The puck has dropped on the 2014-15 Western Hockey League season and the Victoria Royals will attempt to build on last season’s record-best results.
The Royals managed a franchise-best 100 regular season points in 2013-14 and made it to the WHL Western Conference semifinals, where the Portland Winter Hawks eliminated the Royals in five games.
Looking to build on the successes of last season, the Royals will likely depend on veteran leadership from many of the team’s senior players, most of whom are returning from stints with NHL teams including forwards Austin Carroll, Brandon Magee, and Axel Blomqvist and defenders Keegan Kanzig, Travis Brown, and Joe Hicketts.
“There are some younger players on this Royals squad and their ears are wide open,” said Royals radio play-by-play announcer Marlon Martens, referencing the influence that returning veterans will have on their younger teammates. “Everything that these guys learned at camps … they’re going to bring that back with them too.”
Austin Carroll was a seventh-round draft pick for the Calgary Flames in June and impressed Flames management over the course of the summer before being assigned back to the Royals.
However, his return to the Royals was far from a certainty as late as last week, since the Flames could have elected not to return the 21 year old to the WHL and instead assign him to their American Hockey League or East Coast Hockey League affiliates.
“If Carroll plays this season in the WHL, he’ll be a key guy but not be challenged as much” said Ryan Pike, managing editor of FlamesNation.ca before the Flames had made Carroll’s assingment. “If he would have played in the AHL or the ECHL, he would have got more playing time against established pros, pushing him to improve,” said Pike. “I think the ECHL would have been a good challenge for him and given that he would be returning for his over-age season, it’s the next logical step.”
Martens is optimistic that Carroll could be an elite scorer in the WHL’s Western Conference.
“With Austin Carroll, I don’t think that 50 goals is out of reach,” said Martens. “He definitely has the hands, size, and talent. I’m worried that the Flames could keep him,” said Martens early last week.
Thanks in part to the absence of many WHL veterans still at NHL camps, the Royals were forced to ice a roster of inexperienced players, and dropped their first two games of the season, outscored by a margin of nine to five. With many players returning to full-time duty with the Royals, the team has struggled to find their rhythm early on in this season and currently sit with a record of one win and four losses.
Head coach Dave Lowry —entering his third season with the Royals —will aim to be a steadying influence on a currently unstable roster as rookies are being cycled in while the Royals await final NHL cuts.
“Lowry brings a winning pedigree with him. He knows how to connect and communicate with the players and he knows how to get the most out of them,” said Martens. “You saw the results last year.”
The Royals host the Swift Current Broncos on Oct. 5 and the Portland Winter Hawks on Oct. 6.