Ask any fan about this year’s trade deadline looming and they would say there would be some serious buyers and sellers. Buyers would be the teams looking to improve their stock for postseason and a run to the Memorial Cup, where the sellers would be looking to at least make a decent showing this year, but know that the next year or two would be a better bet. It’s what many call “cycling”, a season of rough patches, new faces, rookies and so on with the hope to build into the next year. The next year, a few more pieces to add and maybe a glimpse into the playoffs. By years three and four, one would have developed a nucleus capable of making a deeper run or possible championship. By year four, you load your team with the maximum number of overage players and those close to for a run at the cup and win or lose, you must start from the bottom again.
That thinking has been the instilled plan for teams since the beginning of time. Sometimes you get lucky and either squeak past an opponent that you really shouldn’t have and bypass another because they get knocked out in an upset. It happens only in rare moments and with the league finding more parity each year, the one piece that might get you a run will cost you.
This year’s run at the trade deadline proved that and more as several deals became monumental for several teams and the price paid for each was steep. In the East Division, Moose Jaw and Swift Current bought up stock as did the host team for the Memorial Cup in the Regina Pats. The Pats may have really mortgaged their immediate future with the number of players and draft picks moved. With the stakes of hosting a cup so high in both the immediate and short term into next year, the Pats really had no choice and one will soon learn whether they bounce out of this well or fall like the Saskatoon Blades did in 2013. That year, the Blades bought what they thought were critical pieces to making a deep playoff run. However, disaster struck as they were swept in the first round, had to wait six weeks to play again and performed poorly at the cup tournament itself resulting in disastrous ticket sales and years of recovery on the ice. The Brandon Wheat Kings, who have done respectfully this season, sold off a few pieces for some future plans and will still have a decent team going into the playoffs. Moose Jaw, who holds a commanding lead in the WHL, is looking beyond the WHL Final it seems, and instead to the OHL and QMJHL, which have juggernaut teams this year and needs the power to confront them. Swift Current is still well back of Moose Jaw, but has positioned itself that unless it collapses, they will be one of the finalists in the Eastern Conference.
The Central Division became big sellers this year, most notably the Calgary Hitmen, who still need more rebuilding. Selling off Jake Bean to Tri-City for a handful of players and picks gives the team from Cowtown a really bright future. Medicine Hat is the only team with a winning record in the division so Lethbridge and Kootenay, the next two teams in the mix, made some deals to shore themselves up against an onslaught of Eastern Division teams they will most likely have to face in postseason. Edmonton and Red Deer had few chips to play and are pretty much out of the playoffs. Red Deer did make a deal with Portland for a player for a pick, and Edmonton sold off a couple of assets to Vancouver, but not much else.
The BC Division saw Victoria in a dogfight to keep in the mix for the top spot. After blowing out the starting gate, the Royals came back to earth in a big way, opening the door for Kelowna and Vancouver to take over the top spot. Kelowna made only a couple minor deals, Vancouver a couple more, but it was Victoria with some wholesale changes with several deals from a variety of teams in hopes of them staying relevant in this year’s postseason. The Prince George Cougars also mixed it up a bit buying a bit to start and then plunging with a big sale to Portland.
The biggest haul came in the US Division. Tri-City Americans General Manager Bob Tory, nicknamed “Trader Bob”, pulled off the big Jake Bean sweepstakes deal for 2 players and 3 high picks, and will have him in the lineup this weekend as they try to wedge out Portland and Everett for the lead. Everett was next in line with a six player, two draft pick swap with Kamloops Blazers to add scoring punch to Everett as it looks to break out. In its initial game, with the new additions from Kamloops, Everett shutout Tri-City, who was without Jake Bean. Everett also pulled a player from Portland Winterhawks in Bronson Sharp, a good utility player that became expendable with returning players from World Juniors and a couple other deals.
Portland went for broke this year by plying a first round NHL draft pick player from Prince George in Dennis Cholowski along with goaltender Ty Taylor, who will remain in the BCHL this year, but will come next year to shore up the net duties with the departure of Cole Kehler as an overager signed by the LA Kings a couple weeks ago. The price to get Cholowski was huge, giving up Illijah Colina and prospect Conner Bowie along with high draft picks over the next three years and a conditional sixth round in 2019. This is a stark contrast to the way Coach, General Manager and Vice President Mike Johnston has handled deals in the past. The deal with Prince George gives him Cholowski for the remainder of the season and a huge question mark for next year as he has signed an entry level deal with the Detroit Red Wings. If he did return to Portland, he would be an overage player, but could also be assigned to the AHL as a twenty-year-old. Usually, rental players that Johnston has bought into have come with much lower price tags considering their unlikelihood of returning to juniors. Ty Taylor is a strong candidate for being between the pipes next year as he will remain with the BCHL Vernon Vipers for the remainder of the season. It’s the draft picks, with as many as five going to Prince George, that the Hawks will be low on for the next three years. One thing that Johnston has done is to not always rely on the draft and instead look to listing players of various ages. This year’s team has a few listed players of different ages that have proven to be solid on all levels. Still, it’s a calculated risk, one which could pave the way to a long run in this year’s playoffs.
The Seattle Thunderbirds made a couple of ripple trades this year as they remain in the hunt for at least a shot as they hold the top wildcard spot in the Western Conference. The Spokane Chiefs, who are breathing down the neck of the Thunderbirds, made just one change, obtaining a goaltender to help tighten things up with the hope of getting further ahead in the wildcard race to perhaps looking at a top three finish in the division.
Prior to the trade deadline, the Winterhawks picked up their second straight win, a 3-2 shootout victory over the Seattle Thunderbirds. Portland scored the first two goals of the game, but let Seattle back in with a pair of their own. In the shootout, Seattle failed on three attempts while Portland hit one of two to end the game. The win put Portland back atop the division until Everett’s shutout win against Tri-City, but Portland holds a three-game advantage over the Tips and a two point advantage on the Americans with both teams having played forty games.
The Hawks will play three games in as many nights beginning on Friday in Kennewick where the team should have most of its power back with the return of Henri Jokiharju and Keiffer Bellows from World Juniors and the addition of Cholowski. Joachim Blichfeld, injured at World Juniors, Keoni Texeira and Layne Gilliss, out with lower body injuries, could be back in the next week or so. The next few games will be used to gel the teams and within the next couple of weeks, we should know what deals are paying dividends and if any went bust.
Get ready hockey fans, the excitement is just starting.
Ice Chips: The former voice of the Winterhawks, Dean “Scooter” Vrooman, will make an appearance at Oregon City Icehouse on Friday to take in the game versus the Tri-City Americans and follow it up the next Friday at Sports Look Bar and Grill in Hillsboro. Prizes will be raffled off and Scooter is always one to get great insight into the Portland area hockey history.