Sports reflections by Steve EwenSpecial to the Langley Advance
Jason McKee is the longest-serving coach that the Giants have had among the past four bench bosses. He’s lasted an entire season.
Once a flagship for junior hockey in Canada, the Giants put a wrap on a dismal 20-win campaign Sunday. This will be a third straight spring without making the playoffs and a fourth in five tries in that regard for the WHL club. Maybe more telling, they haven’t won a solitary post-season game since 2012 and haven’t got past the first round since 2010.
They have taken a breath now.
They’ve done that at least.
They traded veterans for youngsters and draft picks. By all accounts, owner Ron Toigo is bringing back McKee, 37, and general manager Glen Hanlon, 60, for a second season. There’s a calm. They need to capitalize on that.
The Giants felt frantic for a time, rocketing from Troy Ward to Claude Noel to Lorne Molleken as coach after Don Hay was let out of his contract in May 2014, so that he could take over the bench of the rival Kamloops Blazers. Toigo and Co. were used to being front-runners. They thought they could fast track. It didn’t work.
Hanlon came from a coaching background rather than a GM one, but he had cachet in the market, dating to his time as a Canucks goalie. He also understands Toigo and the inner workings of the Giants due to his two-year stint as an assistant to Hay.
McKee came from a Junior A background rather than a WHL one, outside of his one season in the league as a player with the Seattle Thunderbirds. He did have massive success during his time guiding the Alberta league’s Spruce Grove Saints, so he gets what it takes to build a winning culture. But there are questions about him still.
Asked about the Giants’ chances in the pre-season, one rival executive was certain they were going to have problems defensively. He thought they didn’t have the makings of a team that would check well consistently. That became particularly evident on the penalty kill, which was last in the league at 72.5-per-cent efficiency (83 goals against, 302 chances).
The rival executive did believe the Giants would get solid goaltending and they had enough talent up front with Tyler Benson, Ty Ronning, Radovan Bondra, Thomas Foster and others that they would produce on the power play.
The netminding stood up much of the season. The man advantage never did.
The power play had problems in the first half of the season and continued to struggle when Benson was hurt and Bondra and Foster were among those dealt at the trade deadline. The power play wound up last in the league, connecting at 13.4 per cent (36-for-269) on the way to a 20-46-3-3 overall finish.
The power play had been 11th in the 22-team circuit at 22.1 per cent (60-for-272) in 2015-16, when the team finished 23-40-5-4 in a campaign that saw Molleken fired with two games to go. Some of those issues have to fall on McKee. It’s that simple.
That said, there was an adjustment period when the Giants went from Dean Evason as coach in 2003-04 (33-24-9-6 regular season, second-round playoff loss) to Hay in 2004-05 (34-30-4-4, first-round playoff loss). And Hay, of course, was already established at the WHL level. McKee should be judged on what’s happening by Christmas next season at the earliest. That’s simple, too.
Vancouver has finished 21st, 21st, 20th, 12th and 22nd in the WHL over the last five seasons. In just the past three campaigns alone, the Giants’ combined record is 70-127-10-9.
There are players on this team who have lost a ton of games and heard a ton of different messages about why they did so along the way. The Giants could use an influx via trade of two or three veteran players from successful programs to help get that winning mindset back, but they could also use some stability in their leadership group. It sounds like they’re going to get it.
They’ll be better next season. How much remains to be seen. Youngsters like forward James Malm and defenceman Dylan Plouffe took strides this time around and should again.
The Langley Events Centre crew has to see its injury luck change at some point; they got just 60 combined games this season from Benson and No. 1 defenceman Darian Skeoch.
The rest of the B.C. Division appears like it will be taking a step back as well.
A playoff spot should be the goal. Considering recent history, that would be a good start.
– Steve Ewen is a sports writer and columnist for The Province