While they are not quite as successful as the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who are contending for top spot in the overall NHL rankings, it has been a special inaugural season in its own right for the Langley Trappers.
Using 18 rookies out of their 23-player roster, the first-year junior B hockey club has qualified for the PJHL playoffs. Langley booked their ticket on Thursday night with a 5-1 victory over the Surrey Knights at the North Surrey Rec Centre.
The win improved the Trappers — who are 4-0-1-0 in their past five games — to 17-21-2-2 and with 38 points, the team is locked into third spot in the Harold Brittain Conference.
The Mission City Outlaws and Aldergrove Kodiaks each have 31 points and three regular season games remaining as they battle for the division’s final playoff berth.
Langley had five different goal scorers — Casey Whintors, Carter Graham, Joshua Boelema, Brendan Black, and Colin Cromie — in the win over Surrey while Kristian Lyon stopped 24 of 25 shots.
And the multi-faceted attack has been a hallmark of this Trappers squad all season — only two of their regular roster players have failed to score a goal (both are defencemen) and only five players have scored 10 or more goals.
“Realistically, our goal was to make the playoffs,” said Burt Henderson, the team’s general manager and head coach. He is assisted in both capacities by Brad Bakken.
“We struggled at the start, made a couple of changes to our line-up … and I would say the last 20 games, we have been playing like I felt we could.”
The Trappers won their inaugural game back in September, but struggled for the first few months, going 7-17-0-0.
But the team seemed to get it all together and turn things around once the calendar hit December. That was the month where they won back-to-back games for the first time, and while they only won three out of seven games, they did manage to earn points in six of the seven games.
That carried over to January when the team went 6-3-1-0, and since Dec. 1, they have gone 10-4-2-2, a .667 winning percentage. Project that over a full 44-game season, and the Trappers would be on pace for 58 points, enough to be in contention for first place in their division.
With just two games remaining in the regular season, they are projected to finish with 40 points this season.
And the team has done this with perhaps the youngest line-up in the league. Langley’s roster primarily consists of eight 18-year-olds and 11 17-year-olds. They also have two 16-year-olds and two 19-year-olds and no over-age (20-year-old) players.
By comparison, the top team in the league, the Delta Ice Hawks, have three 19-year-olds and three over-age players. And the Richmond Sockeyes, who sit second in the standings, have six 19-year-olds and 11 over-age players, but they are in the unique position of having already qualified for the Cyclone Taylor Cup (provincial championships) as the host team and loaded up on veteran experience.
“That is what we wanted to do with his franchise, go and develop young players,” Henderson said.
And Henderson hopes that trend continues, where the team has constant turnover because that means, they are doing their job as a junior B organization.
“I am hoping that we lose a lot of these kids to junior A,” he said. “That is our goal, to help these players move on and get scholarships eventually. If we lose 10 players, I will be happy because that means they are moving on to bigger and better things and we will bring in a new crop of young players.”
One of those young players is Nicholas Wagner — one of a dozen Langley players on the roster — who is the team’s leading scorer with 17 goals and 31 points. That puts him 34th in the PJHL scoring race, but third among rookies.
“We don’t really have any superstars, which is fine. We just have a bunch of kids that buy in to the system.
“They want to learn and are willing to put the work in to learn. We have a bunch of guys that want to win,” Henderson said.
“When you have that, you are going to be successful.”
Langley did have one representative at last month’s PJHL all-star game in Matthew Smoliga, an import defenceman from Chicago.
He has nine goals and 22 points, which is eighth among defenceman in league scoring, but tops among rookie blue-liners.
Henderson raved about Smoliga’s shot, calling it “probably the hardest shot I have seen in this league.”
The six-foot-one, 185-pounder has been a steadying presence on the Langley blue-line, and a great power-play quarterback.
His five goals with the man-advantage is tied for tops among defencemen, and he also has six power-play assists.
“When you have a defenceman who can shoot the puck like that, trust me, it really helps, especially on the power play,” Henderson said.
“He is a really great skater, he can rush the puck, skate it out of trouble.”
And the Trappers also had five players take part in the PJHL’s Top Prospects Game on Jan. 29.
Included on that list was goaltender Kristian Lyon, who has been sharing the crease with Keaton Dyck.
Langley has two games remaining in the regular season, against Aldergrove on Feb. 7 (George Preston Recreation Centre) and Feb. 9 versus Abbotsford (MSA Arena) with the PJHL regular season concluding Feb. 11.
After that, the Trappers will battle either Ridge Meadows (53 points, four games remaining) or Abbotsford (52 points, three games left) in the first round.
Langley has identical 1-2-1-0 records against both teams, but the four losses came prior to Dec. 1, the turning point in the team’s season.