08 February 2018 0 Comments Posted By : Steve Ewen

Giants could need even more of Watts next season after losing 80 goals to pro ranks

Consider this current Vancouver Giants stretch as another job interview for Brayden Watts in his bid for an increased scoring role next season.

With Milos Roman (ankle) remaining on the disabled list, Giants coach Jason McKee has toyed with his forward lines of late and has had the smart, savvy Watts playing on the No. 1 unit, alongside Ty Ronning and Davis Koch.

Ronning graduates from the WHL at the end of the season. Tyler Benson is likely gone, too, expected to spend his 20-year-old campaign next year somewhere in the Edmonton Oilers’ system rather than returning to junior. When the dust clears, that will be somewhere in the vicinity of 80 goals gone from the Vancouver lineup in just two moves.

Vancouver can return five defencemen next year who have seen substantial playing time this season, including Bowen Byram, who is already getting some buzz as a potential high pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Starting goalie David Tendeck can come back, as can Roman and James Malm, who have been Vancouver’s top-two centres for the much of the campaign.

The biggest concern will be replacing the missing scoring punch, and Watts should get a crack at doing that. Going into a Wednesday visit to the Kelowna Rockets, he was fourth on the team in goals, his 12 trailing Ronning (47), Benson (19) and Malm (17).

It’s hard to guess what he might be capable of doing. Dramatic jumps in production are frequent at the junior level. Ronning, for instance, scored 25 times last season. Watts had seven goals in 70 games a campaign ago.

“He’s got the skills to do it,” McKee said of Watts, 18, being a top-six winger full-time. “He has an underrated shot. I’d like to see him shoot it more. He’s got the vision and offensive instincts. He’s quicker than he was last year, but that’s something he can improve on and he will improve on it naturally as he gets stronger.”

Watts, who came to the Giants at the January trade deadline last season from the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Thomas Foster swap, has shown this season that he can score in spurts. Seven of Watts’s first dozen goals came in the first nine games of the campaign, when he was playing mostly on Vancouver’s No 2 unit, with Malm and Brendan Semchuk.

Benson was activated soon after that, and put with Malm and Semchuk. Watts had a variety of linemates on Vancouver’s third and fourth units for a time before McKee set out to create a hard-nosed shutdown line he could use against opponents’ top trios and put Watts, Jared Dmytriw and Owen Hardy together.

They had some success for a time, but, with Roman out, Vancouver was having problems scoring, and McKee came up with the current makeup of Watts and Ronning on Koch’s wings. There’s no word on when Roman might be back, but his return would shuffle up the lineup once more.

“There’s been some ups-and-down this year, and it’s helped me learn that being consistent is something that you really have to focus on throughout the year,” said Watts, a left-handed shot who’s capable of playing either wing. “I’m just trying to grow off that.

“In the off-season, I need to focus on getting stronger, faster … the usual stuff. Consistency would be the big thing right now, though.”

Watts is from Bakersfield, Calif., but played the later stages of minor hockey in the Arizona Bobcats’ system, the Phoenix-based club that was also home to Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews.

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