Category Archives: Hockey

Why is Willie Ducking Criticism?

Last week, the Vancouver Canucks held a couple of town hall meetings with season ticket holders, in which President Trevor Linden and GM Jim Benning outlined the direction of the team, such as it is, and defended themselves against accusations of general incompetence.

Willie Desjardins, Trevor Linden & Jim Benning
Willie Desjardins, Trevor Linden and Jim Benning appeared together in pre-season pressers, but ol’ Willie has been absent from recent town halls. Photo cribbed from an admittedly poorly-written Reddit subthread.

Notably absent from accounts of this meeting was any discussion of head coach Willie Desjardins. The Canucks bench boss seems to me to be coasting along in the wake of terribleness left by the front office. Lost amid the annoyance of the stupid money given to Derek Dorsett is the fact that Dorsett is getting more ice time than youngster Jake Virtanen, with no benefit to the club at all. Sven Baertschi is only barely ahead of Brandon Prust.  Jared McCann is dead even with Adam Cracknell. For an organization that’s prioritizing youth development at the moment, these decisions are incredibly odd, but with Benning flushing assets down the toilet on the waiver wire every week and blundering through trade after trade, nobody seems to pay attention to the coach.

Desjardins is not a tactically strong coach. He was roundly out-coached in last year’s playoffs by Bob Hartley. His stubborn refusal to deploy the Sedins for offensive zone faceoffs to maximize their output, as Alain Vigneault did during his tenure, has cost the club countless scoring opportunities this season.

Desjardins was this regime’s guy. He was the anti-Torts. The one to nurture the kids after a year of neglect. It’s no surprise, then, that odds-makers don’t favour him to be shown the door any time soon. If, though, the Canucks are really serious about making the playoffs every year during this rebuild, he’ll need to be replaced sooner rather than later.

Giants drop three straight; LEC just a tactic

For the all the talk of what if and if only, there hasn’t been much hope of post-season hockey in Vancouver for some time now; high profile injuries and fair to middling rosters have plagued both the Giants and Canucks all season. At the Coliseum, the G-Men put up a generous fight during the middle part of the season, but a disastrous start has been mirrored by a terrible stretch run to put them a dozen points out of a playoff spot with only a handful of games remaining.

Brodan Salmon makes a save during his fourth WHL start.
Brodan Salmond makes a save during 2nd period WHL action. The first-place Kelowna Rockets held on for a 4-3 win over last-place Vancouver Giants at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

At these high levels of sport, it’s hard to get in the right mindset to compete when the playoffs are off the table. That said, the Giants had given the Western Conference leading Kelowna Rockets all they could handle in back-to-back games just a week prior to Friday’s game. They led early and often in Kelowna before succumbing 6-5 to a late comeback, and were full marks for a 4-2 win over those same Rockets just 24 hours later here in Vancouver. Somehow, they rode Jake Morrissey to a shootout win over the Kamloops Blazers in their third game in three nights last Sunday.

Still, even after picking up four out of a possible six points on the weekend, the Giants sat a full nine points out of that final playoff spot.

Continue reading Giants drop three straight; LEC just a tactic

Giants get the win for Jake’s sake

It’s an all-too familiar story this season: the Vancouver Giants jump out to an early lead, only to see plucky opposition teams chip away and eventually win the game.

Tyler Benson of the Vancouver Giants.
Tyler Benson made a welcome return to the Vancouver Giants lineup in a 4-3 shootout win over the Kamloops Blazers. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

On Sunday, however, playing their third game in as many nights, Vancouver seemed determined to get Jake Morrissey his first win in Giants colours. It was Morrissey’s first start at the Pacific Coliseum; he’d made it into seven games in one form or another earlier in the season, but only been credited with three losses and had that big fat zero looming in the W column for some time.

Continue reading Giants get the win for Jake’s sake

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

The Vancouver Giants took three of a possible four points during WHL action this weekend, keeping their slender playoff hopes alive.  Sitting tenth and last in the Western Conference, the G-Men are nonetheless within an unconverted touchdown of the 8th and final post-season berth at the moment held by the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ Portland Winterhawks. That said, the Hawks have two games in hand, and have put daggers in Vancouver hearts just too many times to think they’ll roll over and die for us in the final 20 games.

Ryan Kubic under a spotlight during player introductions. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Ryan Kubic has been one of the bright spots for the Vancouver Giants this season. His team dropped a 3-2 decision to the Calgary Hitmen in overtime at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

They’ll need a run of strong play and serious puck luck, but the Giants are more likely to catch the equally slimy, smarmy, lecherous Kamloops Blazers, who currently sit in seventh place. Not only are Loops on a horrid run at the moment — having won just two of their last ten games — but the Giants play them head-to-head five times in the final few weeks of the season. That’s ten points up for grabs. Sweep that series, and the Giants are almost guaranteed a playoff spot.

The Vancouver Giants dropped a 3-2 decision to the Calgary Hitmen in overtime at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
The Vancouver Giants dropped a 3-2 decision to the Calgary Hitmen in overtime at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The thing is, much like their NHL cousins up the road at Rogers Arena, the Giants just haven’t shown any kind of consistency to inspire hope for this season. Sure, injuries have played a part — a projected first-round pick in the NHL draft this summer, Tyler Benson has missed most of the season with lower body injuries — but there are games when entire platoons of Giants seem to take the night off.

After a dismal 5-16-4 start to the season, General Manager Scott Bonner started making some roster moves to change the vibe in the dressing room. It seemed to work, as Vancouver put together a remarkable run. They won 12 of the next 18 games. Buzz started circulating about goaltender Ryan Kubic, who rose as one of the team’s more solid pieces. Recent addition Chase Lang has provided timely offence, and a skilful grit around the end boards that the team hasn’t seen since Milan Lucic wore Vancouver colours.

Defenseman Brennan Menell has been wonderful through most of the year — let’s not count his -4 performance against Victoria two weekends ago, because everyone on the team took a nap that night — and has chipped in a respectable 38 points in 52 games from the blueline.

Ty Ronning at the CHL Top Prospects Game. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Ty Ronning scored early, and raised a few eyebrows with his gutsy play, at the CHL Top Prospects Game at the Pacific Coliseum. Team Orr took a 3-2 decision over Team Cherry in an entertaining, skill-filled game. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Forward Ty Ronning has also scored at a wicked pace, earning a place at the CHL Top Prospects game held here a couple of weeks ago. He scored even in that heady arena, with Don Cherry, Bobby Orr and countless hockey pundits in the building, and raised his stock in the June draft immeasurably.

But something clicked off mid-January. Momentum shifted, somehow, and gone are the three- and four-game win streaks. Instead, it’s been .500 hockey for the past dozen or so games. When you’re trying to catch teams in the standings, you need to string together a few Ws. Unfortunately for Vancouver, there’s just been too much reliance upon Ronning and Lang up front, and Kubic at the back end. Without a legitimate second line to help outscore their mistakes, the Giants pretty much have to play perfect hockey to have a hope of extending their season.

Centre Carter Popoff had 64 points two seasons ago, but dropped off to 50 last year and has just 29 this season. Behind him, Alec Baer has a career best 33 points, but he’s a bit of a defensive adventure; Baer is -15 through 52 games, and has a tendency to wander away from his check through the rear two zones of the ice. Slovak winger Radovan Bondra has shown flashes of promise, but only has 18 points in 42 games and an abysmal -18 plus/minus rating.

Owen Hardy punching Bryce Platt. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
I’m not a fan of fisticuffs, but holy hand grenade did Owen Hardy ever pop Bryce Platt in the kisser in this bout. The Vancouver Giants dropped a 3-2 decision to the Calgary Hitmen in overtime at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Overall, let’s be honest, this is a team that probably should be on the bubble. With the man-games they’ve lost to injury, it’s no surprise Vancouver is on the outside looking in again this year. It’s a long shot, but if they put together a few strong outings, especially in those five games against the Blazers, there might just be some post-season play to come.

Chase Lang and Jackson Houck face off at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Chase Lang and Jackson Houck were traded for each other earlier this season. The Vancouver Giants dropped a 3-2 decision to the Calgary Hitmen in overtime at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Ronning & Laberge level up

Ty Ronning was a last-minute addition to the CHL Top Prospects Game — Giants teammate Tyler Benson was unable to go due to injury — but the diminutive winger proved he could run with the big boys on Thursday night at the Pacific Coliseum in front of more than 10,000 fans, media and hockey brass.

Pierre-Luc Dubois stopped by Evan Fitzpatrick
Pierre-Luc Dubois is stopped by Evan Fitzpatrick during second period action in the CHL Top Prospects Game. Team Orr took a 3-2 decision over Team Cherry at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The annual junior hockey showcase started 14 years ago as a friendly $100 wager between Don Cherry and Bobby Orr, but has since grown into one of the premier hockey events in the country. Every NHL team sends a team of scouts and management, and a horde of media representing outlets from across the hockey world descend upon the host venue for three days of testing, promotion and draft day speculation.

Ty Ronning
Ty Ronning did not look out of place, even with Luke Green watching closely on ice and Bobby Orr doing so from the bench. Team Orr took a 3-2 decision over Team Cherry at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

With all that high-level talent in the room, pro teams use this event as a sketchpad for future planning. This year’s class of athlete was no exception, with several players shining big time in the spotlight. Pascal Laberge of the Victoriaville Tigers had his stock go way, way up after netting two goals and setting up the game-winner for Team Orr. Ronning, for his part, skated well and opened the scoring early in the first period. “It was maybe the loudest cheer I’ve ever had,” said Ronning after the game. “It was a real thrill, for sure.”

Dylan Wells in net for Team Orr.
All that talent; you can’t stop ’em all. Dylan Wells allowed this shot past him, high blocker. Team Orr took a 3-2 decision over Team Cherry at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Perhaps the most common refrain of the night: “Good lord, Logan Stanley is a large man.” The 17-year-old from Waterloo, Ontario plays defense for the Windsor Spitfires. He’s listed at 6’7.25″, 225lbs. Put him next to Ty Ronning (5’8.75″, 163lbs),  and you’re not even sure if they’re the same species.

Logan Stanley is a large man.
Logan Stanley is a large man. Team Orr took a 3-2 decision over Team Cherry at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Of course, for old time hockey fans, the figureheads of Don Cherry and Bobby Orr are irresistible. They’re great spokesmen for the game, and especially for the junior game on display here. “I thought every kid here tonight played wonderful hockey. These players, many of them, will be on Hockey Night in Canada for years to come,” said Orr after the game (and after signing countless autographs for excited fans and collectors). “They’re just so well prepared, so well coached, so well conditioned these days.”

Number Four Bobby Orr
Bobby Orr wades through dozens of autograph seekers just to get from the bench to the tunnel to the dressing room. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

When asked what he thinks about the state of the game today, he said there’s a lot to like: “I don’t mind the 3-on-3 overtime. I think that’s exciting. I don’t want to see 3-on-3 games, mind you, but it’s going to be a lot of fun at the All-Star Game. There’s going to be lots of goals scored, I’m sure lots of 3-on-nothings. For an All-Star Game, a special occasion like this, it’s fun.”

What about the Legends? “For the old guys we’d better put more bodies out there. Maybe like rugby, you know, sevens.”

Silvertips waltz away with two points

The Vancouver Giants relied on hustle, muscle, and a little luck on Friday night. However, it wasn’t enough to overcome a fast, skilled Everett Silvertips team at the Pacific Coliseum. The Giants got two goals in quick succession in the first period to briefly hold a 2-1 lead, but let Everett slip away with the two points.

Let’s be honest: the Silvertips should win this game. They’re first in the US Division, and came into the night on a seven-game unbeaten streak. This is a good hockey team.

The Vancouver Giants dropped an entertaining 3-2 decision to the Everett Silvertips in the first home game of 2016. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Sixteen-year-old Riley Sutter hits defenseman Brennan Menell during second period action at the Pacific Coliseum. You read that right: ANOTHER SUTTER. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Ryan Kubic might want the winning goal back, but he can’t be blamed for the loss. He allowed three pucks by him on 22 shots, but good gravy the Tips looked dangerous on just about every rush up the ice.

For his part, Silvertips goalie Carter Hart spent long stretches of the game idle, but made the stops necessary to win the game. The Giants pushed and prodded late, swarming the net and crashing the boards. They even drew a penalty late, and spent the final minute of the game with a 6-on-4 man advantage. It was tense, with most of the 4,000+ fans in the building screaming “SHOOOOOOT” — it was shades of Thomas Gradin here at the Coliseum for a while there — but in the end, the Tips held out for their 25th win of the year.

Ty Ronning nearly potted one in the second period, but he was held to just one assist in a 3-2 loss to the Silvertips. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Ty Ronning nearly potted one in the second period, but he was held to just one assist in a 3-2 loss to the Silvertips. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Want some clichés? The best players on the Tips roster were their best players tonight. Remi Laurencelle got on the board early with a deft redirect from the slot, and had two assists. For the Giants, Chase Lang and Ty Ronning were held goalless — although Lang did hit one hell of a post with 90 seconds left in regulation, and Ronning nearly potted one in the second period — and secondary scoring just didn’t pick up the slack.

The Vancouver Giants dropped an entertaining 3-2 decision to the Everett Silvertips in the first home game of 2016. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Silvertips leading scorer Remi Laurencelle skates away from Giants best point-per-game guy Trevor Cox. The Vancouver Giants dropped an entertaining 3-2 decision to the Everett Silvertips in the first home game of 2016. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The Giants applied a disciplined, physical game, especially in the third period. It’s a good plan when they stick to it, because quick teams like Everett have a hard time adjusting. For the plan to work, however, they need to take advantage of the chances they manage to create. Several Giants had pucks in prime scoring positions, but either had shots blocked or put it right in Hart’s bread basket.

The next Giants game comes tomorrow night against the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ Prince George Cougars. Get your tickets here.

Giants offering more these days

It’s been a tale of two seasons for the Vancouver Giants. Between September 28 and December 6, the team won just six times in 28 tries. Since then, they’ve earned two points in 9 of the last 13 games. This last week alone, the G-men brought home a remarkable ten of twelve available points on a tricky road trip that saw them play five games in four different cities in just eight nights.

Whew. Numbers, right?

The changes started at the top. GM Scott Bonner announced that he would move on at the end of this season, then proceeded to make a schwack of moves to alter the chemistry in the locker room.  And while no one will give up the name(s) of the player(s) who were poison in the room, the team has been playing much better since the moves started.

Ty Ronning has been anything but ugly this season. His 25 goals leads the team. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Ty Ronning has been anything but ugly this season. His 25 goals leads the team. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Ty Ronning has been the very picture of consistency through all the turmoil; his 25 goals sees him among the league’s best snipers. Defenseman Brennan Menell has upped his game in his sophomore season, already eclipsing last year’s offensive output. Netminder Ryan Kubic has been a revelation in the second half, posting three consecutive shutouts at one point.

The much-heralded Tyler Benson has been a point-a-game guy when he’s in the lineup. Sadly, he’s yet to play at 100% this season — management hopes he’ll be back to form by the time the Top Prospects game rolls around later this month.

Tyler Benson has been a force when he's been in the lineup, despite playing at less than 100%. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Tyler Benson has been a force when he’s been in the lineup, despite playing at less than 100%. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The fact is, the G-Men are far more successful, and infinitely more entertaining to watch, when they crash and bang as a team.  They’re doing that right now. As they threaten to make the playoff race interesting, that makes the Coliseuma mighty fine place to be.

The next Giants home game is Friday at 7:30 against the dirty, rotten, stinkin’ Everett Silvertips. Get your tickets here.

Jacob Markstrom and the hooded fang

Jacob Markstrom is a large man.
Jacob Markstrom has found a groove since taking over the reins during the Christmas break. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

If you’re one of the fifteen people who regularly attended Abbotsford Heat games, you’re not surprised to learn that this Jacob Markstrom kid can tend goal. See, before he took the Utica Comets to the AHL championship series last season, Markstrom played three full seasons in the Florida Panthers system (with the Rochester Americans and San Antonio Rampage). Despite lacking a nickname of any sort, Jacob Markstrom seemed to have the local boys’ number.

Here is where a thoughtful writer would put in some research to get actual statistics, but I’m going to eschew that process in favour of made-up stuff. And I’ll also throw random nicknames at the wall in hopes something sticks. Jacob took two-two points out of the Valley like no hooded fang’s business. The Man They Call Mister Marley beat the Heat no fewer than 157 out of 158 games at the Abbotsford Sport and Entertainment Centre over a three-year period, and earned no fewer than seven thousand shutouts.

Okay, so numbers aren’t my strong suit. Suffice to say, the boy can play.

Continue reading Jacob Markstrom and the hooded fang

Houck, Stukel and Porter: Giants no longer

If you’ve spent any amount of time around the Pacific Coliseum this season, you’ve heard someone or other mutter that Vancouver Giants GM Scott Bonner has some tough choices to make. With franchise poster boy Tyler Benson back from off-season surgery to remove a cyst from his low back, not to mention three viable WHL goaltenders crowding the crease, the Giants just had too many hands on deck. A good problem to have, you may say, but with just 10 points in the first 12 games, the G-Men needed a change.

Jackson Houck in one of his last games as a Vancouver Giant. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Jackson Houck wore the captain’s C while Tyler Benson was on the injury list early this season. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Queue the Well-We’ve-Made-a-Bloody-Change music. Bonner has pulled the trigger on a five-player deal with the Calgary Hitmen., easing the strain on the bulging roster while bringing in two NHL draftees. Forwards Jackson Houck and Jakob Stukel head to Calgary, along with goaltender Cody Porter. Coming to Vancouver are defenseman Ben Thomas and right winger Chase Lang.

At 20 years of age, Houck is in his fifth WHL season, all of which have been spent in Vancouver. He has scored 91 goals and 108 assists for 199 points in 267 games, good for seventh spot on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. While Tyler Benson recovered from off-season surgery to remove a cyst from his low back, Houck wore the captain’s C. Houck was not offered a contract by the Edmonton Oilers, who drafted him 94th overall in 2013, and is now a free agent.

Jakob Stukel has four points in 11 games so far this season. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
Jakob Stukel has four points in 11 games so far this season. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

Left winger Jakob Stukel is probably looking forward to a change in scenery after scoring just 16 points in 49 games as a WHL rookie last season. Originally a blue-chip prospect, Stukel has struggled to find rhythm at the WHL level and isn’t listed on many scouts’ radar in this, his draft year. Cody Porter, for his part, likely welcomes a shift as well; he has made just two appearances in the Giants net this season after playing a full 40 games last year.

Coming to Vancouver are a pair of 19-year-old picks in the 2014 NHL Draft. Chosen 119th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning, Ben Thomas offers some help to a Giants back end that has had difficulty closing out games in the third period so far this season. His challenge will be to fill the shoes vacated by Mason Geertsen, who anchored Vancouver defensively as well as quarterbacking the power play.

Chase Lang is a sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Wild (167th overall) who was just shy of a point a game with the high-flying Hitmen last season. Hopefully, he’ll appreciate being closer to his hometown of Nanaimo, and use that to put up some similar numbers at the Coliseum.

With Houck’s departure, the Giants are currently carrying only two overage (20-year-old) players; the WHL maximum is three, and it’s extremely unusual for teams to play a full season without taking advantage of those older bodies on the roster. Look for Scott Bonner to make at least one more deal in further efforts to shake up the lacklustre dressing room that has, frankly, lost too many games for too many seasons.

With the Top Prospects game mere weeks away, the full attention of the country’s best hockey minds will soon land on Vancouver; it’s in Bonner’s best interest to give Tyler Benson every opportunity to shine before then.

Throwback Thursday: Tyler Benson’s first game

Back on November 16, 2013, Tyler Benson made his WHL debut. He wore a full face cage, as rules stipulate Bantam-aged prospects must. He also stood 5’11” and weighed 185 pounds at the time, which should probably be against the rules when you’re 15 years old. Here’s a picture I took at that game, as Benson tried a shifty backdoor play. He didn’t get on the scoresheet that night, but he’s figured prominently in Vancouver ever since.

On the night of Tyler Benson's WHL debut, the Vancouver Giants defeated the Tri-City Americans 5-2 at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.
On the night of Tyler Benson’s WHL debut, the Vancouver Giants defeated the Tri-City Americans 5-2 at the Pacific Coliseum. Photo by Jason Kurylo for Pucked in the Head.

The Giants heralded his debut a full month in advance, and are still getting media attention on his decidedly broad shoulders. Benson is now a full six feet tall and sits much closer to 200 pounds of lean muscle, and he is projected to go as high as 8th in the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo. Despite sitting out tomorrow’s season opener (as he recovers from pre-season surgery that removed a cyst from his tailbone), Benson was today named the captain of the Vancouver Giants for the 2015-16 season.