THE ROARING TWENTIES
Between the end of the WHL season and now, Hurricanes General Manager Peter Anholt has completely transformed his overage situation. During that time, the GM made three separate trades that saw three new overage faces head to Southern Alberta. Today we take a look at the moves, the players, and the future.
To the surprise of many, Anholt’s first major trade of the off-season was to ship Hurricane captain Jamal Watson to Seattle in return for a 5th round selection in 2016 and LW Cory Millette. Millette, also entering his 20-year-old season, is a solid journeyman who made stops in Red Deer, Saskatoon, Prince Albert, Seattle, prior to the trade with Lethbridge. Anholt said about the trade,
“Cory is one of those players that has really good hockey sense. He has some offensive ability around the net. I kind of compare him to [Tomas] Holmstrom of Detroit; his skating isn’t the best, but he makes up for it with his hockey sense. He’ll be a good add for us.”
The move to trade Watson was not one I had seen coming. Watson was a career Hurricane and not unpopular with fans. Not having spoken to the player or the GM, I can’t say with any certainty the motives behind the trade. Did Watson want out? Was he looking for a change of scenery and a chance at being on a successful team for his final season? Did Anholt make the trade on his own accord purely as a hockey move or was there something deeper? Let me speculate a little.
If Watson did want out, it was good of Anholt to keep his request under wraps in that it protected Watson from unnecessary criticism from fans and any possible disappointment from teammates. From a player-centric perspective, the move to Seattle ought to come as a delight to Watson – not because Lethbridge is a bad place/organization (though some will argue) – but because of what Seattle will offer in ’15-’16. The Thunderbirds are going to be a very good team this year – likely pushing for top spot in the U.S. Division. With his exceptional speed and offensive ability, I believe Watson will thrive on the coast with the T-birds. Less important, yet still worth noting, Watson grew up in a big city and should have no issue getting used to life in Seattle. As much as I am sure he did not welcome the idea of leaving his friends and teammates here in Lethbridge, I believe the trade will be a great thing for Jamal and am excited to track his progression this season.
In return for Watson, Anholt brought in LW Cory Millette. Despite similar numbers over their careers, Millette and Watson are very different players. Where Watson’s strength is in speed and attacking off the rush, Millette is more of a grinding player. While not necessarily a ‘big’ player (only 10-15 pounds heavier than Watson), according to reports I was able to find online, Millette uses the size he does have to his advantage and plays a greasier game than Watson. During his time in Seattle, Cory found success on the powerplay. Although (likely) aided by playing alongside Mathew Barzal, Roberts Lipsbergs, and Shea Theodore on the first PP unit, his (Millette) knack for scoring in and around the blue paint proved beneficial to Seattle’s powerplay. I suspect it was Millette’s net-front presence and overall style of play that drew Anholt’s attention.
Looking at the move from a statistical perspective, the Watson trade was (and remains) lateral. However, Millette is an important part of the new on-ice identity I believe the general manager is looking to implement this season. The trade for Millette, a farm kid from rural Saskatchewan, speaks loudly to me that Anholt wants the Hurricanes to transition into more of a zone offense team, rather than rely on speed alone. The Hurricanes were not tough enough to play against last year and a different type of player was needed to move the needle in a new direction. The Canes lost a fast skilled winger that wasn’t necessarily difficult to play against and gained a slower offensive threat with a heavier stick and more grit. Watson has scored 27 more points than Millette in their respective careers but has also played 32 more games. Millette, a deft goal scorer, is not a less ‘skilled’ player, but is cut from a different cloth than Watson. I expect he will play a huge part in the Hurricane power play and, if the team hopes to cut down on shots against, will also be called on to drive the cycle low in the offensive zone and be an effective outlet in the defensive zone. If Millette can prove himself effective in front of the net and along the wall, Anholt will have made a good trade. I can’t say to-a-man that Millette is an upgrade on Watson – you may even argue that in some ways he is a downgrade – but he fits the mold of Anholt’s Hurricanes and I think there is a good chance the move works well for both teams and players.
Cory Millette: Originally a farm kid from rural Saskatchewan. Plays a hard working game as a gritty LW with scoring ability. Not a player that thrives off the rush due to average skating ability. Millette is most effective in-tight to the net. Has had success on the power play in the past. Makes life difficult for opposition defenders and goaltenders. Has scored 121 points in 238 WHL games. Possesses an all-time +/- of -47 but did record a +12 last season. Acquired from Seattle as part of the Jamal Watson trade. Look for him to play tough minutes this season and feature heavily in the PP.
Justin Gutierrez: A depth C that brings physicality. Initially from Anchorage Alaska. From a family of 11. Spent his entire WHL career in Tri-Cities. Not offensively threatening but uses his size. Look for him to add an element of toughness and hopefully create space for his teammates. Will likely slot into bottom six and eat difficult minutes through the season. Acquired in a trade with Tri-Cities for a 4th round draft pick in 2017.
Arvin Atwal: Physical puck moving defenseman. Has spent his entire career in Vancouver. Initially from Deta BC. Has shown flashes of offensive ability and possesses the ability to quarterback a power play. Not afraid to drop the gloves and defend teammates. Has recorded 58 pts over 154 career WHL games. Fell under the scrutiny of coaches in Vancouver for discipline issues last season. Without knowing the details, the move away from the lower mainland to a new situation here in Lethbridge may be great for Arvin. Acquired from Vancouver Giants in return for a conditional 6th round pick in 2017.
The Hurricanes also acquired big center Justin Gutierrez from the Tri-City Americans. Although he provides very little in the form of offence, the GM made it clear in his official trade statement that he is expecting Gutierrez to eat some major ice-time this season.
“He’s a big, strong left-hand shot centreman that can eat up some important minutes for us this year. He is a character person and we are excited to add him to the fold. It was important to add some size down the middle and with Justin we’ve done that.”
The Hurricanes are not a big team down the middle – a significant and far-reaching issue. If the Hurricanes are going to succeed this season, they will need to win more draws and learn to establish a dominating cycle in the offensive zone – something sorely lacking last season. Adding a big body like Gutierrez ought to help improve both face-offs and strength along the wall. Depending on how well Justin is able to establish himself in Lethbridge, I expect he will be a contributor on the penalty kill and be burdened with difficult zone starts in an attempt to shelter some of the Canes’ younger centers. Depending on who Brent Kisio decides to put on his wings, Gutierrez could be a solid pivot for a reliable shutdown third or fourth line. Expecting much more than that would be unfair to the player but I believe he could be a pleasant surprise to Canes fans.
Anholt’s most recent 20-year-old move was the acquisition of RD Arvin Atwal from the Vancouver Giants. Atwal is tough, physical, and experienced as a defender in the league. Various sources around the web suggest that Atwal possesses above average puck-moving ability and offensive flare – making him a great fit for the powerplay. During his time in Vancouver, Arvin proved he has a willingness to fight when necessary and plays a heavy game. While not particularly large, scouting reports suggest that Atwal makes good use of the size he does have. As far as his position in the Hurricanes depth chart, it sounds as if Anholt wants to utilize him in the top four, likely playing major minutes alongside Andrew Nielsen. That same pairing will likely also quarterback the Hurricanes first powerplay unit. Between the left shooting Nielsen and the right shot Atwal, potential exists for the team to have an offensively solid top pairing with a one-time option, hopefully giving the Hurricanes a scoring threat from the point.
The trade to Lethbridge will be Arvin’s first since joining the league as a rookie. Raised in Delta BC, Atwal has never lived as far away as Lethbridge for the sake of hockey. At times last season (particularly near the end of the year) Atwal was not known to be on the best of terms with head coach Claude Noel. He had been asked to stay away from the squad as part of a disciplinary move by the organization near the end of the year. Sitting where I am here in Lethbridge, I don’t know the situation or where blame (if any) for the occurrence ought to be placed. Maybe Atwal was acting out, or maybe it was a personal issue between the player and the now departed coach. Regardless, Atwal will get a fresh start here in Lethbridge as a Hurricane. The Canes didn’t give up much to get him and for the sake of both parties I hope things work out.
In conclusion, I believe the three moves Anholt made this off-season to address his overagers, represent a larger philosophical change for the team. Each move was made to help address issues Anholt saw with last years team. The Hurricanes didn’t use the size they did have to establish a physical threat to their opposition – and in turn – were too easy to play against. Each of the three new players are generally viewed as more physical than their predecessors. Millette and Atwal, in particular, will need to be impact players in order for the Hurricanes to have success this year. While Atwal was not the only defensive name I had heard the Hurricanes had an interest in, Anholt saw enough of a player in Arvin that he wanted to make the move. While the Gutierrez and Atwal acquisitions are relatively low risk, the decision to trade Watson will result in some heavy criticism if Millette struggles to provide the gritty offense for which he is known. Considering there are still many overager players available heading into training camps, the GM may still be looking to add a fourth for the sake of competition. Only time will tell, but if nothing else the GM has a plan and his new overage players certainly seem to fit the bill.