TRADE DEADLINE: SELLING THE FARM?
Things keep on rolling for the Hurricanes. The start of the second half has to have reinforced to fans and management that this team is a legitimate contender – but the question remains – contender for what? Is this a Central Division winner? Eastern Conference? League? Memorial Cup?? Do we have realistic expectations anymore? What are the expectations at all? How have they (our expectations) changed and does that force us to adjust our previously charted course?
These are questions I can only assume Peter Anholt is pondering as the Jan 10th WHL trade deadline looms. The chess board is laid out, the pieces are set, some teams have already made their moves, and yet, we are left wondering what to expect.
Let’s quickly dive into it and see what we can deduce.
To begin, let’s take stock of the situation. The Hurricanes, as of today, sit at the top of the Eastern Conference, a megre two points ahead of both Calgary and Red Deer (but with games in hand on the former). The Hurricanes have gone 8-2-0-0 in the last 10 games and is appears they will keep on rolling. Looking at the East, I think we can say with some confidence that it is a five horse race for first between Lethbridge, Red Deer, Calgary, Brandon, and Prince Albert. It’s a logjam that doesn’t appear to be clearing anytime soon.
Where do the other four teams sit heading into the deadline?
Beginning with Red Deer, it’s pretty evident what their plan is. They are Memorial Cup hosts, and some questionable play in December forced Sutter’s hand. The Rebels are going to try and outgun everyone. As I write this, he has pulled the trigger on another huge trade to acquire Philp from Kootenay. To recap then, Red Deer has recently traded for DeBrusk, Helewka, Philp, and Taden Rattie (a far less impactful move). It cost the Rebel’s dearly and it’s going to be difficult for them to recover in coming years, but it’s the weight of hosting the Memorial Cup. It’s not unlike what the Blue Jays did this past season. Sometimes you just have to cast aside the future and live in the now. It didn’t work out well for the Blades a few years back, but what about Red Deer? The common opinion is that they aren’t finished yet. We may yet see a move for a netminder. The Rebel’s put an exclamation mark on the moves with a 10 goal thumping of the “contending” Wheat Kings last night.
Speaking of Brandon, where do they sit now? It’s pretty evident that there is something “wrong” in Brandon. They are a good team yes, but they certainly haven’t proven to be the world beaters many thought they were. It’s a team that is built to win this season and I have to assume they will also sell off some future assets to try keep up with the Rebels. Overall, Brandon has to be a big buyer and I can’t imagine them holding pat.
Taking a look at Calgary, I really don’t know what to think about the Hitmen and how they will approach the deadline. They are a very good team, and from what I’ve seen, I believe they are better than the Wheaties. The potential exists that the now much maligned Jake Virtanen could come back, but it sounds like (at least for now), that’s not the case. The Hitmen have already been very active in the trade market this season and I’m not sure we will see them stray far from their current roster. It’s very possible they will hold tight and hold out hope for Virtanen to return. At this point it seems like they are finally pulling things together with the roster as constituted and I’m not sure they would gain much from aggressive changes. Calgary is more of a mystery than either Brandon or Red Deer. I’m not the sure pressure is on to win right now, yet they have some really nice pieces and it will be tempting for them to go all in.
The final team in the mix (other than Lethbridge), is the Prince Albert Raiders. PA, much like Lethbridge, has surprised many this season. They were not expected to be in the mix for top spot in the East, yet here they are. The Raiders have given the Hurricanes grief this year, defeating Lethbridge in both meeting this season. They are one of the only teams that has been able to neutralize the Hurricanes deadly offense for a full 60 minutes. Due to their status as an underdog, Prince Albert seems the least likely to make aggressive moves over the next week. I certainly don’t imagine them out bidding teams like Red Deer or Brandon for top talent. Look for a depth move or two, nothing more.
We know where Red Deer stands, can assume Brandon will be looking to deal, question the intentions of Calgary, and empathize with Prince Albert… but where does that leave us here in Lethbridge? The Hurricanes are in a very unique situation right now. This team is years ahead of what anyone could have anticipated. Lethbridge, unlike other organizations in the East, isn’t a top team because of one or two elite individuals that will likely move to pro next season. No. This is a top team because it has a deep roster that plays a great system, has great coaching, and young, hardworking skill (among other reasons).
I bring up the point about next year because it has to dictate what Anholt does heading into the deadline. On one hand, Lethbridge doesn’t need to sell the farm to win now because many good pieces will be here again next season. Stuart Skinner, Tyler Wong, Jordy Bellerive, Nick Watson, Ryan Vandervlis, Barrett Sheen, Giorgio Estephan, Brayden Burke, Brett Davis, and Brady Reagan are all, barring a trade, locks to return for next season. I don’t say that as an insult to guys with ambitions to go pro, nor am I saying they couldn’t. I am simply being realistic. None of the players I mentioned were, or are yet, 1st round NHL draft picks. I believe it’s safe to assume most, if not all, will return. Mix in a Zane Franklin and or Callen Addison and the pipeline seems primed for the Hurricanes to really contend for the next two seasons. In that light, why get aggressive and try keep up with Red Deer or (depending on what moves they make) Brandon?
… the intangible and cyclical nature of this league.
Let me be clear. I’m not necessarily advocating that the Canes sell the farm, but I think they should be open to making an aggressive move. While the core of the team will return in the coming years, the Canes are going to lose some significant contributors. They will have to chose between three of Wong, Nielsen, Duperreault, Lindgren, Folk, Sittler, Pankewicz, and Folk as overagers. All of those players (with the exception of Ben Duperreault who hasn’t been here as long) have been key to the team’s success and are essential to the current mix/blend. In addition, Gutierrez, Millette, and Atwal will also all be gone due to age. I don’t need to mention how huge each of those three players has been. All three have fit in perfectly – and all three are poised to have career years or are already having career years. Finally, the likelihood that Egor Babenko (another instrumental contributor) returns, is questionable at best.
Will the Hurricanes be good again next year? Likely yes. BUT, such dramatic turnover and the potential to lose a guy like Babenko makes this season even more intriguing. Chemistry is a strange animal. The Canes might have some young players evolve into elite producers next season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the team will be as strong, or as well rounded as it currently is. We saw something similar happen back in 07-08, when the Hurricanes were allegedly built to compete for the championship the following season. The ‘08 team was incredible. Zach Boychuck, Colton Sceviour, Dwight King, Mitch Fadden, Austin Fyten, Carter Ashton, Juha Metsola, Ben Wright, and Jeff May (among others), together, combined for one of the best Hurricanes lineups ever. As we know, the Canes made it to the WHL final in 07-08, where they were famously swept by the eventual Memorial Cup Champion Spokane Chiefs.
The following season didn’t go as planned for Lethbridge. It turned out that their overagers, particularly Mike Wuchterl, were nearly impossible to replace. That, in combination with the somewhat bizarre decision by the Flyers to keep Sbisa in the NHL for most of the year, left the Hurricanes far less balanced than the previous season. They would eventually eke out a first round win over Saskatoon, but were afterward quickly dispatched by Calgary and the organization fell into a dark pit for the next five years.
The moral of the story? You don’t know what you have till it’s gone and it would be a shame to worry so much about the future that you forget to help this team go as far as possible with some smart additions. The mix in the Canes roster is close to perfect… but some additions could make things better.
Look at him. So wise and grandiose. Peter has led us out of the wilderness and oh so close to the promise land. But what moves is he wanting to make now?
Putting my Peter Anholt hat on, let’s quickly assess what this team could use.
I think it’s fair to assume the goaltending isn’t part of the conversation. The only move you consider making involving a goalie is trading Jayden Sittler to strengthen your backend or your stock of draft picks. I’ve already gone on record as saying it would be a massive mistake and I still believe it. Goaltending wins games in the playoffs and Lethbridge has two of the best. If you’re going to trade Sittler (and make no mistake, that is likely to happen due to his age), do it in the off season. You want him on your team in the playoffs.
That leaves the forwards and the defense. On the backend, Anholt will have to ask himself how comfortable he is with his defenders. The only true blue defensive defenseman of the bunch is Darian Skeoch, the rest being more offensive minded puck movers. A huge part of the Hurricanes successful offensive game has been the phenomenal puck movement from Atwal, Nielsen and Pankewicz. All three make great outlet passes and are able to manage the puck at the point in the offensive zone. That said, do you want to add or swap one of those players for a more defensive shut down sort of defender? I say yes, but who comes and who goes is something I’ll leave up to the GM.
Up front, I can’t imagine Anholt will be too stressed about trying to find offense. Nor should he be too concerned about shut down guys either. The line of Folk, Lindgren, and Millette is more than capable of playing the key shutdown moments in the playoffs. If anything, Anholt will be looking for a first line winger. Can Jordy Bellerive or Ben Duperreault do the job? Yes, I believe they can, but I don’t think it’s the ideal situation. I don’t think you want to mess with either the Folk, Millette, Lindgren line, or the Babenko, Gutierrez, Burke line. Bellerive can keep playing on the top line, but they will have to ask themselves if that is where they really want him. I happen to believe Anholt was in the conversation for Jake DeBrusk and that Jake would have slotted in with Wong and Estephan. It would have been a perfect fit on the LW, but Anholt wasn’t willing to cough up what Sutter was. Bringing in a premier LW to play top line with Estephan and Wong would allow Kisio to skate Bellerive with Davis and Vandervlis/Sheen. That line would see softer minutes against opposition third pairing defenders, and hopefully, provide them opportunity to succeed.
The other issue Anholt may want to address at the deadline is the overall age gap in the Hurricanes lineup. The Canes are exceptionally deep with 16/17 year olds as well as 19 year olds, but the 18’s are lacking. The only ‘97’s on the team are Reagan, Skeoch, Babenko, Burke, and Estephan. With the uncertain status of Babenko for next season, Anholt may want to trade a 19 year old for a pair of 18’s.