Monday, 26 August 2013

Vancouver Giants Training Camp Days 3 and 4 - Cuts, and Camp Gets Serious

The Giants take a break in scrimmage action today, holding just a pair of practices and a goalie session later in the afternoon. This one-day reprieve is as good a time as any to look back and reflect on how camp has gone for both the veterans and the rookies, and take a look at what this all means for the Giants' upcoming season.

Boise, Idaho product Hunter Lester. Perhaps the best chance of any rookie to make the Giants. Image via Eliteprospects.

As of the Grey-Black split-squad game on Sunday night, just 11 skaters from the Giants' rookie camp remained, including Hunter Lester, the only player still in camp who was not on the Giants' 50-man protected list on July 4th. This group of rookies consisted of Lester, Tyler Benson, Alec Baer, Ty Ronning, Jesse Roach, John Wesley, Brendan Holterhus, Ryely McKinstry, Kole Bryks, Michael Eskra and Matt Barberis. While some of these kids have looked impressive at times, the fact of the matter is that I'll be surprised if a single one of them makes the opening night roster.

It's worth remembering that context is everything, especially at training camp. The Giants sucked last year. There's no two ways about that. They had zero players in the top-50 of WHL scoring, and just three in the top-100. Split-squad games further water down this roster by adding weaker players who will not make the team into the mix. As a result, any strong performances - this goes for any player, not just rookies - have to be taken with a huge grain of salt as the level of competition is basically that of half of a really bad WHL team.

And with that in mind, I feel pretty comfortable saying that no rookie looked impressive enough to be really near a good WHL player this upcoming season. Ty Ronning has scored a lot of goals, but he's probably best served spending another year away from the WHL just to grow a bit. He's just so small on the ice that you start to have concerns about his safety, especially when you see someone like the average-sized Dalton Sward be able to freight train him from the faceoff dot to the end boards. Jesse Roach is the biggest rookie at 6'3, but he has been between solid and adequate - far from a player who's going to step in and make an immediate impact, but maybe one that can fill in a solid role down the roster in preparation for bigger things in years to come.

Especially with the Giants clearing a protected player spot with the dealing of Taylor Vickerman to Tri-City, currently unsigned Hunter Lester may actually have the best chance to be somewhat of an impact player right now. He's still wiry and has a goofy posture when skating, but he's very quick on the forecheck and has shown an ability to out-battle the much stronger older Giants defenders and win pucks. Coupling this with very strong puck skills can make him a dangerous player in the offensive zone. That being said, he hasn't really been able to clearly out-play many of the incumbents on the Giants roster, as mediocre as many of the incumbents were this previous season.

Of course, there's still the topic of Tyler Benson to address here, but that section was quickly spiraling out of control as I wrote it so I'll address it in the near future after camp gives way to the preseason. For now, it's sufficient to say that he's going to be served well in the Program Of Excellence academy in Kelowna, where he opted to go instead of applying for exceptional player status. He looked tentative and didn't really make an impact on either split-squad game, which is a bad sign if you were expecting a McDavid-like entrance into major junior. He's still dominating in his age group, but he's going to need a year or two to develop into playing with 18-20 year old players. He'll get there, just not by September.

UPDATE: The Giants announced last night that Hunter Lester had returned to Boise to start his school year. Hopefully we'll get to see more of him in a Giants uniform in the years to come. He would be an excellent addition to a talented young group of forwards.

Import draftee Andreas Eder. The big '96 birthday has looked good early in camp. Image via IIHF.

Despite a tough season in 2012-2013, most of the Giants' big names project to be coming back to play in the WHL this year, however there is some uncertainty surrounding top offensive player Marek Tvrdon who spent last season recovering from a near career-ending blood clot in his shoulder. As he's an overage player, he is eligible to play professionally, most likely in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins. Ditto for Montreal Canadiens pick Dalton Thrower, who, after spending last season with the Memorial Cup hosting Saskatoon Blades, would be a massive addition to the blueline should he be returned. The Giants' third and final overage player is Cain Franson, who is without a contract but has been invited to Vancouver Canucks camp. Needless to say, the Giants roster without any of the three looks far, far weaker than with them.

Judging by the moves made in the offseason by Scott Bonner, the team isn't anticipating a return from Tvrdon. They used both their picks in the import draft to take big Russian d-man Dimitri Osipov and big German forward Andreas Eder. As the team can only carry two import players at once, a return from Tvrdon would necessitate either a trade, or a departure of one of the two young draftees. Given where the Giants are (dwelling in the WHL basement), a Tvrdon trade seems most likely in this scenario.

Knowing this information, it looks like Eder is expected to play a very large role, potentially as the team's #2 centre behind ex-Red Deer Rebel Joel Hamilton, or at least step into an offensive role in the top-6. Whether or not Cain Franson moves over from the wing can change the outlook here too, as Eder could then be moved to the wing in his first season in North America. He's looked very good at camp though, using his size to drive to the middle of the ice and create opportunities for himself and his teammates. He should be a very good player as he develops.

On the wings, Franson, Dalton Sward and Jackson Houck are all locks to make the team, and Tristan Sieben, Travis McEvoy and Rob Trzonkowski look to be returning as well. Scott Cooke and Luca Leone haven't been present at camp, but they're also still on the Giants' roster and will probably compete for spots again. Either Foster or Ast can also move over from centre, and all of a sudden you have a crowded top-12. The problem is that as crowded as that forward group is, it's not crowded with overly talented players. Other than Houck, Franson and Hamilton, no forward in this lineup has even hit 30 points in a season. However, Sward should get there as a bigger, stronger, faster 19-year old, while Popoff and Ast look to take a step forward offensively as well. Sward for his part looked very fast and dangerous through the first part of training camp.

The story is the same on defense, with Brett Kulak, Mason Geertsen, Tyler Morrison, Blake Orban, Reid Zalitach and Arvin Atwal returning to play. Depth spots are most likely going to guys like Jake Kolhouser and Shaun Dosanjh, who both saw very limited time with the Giants last year. A Thrower return changes the complexion of the back end entirely, as it insulates Kulak and Geertsen a bit, both of whom will be counted on to play some major minutes this season. Kulak was good enough to get drafted last year, and will be looking to take another step forward this year. He hasn't participating in any of the scrimmages, but he will be leaned on heavily for the majority of offence from the blueline. Dimitri Osipov will also slot in somewhere, but he has yet to show up at camp.

UPDATE: GM Scott Bonner did a radio hit on the TEAM 1040 today (August 30th) and mentioned that Dimitri Osipov came to camp with a fractured collarbone, so he's been around but only practicing in the non-contact yellow jersey.

So, judging by the first four games of camp, the Giants roster is shaping up something like this:

Franson - Hamilton - Houck
Eder - Ast - Sward
Trzonkowski - Popoff - McEvoy
Sieben - Foster - Cooke

Kulak - Geertsen
Orban - Morrison
Zalitach - Atwal


Not a whole lot of surprises, and it remains to be seen who Dimitri Osipov bumps out of the defense, and some of the bottom-6 spots in the forward group should be contested by Luca Leone, Jesse Roach, Alec Baer and Hunter Lester. Jack McClelland, who had an exciting fight with Arvin Atwal on Sunday, is also firmly in the mix for a 3rd or 4th line spot.

The Outlook:
A lot of how the Giants' season will go depends on if they get both Thrower and Franson back. With those two players in the fold, they should be much better just by virtue of everyone getting a year older and a year stronger. Jackson Houck and Cain Franson will be counted on for the majority of offense, and if former first round picks Anthony Ast and Thomas Foster can start to really show some of that promise that got them drafted, goals should be easier to come by for what was the WHL's second-worst offensive team last year.

The bottom line is that there is no quick fix, not in the form of Benson or Ronning or Baer or any of the other young guns. The Giants will be bad this year, but they should show signs of improvement. The important thing is that they've received an injection of skill into their system in Benson as well as other high picks Matt Barberis and Ryely McKinstry, imports Dimitri Osipov and Andreas Eder, and Hunter Lester may be found money if he is signed and can develop alongside this increasingly young core. Ty Ronning and Alec Baer also look very promising too.

The most intriguing story over the final few days of camp will be if any of the young guys can oust an incumbent from the bottom of the roster. As with all camps, there are a group of five or six guys competing for really one or two spots. My best guess has McClelland, Leone, Baer, Roach, Lester and potentially Ronning (if he keeps scoring) competing for bottom-6 spots on the wing. How this small group of players performs in the final few days and through preseason will be the biggest thing to watch for.


Videos From Camp:

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Vancouver Giants Camp Day 2: Rookie Camp Winding Down?

Alec Baer takes a penalty shot against Lethbridge last season. Baer may be among the first rookies to make it to main camp. Image via Puckedinthehead.

There was some confusion at the Ladner Leisure Centre tonight as instead of the scheduled three games starting at 5:45 PM, Giants' skills coach Yogi Svejkovsky took to the ice with a pair of players to work through some quick skating drills. The session was just a short one as it was revealed that the Giants had already trimmed the rookies into two teams, down from three, and were preparing to play what may be the final all-rookie game of the camp.

Notably absent from this game were nine skaters, including day one standouts Alec Baer, Ty Ronning and Jamieson Ree. Kole Bryks, Jesse Roach, Michael Eskra and John Wesley were also missing, as were Bradley Cropmton and Brendan Holterhus. It's worth noting that - save for Ree - all these players appear on the Giants' "In the System" page on their website and were not part of the 2013 draft class. I overheard a scout saying that they had already put "five or six" guys through to the main camp, so I suspect that Baer, Ronning, Roach, Bryks, Eskra, Wesley, Crompton and Holterhus are safe for now by merit of just having been on the radar for a year.

The picture is less clear with Ree. Despite impressing me with his play on day one, it seems odd that he would be either cut prematurely or put through just on the basis that he's not really "in the system" as of yet. And as the picture I took of a scout's roster shows, he was scheduled to dress for team White:

Official roster for team White. Jamieson Ree was listed, but didn't play.
He was never even on the bench though. It's possible that he was injured in one of the morning sessions and was unable to play, but I don't know because I had to miss the morning games. It would be a shame if he was forced to sit out with an injury since I thought he looked like a very capable defender with his play on day one and deserved a shot with the main camp.


If you assume that most of the players from main camp will be retained in the first round of cuts, you quickly realize that there really are not many spots left for the rookies in the main camp. Each main camp team already has six forwards and five defensemen, leaving room for maybe four or five rookies per team. Of those four to five per team, you're looking at a F/D split of maybe 10-12 F and 3-5 D making it to main camp. Six forward spots are presumably already taken, as are two (three if Ree was put through early) spots on defense.

That means that of the 27 skaters that suited up tonight, only 4-6 forwards and 0-2 D will make it through the weekend. Tyler Benson and Hunter Lester have surely done enough to earn spots at main camp, so that leaves a maximum of just six spaces to fill. Who fills them?

Probably the best candidates are Scott Mickoski and Gage Ramsay up front, while Ryely McKinstry, Matt Barberis and Chayden Lauber all made cases to stick around on the back end. Other than those guys, no player really caught my eye on either day as someone that could have an outside shot to stick either now or in a year or two. Scouts are paid to see really fine details though, so maybe someone caught something that I didn't. We'll see soon enough.

Note: the Giants put seventeen rookies through to main camp last year, so players who showed promising flashes tonight, like Treavor Gagne or Phelan Shaw, may get second looks too.


I did manage to take a couple of videos of the 4-on-4 overtime scrimmage and the shootout that came at the end of the game. You can see them here:

OT Scrimmage

Also, the Giants just posted their official day two recap, confirming that Baer, Ronning, Roach, Bryks, Eskra, Wesley, Crompton and Holterhus all made the jump to the main camp on Friday. There's no mention of Jamieson Ree, so that mystery continues. Perhaps Saturday will shed more light on the situation, as ice times start at 9 AM.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Vancouver Giants Camp Day 1: Five Rookies that Made an Impact

Tyler Benson, the Giants' hope for the future. Image via HockeyNow.
With Vancouver Giants training camp opening today, team scouts, nervous families, and some dedicated fans spent the day at the Ladner Leisure Centre taking in some long-awaited hockey as the offesason finally starts coming to an end. While the main camp also kicked off this afternoon, I'm going to spend the first few days mainly looking at the rookies for a couple of reasons. One, the first cuts are going to be mostly rookies and the majority of guys in the main camp will survive beyond the first round of cuts on Sunday, and two, the team kind of sucked last season so most of the interest is in what they're building for in a few years time.

It was also time for highly touted Tyler Benson to make his debut in a Giants uniform, and he did not disappoint, picking up a hat trick in his very first scrimmage. He wasn't the only rookie standout though, as here are five rookies that looked particularly impressive on day one of camp:

Alec Baer, C, Born Aug 25, 1997
Baer was simply electrifying at times, skating through entire teams and showcasing amazing puck skills. Although undersized, he was a one-man show in the offensive zone as he consistently made defenders miss and manufactured scoring chances. He also scored the best goal of the night, as he drove wide on a 1-on-1, cut to the net, then pulled the Marek Malik between-the-legs move and put the puck right under the bar.

He will progress through rookie camp as he saw time with the Giants last year, and it remains to be seen if he can continue to play the same self-reliant style. He really tended to hold on to the puck and manufacture chances himself rather than set up teammates, so he may not be able to get away with taking the same chances against 18-20 year old defenders like Daulton Thrower, Brett Kulak, Mason Geertsen and Blake Orban (who caused quite the stir against team Black). The good with Baer by far and away outweighs the bad though, as his bad habits can be coached out. The bottom line is that he has amazing raw talent and is very fun to watch.

Hunter Lester, LW, Born Feb 10, 1997
Most of the really impressive names at rookie camp are usually guys you've heard a little about before. Baer and Jesse Roach spent time with the Giants last season, Ty Ronning is a 1st-round pick from last year, and Tyler Benson has been in the news for a while. I knew absolutely nothing about Hunter Lester though, but came away thoroughly impressed. He demonstrated fantastic hands, threading a quick wrist shot right off the crossbar and in on two occasions, but more importantly was a scoring chance and shot generating machine. He was absolutely tenacious on the forecheck, wreaking havoc on opposing defenders and causing turnover after turnover with his speed and lightning quick hands. He set up numerous chances and was a force all night.

The big concerns with Lester would probably be his slight build and age. He's listed here at 6'1, 167 lbs, but that looks like it would be after a Big Mac or two. He also looked very raw despite being roughly six months older than the more polished Baer, but that may be caused by a lack of strength. Lester has the look of a kid with all the raw tools but just needs to grow into his frame a bit more and add some strength. If the Giants can be patient with him (admittedly, I don't know the rules governing American prospects) they may have themselves a real player in a year or two.

Tyler Benson, LW, Born Mar 15, 1998
What is there to write about Benson that hasn't already been written at this stage of his development? He possesses a blistering wrist shot, very good speed, a decent physical edge, and a phenomenal ability to produce offense through sublime passing, accurate shooting and quick hands. He had a hat trick in his first game and looked dominant on a line with Alec Baer and Jesse Roach. He also showed a willingness to engage physically that surprisingly few prospects had, and his on-ice playmaking ability was superb as he made passes and saw lanes that no one else on the ice noticed opening up.

If you were to nitpick his game, he kind of disappeared at times in the night games when he was seperated from Baer. However, he still rang two shots off the post after this point and could have had 4 points easily. He was by far the most impressive '98 birthday out there though and looks like he'll be able to do it all once he develops. More time in major midget may serve him well though as he prepares to carry Vancouver in the coming years.

Ty Ronning, RW, Born Oct 20, 1997
Skating on a comparatively weaker White team, Ronning showed well. Much like Baer, he used his speed and skill to set up chances for himself and he was extremely elusive with the puck, spinning off checks and avoiding contact from defenders. He looked a cut above most of his teammates and was very opportunistic as he jumped on a few breakaways and odd-man rushes for good looks on goal. In his final game, he made a beautiful forehand-backhand move to score one of the nicest goals of the day.

It was a tough night to really get an appreciation of how good Ronning was, however. He took a hard point shot off the foot in one of the morning games and kind of disappeared for long stretches after that. I don't know whether this was him being bothered by a possible injury or just him not playing well, but when he was on he looked as polished as Baer did, and just that much better than most everyone else.

Jamieson Ree, D, Born 1997
I don't know when Ree was born, and whether he was an early or late '97 makes an impact on how impressive his day was. For my money, he was among the best defensemen at camp as he consistently made composed and intelligent plays with the puck, doing an admirable job of shutting down Tyler Benson in the final game of the night for an outgunned Black team. The play he made that sticks out to me happened in team Black's second game of the day. Setting up the breakout, a forechecker was bearing down on him. A left handed shooter, he had the puck in the right corner with an outlet standing about 8 feet to his right. Rather than make the pass on his forehand and expose the puck to the attacking team, he made a quick behind-the-back backhand bank pass off the boards right on the tape of his winger to start the breakout. His team was able to advance the puck with ease down the ice.

Ree also made some other nice outlet passes, looked composed with the puck and broke up a number of good scoring chances, but his ability to really stand out was probably diminished by a weak Black team. His team was hemmed in their zone for much of the night, so he didn't really get the chance to show what he could do in the offensive zone. He also didn't really seem to have much of a physical component to his game apart from a couple of runs at diminutive '98 birthday Chase Hawkins. Hopefully he advances through the rookie camp, as I think his performance has earned him a look with the older players.

Other Noteable Players:
Matt Barberis, D, '98 - Very fast skater had some good rushes. Played a steady game.
Kole Bryks, D, '97 - Big defender looked strong in his own zone, had deceptive speed as he scored a nice goal off an end-to-end rush.
Gage Ramsay, C, '98 - Undersized but fleet of foot. Generated some chances with speed and tenacity.
John Wesley, LW, '97 - Talented winger didn't show great speed, but was a force from below the hashmarks in the offensive zone. Scored a couple of beautiful goals and was White's most consistent threat.
Michael Eskra, D, '97 - Flashy defender threw some big hits and liked to pinch and rush the puck. High-event player as he got burned on D a couple of times too.
Ryely McKinstry, D, '98 - Played a very sound game for team Red. Solid at both ends of the ice, was one of the best defensemen.
Scott Mickoski, RW, '98 - Only forward to show a consistent mean physical game. Threw big hits, caused turnovers and had a couple of goals. Used his size well.
Jesse Roach, RW, '97 - 6'3 winger with good hands controlled play well on a strong Red team. Very pass-first. Would like to see him shoot more and use his big frame to create more chances with his strength.


Each rookie team has six more games to impress Giants brass before cuts are made, presumably on Saturday night, and camp is paired down to just three teams by Sunday. Unfortunately, I can't be at all six as I have to miss tomorrow morning's session, but I will be back at the Ladner Leisure Centre to cover all three rookie games at night as well as those on Saturday morning.

I'll also begin covering the main camp (including import picks Andreas Eder and Dmitri Osipov, if Osipov shows up later this week) more in depth once Sunday rolls around since the main scrimmages these first few days are more a formality than anything - the vast majority of the first wave of cuts on Saturday will be rookies, after all. Until then, I encourage you to get out to the LLC if you're in the area and take a look at some free hockey, and follow me on Twitter for game updates and happenings and my musings about camp. It's quality entertainment. Well, at least the hockey is.