When looking at the WHL’s Western Conference teams in the run up to the Jan. 10 trading deadline, the most intriguing question marks would seem to surround the Victoria Royals and Kamloops Blazers.
The Royals are in the thick of things, just one point out of the conference lead and tied for top spot, with Kelowna, in the B.C. Division.
The Blazers, who started 0-9-0 and seemingly deep-sixed their playoff hopes before the season was out of its infancy, are on a 16-8-1 tear and just one point out of a playoff spot.
So what’s the problem?
Well, management from both teams has committed to bidding to be the host team for the 2020 Memorial Cup tournament. That leaves one wondering if these teams will be buyers or sellers between Dec. 27, when the Christmas trade moratorium is removed, and the deadline.
Will Victoria general manager Cam Hope and his Kamloops counterpart, Stu MacGregor, go shopping in attempts to strengthen their present-day rosters? Or will they be more concerned with working to build championship-calibre teams for the 2019-20 season?
Your guess is as good as mine, but what is the message to fans if a GM dismantles a competitive team in order to try and build for two seasons down the road?
One other thing worth noting about the Western Conference is that none of its 10 teams has really fallen off the playoff pace, although the Prince George Cougars may be on the verge.
With everyone seemingly in the hunt, might we be in for a quiet trade deadline?
Asked last night if there was “anything brewing” and if “phones were ringing,” one general replied that it has been “really quiet.”
Anyway . . . here’s a look at the Western Conference’s 10 teams — eight will get into the playoffs — with the trade deadline on the horizon:
1. EVERETT (21-13-2): The Silvertips whacked visiting Portland 8-3 on Sunday, the final day before the Christmas break, to move past the Winterhawks and into first place in the U.S. Division. The Silvertips were mediocre early in the season, but put together a nine-game winning streak that served notice to the other teams in the conference. . . . G Carter Hart, who sat out all of October with mononucleosis, has been unworldly. He is 13-3-1 with five shutouts, a 1.32 GAA and a .961 save percentage. Before joining Canada’s national junior team early this month, Hart named the league’s goaltender of the week four times in a row. . . . With Hart gone, Dustin Wolf, 16, has proven that he’s the heir apparent, going 5-2-0, 2.00, .942. . . . Hart and Wolf backstop the conference’s best defensive club and Everett is scoring enough goals to win; it went into the break on a 9-1-0 roll. . . . Offensively, the bulk of the goals — 86 of 111 — have come from six players. As long as those six keep scoring and Hart keeps stopping them at the other end, the Silvertips will be in the chase. . . . Garry Davidson, the general manager, will be monitoring the market but will be leery to do anything that might break up a good thing.
2. (tie) PORTLAND (21-11-1): The Winterhawks threatened to run away with the U.S. Division before stumbling and going 2-7-1 on the run into Christmas. Some of that will have been due to a schedule that called for 10 of 13 games on the road during a 26-day stretch. They also are without three high-end players — F Kieffer Bellows (U.S.), F Joachim Blichfeld (Denmark) and D Henrik Jokiharju (Finland) — who will appear in the World Junior Championship. Take away players of that calibre and a team that had been doing fine defensively gave up 14 goals in losing its last two games. . . . Portland also went 23 games without F Ryan Hughes (leg), who will add secondary offence once he gets back into the flow of things. . . . Portland has the conference’s best talent — F Cody Glass is in the conversation when you’re talking about the WHL’s best player — and has been getting top-notch goaltending from Cole Kehler, 20, who got a nifty Christmas present in the form of a three-year free-agent deal with the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. . . . Come mid-January, the Winterhawks will have all their wheels rolling and the fans will be sleeping better. . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike Johnston, the general manager and head coach, chooses to play the hand that he has right now.
3. (tie) KELOWNA (20-11-3): The Rockets won seven of their past 10 games as the break approached and find themselves tied for second in the conference (with Portland and Victoria) and tied for first in the B.C. Division (with Victoria). . . . The Rockets appear to be a team to be reckoned with in the second half. F Kole Lind, who was felled by strep throat for a handful of games in November, and F Dillon Dube, who is with Canada’s national junior team, are having monster seasons, as is F Carsen Twarynski, 20. . . . F Kyle Topping and D Cal Foote, who also is with Canada prepping for the WJC, are point-a-game guys. . . . G Brodan Salmon was to have been their starter, but he has played in only one game since Oct. 15, than on Nov. 4. In his absence, James Porter, a freshman from Bonners Ferry, Idaho, has done well, going 13-5-2, 3.49, .895. . . . Still, the Rockets need to be better defensively, which means general manager Bruce Hamilton may be looking for some experienced help.
4. (tie) VICTORIA (20-13-3): The Royals fell off the B.C. Division’s top perch by dropping 10 of their past 16 games. They opened the season with seven straight victories, so are 13-13-3 since then. But they’ve got the guns to compete with anyone and their top line — Tyler Soy, Matthew Phillips and Noah Gregor — is as good as any in the WHL. . . . However, Soy left in the second period of the Royals’ final game before the break — it appeared to be a shoulder injury — and his status isn’t known. . . . Victoria badly needs to get F Regan Nagy, 20, back into the lineup. He’s got 18 goals in 26 games, but a finger injury has kept him out since Nov. 28. . . . GM Cam Hope isn’t afraid to pull the trigger — he acquired Gregor from Moose Jaw for F Ryan Peckford on Dec. 11, adding yet more speed while giving up grit, and getting a fourth 20-year-old by dealing for D Kade Jensen from Brandon on Dec. 1. When Nagy gets back, Hope will have to make another move because he can only keep three of Nagy, Soy, Jensen and D Chaz Reddekopp. . . . Like so many other general managers, Hope may be looking for a strong stay-at-home defender to help Griffen Outhouse, one of the WHL’s top goaltenders, but one who has been facing too many shots.
5. VANCOUVER (18-13-4): The Giants closed out the first half by winning six straight games and going 8-2-0 over 10 games. That lifted them into third place in the B.C. Division, just three points behind Kelowna and Victoria. That’s wonderful news for a franchise that has missed the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and four of five. . . . Vancouver has been led by F Ty Ronning, who has 46 points, including 31 goals, in 35 games. F James Malm also is a point-a-game player, while F Tyler Benson, who finally is healthy (touch wood), put up 32 points, including 13 goals, in 22 games. . . . Aside from Ronning, the MVP may be G David Tendeck, who is 12-6-1, 2.90, .913 and showing signs that he’ll be the go-to guy in the second half. . . . D Bowen Byram, the third overall selection in the 2016 bantam draft, has been getting better as his confidence grows with each passing game. He’s a keeper, for sure. . . . The Giants still need to be better defensively, like so many other teams, but don’t expect general manager Glen Hanlon to be involved in anything that might disrupt the franchise’s future. He likely could be convinced to add a veteran defenceman if the price isn’t steep.
6. TRI-CITY (18-10-3): The Americans won their last three games and find themselves third in the U.S. Division, four points in arrears of Portland. . . . The Americans went into the break on a three-game winning streak; they are 5-4-1 in their last 10 games. . . . If they are to compete with the big guys, the Americans need more offence and better defence. The offence may come from within as F Michael Rasmussen has played in 22 games (31 points) and D Juuso Valimaki has gotten into 19 (20 points). When they are healthy, it raises the level of Tri-City’s all-around play and turns the power-play unit into a deadly weapon. . . . Tri-City is the only WHL team to have evenly split its goaltending duties to this point. Patrick Dea is 8-5-3, 3.19, .915 in 958 minutes over 17 games. Beck Warm also has gotten into 17 games, going 10-5-0, 3.31, .890. . . . Bob Tory, the Americans’ veteran general manager, once was dubbed ‘Trader’ Bob. There was a time when he would jump into the trading pool well before the deadline, before the prices got driven up. Last season, however, he made only one deal between Dec. 1 and the trade deadline, that coming on Dec. 2 when he sent G Kurtis Rutledge to the Kootenay Ice for a 2019 seventh-round bantam draft pick. It could be that Tory will provide a repeat performance.
7. (tie) SPOKANE (18-13-3): The Chiefs are tied with Tri-City for third in the U.S. Division, however the Americans hold three games in hand. . . . Spokane went into the Christmas break with a sour taste in its mouth, too, after losing 10-3 to visiting Seattle on Sunday night. “Let’s forget about that one,” Chiefs head coach Dan Lambert told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. . . . Spokane needs to find a way to be better at home, where it actually has lost more than it has won (9-8-2). . . . Still, the Chiefs have three of the WHL’s most-exciting players — F Jaret Dolan-Anderson, D Ty Smith and F Kailer Yamamoto. The first two are scoring at better than a point-a-game, while Yamamoto, who started the season with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, has been around for only 12 games, and now is with the U.S.’s national junior team. . . . Once mid-January arrives and the distractions are gone, the Chiefs’ talent level — F Hudson Elynuik, 20, is having a career season with 17 goals and 29 assists in 34 games — would indicate that the second-half should be better. . . . That might indicate that Scott Carter, the general manager, won’t make much of a splash between now and Jan. 10.
8. SEATTLE (15-14-4): The Thunderbirds, the WHL’s defending champions, have fallen into the U.S. Division basement, five points behind Tri-City and Spokane. . . . Seattle is on a two-game winning streak, however. . . . The fall isn’t at all surprising when one considers that Seattle lost its four leading scorers from last season and six of its top nine. . . . You simply don’t replace that kind of production over one offseason. . . . Still, the Thunderbirds are in possession of the conference’s second wild-card spot, and you have to think the team’s new owners — brothers Dan and Lindsey Leckelt — would be pleased with a playoff spot. . . . G Carl Stankowski, who, as a 16-year-old, sparkled in the playoffs last spring (16-2-2, 2.50, .911), but hasn’t played this season thanks to hip woes. . . . In his absence, Seattle has used three goaltenders, who have GAAs of 3.30, 3.32 and 3.67, and save percentages of .895, .894 and .888. . . . Yes, the goaltending needs to be better. . . . With a number of teams hankering for experienced defencemen, GM Russ Farwell’s phone might be busy, because he’s got three — Turner Ottenbreit, 20, Austin Strand, 20, and Jarret Tyszka, 18 — who might bring a king’s ransom should he choose to sell.
9. KAMLOOPS (16-17-1): Head coach Don Hay went into the season needing 22 victories to equal the WHL’s career record for most regular-season coaching victories. The Blazers promptly lost their first nine games and it looked like Hay might not get there this season. . . . But the Blazers followed that skid with a 16-8-1 run and now are just one point out of a playoff spot. Hay is seven victories shy of becoming the winningest head coach in the league’s regular-season history. . . . If you are GM Stu MacGregor, what do you do? With ownership have announced that it will bid on the 2020 Memorial Cup tournament, do you focus on making a run this season, or do you sell in an attempt to gather assets that will help in 2019-20? . . . But a team that hasn’t drafted particularly well in recent times and perhaps has lost F Massimo Rizzo, the 15th overall pick in the 2016 bantam draft, to the BCHL’s Penticton Vees, has 13 players on its 23-man roster who aren’t likely to be around for 2019-20. . . . It could be that MacGregor really is between a rock and a hard place — darned if he does, darned if he doesn’t. . . . MacGregor’s dance may be the most interesting of them all between now and Jan. 10.
10. PRINCE GEORGE (12-17-3): The Cougars, who won the first pennant in franchise history last season when they finished atop the B.C. Division, have lost three in a row. They are last in the five-team B.C. Division, four points behind Kamloops. . . . The Cougars haven’t been a hit at the gate this season, despite going all-in a year ago and finishing 45-21-6, only to bow out in the first round of the playoffs. So it could be that management feels a playoff spot this season is of the utmost importance. . . . Prince George will come back from the break to play four games in six days — two in Victoria and two in Langley, B.C., against the Vancouver Giants. After that, the Cougars will return home to face Tri-City twice. Then the Giants go north for a doubleheader that will straddle the trade deadline. . . . In other words, between now and Jan. 10, the Cougars will meet the Giants four times and Victoria twice. Might the outcome of those games dictate which way GM Todd Harkins chooses to go? . . . The Cougars’ roster includes D Dennis Cholowski, and you can bet that Harkins is fielding calls about him. Cholowski, a first-round pick by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2016 NHL draft, is in his first WHL season but has shown that he is of all-star calibre.