If observers of the Don Hay-coached Vancouver Giants can agree on anything, it's that the team is better than their 26-19-6-3 record indicates. After earning three of four points on the road in Victoria this past weekend, the Giants moved ahead of Everett in the Western Hockey League's Western Conference, up to sixth place. They're going to be in an important fight with the Silvertips for the remainder of the season, in an effort to avoid a dreaded first round match against the loaded Portland Winterhawks, who appear to be locked in the second seed.
But the playoffs are a long way away, and there's work ahead. The Giants have had a much better record than they had at the start of the season. The slogan for the year, which was plastered on posters surrounding the Pacific Coliseum and even the team's press passes "champions under construction". The team is building for a potential MasterCard Memorial Cup host bid in 2016, which will coincidentally be the draft year of their most recent No. 1 overall bantam selection Tyler Benson. It will also be the year the team's No. 1 import pick, Dmitry Osipov, will be playing in his final year of junior hockey before he earns pro eligibility.
Neither Osipov or Benson have been fixtures of the Giants lineup this season. Benson didn't apply for exceptional player status, and Osipov was in and out early on. The Giants this year have been led by a core of veteran players, and only four players on the team were drafted. Captain Dalton Thrower was the highest, selected in the 2nd round, 51st overall by the Montreal Canadiens. The Giants gambled on him in the off-season, making a trade hoping that the Canadiens wouldn't have the contract space to sign Thrower (they didn't) and so he's had to return to the WHL for his overage season, playing the defensive position like a literal man amongst boys, with 39 points in his 42 games on the season while maintaining that physical edge over players younger and smaller, playing key minutes on both the penalty kill and power play.
The remaining Giants selected into the NHL, Jackson Houck, Mason Geertsen and Brett Kulak, were all fourth rounders, and none considered the crown jewel of any prospects system. Essentially, the Giants came into the year with a group of veteran players assembled by various means, with the focus on next year and years to come with the amount of youth in the system.
A funny thing happened: the Giants were very good. Despite a sluggish start with one win in the first ten games, a few observers noted that the Giants were controlling a large portion of their shots on goal. That's Offside!, a WHL contributor for Canucks Army, noted early on in the season that pucks weren't bouncing their way, but after picking up some winds towards the end of October, noted the Giants may be better than their (at the time) 3-14 record:
For once, the bounces have been going the Giants' way on offence. They're shooting at a much more respectable rate of 8.27% this season thanks to four 4+ goal games in their last 5 outings. Not coincidentally, this offensive outburst comes at the same time that Cain Franson and Travis McEvoy return from injury and rookie centre Alec Baer rounds into form. The trio combined for 6 goals and 8 assists in the 3 games this past week, highlighted by this performance against the Calgary Hitmen on Wednesday that featured highlight-reel goals from both Baer and Franson.
Since then the Giants have won 23 of their last 40 games, a very respectable record for a team that has issues in goal. Through this past weekend's games, despite a very strong Friday game against the Royals with a disproportionate number of stops on excellent scoring chances, 1996-born sophomore goaltender Payton Lee has just an .878 save percentage, ranked 22nd out of the league's 31 qualified goaltenders.
Just to put that into mathematical perspective, based on the number of shots Lee has faced and his save percentage, the Giants would have conceded 26 fewer goals this season had they enjoyed a league-average save percentage of .906. This isn't intended to be a knock on Lee, who is still a young goaltender with excellent athletic ability, and goaltending is always a tricky position to judge. Bad luck can give a player a worse save percentage, and in a small sample of games like a half-season of WHL contests, it's not unheard of for a goalie to face more quality attempts.
Still, Lee's defence in front of him was at least excellent in controlling shots on goal against. Only Edmonton's Tristan Jarry and Everett's Austin Lotz have faced less shots per 60 minutes than Lee's 27.7.
Giants assistant coach Matt Erhart confirmed the team's focus on trying to prevent shots by doing the exact opposite: taking shots at the other end. At the most recent report, the team was the 5th best team in the WHL in percentage of shots for.
We're a team that wants to outshoot teams every night. A shot on net's always a good thing, whether it's making their goalie make a save or making the opposing defence turn and play defence in front of the net. And try you make the defence uncomfortable, you know, that's really a staple of our team and I thought early in the year we got off to a tough start with only the one win in our first ten games but we were out-shooting teams and pucks just weren't going in.
Against the Royals on Friday, the Giants kept the shot counter busy after a slow start in the first ten minutes. In the building, the shots on goal were counted as 32-31 for the Royals, which on the surface looks like an even game. The scoring chances, however, were 17-7 for Victoria, so it may come as some surprise that the Giants were able to win the game in a shootout.
So the real question is, "do the shots on goal really matter if the scoring chances are so slanted in favour of one team?"
It's going to happen some nights. We out-chanced a team 21-7 a week ago and we lost, so it will work itself out over a year, you know, 72 games. Trends usually kind of work their way out. But it's nice to be on the other end of it sometimes when you get outplayed and outchanced and you get the win.
It's also worth pointing out that Thrower has been absent from the Giants lineup due to an ankle issue and also various illnesses, so the Giants have had to rely on younger defencemen of late. That means more minutes for Osipov, and bigger roles for 2014 draft eligibles Arvin Atwal and Shaun Dosanjh.
The Giants have controlled 53.9% of shots on goal in their games. Shots on goal are a good measure for statistical analysts since they're reliable in determining which team has the puck, if not necessarily which team is getting the better scoring chances. The Giants took the lead in the Friday game after a shift of sustained pressure but really, keeping their attempts from the outside. However, Victoria didn't cleanly break out of the zone, and Joel Hamilton was able to create a two-on-one off a turnover in the neutral zone, which resulted in a go-ahead goal for Tim Traber.
So it's a bit ironic that the "under construction" label was a bit flawed. Somehow by accident, it seems, Giants management built a team that could be an elite group, depending on what measurements you're using.
But they're also a dangerous team. Lee has shown he can be a dominant goaltender for small stretches (and really, every goaltender in the WHL is good enough to do so) which could make the Giants a candidate to upset a team in the first round of the playoffs, if Thrower is able to get healthy and stay healthy. Despite not being loaded with future NHLers, the Giants' key contributors are in their 18, 19 and 20-year-old seasons and it's important for good teams to have a strong core of veterans.
What's the term for this group? Sleeping Giants?