They had hoped to contend for a playoff spot in 2016/17, but instead the Vancouver Giants took a step backwards.
The Giants missed the Western Hockey League post-season for the third consecutive year.
The goal, at the start of the major junior hockey club’s first campaign out of the Langley Events Centre, was to be in contention to play into the spring. But injuries to their top defenceman, Darian Skeoch in December, and biggest offensive threat, forward Tyler Benson in January derailed any of those dreams.
The Giants finished the season with a record of 20-46-3-3 and their 46 points were the third-lowest in franchise history.
And it was a tale of two halves for the team.
The Giants recovered from a brutal start which saw them win just once in their first eight games to sit with 31 points (14-19-1-2) at the midway point of the 72-game schedule.
The season’s second half began well enough with two victories in three games, putting the team on pace for 65 points. And while 65 points was still well short of the 80 points the Victoria Royals had in nabbing the final Western Conference playoff berth, the team was at least showing competitiveness up until that point.
What followed instead was just six victories and 15 points over the final 33 games.
“I have said it before, it is not an oil change, it can’t be fixed in 20 minutes; it is going to take some time,” said rookie head coach Jason McKee.
“When I came out here, I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task, I knew it was going to take some time.
“We made some strides along the way (and) we had some ups and downs, no question. But we have an opportunity to return a lot of players.”
The Giants wisely shipped out some veteran players for younger prospects and draft picks at the WHL trade deadline. And while it made for some rough nights on the ice, results-wise, it did give the team’s younger players a bigger opportunity.
“For the most part in our division, 17-year-olds aren’t running power plays, killing penalties and doing those things,” McKee said.
“Our guys got a ton of experience doing that. Was it tough at times? Absolutely. Our hope is that we are better for it down the road.”
One of the players who took advantage of the increased opportunity was James Malm.
Malm — in his first full season of major junior — responded with 20 goals and 51 points, both of which were second on the team, behind only Ty Ronning (25 goals, 53 points).
Malm still has three years of junior eligibility.
Another surprise up front was Jack Flaman, who went from one goal in 42 games as an 18-year-old to 15 goals.
On the back-end, Matt Barberis struggled with injuries for a second straight year, but once again showed that he can produce offensively in the line-up.
In 48 games, Barberis produced 10 goals and 25 points.
“He scored some NHL-style goals and gave us some hope for the future that he can be the point, the top of the umbrella on the power play,” said general manager Glen Hanlon.
Centre Dawson Holt also caught the GM’s eye, when he was in the line-up.
“When he played, we felt he gave us what we needed,” Hanlon said.
The fifth overall pick in the WHL bantam draft in 2014, Holt managed six goals and 14 points in 39 games as he suffered through three different shoulder injuries.
As for what comes next season, one area Hanlon would like to address is the team’s 19-year-old players.
“We have a gap in the 1998-year. We don’t have a lot of experience from that group,” he said. “If you look at the top teams in the league, they usually have seven or eight 19-year-olds and then solid 20 (year-olds).”
Out of the Giants’ 2013 draft, only four players are still with the team but only one has played consistently — goaltender Ryan Kubic.
Benson has missed 81 games the past two seasons while Barberis has missed 47. Riley McKintry missed all of this past season and only suited up in 11 games the season before with concussion issues.
McKee said the plan will be to surround the Giants returning core with some older players, either via trade or through the import draft (they finished the season with just one import but can carry two).
He also expects training camp to more competitive. Last year, Vancouver did not have as many players signed as the Giants went through the off-season transition of finding both a new general manager and coach.
McKee expects 10 or 11 legitimate options along the blue-line.
They also could welcome a pair of young but promising defencemen coming off stellar seasons.
Bowen Byram, who turns 16 this summer, was named the top defenceman in the CSSHL midget prep league with Yale while Alex Kannok-Leipert — who turns 17 in July — was the top defenceman in the Saskatchewan Midget League. Byram played 11 games for Vancouver this season while Kannok-Leipert played in eight.
Team falls one spot after draft lottery
With the season now done, the Giants scouting staff will prepare for the WHL bantam draft May 4.
Vancouver has the third overall selection, as well as a handful of extra picks they acquired at the trade deadline.
Giants hand out year-end awards
Prior to puck drop ahead of Saturday night’s home finale at the Langley Events Centre, the Vancouver Giants handed out their year-end awards with Ty Ronning, James Malm and Ryan Kubic each picking up a trio of honours.
The three players were the recipients of the team’s Three Stars Award, having accumulated the most selections over the course of the season.
Ronning also picked up the P.C. Toigo Most Valuable Player award as well as the Gordie Howe Top Scorer award after leading the team with 25 goals and 53 points.
Malm, who finished two points behind Ronning for the scoring lead, won both the most improved and most sportsmanlike awards.
Kubic, the team’s main goaltender, won the Player’s Choice Award (as selected by the fans) and the unsung hero (as chosen by his teammates).
Other award winners included:
Buble Ironman Award: Jeff Rayman
Pat Quinn Top Defenceman: Matt Barberis
Milan Ilich Rookie of the Year: Tyler Popowich
Graduation Awards: Jeff Rayman and Calvin Spencer
Bruce Allen Inspirational Leader: Jack Flaman
White Spot Humanitarian of the Year: Jack Flaman
Save-On-Foods High School Scholastic Player of the Year: Dylan Plouffe
Sultan Thiara Plus/Minus Award: Darian Skeoch
Jock McGrandle Volunteer of the Year: Kyle Ross
Season Ticket Holder of the Year: Maurice and Jennifer Brule