|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.
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: