It can be difficult, in the immediate aftermath of a disappointing playoff loss, to focus on the positives.
However, that’s exactly what Surrey Eagles head coach Cam Keith is trying to do, a week after his junior ‘A’ squad was swept in four straight games by the Nanaimo Clippers in the first-round of BC Hockey League playoffs.
This year’s team, Keith has pointed out a few times during the season, was the league’s youngest, with many of those young players – led by 16-year-old University of North Dakota-bound Grayden Slipec – in key roles, rather than as supporting acts on a veteran-laden team, as is often the case in junior hockey.
Those young players were thrust into even bigger roles in the first-round showdown with the Clippers, Keith noted, considering team captain, defenceman Jimmy Darby, was suspended for all four games, and another veteran blue-liner, Brody Gagno, didn’t play at all after suffering a season-ending injury that required surgery.
“We’re disappointed with how the playoffs ended. We thought we had a good opportunity to beat Nanaimo based on how we played against them in the regular season, but… we were really light on the blue line, and young,” Keith said.
“At this time of year, it’s a lot to ask (of young players) to fill those roles.”
That said, the Eagles still finished the regular season above .500 – with a regular-season record of 28-26 (win-loss) – and Keith saw enough development from his young players that he’s already excited about next season, which he hopes will lead to improvement in the standings while other older teams take a step back due to players graduating the junior ranks.
“Coming out of COVID (and the 20-game ‘pod’ season), there was so much transition and change throughout the league, that we thought the league might be a bit younger this year,” he explained. “We thought it would be a good opportunity to sign some good, younger kids, to get our program ready for the next two or three years.
“Nanaimo was built the complete opposite of us – they don’t have any young kids, they’re all older guys, 19 and 20 (years old). They’re big and heavy, and built for this year, so it turned out to just not be a good matchup for us.
“But next year, it’ll be a good year in the cycle for us to push for a championship… we’ll be in a much better place in the next few years because we got through that first one, that transition stage. We’re really excited for the future.”
Though a lot can change between now and the start of the next season, Keith said that as many as 14 players from this year’s roster could return. He was particularly high on the potential of Slipec, as well as young defenceman Tate Taylor, who doesn’t turn 18 until next month, and Ty Brassington, who turned 18 this week.
Slipec scored 18 goals and added 17 assists in 54 regular-season games, and added three more points in four playoff games.
“Down the stretch he was one of our best forwards, and he put up almost 40 points as a 16-year-old. In junior hockey, with how kids develop, that usually means he’s going to have a pretty massive second year,” Keith said.
“A lot of kids will take that natural leap next year.”
Though Keith, who also serves as associate general manager, and GM Blaine Neufeld made a conscious effort to stock the team with young, local talent with an eye to the future, Keith said by no means were they punting on this season.
“We still had a team that was good enough to do something in the playoffs, he said.
Now he hopes the pain of losing in four straight will help motivate the team this off-season and into the 2022-23 schedule.
“That’s the positive of losing in the playoffs – this is a young team that had to play through it, and play through the pain of losing those four straight games,” he said. “As much as you don’t want anyone to have a bad experience, you can turn that into a positive. You can look at it and go, ‘I wasn’t good enough this year’ and then come back and use that to propel you.
“The guys are going to want to come back and prove themselves, and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun next year.”