Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘An important day for us’: Victoria Royals GM Heisinger prepares for draft next week

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The Victoria Royals enter the 2024 offseason having taken a modest step forward, after making the playoffs this past season for the first time since 2019.

Recently promoted general manager Jake Heisinger will get his first chance to run the drafts for the Royals, after being hired in late July last summer.

The short, two-round U.S. Prospects Draft is May 8th, while the WHL Bantam Draft is the following day, May 9th. The Royals hold two first round picks in the WHL Bantam Draft, 8th and 18th overall.

Heisinger’s first draft and full off season running the show will be a critical one.

With two first round picks, the team has high quality picks available and are set to make seven selections overall in the first four rounds alone. Given that this draft is the one directly following the Cole Reschny (3rd overall in 2022 WHL Draft) and Keaton Verhoeff (4th in 2023) drafts, the Royals have an opportunity to add onto those two core pieces and create a string of successful drafts.

“I would say it’s real important,” Heisinger told Victoria Buzz in April. “We do have a number of high picks and that gives us an opportunity to select a number of good players.”

“Its going to be an important day for us.”

With this draft is also an opportunity for the Royals management to make good on one of their signature moves, which was deciding to trade then-18 year old players such as Kalem Parker and Brayden Schuurman for Ben Riche and a bunch of draft picks – namely 1st round selections in both 2024 and 2026.

“Yeah, we just felt that to kind of move forward here and really build something long term, it was important to get those draft picks,” Heisinger said in reflection of the October blockbuster.

“And at the same time, we felt that we had some young players that would benefit from the increased opportunity.”

It’s now time to start turning that trade into tangible assets by making good on that extra first round pick.

Heisinger and his scouting staff have spent plenty of time evaluating this 2009-born group of players, spending the last month taking in some of the final events on their scouting calendar – namely the Alberta and BC Cups. These are showcase events designed with the intent of giving kids one last chance to make an impression. But they are select teams, so you do have to make the cut to be there.

“These are really good events and an opportunity for us to see everyone under one roof.”

While the scouting staff will no doubt be making final tweaks to their draft lists over these final few days, there may be extra scrutiny in this process given the Royals have two first round selections – just the second time in franchise history they’ll have that luxury.

Last time it happened, way back in 2012, the Royals came away with Tyler Soy (8th overall) and Chaz Reddekopp (13th overall). Soy is the franchise leader in every major offensive category, while Reddekopp was a stalwart on the blue line for 5 seasons and played 280 games as a Royal, 6th most all time. Things seemed to have worked out.

Today’s version of the Royals could use some more bite offensively, given their mature blue line and lack of depth up front beyond the second line. But that doesn’t mean Heisinger will be drafting for today’s roster holes.

“You’re always trying to take the best players available, especially early on in the draft,” Heisinger said. “As the draft kind of goes on, you can look to see where things are at positionally and how the early rounds played out.”

Drafting twice in the first round gives Heisinger two chances to bring players into the organization that possess premium skills. As you progress in the draft, the players available slowly tick less and less boxes, so it’s important to make good on those first round selections.

“Throughout the draft you’re looking for speed, skill, and hockey sense. In the first round obviously you’re hoping to select impact players. Even as the draft goes on, you’re kind of looking for the same type of player, but maybe [with a little bit of] difference to kind of complement some of the picks we made earlier.”

“But overall, we’re looking for speed, skill and hockey sense. We want to be a fast team that plays hard and is hard to play against.”

Other than the obvious opportunity to add top tier talent to the franchise, the abundance of draft picks also means a chance to build organizational depth and meaningful internal competition. There are always savvy signings and trades that can happen throughout the course of a season, but there is no more straightforward way to improve your organization that converting your draft picks into WHL-caliber talent.

Elite teams don’t just have talented players at the top of the lineup, they have meaningful contributors at every corner of the roster. And internal competition throughout.

When asked about some of his biggest takeaways after contributing to a largely successful Kootenay/Winnipeg Ice franchise for 5 years, those were the concepts that emerged.

“The biggest and most important thing is just the culture, your culture you create,” Heisinger said. “That competitive culture where guys are pushing each other and, you know, are really driven to get better each and every day.”

It’s hard to pinpoint where and exactly how one creates that environment, but it is something that can be built over time with the right coaches and team leaders in place.

But it’s not just up to the coaches – it helps tremendously when the team’s best players bring a thirst for victory and a competitive edge, too. The rest of the team is very likely to follow.

It appears the Royals have a good starting point for that quest, having now spent a year getting to understand their 2022 3rd overall pick, Cole Reschny. His talent on the ice is hard to miss – sleek hands, impressive vision, and shifty skating ability – but it’s also his pride in all three zones and non-stop motor that makes him such a critical piece of the Royals mission to climb the standings.

“Everyone sees what (Cole) does on the ice, which is obviously, really, really important and a huge part of our success,” Heisinger said. “But off the ice, he’s a real competitive kid that really wants to win and is a major driver in that competitive culture that we’re trying to create here.”

It’s the combination of Reschny and Verhoeff – who showed impressively in 16 combined regular season and playoff games as a 15-year old – that makes this draft all the more interesting. The Royals have their two pillars to build around, but they can’t do it alone.

“They’re obviously two really good young players,” Heisinger said. “And Keaton is the same as Cole in the sense of [being] really competitive and driven.”

The future appears to be bright in Victoria.

And the Royals will have a chance to further brighten that future next week at the draft table.

Jeremy Weeres
Jeremy Weeres
Victoria Royals and hockey writer at Victoria Buzz

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