WHL’s Eastern Conference: Who’s buying, selling, standing pat?

The run to the WHL’s Jan. 10 trade deadline began for real on Nov. 13.

That was the day on which the Regina Pats dealt D Jonathan Smart, F Cole Muir, whlsecond- and sixth-round selections in the 2018 bantam draft, and a conditional pick in 2019 or 2020 to the Kootenay Ice for D Cale Fleury. Yes, Regina gave up a possible five assets for one player, albeit a good one.

Since then, and including that deal, the WHL’s 22 teams have combined to move 25 players, 14 bantam draft selections and three conditional bantam draft picks.

It’s fair to say that the Moose Jaw Warriors, Swift Current Broncos and Regina Pats, the latter the host team for the 2018 Memorial Cup, are all-in this season. They definitely are buyers.

But . . . who is selling? And are there other buyers out there?

It’s interesting, too, that the East Division, at least at the top, is so much stronger than the Central Division, whose six teams have combined to lose 53 games more than they have won.

With the WHL now on its Christmas break and with the schedule pretty much at the halfway mark, let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference, with teams ranked in order of points:

1. MOOSE JAW (27-6-2): The Warriors lead the overall standings, meaning they also are atop the Eastern Conference and the East Division. General manager Alan Millar will buy if there is something out there that grabs his eye, but he’s already done some shopping by getting F Vince Loschiavo, 19, from the Kootenay Ice and D Ryan Peckford, 18, from the Victoria Royals, although he gave up a pretty good player in F Noah Gregor in the latter swap. . . . Don’t discount the value of veteran F Barrett Sheen, a gritty guy, who came over from Kootenay on Nov. 13. . . . Now it’s a matter of Moose Jaw getting everyone healthy and keeping them that way.

2. SWIFT CURRENT (25-7-2): The Broncos are four points behind the Warriors and hold one game in hand. Manny Viveiros, the Broncos’ director of player personnel and head coach, ventured into the Pacific Northwest on a November scouting junket. He returned home and immediately shoved all of his chips into the centre of the table, sending five players and a second-round pick in the 2018 bantam draft to the Calgary Hitmen for F Matteo Gennaro, 20, F Beck Malenstyn, 19, and a fifth-round pick in 2018. Only time will tell if Viveiros gave up too much — F Conner Chaulk, 20, F Riley Stotts, 17, D Dom Schmiemann, 18, D Josh Prokop, 15, and G Ethan Hein, 15, are the players who went to Calgary. . . . Prior to the deal, the Broncos were very much a one-line team and Viveiros knew that as the season wore on opposing teams would be harder on F Glenn Gawdin, F Aleksi Heponiemi and F Tyler Steenbergen. . . . The deal with Calgary will take some heat off those three. Keep in mind that Malenstyn (wrist), a 32-goal man last season, has played only four games this season. . . . The Broncos went into the break on a five-game winning streak. . . . They’ll get Heponiemi (Finland) and Steenbergen (Canada) some rest after the World Junior Championship, then add Malenstyn to the lineup and see if they can make some noise.

3. BRANDON (24-8-1): The Wheat Kings went 9-1-0 in their past 10 games and now are seven points behind Moose Jaw and three behind Swift Current. Of course, the Warriors are 8-1-1 and the Broncos 8-2-0 in their past 10. . . . But who saw the Wheat Kings making this kind of noise this season? They won the WHL championship in 2015-16, then got swept by Medicine Hat in the first round last spring. . . . A terrific combination of maturing younger players and solid veterans has the Wheat Kings in the hunt. . . . They appear to have a good thing going, so it’s doubtful that GM Grant Armstrong would do anything major that might disrupt it. . . . But, hey, never say never.

4. MEDICINE HAT (18-14-2): The Tigers lead the Central Division, but have stumbled of late, going 3-5-2, and watched their lead over Lethbridge and Kootenay get sliced to six points. Still, if they playoffs were to start today, Medicine Hat would have a first-round bye. . . . The Tigers also have yet to play even one game with F Mason Shaw, 19, a 94-point man last season, in their lineup. He suffered a knee injury while playing with the Minnesota Wild rookie team at a September tournament in Traverse City, Mich. He is expected to return at some point in the season’s second half, so the Tigers have that to look forward to without even making a deal. . . . Even without Shaw, the Tigers can score. But are they able to defend well enough to contend, or are Shaun Clouston, the GM and head coach, and Carter Sears, the director of player personnel, looking for an experienced defenceman?

5. REGINA (16-17-3): Ahh, yes, the Pats. The host team for the 2018 Memorial Cup was in last spring’s championship final, but has scuffled to this point of this season and finds itself fourth in its division, 14 points behind third-place Brandon. Yes, 14 points! . . . While Regina does hold down the conference’s first wild-card spot, it is just two points ahead of Prince Albert and Saskatoon. . . . Yes, things are messy in Regina. In fact, columnist Rob Vanstone of the Regina Leader-Post this week called the Pats an “embarrassment” in a column that is right here. . . . You know that the Pats will be buyers between now and Jan. 10, but considering their record and recent performances, one wonders if there is a big enough shopping cart available to fix whatever it is that ails them. . . . GM/head coach John Paddock acquired D Cale Fleury from Kootenay on Nov. 13, but Regina is only 5-9-1 since then, so it would seem that more is needed. . . . Paddock no doubt will be first in line for the Boxing Day sales.

6-7. PRINCE ALBERT (13-14-7) and SASKATOON (15-17-3): These two teams are tied for the conference’s second wild-card spot. The Raiders hold a game in hand, but the Blades have two more victories. They return from the Christmas break to meet in Saskatoon on Dec. 27 and in Prince Albert on Dec. 28. . . . Neither team is on the same level as the conference’s top three, but it’s important that both show improvement over last season when neither made the playoffs. . . . I wouldn’t expect either team to sell, sell, sell, but you can bet that both will be prepared to move older assets for younger players.

8. LETHBRIDGE (15-16-2): Have the Hurricanes underperformed? Or was last season (44-21-7 and a run to the conference final) an aberration? . . . Despite the inconsistent play, the Hurricanes are within reach of first place in the Central Division, and you know that GM Peter Anholt will be working the phone lines. At the same time, though, he has to be wondering if his roster, as it stands today, isn’t good enough to chase down Medicine Hat. . . . Earlier this month, Anholt added veteran F Lane Zablocki, who turns 19 on Dec. 27. He had 28 goals last season, splitting time between Regina and Red Deer, but was spinning his wheels with the Rebels this season. Anholt is hoping that Zablocki will fill the void created when F Ryan Vandervlis, a point-a-game guy, was lost for the season with shoulder woes. . . . The bottom line, however, is that the Hurricanes need to be better defensively, and that includes the goaltending department. Stuart Skinner is a better goaltender than this season’s numbers. Perhaps Anholt will be able to bring in a stay-at-home defender.

8. (tie) KOOTENAY (15-17-2): The Ice won 12 games two seasons ago and 14 last season. So by those standards, this season, the franchise’s first under the ownership of Greg Fettes and Matt Cockell, is a success. Of course, a playoff spot would be even nicer, but Fettes and Cockell, and head coach James Patrick, can’t allow the short-term view to circumvent their long-term plan. . . . Cockell already has traded away three veterans — D Cale Fleury, F Vince Loschiavo and F Barrett Sheen — and you can bet he will move even more experience if he thinks a deal or deals will improve the future outlook.

10. RED DEER (10-18-6): What happened to the Rebels? A season that began with promise has imploded and they find themselves seven points out of the conference’s second wild-card spot. They went into the Christmas break having gone 1-4-5 in their past 10 games. In the Central Division, they are one point ahead of fifth-place Calgary. . . . Red Deer’s biggest problem is that it can’t score. Only Edmonton (88) has fewer goals than Red Deer (96). . . . Brent Sutter, the owner, GM and head coach, may have signalled his intentions on Dec. 8 when he dealt veteran F Lane Zablocki, who turns 19 next week, to Lethbridge, getting back sophomore F Josh Tarzwell, 17, a second-round pick in the 2019 bantam draft and a conditional third-rounder in 2020. At that point, the Rebels had lost 10 in a row and 16 of their previous 17 games. . . . Yes, Sutter, as much as he won’t like it, will be selling. . . . Interestingly, Red Deer is carrying two 20-year-olds, one under the maximum allowable. While Sutter isn’t going to want to bring in someone to take playing time away from a younger player in this situation, that vacant spot may prove useful come the deadline.

11. CALGARY (10-18-5): The Hitmen have lost 13 more games than they have won, and find themselves eight points out of the playoffs. In order to get there, they will have to pass four teams, which is unlikely, even with 39 games left on their schedule. . . . Former Kootenay president/GM Jeff Chynoweth, in his first season as Calgary’s GM, signalled his intentions on Nov. 25 when he dealt veteran forwards Matteo Gennaro and Beck Malenstyn to Swift Current for a goody bag that included five players. At the time, Chynoweth said: “We’re not giving our players away, and we’re not throwing in the towel for the season. We expect to make the playoffs.” Of course, what was he expected to say? . . . He’ll be selling more if the price is right.

12. EDMONTON (7-22-4): The Oil Kings spent three seasons (2011-14) in the penthouse, winning at least 50 games each time and appearing in three straight championship finals, winning two of them. That was then; this is now. . . . The fall began in earnest last season (23-43-6) and it has continued, with the Oil Kings sporting the WHL’s poorest record. . . . They’ll be sellers, just don’t expect GM Randy Hansch to give away any of the franchise’s promising youngsters.

TOMORROW: The Western Conference.

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