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The Victoria Grizzlies are a team in transition

March 3, 2020, was the day the Victoria Grizzlies 2019-20 season ended after they were swept in round one of the playoffs at the hand of an unfamiliar playoff opponent in Salmon Arm. It was a strange season not just for the Grizzlies but for the entire BCHL as well, with the cancellation of the remainder of the 2020 playoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the Grizzlies managed to clinch a spot in the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year the entire season felt like a blur. Throughout the last decade, expectations in Victoria have always been to be a top team in the Island Division and go on a deep playoff run. It’s an expectation fostered by many successful seasons over the last 10 years and successful graduates of the team who have been drafted to the NHL, moved on to NCAA Div. 1 and beyond. 

Pre-season expectations

The Grizzlies lost many star players who either aged out or moved on to college hockey at the end of a successful 2018-19 season. Among them were NHL draft picks Alex Newhook (Colorado 2019 first round pick), Carter Berger (Florida 2019 fourth round pick), Alex Campbell (Nashville 2019 third round pick), and Riley Hughes (New York Rangers 2018 seventh round pick).

The expectation from many in Victoria was that the Grizzlies could remain a top three team in the Island Division with signings and commitments from players last offseason such as Joe Howe, Liam Souliere, Brendan Bowie, Cody Monds, Isack Bandu, and James Davenport. But, after a not ideal start in September with a record of 3-5-0 and underperformance of some of the signings from the offseason, it was clear this was not the same Grizzlies team from the previous year that reached the third round of the playoffs.

What went wrong for the Grizzlies

With the rise of teams in the Island such as the Cowichan Valley Capitals and Nanaimo Clippers and the underperformance of the Grizzlies, Victoria finished with the worst record in the division at 24-33-1 for a measly 49 points. The Grizz still managed to clinch a wild card playoff spot due to the 2019-20 BCHL post-season format, with only one team in the league missing out.

The main reason for the Grizzlies struggles this past season was their inability to score as they finished with the least amount of goals scored in the division and fourth-least in the entire league. Only three players on the team scored more than 40 points this past season. Cody Monds had 59 points, Henri Schreifels picked up 45 points, and Marty Westhaver posted 44 points. Add a struggling defense to the offense and you shouldn’t expect much success, with the Grizzlies finishing with the highest goals-against on the Island and third most against in the entire BCHL.

Bad luck comes into effect as well for a poor season for many junior hockey clubs, as Victoria was no different. Included in that is a long-term injury to Liam Souliere, a goalie from Blainville, Quebec who the Grizz acquired in the offseason and was expected to be the starting goalie for the season. But, he was limited to only fifteen games in the regular season.

Souliere didn’t make his Grizzlies debut until January 4 in a loss to the Penticton Vees. During those fifteen games, Souliere put up a very respectable .917 save percentage in the high-scoring BCHL and a Grizzlies team that struggled to keep the puck out of the net. Souliere isn’t back with the Grizzlies next season as he is committed to playing Div. 1 hockey at Penn State this fall.

Transition into the future

Although last season was a forgettable one for the Grizzlies, it is the circle of life for every team in junior A hockey. For a few years, a team can be a contender, but players age out and move on and teams are back in transition mode looking to recapture the magic of a previous championship or streak of contending seasons.

As of right now, the Grizzlies are a team in transition trying to recapture the magic of the Alex Newhook years wearing the black, gold, and white, and bring a Fred Page Cup championship back to the city of Victoria for the first time since 2001.