The slate couldn’t be any cleaner for the Vancouver Giants.
A new home (Langley Events Centre), new coach (Jason McKee), new general manager (Glen Hanlon), and new Western Hockey League season.
That’s a great thing, considering the Giants missed the WHL playoffs with a 23-40-5-4 record. Only the Kootenay Ice (a whopping 53) and Saskatoon Blades (42) suffered more regulation losses than the G-Men last season.
A new era of Giants hockey in Langley starts Friday when Vancouver hosts the Everett Silvertips in their home (and season) opener at the LEC. Opening puck drop is 7:30 p.m.
Leading the Giants is McKee, who on June 2 was named the seventh head coach in franchise history.
The 37-year-old had served as head coach and general manager of the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) for the past six seasons. During McKee’s tenure behind the bench, the Saints played in the AJHL final on five occasions, winning the league championship three times.
A two-time AJHL Coach of the Year, McKee was named the Canadian Junior A Coach of the Year for the 2013/14 campaign.
Up front, the Giants will likely be led by a pair of NHL draft picks: left wing Tyler Benson (taken in the second round, 32nd overall by the Edmonton Oilers) and Ty Ronning (selected in the seventh round, 201st overall by the New York Rangers).
The diminutive 5’9” 165-pound Ronning, son of former Vancouver Canucks great Cliff Ronning, led the G-Men in scoring last season with 31 goals and 59 points.
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So, with the 2016/17 season just around the bend, here are six burning questions:
Is the Giants 1-4-0-1 pre-season record cause for concern?
McKee doesn’t think so.
“We use it [pre-season] as an evaluation of our players – an evaluation of our group [to see], if they’re getting better game to game. That’s what the exhibition season is for, is to see where your players are at as individuals, but also where your group is at,” McKee said. “We want to see our group getting better from day to day, and weekend to weekend, and I think we did that.”
McKee said while the results aren’t what he wanted, “at the same time we put a lot more effort on the process of going through the evaluations, for sure.”
What style of team will Giants fans see this season?
Fast and up tempo – that’s what McKee is preaching to his troops.
“We want to be aggressive, and in order to do that, you’ve got to have depth throughout your lineup,” McKee said. “We’re hoping to have 12 forwards, six ‘D’ every night who are going to push the pace and make it difficult on the other team.”
Hanlon said the Giants have some young players who “we’re putting a lot of emphasis on and building for our future.”
That said, Hanlon sees the playoffs are “an attainable goal.”
“We want to play exciting hockey and with exciting hockey brings offence, and with offence we’re expecting to get ourselves into the playoffs.”
Who’ll handle the scoring?
Benson is nursing a shoulder injury while Ronning is still with the New York Rangers.
Including those two, McKee hopes to see contributions throughout the lineup.
“When you’ve got a group where everyone’s part of it, everyone’s trying to create that offence, that makes you very difficult to defend against,” McKee said.
“There’s some young guys who got some experience last year in our lineup and we’re hoping that they take the next step offensively and as a group, we’re obviously hoping to score more.”
Asked if Benson and Ronning will be in the lineup opening night, Hanlon said, “I’m anticipating Ty is, we haven’t heard anything different. We all know that Tyler is injured right now, and we’re going to wait for him to see when he’s available to play.”
Is the Langley Events Centre a good fit for the WHL?
McKee said the LEC is a “good-sized junior rink.”
“The atmosphere should be exciting and I think our players will definitely feed off that,” McKee said, “and we’re looking forward to getting the season started on Friday and playing in, hopefully, a sold-out building.”
Hanlon believes playing in a charged-up LEC will add points to the Giants’ totals.
Is there homegrown talent?
Enter Langley’s James Malm.
Malm posted two assists in 25 games with the G-Men in 2015-16 before returning to Valley West Hawks of the BC Major Midget League (BCMML) in December.
“It was a huge learning curve for me,” Malm said, about his first taste of major junior. “Just learning how to play without the puck a lot more. [There were] a lot more systems to learn. Coming into this year, I don’t have any goals, I just want to play my best and see what that can do for me.”
Upon his return, Malm was a key cog in helping the Hawks capture the BCMML title for the first time in their existence. Malm scored 19 points (9g-10a) in seven playoff games, setting a new playoff points record in the BCMML.
Malm said returning to major midget midway through last year “really helped my game a lot. I think I grew as a player.”
As for playing in his own hometown, Malm is looking forward to it: “It’s pretty cool, actually. A lot of friends of mine will come out, and my parents, all my family, will come out to every game so it’s pretty cool.”
Who’s guarding the cage?
Judging from last year, it’ll be Ryan Kubic.
The 18-year-old from St. Andrews, Man., had 50 starts for the G-Men last season, with a 3.31 goals against average.
Kubic said handling the heavy workload between the pipes was a good thing. “The more games I got into last year the most comfortable I felt.”
He said the team is still learning new systems and “have to touch up a few things” but “I think by Friday we’ll definitely be ready to go.”
Kubic added, “I’m just going in every night looking to win some hockey games for the guys. Win or lose, I’m just looking to give the team a chance every night.”