Every year in junior hockey, change occurs as roster spots open with players graduating or moving on. For the Victoria Royals, after boasting a veteran squad this season, on paper, it looks as though there are roster spots to be had.
“The roster will likely be a little bit younger than it was last year,” said Royals general manager and head coach Dan Price. “We’ll see how the young players adapt and how the season goes. But I do think there’s some good opportunity there for our younger players.”
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Here are a few of the young players looking to crack the lineup on a full-time basis.
Connor Martin had a big debut for the Victoria Royals. Coming into action for his first start, Martin faced his hometown Calgary Hitmen. And although his club lost in a shootout, Martin stood tall in the net, as he posted a .950 SVP and 1.85 GAA. Among those stops was an unreal save in overtime, which is currently a semi-finalist in the CHL Showdown for top play of the year. The 6-foot-3 goaltender played last season with the Calgary Canucks of the AJHL and saw a lot of shots in 30 games played.
“Connor is one of those players that I think is going to have a chance to have a great career in the league because he’s so prepared,” said Price. “He’s extremely competitive while being humble. He loves the game and works very hard at it. Connor is so calm and controlled in the net that I think oftentimes people don’t realize just how athletic he is.”
After playing last season with the OCN Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, Trent Crane is hoping that experience will lead to a full-time spot with the Royals. As a 16-year-old, Crane recorded 9 goals and 9 assists in 37 games with the Blizzard, while playing against much older opponents. The product of Morden, MB excels at multiple sports, representing Team Manitoba an impressive four times for hockey, baseball and soccer.
“Trentyn is a very intelligent and aware player,” said Price. “I do value his vision very highly and the fact that he is a cerebral player. I also think he’s versatile in the sense that it’s rare for young players coming out of midget or junior to feel comfortable playing both center and wing. That’s valuable and gives him a big advantage in moving into the Western Hockey League.”
Of the younger Victoria prospects, Cage Newans saw the most action last season with the team. With seven games played with the Royals, the Qualicum Beach, BC native got a good taste of the league and pace of play. In 39 games with the Oceanside Generals, the forward had 17 goals, 13 assists and 88 penalty minutes. Those numbers reflect the 17-year-old’s style of play, one of skill and some grit, and both will serve him well going forward.
“Cage has a deceptive and accurate shot,” commented Price. “As well he has that ability to distribute from width and find players in the middle of the ice. Cage can play both sides of the ice as a winger and that’s really exciting because you need that type of versatility with your young 17-year-old players coming up. It allows you to structure your lines in different ways depending on who you’re playing.”
In his two games last season with the Royals, Matthew Hodson made an impression. The Saskatoon, SK product was buzzing and nearly scored his first WHL goal. Playing last season with the Saskatoon Contacts U18 AAA (SMAAAHL), Hodson had 17 goals and 36 assists in 44 games played. Although skilled at all forward positions, Victoria sees him as a centre.
“He’s someone that really studies faceoffs,” said Price of Hodson. “He really does try to gravitate towards the middle of the ice, and I mean that in a good way. As far as going to those high-value areas around the net to score and supporting the puck in the middle of the ice defensively. I think he’s got very good natural instincts as a center”
An interesting and perhaps underrated prospect on the blueline is Gannon Laroque. Already at 6-foot-2, the 2003-born defenceman brings size to the roster. The Edmonton, AB native made his debut last season in some key games against the rival Vancouver Giants and left a lasting impression. Notably, a nice open-ice hit lead to a turnover and scoring chance that resulted in this team scoring a goal. It was a big-time play that Victoria hopes to see more of going forward.
“Another person I think that people might not be aware of and is an excellent candidate to earn some minutes for us next year is Gannon Laroque,” said Price. “Gannon came on the scene towards the end of the year in that three games in three nights against Vancouver. In the second game, he was doing so well that he earned about eight and a half minutes of ice time. Which is pretty impressive for an affiliate player to come in and earn that many minutes. He was very aware, made a lot of high percentage plays and was very aggressive. The Vancouver players took notice of him.”
Making the Jump
Whether it be midget hockey to the CHL or junior to the professional leagues, making the jump to the next level is always difficult. Young players find themselves challenged with the speed and size of the game as they progress.
“The main thing that everyone seems to notice is how the time and space decreases the higher up that you go,” explained Price. “Certainly the size and strength of the players are a factor, but it’s really more the speed and the efficiency of the play.”
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Price added, “The players really have to adapt to playing in traffic, thinking ahead and reading the play before they get the puck or before the play happens. And then once they get the puck, it’s making a play quickly. One of the things you hear coaches say a lot is ‘There’s no time to dust the puck off.’ And that’s really true. That’s a really important progression within our league because it’s the same challenge that juniors struggle with when they get to the pros. So, it’s an important lesson to learn when they arrive in the WHL.”
For the young Royals, they hope to make start that progression and continue their development within the Western Hockey League.