The Alberni Valley Bulldogs have kept themselves in the thick of the BCHL's Island Division playoff race.
Sitting in the division's fourth and final playoff spot at 22-20-5, they recently received a boost to their chances.
Whistler defenceman Taylor Derynck had missed the entire season after undergoing surgery on both shoulders in the offseason before returning against the Cowichan Valley Capitals on Jan. 4.
The 17-year-old rearguard scored his first assist in his fourth game of the year against the West Kelowna Warriors. Three games later, he got his first goal, which stood up as the winner in a 5-1 victory over those very same Warriors on Jan. 23.
"I had a lot of other chances before that. It was nice to bury one," he said. "The puck came up to the wall when I was skating in. I put the puck down to the corner, to the captain (Mitch) Makin. He passed it into the slot and I just one-timed it."
He has two goals and three assists in 12 games so far being partnered mostly with Troy Dobbs on the blue line.
"It's been kind of tough at the very beginning, I was just trying to settle in and know how everyone plays," he said. "It's been a lot of fun since I've been here. I wish I was here from the very beginning."
Head coach Kevin Willison, a former eight-year pro, has liked what he's seen out of the rookie defenceman, who got a taste of BCHL play with two games in 2013-14.
"Taylor has stepped in like he's a veteran at this level," Willison said. "He has a lot of confidence in himself, and he's fit in nicely. He skates well. He moved the puck well.
"He's very creative when it comes to the offensive part of the game, too. For a little guy, he certainly plays big."
Until hitting the ice for practice in November, Derynck hadn't played at all since May. He had surgery on his left shoulder at the end of May and on his right shoulder in the middle of July.
Willison said he and his coaching staff have made sure to keep a close eye on Derynck, who had never been sidelined for this length of time before.
"We brought him in here and told him how mentally tough it was going to be on him, being in the stands, watching each and every game," Willison said. "He couldn't get out there, but (we said) to keep busy, take care of school, keep your mind away from that, because you can get depressed.
"He knew the day he was going to be taken off the injured reserve, so I think that's where he set his sights. At least he had a goal."
The injury troubles stem back to a "weird hit" the 6-0-tall Derynck took as a member of the Comox Valley Glacier Kings late in the season.
"My arm was up a bit and my left shoulder came out. It stayed out for another 10 or 15 minutes then the trainer put it back in," said Derynck, who tallied 14 points in 41 games last season. "It went back in and it felt pretty good, so I played the next game, and then a couple games later my right one came out from a scrum in front of the net. Then a couple games later, the left one came out again."
He took a little time off after that, returning with his shoulders taped and that was good enough through Comox Valley's playoff run. But in his first day at Alberni Valley spring camp, the first hit he took dislodged the left shoulder once again, and he opted to get his shoulders repaired in advance of the coming season.
"The pain was there, but it wasn't as bad," he said. "I had a pretty good range of motion with it and I wanted to make the team. I managed to play through it."
Willison stressed even with Derynck not at his best that they saw enough out of him to have him out full-time this season.
"We certainly see a lot of potential in him. Last year, we followed him when he was in Comox. He's very skilled, skates well," said Willison, himself a two-time Governor's Trophy winner as the International Hockey League's top defenceman. "We thought we would commit to him, told him however long it took to get back that he would have a team to play for when he got back, especially at this level."
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