The Victoria Royals have hit the road for the next few weeks, commencing a 5-game trip that won’t bring them back to town until December 15th.
So far this season, the Royals have been opportunistic, leading to a 15-11-0-2 record, positioning them in 4th place in the Western Conference and 2nd in the BC Division.
Both the Western Conference and BC Division seem diluted this year. In the Division, only Prince George and Victoria maintain an above .500 record, while the Western Conference hosts six teams playing at .500 or above.
In contrast, out east, eight teams are at .500 or above.
This sets the stage for an opportune moment for the Royals and their fans to relish playoff hockey for the first time since 2019. The timing couldn’t be more perfect for the Royals’ ascension.
However, there’s still plenty of work to do. Here are five significant storylines for the season thus far.
Cole Reschny ascends ahead of schedule
It’s been impossible not to include the rise of Reschny in anything we write, as the 16-year-old continues to impress.
Selected as the 3rd overall pick in the 2022 WHL Bantam Draft, expectations were high. However, there’s no issue with a player using their 16-year-old season to adjust to the size, pace, and style of WHL hockey, and then becoming an impact player in their 17-year-old season.
Reschny just hasn’t needed that.
Including his four game cameo last year as a 15-year-old and the first five games of the season, Reschny’s nine game WHL career to that point looked as expected—a young, skilled kid figuring out what it takes to succeed in the Western League.
He scored two goals and zero assists over those first nine games.
But the following 16 games of his short WHL career thus far have been nothing short of spectacular.
Reschny has only been held off the scoresheet twice in the past 18 games, scoring 11 goals and 26 points along the way. He’s third in rookie scoring leaguewide, and was named the WHL’s Rookie of the Month for November.
His 14 game point streak from October 9th to November 24th is the fourth longest in the entire WHL so far.
He also scored his first career hat trick on Tuesday, becoming the youngest player in Victoria Royals/Chilliwack Bruins history to do so.
Youngest tricks, Bruins / Royals history:
16 y, 7 m, 22 d – Cole Reschny (11/28/23)
17 y, 3 m, 12 d – Ryan Howse (10/18/08)
17 y, 4 m, 1 d – Howse (11/7/08)
17 y, 5 m, 21 d – Howse (12/27/08)
17 y, 5 m, 28 d – Howse (1/3/09)
17 y, 7 m, 12 d – Matthew Phillips (11/18/15) https://t.co/g11Tc19lda
— Geoffrey Brandow (@GeoffreyBrandow) November 29, 2023
Oh, and he also scored this goal back in October against Vancouver.
The kid seems to be good at ice hockey.
Justin Kipkie and Nate Misskey are anchoring the blueline
Entering the season, it seemed that the Royals’ blue line could emerge as a significant strength, boasting talents like Justin Kipkie, Nate Misskey, Kalem Parker, and Austin Zemlak, forming a formidable top four core.
The intrigue heightened with the slim possibility of Gannon Laroque being returned by the San Jose Sharks for his overaged WHL season.
However, Laroque didn’t return, and Parker has since been traded. Yet, the blue line persists as a force, credited to the strong performances of Kipkie and Misskey, who typically anchor their respective defensive pairs.
Misskey has been an offensive dynamo, scoring 5 goals and 24 points through 28 games thus far, good for 8th in the league among defenceman. His 92 shots on goal are second in the league from the blue line.
There were reasonable questions as to whether the Royals would have the answer to filling in Parker’s absence on the blue line offensively, and Misskey has answered that and then some. He’s showing exactly why he was invited to the Edmonton Oilers development camp back in September and is rated as a player to watch for the 2024 NHL Entry Draft.
Kipkie, meanwhile, has been effective in more subtle ways. The smooth skating, six foot three defender has been a defensive beast in transition, using his mobility and length to stop plays dead in their tracks in the neutral zone. He’s also been excellent in winning battles along the boards.
Underrated, too, is Kipkie’s offensive contributions. He earned the rare defenseman hat trick against Kelowna on November 13th, including burying the overtime winner. He has 21 points in 27 games so far.
The Arizona Coyotes, who drafted Kipkie in the 5th round in last year’s draft, are surely pleased with his progress.
And the Royals must be happy with the progression of their two six foot three pillars on the blue line.
Special teams becoming an increasing concern
There’s always two sides to the coin when a team with a winning record has mediocre special teams.
One side is that they’re winning hockey games with below average special teams, meaning they’re finding ways to win at five-on-five. The other asks the question of how good they could be if improvements were made.
The Royals power play is clicking at a 17.5% rate, which puts them 20th in the league. Their penalty kill, meanwhile, is a bit better at 14th, killing off 78% of opposing power plays.
Special teams have a funny way of impacting games, as even if you don’t score on a power play, a positive one can generate momentum for the players and energy in the crowd. And any good Canadian fanbase knows to cheer for a gutsy shot block on the penalty kill.
But it’s the timing of special teams that can be huge over the course of a hockey game, and the Royals’ 0/3 power play Wednesday night against Kamloops comes to mind. A 1-1 hockey game in the 2nd period saw the Royals with two power plays in the period, but came up empty handed. The Royals went on to lose 3-2, though Kamloops certainly found some puck luck in the third period.
It’s where the Royals success as a rush team becomes evident. They’ve been lethal on the counter attack and in rush situations, but aren’t generating as much through cycling the puck and maintaining possession.
That appears to be translating to the power play.
They’ve been successful at gaining the zone and maintaining possession, but aren’t quite creating the quality opportunities you need to score regularly.
Perhaps as head coach James Patrick gets more time with the squad, they’ll improve in that regard.
Victoria boys on the blue line showing impressive growth
Ryan Spizawka and Seth Fryer represent the two Victoria-born players on the Royals, and both have shown significant improvement this year compared to last.
And their play styles couldn’t be more different.
Spizawka is a bit undersized at five foot ten, but has beaten the odds as a 2019 7th round pick and turned into a valuable player on the backend. When Parker was traded in October, there were real questions as to who would step up to play in the top four with Kipkie, Misskey, and Zemlak.
It’s been Spizawka, who has been a good complement to Kipkie. He’s agile, gets the puck off his stick quickly, and has generally offered quality minutes in a top four role.
Fryer, meanwhile, is almost the polar opposite of Spizawka at six foot seven, though he too has beaten the odds after being drafted in the 10th round in 2021.
The 17-year-old still has much to improve at, but you can see the tools that have him rated as a “player to watch” by the NHL’s Central Scouting Services for the 2024 NHL draft.
There was a shift in Wednesday’s game against Kamloops that showed what Fryer can bring. He completely obliterated an opponent along the boards before finding the puck a few seconds later, skating around an opponent, and firing off a crisp pass.
As with most big men in hockey, the defensive traits are obviously appealing. How much his puck skills and skating improve will determine just how high he can climb. But so far, it looks like the Royals have a good piece for the blue line moving forward.
Which version of the Victoria Royals are real?
The final storyline of the Royals so far is trying to make sense of what this team actually is. They’ve had some blowout losses, some impressive come-from-behind victories, and have also scored the 8th most goals in the league while allowing the 2nd most.
They’ve had both a four game losing streak and a four game win streak.
They’re clearly better than some of their Divisional rivals – namely Vancouver, Kamloops, and Kelowna – and are 8-4-1 against the division, with two of those losses coming against the mighty Prince George Cougars (18-7-0-0), who are pacing the Western Conference.
They’ve scored five goals or more five times, while allowing five goals or more nine times.
They’ve shown an ability to stay in games and come from behind, but have also fallen behind early more than you’d prefer.
Their record by month is interesting too:
- September, 0-4-0-0
- October, 7-2-0-0
- November, 8-5-0-1
A horrible start, a great recovery, and then a solid month of November.
The Royals are also 6-4-0-1 since James Patrick took over as head coach.
All of that is to say that if nothing else, this year’s Royals are entertaining. There’s been significant improvement compared to past years, but also plenty of room for growth.
The Royals are seemingly on the rise, but don’t take our word for it. Catch the boys in black n blue back in action in December, when they host the Tri-City Americans for a Friday-Saturday series.
In the meantime, you can cheer the boys on as they start their longest road trip of the season thus far.