The Vancouver Giants were the worst team in the WHL last season, sporting their worst record since their inaugural season back in 2001-02: 21-49-0-2-44 points. They also missed the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history. Veteran Coach Don Hay; who led the Giants to a Memorial Cup win in 2007, was in the middle of a rebuilding process.
They took consensus top prospect Tyler Benson with the #1 overall pick in the 2013 Bantam Draft then with the #1 CHL Import Draft pick they took ('96 born) Russian Defenseman Dmitry Osipov. Though Benson (at 15) could not play until later in the season, Osipov and "97 born rookie Forwards Ty Ronning (son of NHL great Cliff Ronning) and Alex Baer were immediately thrown into the lineup. Ronning, Baer and Osipov were joined in the lineup by offseason acquisitions: ('94)Joel Hamilton, an undersized Center from the Red Deer Rebels, ('93) born Defenseman Dalton Thrower, who had just played in the Memorial Cup with Saskatoon and ('93) power forward Tim Traber from the Victoria Royals.
Ronning and Baer had up and down seasons, but are now slotted among the top 6 forwards. Ronning finished with 20 points in 56 games, while Baer had 18 in 60. Though they have inconsistent, they have both proven that they are going to be the Giants leading scorers in the coming years. Baer's bestnight was a 3 point effort vs. Calgary in October, while Ronning had a 2 goal game late in the season vs. Kelowna.
Hamilton, was cast away by Red Deer and took awhile before finding a home with Cain Franson and Jackson Houck on the top line. He only had 15 points going into 2014, but has scored 31 in the 2 and a half months since. He also has filled in admirably helping run the point with Kulak on the top power play unit. Traber at 6'2" 192 lbs has always known how to throw his weight around, but in Vancouver for his overage season, he had his best offensive outing yet with 23 points in 64 games (only getting suspended once).
Osipov has taken awhile to figure out the North American game and had only 3 points (all goals) in 54 games in his first season with the Giants. He is also second worse on the team in plus minus with -16. Particularly against skilled teams like Portland he has struggled immensely in reading where the next play is going to go. He may be in for a long series, unless he can make gigantic leaps in his defensive game.
Besides Kulak and Thrower, the heart and soul of this team has got to be ('93) Cain Franson. He has been the model of consistency in Vancouver the past 3 seasons with 58(4th on team), 54(2nd on team) and 63 (2nd on team) points in the past three seasons. Franson seems to do just a little bit of everything including scoring or setting up a goal when they really need it. He is not a guy that has the talent to take him to the NHL, but he is the type of guy who will rise to the occasion in the playoffs. The only question mark regarding Franson in the playoffs is whether or not he is even healthy, after missing the Giants last 2 games of the season. Franson recently finished his WHL regular season Giants career as 4th in career goals and 5th in career games.
Carter Popoff ('95) took a huge step forward this season, from 27 points to leading the team with 64 points, while playing in all 72 games. Popoff has fallen off a bit late in the season with only 8 points in his last 20 games, but his set up abilities are probably the best on his team and he provides the Giants with a solid #2 Center.
Edmonton Oiler drafted Winger Jackson Houck ('95), led the team in goals with 34, game winning goals with 9 and game winning goals with 6. Simply said, he is a sniper and should the Giants need a goal late in the game, he is hands down the most likely guy to pot one. Houck had 6 multi-goal games on the season, including 2 hat tricks. If the Giants fail in imposing a physical game on the more talented Winterhawks, Houck will need to have an electrifying series, for them to stand a chance and keeping up on the scoreboard.
The guy that has the job of helping contain Portland's point men on the power play is ('94) Dalton Sward. He has to be one of the more underrated 2 way Forwards in the league. He, very quietly ended up second in the WHL in short handed goals with 6 and his combination of stick work and speed will make him a threat to break a game open with a shorty in a crucial spot. The Hawks also have shown that they are prone to short handed goals with 11 against them on the season.
Lack of Defensive Depth?:
It is obvious that as far as the Forwards go, Vancouver just cannot compete with the amount of talent. That is why they have to rely upon Kulak, as well as, ('95) Mason Geertsen, ('95) Tyler Morrison and ('95) Arvin Atwal to contain the Hawk's bevvy of offensive talent and provide some scoring as well. Geertzen seems the most ready to jump into the role of top pairing D-men with Kulak, but the Giant's willingness to go after Thrower in the offseason, speaks to the fact that they do not have a ton of faith in his consistency. Geertsen and Morrison both had 23 points, while Atwal added 22. Since Thrower's injury though, when these 3 have been asked to play many more minutes and in crucial spots, they have just not been consistent enough. Geertsen has 3 points in his last 8 games, while Morrison and Atwal have only 1 apiece. Should they want to contend with Portland. Not having a lot of consistent point production from the back end wouldn't be a terrible thing, if their defense was able to shut down the opposition consistently. This, however, is not the case, as of the 8 playoff teams, they are 7th in goals against.
Speaking of goals against, Payton Lee ('96) was the real x factor this season for the Giants. He pretty much played the way you would expect a 7 seed Goaltender to play. He was inconsistent, only providing 1 shut out and that was against the worst team in the league (Lethbridge). Lee, is in his draft season and has shown potential to become a star for the Giants, but just has not put it together enough. He was ranked as a "C" Goalie in the last CSS rankings, meaning he is projected to be a late round pick, if drafted at all.
Lee is backed up by journeyman Goalie Jared Rathjen ('94). Rathjen has actually better numbers 2.98 GAA and .898 Save % in fewer games (47-29), but he has been battling a lower body injury and was listed as "day to day," during the last WHL weekly report. If Rathjen is unable to go, look for the Giants to ride Payton Lee, even if he is not playing well, rather than go to ('98) 3rd stringer Ryan Kubic.
Building for the Future:
Despite having a playoff bound squad with dreams of upsetting the former champs, Vancouver's deals this season, seemed more destined for competing for the title in a couple seasons. This coincides with their attempts to host the Memorial Cup in 2016. Vancouver acquired a total of 10 draft picks over the next 3 seasons, including three 2nd rounders. This was because they gave up several players that would help them win right now in Marek Tvrdon, Anthony Ast, Blake Orban, Reid Zalaitch, Taylor Vickerman, Scott Cooke, Tristan Sieben and Jake Kolhauser. Tvrdon especially is the type of power forward that the Hawk's defense may have struggled with, while Blake Orban would've been a great second pairing Defenseman to have. The cupboard is definitely stocked for General Manager Scott Bonner to trade some of these picks for assets or just stock up on young talent, to go along with Benson and hope to make a run in 2016.
The Giants did acquire depth forwards Trent Lofthouse ('94) and Dominik Volek ('94) for this season though and they have provided 15 and 12 points respectively. Both of them play the aggressive style that Coach Don Hay loves.
Though they made a nice little step forward this season, it really does seem that the Giants are looking 2 years down the line and are just happy for any success that they are able to find this season.