Thirty-one games remain in their WHL regular season, but the slumping Vancouver Giants are already looking ahead to next year, and several years after that, as they rebuild for the future.
Their plans includes Shaughnessy skater Luca Leone, a 16-year-old right winger whom the Giants picked up from the Coquitlam Express and signed on Jan. 3. Not since Evander Kane, who played three seasons for Vancouver until he was picked fourth overall in the 2009 NHL draft, has a Vancouverite been on the Giants roster.
"It's a surreal feeling to be part of such a great organization," Leone said the next day from his West Side home as he packed before joining the Giants on an Alberta road-trip. "I haven't actually had the pleasure to skate with any of the guys on the team. Hopefully I fit in well. I'm looking forward to skating with the other 16-year-olds on the team and hopefully making a difference and winning some games."
The Giants might be eyeing the future but still have their sights set on the present. They are 11-30 in 41 games and sit last in the Western Conference, seven points behind the Prince George Cougars.
Vancouver coach Don Hay said he expects Leone to develop quickly as he adjusts to the more competitive WHL. The more games each player logs this season means improved team chemistry and experience for next year. The Giants also called up 17-year-old defenceman Arvin Atwal.
"Younger players are our future in the rebuilding mode that were in right now," said Hay. "The more experience he can get this year, [is] going to help him understand, going ahead, what he's got to do to become a better player."
If the Giants weren't in the league basement, Leone may have waited another season to join the roster. Either way, the six-foot, 190-pound forward would not have been passed over.
"If we were having a better season, things would obviously have a different mindset," said Hay, "so that's a real tough question to answer. But saying that, Luca was in our plans for the future. Probably, the future meaning next year, but seeing what the situation is at now, we thought that it would be important for us and for him to bring him in at this time."
As teenage boys often do, Leone will continue to fill in and benefit hugely from the Giants strength and conditioning program. He will adjust to the austere pace, high level of competition and new systems.
"He'll have this summer to work on it," said Hay. "That's why we brought him in early. If we waited until the summer to bring him in, he wouldn't experience all these things. It's a good learning time for him."
Leone scored four goals and added two assists in 29 games for the Express of the Junior A B.C. Hockey League.
Coquitlam coach Jon Calvano described Leone as an offensive asset. "Luca Leone is a strong skater with a quick release with tremendous work ethic," he said.
The Giants owned Leone's rights but the forward didn't attend pre-season camp this summer, so coach Hay had never seen him skate until Leone was flown into Red Deer to join Vancouver on a five-game road trip through Alberta. In a 5-4 win over the Rebels, Leone notched a power play assist. In a 5-0 loss against the defending champion Edmonton Oil Kings, Leone was minus-1 and drew penalty minutes.
Hay was pleased.
"I thought he did very well," said the coach. "We played against three different teams, three very competitive teams and I thought for a young guy not having the luxury to have practised with us, he stepped in and handled himself very well. That just shows that he's got really good hockey sense and has a good feeling for how to play the game."
Leone, who will wear No. 19 for the Giants, attended private Catholic elementary school OLPH before moving to Minnesota prep school, Shattuck St. Mary, which was also the stomping grounds of Sidney Crosby.
So far, Hay likes his attitude. "He's got a smile on his face and he digs in and helps out whenever he's needed," he said.
And Leone wants to make his mark on the Giants.
"I'd love to contribute and help. I'm going to try hard to do that and hopefully get some Ws," he said. "I want to show them that I'm hard-working and that I'll bang bodies and hopefully bury one when I get the opportunity."
More goals and Giants wins? Vancouver wants these, too.