If ever there was a season that could be held up about the way plans can change in junior hockey, the current edition of the Vancouver Giants would be one. Always expected to be a battling team rather than a dominant team, troubles in goal and a lack of forward depth has pushed the Giants into full-on rebuilding mode.
Going into the season, the Giants knew they had holes but they didn’t think that defence would be an issue. They had two highly-touted NHL prospects in David Musil and Brett Kulak to lead they way.
But Musil has been traded and they’ve lost leading scoring Marek Tvrdon for the season. The goalie situation has been upturned, with 16-year-old prospect Payton Lee minding the crease – probably a year earlier than expected – and most games finishing with the opposition on top.
It’s a difficult situation for any player.
Making the Most of it
On Wednesday, Kulak and his mates dropped a tough 2-1 loss to the Moose Jaw Warriors, a game where the Giants had plenty of chances but had more than enough trouble hitting the net. Close but no cigar is becoming the catch-phrase to describe the Vancouver season.
"It’s always tough when it’s a tie game all that long and they end up scoring," said Kulak. "For me, I’m just going to try to keep things simple and focus on the next game coming. And try to live in the now and not so much get caught up in looking at what’s ahead just make the plays."
Entering the season, Don Hay and his coaching staff had a set of expectations for Kulak, including that he play like he could be a number one defenceman. With Musil’s departure, Kulak is now clearly ‘that guy.’ Against Moose Jaw, he played a steady game, carrying the puck up-ice confidently, as the team expects him to do. But looking across the ice, there was Morgan Rielly, the embodiment of the kind of player Kulak says he would like to be.
"It’s nice to go up against a guy like that," he said. "It gives me a chance to see where I’m at and where I need to get to."
"He’s a pretty strong kid, he’s a really good skater and he’s got a good shot too. It just shows me where I need to get to. He definitely has the ability to take over," he said.
He looks across the ice and he also sees how to build self-belief.
"Confidence, it comes from the big plays, if you want to go for a rush, just get more confidence with the puck," he said.
With his mental and physical game progressing, it’s now down to how he develops as a leader. The team is not shy of veterans – captain Wes Vannieuwenhuizen and leading scorer Trevor Cheek are two strong presences – but there are plenty of young players who are being asked to do things they’ve never before contemplated.
"You really got to be a leader for the younger guys," Kulak said. "You’ve got to compete hard to show the younger guys what it takes to play in this league."
In the end, thinking the game will be what takes Kulak forward. Even away from the rink, he’s thinking about the game, he admits, letting himself just a few breaks off.
"I play video games a little bit with the roommate but sometimes I’ll take a game tape; just pick out thing you did wrong. Sometimes you pick what you did well," he said.
If studying game tape isn’t a sign of focus and determination, it’s hard to say what is.