VANCOUVER - Vancouver Giants' coach Don Hay says he begins every new season hoping someone from last year's squad will jump up and surprise him with his improved production.
This season, that pleasant surprise goes by the name of Carter Popoff.
A five-foot-nine, 176-pound centre from the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, B.C., Popoff was just one of a group of largely faceless rookies who last year saw the once-contending Giants skate to the poorest record in the entire Western Hockey League. The then-17-year-old player appeared in 63 WHL games, but recorded just 15 goals and 12 assists.
This season the talented forward leads the team with 51 points, good enough to place him among the WHL's top 25 in scoring.
"You always hope somebody will step up and make a dramatic improvement in their offensive production," says Hay, who earned his 600th regular-season WHL victory — third highest all-time — during the team's recent three-game road trip. The milestone triumph came fittingly his hometown of Kamloops.
"While Carter didn't score a lot last season he finished off the year very strongly. He proved last year he was a solid, two-way guy."
Giants' general manager Scott Bonner insists he isn't all that surprised his young centre has made a leap in his production.
"Carter always scored before he came here," Bonner said. "The key is he used last year to buy into Don's system. Don really loves the guy and trusts him. A lot of people were picking us for last place again this year. Carter is one of the big reason's that hasn't happened."
The young Giants forward comes from an athletic family. Younger brother Tyson plays baseball at the University of British Columbia, Canada's premier collegiate program with a history of getting players drafted by major league teams.
Popoff himself played shortstop like his brother until age 13 when a broken arm forced him to miss a season. After that he chose to concentrate on hockey.
"Carter loves to play hockey," Bonner said. "A lot of kids get stressed out with the game at times. But he just loves to play the game. He was actually on Seattle's (protected) list first, but they dropped him. That was a huge break for us."
Popoff was passed over in the NHL draft last summer, so he looked to former Giant Jordan Martinook for inspiration on how a player can increase his chances of being drafted between his 18- and 19-year-old seasons.
A native of Leduc, Alta., Martinook was passed over in the 2011 draft after an 11-goal season. However, he ended up being a second-round pick (58th overall) of the Phoenix Coyotes the following summer after scoring 40 times for Vancouver in 2011-12.
"You always want to get drafted, but it's not the end of the world if you don't get taken the first time around," said Popoff, who together with defenceman Brett Kulak are the only Giants to play in all 49 of the team's games to date. "I can't really say I expected to make as big an offensive jump as I have this year. I thought maybe 50 points might be possible.
"As a rookie last year you're always a little concerned about making a mistake and perhaps you don't think as much about offence. But Don has shown a lot of confidence in me this season. I'm looking for a good second-half push to help the team win and maybe also boost my draft situation."