this summer.