VANCOUVER, B.C. - Casey Pierro-Zabotel's junior hockey career is ending much better than it began.
Pierro-Zabotel, who was bypassed in the WHL's annual draft of bantam-age players when he was a teenager, will suit up for the Vancouver Giants on Saturday as they host the Kelowna Rockets in the first game of their WHL Western Conference final series.
"I just want to win (a championship), because I've been playing junior hockey for five years and I really haven't won anything yet," he said. "It would work out pretty nice."
Regardless of what happens in the series, things are already working out nicely for the 20-year-old Kamloops, B.C., native. He led the league in scoring during the regular season and is now poised to sign a lucrative rookie contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, or another National Hockey League club.
Pittsburgh chose him in the third round of the 2007 NHL draft, but the two sides have not yet reached a deal. Under the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, the Pens must sign him before this year's draft (June 26 - 27 in Montreal), or he will become an unrestricted free agent.
"I'll just have to see what happens with Pittsburgh first, because I'd really like to be with their organization," said Pierro-Zabotel, who is a candidate for the WHL's Western Conference player of the year award, set to be announced Friday.
Pittsburgh chose Pierro-Zabotel while he was playing for the Merritt Centennials in the tier II B.C. Hockey League. After WHL clubs showed little interest in him, he decided to go the U.S. college route via the BCHL.
Michigan Tech offered him a scholarship, but he struggled to meet the academic requirements. The Giants, who had quietly placed him on their 50-player protected list, convinced him to join them from Merritt in November of 2007.
"It wasn't too difficult, because I didn't really get accepted to college," he said. "So it was a no-brainer to come here. It was the best opportunity for my career."
The Giants' decision to promote Pierro-Zabotel, who also had tryouts with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen and Lethbridge Hurricanes, and insert him as a top-six forward has also proved to be a no-brainer. He recorded 48 points in his first campaign and almost tripled that total this season as he produced 36 goals and 79 assists for 115 points.
In the playoffs, Pierro-Zabotel is averaging slightly better than a point per game with 11 in a dozen contests. He assisted on Vancouver's lone goal in a 1-0 victory over the 2007-08 WHL and Memorial Cup champion Spokane Chiefs in Game 7 of their conference semifinal series.
"He's got great vision," said Vancouver coach Don Hay. "He's very strong with the puck. He makes very good plays as far as being creative, finding his wingers, and his patience with the puck is probably one of his strongest suits. He's got a low-panic threshold and he knows he has ability to find the open man."
Evander Kane, who is projected as an early first-round choice in this year's NHL draft, has often been that open man. Thanks to Pierro-Zabotel, the 18-year-old left winger scored 48 goals and ranked among WHL points leaders.
"You look at all the top goal scorers, guys like Brett Hull," said Hay, "he had (Adam) Oates to pass him the puck (while they were with the St. Louis Blues). For every pure goal scorer, there's gotta be somebody that passes him the puck. That's the way that Evander (Kane) and Casey (Pierro-Zabotel) have a chemistry together."
Pierro-Zabotel billets with a family during the season like most major junior players. But unlike his peers, he has a new wife who lives in an apartment. He got married during the Christmas holidays.
Some people - especially old-school hockey executives who strive to ensure their young players face few distractions - might question whether he should have tied the knot before his pro career is confirmed.
Pierro-Zabotel advises them to keep their thoughts to themselves.
"I don't really care what they think," he said. "That's what we did, and it's really what we wanted to do."
Pierro-Zabotel also badly wants a long and prosperous career in the NHL - even if he has to take the long way to get there.