Imagine moving nearly ten percent of the league’s players in one season to different teams. This is what has happened in this year’s trade deadline battle with as many as a dozen teams thinking they have a shot to be in the Memorial Cup this year. Only one, though, will have that honor and one WHL team has already claimed their ticket as the host team.
With the trade deadline now well in the rearview mirror, the players can now relax and get back to the game of hockey and see just how far each team will go. Former Sports Editor with the Kamloops (BC) Daily News Greg Drinnan, who now writes a regular blog on the WHL, noted there were 110 players moved along with 77 bantam draft picks since November 13, the day that major trading started taking place and of that, 44 trades involving 86 players and 72 draft picks were moved from the trade freeze being lifted on December 27 through January 10 the trade deadline day.
Sports pundits are wagering on four WHL teams to be in contention for the WHL title and a spot at the Memorial Cup. Two from the US Division in Portland and Everett and two from the Eastern Division in Moose Jaw and Swift Current. While Portland landed just two players for the immediate time, Everett took in five. Moose Jaw and Swift Current, the runaway teams in the East, also were busy in stockpiling some heavy hitters of their own.
The Regina Pats, who host the Memorial Cup tournament this season, went on a buying spree with a total of ten players since November 13, which is equal to half of a roster playing on the ice for a game.
All teams that were in the top four looking to the WHL Final and the Memorial Cup berth have seen dividends for their off-ice work. The cost to the sellers has been huge. With a loaded lineup, Moose Jaw, Swift Current and Regina all blasted their latest foes, nearing double digit scores, though to be fair, Moose Jaw, did also falter in a home and home series with Prince Albert gaining just a split. The Tri-City Americans, who landed Jake Bean, are in a heap of trouble for the time being as they are sitting without four key players in their lineup due to injury. While three may be back in two to three weeks, the fourth, who has been a leader on and off the ice, is still without a timeline. The Americans are nine points back of top spot in the US Division and are tied in games played with Portland, but the Winterhawks sit just two points back of Everett with three games in hand on the Silvertips.
The Hawks have a monster week of games with some of the biggest guns in the WHL coming in. Portland will start Wednesday hosting the Victoria Royals and then Friday, the Swift Current Broncos will come calling. After the game, Portland heads to face the Vancouver Giants, who have suddenly come to life in the BC Division and then right back home to face a tough Brandon Wheat Kings team. Portland will play four games in five nights against teams who are above a sixty percent win status and will arguably be the make or break test for the Portland side.
Portland goes into the games with just a shootout loss in their most recent five outings, that coming against Everett. They have matched well against US Division opponents, who will make up the preponderance of the opposition as they race to the end of the season which occurs in the third week of March. With all major players on the Winterhawks squad back from World Juniors and most from injuries, only one player remains sidelined that being Lane Gilliss, who is listed as day to day.
Following this week’s juggernaut schedule, the Hawks will get to play the quirky one just a week later. The Hawks will play the same team three times in three days with two on the road and one at home. The Kamloops Blazers, now well on the outside looking in for the playoffs, are once again looking to play the role of spoiler for teams hoping to get an easy one. Should Portland fare well in the next seven games, they could very well put some distance between them and the Silvertips who have fewer games to play and thus fewer chances to close any gap should Portland hit a run.
Indeed hockey fans, playoff fever is starting to take hold and once again the strongest team in the Rose City to be able to land championships looks to be the Portland Winterhawks.