Victoria Grizzlies look to future with holes to fill up front

Cleve Dheensaw

Top three scorers, Picard, Bohn, Gorton move on.

Victoria Grizzlies’ rearguard Hoyt Stanley, the 77th-ranked North American skater for this year’s NHL draft, is eligible to return next season but will likely begin his NCAA career at Cornell in the fall. Stanley and graduating San Jose Sharks-drafted Grizzlies captain Eli Barnett, headed to the NCAA with the University of Vermont Catamounts, leave the biggest holes to fill on an otherwise mostly-intact returning blue line for the Grizzlies.

“I learned a lot here about hockey IQ, and being consistent on both sides of the puck, but moving on to Cornell and facing the increased speed, and players up to 24-years-old, is best for my development,” said Stanley, of his decision.

There is an outside chance Stanley returns to the Grizzlies, pending on what the NHL team who drafts him thinks is best, and the West Vancouver product would certainly be welcomed back.

“Those feet are special,” said Grizzlies head coach and GM Rylan Ferster, about Stanley.

“When it all comes together, he is going to be a special talent.”

Ferster looked ahead after his B.C. Hockey League Coastal Conference sixth-seed Grizzlies were swept 4-0 by the third-seed Alberni Valley Bulldogs in the conference playoff quarter-finals.

“It’s still fresh and will take a couple of days [to absorb it],” said Ferster.

“The first couple of days are always the worst because you go from the immediacy of planning for your next practice and your next game to it suddenly ending and there’s nothing.”

After the exit interviews ­Friday, the planning begins for next season. What Ferster doesn’t have to worry too much about is the back end, whether Stanley returns or not.

“Almost our whole blue line group is returning,” added ­Ferster.

He pointed to the emergence late in the season of returning defencemen Nathan King and Tim Busconi. Both are committed to NCAA programs the seasons after next, King to Merrimack and Busconi to 2023 Frozen Four team Boston University.

“King and Busconi really took off and broke through,” said Ferster.

Another key returning blue-liner will be veteran assistant captain Justin Gibson, a native of Pittsburgh, and brother of Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson.

The Grizzlies are also set in goal. Oliver Auyeung-Ashton, one of three finalists for both the BCHL rookie-of-the-year and top goaltender awards, was a revelation in the crease.

“It isn’t often in Junior A that you have your starting goaltender returning,” said Ferster.

The team will be looking for a back-up, however, with Ansel Holt off to the NCAA with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Up front will be the focus of most of the Grizzlies’ off-season recruiting with forwards Jack Gorton and Owen Bohn NCAA-bound for Boston University and Augustana, respectively, and assistant captains Noah Leibl and Devon deVries graduating along with fellow 20-year-old forward Olivier Picard.

“We lose five forwards but Luc Pelletier is someone to build around,” said Ferster, of the returning forward from ­Courtenay, who is committed to NCAA Princeton of the Ivy League for 2024-25.

Another key forward returnee will be Reegan Hiscock, committed to Northeastern of the NCAA.

Ferster inherited this team when he took over the Grizzlies last May. Even though it wasn’t really his own, he said it was a solid unit that listened and worked hard.

“I’ve been coaching a long time and this was one of my favourite groups and I say that sincerely,” said Ferster.

“We had no issues and these players laid a foundation for the returning guys and the guys we will be bringing in.”

The veteran mentor can now put more of his own stamp on the team. He is backed by a career of experience in doing so. Ferster’s first 2 ½ season tenure with the Grizzlies included coaching future Dallas Stars captain and Olympic gold-medallist Jamie Benn, Stanley Cup-champion Tyler Bozak and NHLer Jordie Benn. Ferster also coached 2004 NHL first-round draft picks Travis Zajac and Chris Chucko with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. The 54-year-old also guided the 2015-16 West Kelowna Warriors to the BCHL and RBC Cup national Junior A championships and took Salmon Arm to the 2003-04 BCHL final before losing to the Nanaimo Clippers.

“Next season starts today. Recruiting is 365 and 24/7. The white board is already filled with writing as we now put our own spin on things,” said Ferster.

“We already have ­[unannounced] commitments for next season.”

Meanwhile, other BCHL teams are still engaged in the current post-season. In the other Coastal Conference playoff quarter-final series, the conference top-seed Nanaimo Clippers — with interim coach Dave Liffiton behind the bench in place of the suspended Colin Birkas — took a 3-2 lead against the surprisingly stubborn eighth-seed Langley Rivermen with a 5-2 victory Thursday night at Frank Crane Arena in the Harbour City. The sixth game is tonight in Langley. The second-seed Surrey Eagles defeated the seventh-seed Powell River Kings 8-2 Thursday on the Lower Mainland to win their series against the seventh-seed Kings 4-1. The fifth-seed Chilliwack Chiefs led the fourth-seed Coquitlam Express 3-1 in their series heading into Friday night’s late-finishing game.