Royals rookie defenceman Jack Walker threads a pass through Kamloops Blazers defenceman Sam Grist (North Saanich) to teammate

Royals rookie defenceman Jack Walker threads a pass through Kamloops Blazers defenceman Sam Grist (North Saanich) to teammate

Royals about future as team departs for summer

Optimism looms despite playoff exit for young core of Victoria Royals

Life will take care of itself is the motto as the Victoria Royals begin the off season.

On paper there are some tough decisions for coach Dave Lowry and general manager Cam Hope to make when the the Royals return from a five month break to the Western Hockey League in late August.

Returnees, graduating players, and life lessons were the key topics covered as the Victoria media shuffled down the hall from the Men’s World Curling Championships at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre to the Royals dressing room, where the team did exit interviews and said their goodbyes on Tuesday.

But life often has a way of sorting itself out, enough to make those decisions clearer, if not easier, for Hope and Lowry.

For one, it’s possible all five Royals turning 20 this year might not return healthy to start the season. It’s also possible another team or teams will show interest in them and that all five will get a chance to be an over-age player in the WHL, either on the Royals or elsewhere.

Until then, there’s no knowing what will happen to Logan Nelson, Ben Walker, Tim Traber, Jordan Fransoo and Mitch Deacon. All but Fransoo started their WHL careers with the Royals/Chilliwack Bruins.

“We’re glad we’re not making that decision today,” Lowry said. “That’ll all play out and take care of itself. The guys who will be fighting for spots will be here in August for camp.”

The mood during the locker clean-out had a mellow flavour.

“We’re a real disappointed group, but from coaches’ perspective we’re real proud of effort and performance it showed a lot of character, down a lot of bodies,” Lowry said. “Young guys stepped up and at the end of it we ran out of gas.”

The book now closes on this season as the Royals’ brass now move on to scouting for the upcoming WHL Bantam Draft on May 2 in Calgary.

“We have some scouts meetings right away, a prospect camp in the U.S.A. next week followed by some tournaments before the draft,” Hope said.

Expect the Royals to pick up the best players available. That includes possibly taking another goalie at the CHL Import Draft in June, though unlikely, as the team seems content to go with rookies Patrik Polivka and Coleman Vollrath for another season.

All indications are Polivka, the 19-year-old Czech import will be back.

Polivka showed promise as the Royals starter. He began the season strong and was in good form during the team’s great January run that put them temporarily in fourth place.

During the Royals’ February losing streak, however, Polivka lost the starting spot to Vollrath, who put a solid stamp on the year. Prospect Michael Herringer also played, getting his first win.

The team muzzled Polivka from speaking about a lower-body injury that hampered him through the second part of the season. But he says he was healthy for the playoffs, in which he was stellar. As of Wednesday Polivka led all WHL goalies in the playoffs with 244 shots faced and 222 saves.

“I was healthy for the playoffs and I’m good now, I can’t feel (the injury), so I’m just looking forward to next year.”

Polivka will spend the summer in the Czech Republic finishing his final year of high school.

Hope spoke glowingly of Lowry for guiding the Royals to a franchise best record despite the amount of injuries and suspensions to veteran members of the team.

“When we were healthy we had a terrific winning streak. When we weren’t healthy, Lowry was able to get the team to take one of the best teams (Kamloops) in the country to six games, and with a little luck, maybe we could have knocked them off,” Hope said.

This year’s Royals team leaned heavily on its over-agers, Alex Gogolev, Jamie Crooks and Tyler Stahl. The general consensus is it would have been a different playoff series versus the Kamloops Blazers if Royals’ MVP Gogolev and regular-season captain Stahl were available. Both were out with season-ending injuries.

Crooks played all six playoff games and scored three goals and four assists.

As for next year, think Logan Nelson and Ben Walker instead of Gogolev and Crooks, and Fransoo instead of Stahl. Although Traber offers a lot of leadership that could have him sticking around.

Regardless, it will be youth all over again, said Hope.

“Guys who are 17 next year will be taking on leadership roles. Guys who were 17 this year will feel like old men on this team.”

This year’s team played three 16-year-olds on defence, Joe Hicketts, Jack Walker and Ryan Gagnon, and 16-year-old Brandon Fushimi up front. All four played regular roles.

“If we are going to keep our young guys on the team then they’re going to play,” Lowry said. “If we feel 16 year olds can play quality minutes then we feel they have that right.”

Pencil dynamic forward Tyler Soy, who appeared in the playoffs and scored a goal, and defensive prospect Chaz Reddekopp in as next year’s 16-year-olds.