I’m all for the concept of parity that has inundated the Western Hockey League but as far as trade deadline deals, speculation and innuendo goes, she just ain’t what used to be.
In just over a week’s time, on January 14, the WHL’s trade deadline will have past and with the emerging trend of too much demand, not enough supply, this year’s round of poker will have lots of players, all wanting to draw some cards, but few wanting to meet the ante.
Every year the Christmas wish list gets extended a few weeks in the WHL because of the multitude of G.M.’s still searching for that elusive cog that could push their club over the top, put them into contention to make some noise in the playoffs or augment an already powerful lineup. Looking for the bargain deal, most of the gifts this year have been opened early in the season long before the economics of supply and demand had put their prices into the stratosphere.
B.C. Division -In the B.C. Division, where four of the five clubs have a legitimate shot of reaching the Western Conference final, the shopping could be all but done. Teams such as Kootenay, Kelowna and Kamloops have all made deals that are designed to address certain needs. Kootenay and Kelowna both revamped their goaltending situations by adding B.J. Boxma and Shane Bendera, respectively. Kelowna also tinkered with their defensive corps with the addition of former ICE blueliner Jesse Ferguson and Kevin Young out of Portland in October. In continuing the trend of adding former Kootenay players, Nick Marach joined the Rockets in a deal from Vancouver that saw Rory McDade going the other way just last month. Kamloops further stocked up on their impressive arsenal of firepower by adding Scott Henkleman and Ben Knopp out of Vancouver and Moose Jaw, respectively in the first half of the season. Save for some small tinkering, the big deals by the three ‘K’s’ are likely done. The current front runners in the division, the Prince George Cougars who have yet to make a deal of significance as their record pretty much speaks for itself. Both Cougar netminders, Kyle Stanton and Billy Thompson have been stellar all season. Being deep between the pipes could well afford G.M. Daryl Lubiniecki a big trading card come the deadline.
Whether or not there are any takers at this point in the season in anybody’s guess. Look for Prince George to make little adjustment if any, the club is well balanced and it’s hard to mess with a good thing. Kootenay might be looking for a defenseman to help a tired-looking blueline corp. but only if the price is right. After the huge deal to bring Boxma back to the Key City I don’t think you’ll see G.M. Chynoweth give up much more. The expansion Vancouver Giants, which have performed well for a first-year franchise, find themselves on the selling side of things and could still see some major roster changes in order to build for the future. The Giants do have an outside chance at actually making the playoffs if they finish with more points than their U.S. Division rival Seattle because of the new the crossover rule, however unlikely. Many feel that the Giants lineup has already been picked over but there still could be some movement before the deadline with newly acquired d-man Phil Cole name being mentioned in trade banter since the move from Lethbridge.
U.S. Division -The U.S. Division could see some action as Spokane is the most likely candidate to be in the buying mood with a hankering for some more firepower up front. Portland has made some deals many in Stumptown have been questioning. The WinterHawks may do some minor work but will probably go into the post-season with what they have. Hard to say if ‘Trader’ Bob Tory in Tri-Cities will make any moves as he has been another that made facelift changes near the beginning of the schedule. If the club is healthy then look for Tory to do a little tire-kicking and only buying if the deal is too good to pass up, which Tory almost always manages to do. Bringing up the rear is Seattle and you can bet that most G.M.’s are drooling over a line-up that may be had – but bank on the price being steep.
Lots of Speculation, little of substance in the East
Central Division -This division usually has the lion’s share of the speculation but this season the banter is strangely quiet. The division and league-leading Swift Current Broncos will in all likelihood make little noise if only for the fact that their immediate needs on the blueline and up front have been met with Jaffray and Rome coming into the fold. Red Deer is somewhat of an enigma in that the club has been on a slide of late but is still in the hunt to catch the Broncos. Coach, G.M. and owner Brent Sutter might not be happy but then again when is he? There are G.M.’s around the league that would kill for that lineup. The Carsen Germyn acquisition added some scoring punch up front but Sutter may still think the club needs some adjustments. That and being that the wily coach is almost never predictable, the Rebels might make some moves yet. The team that may not be finished dealing are the floundering Lethbridge Hurricanes. Their 1-8-1slide, including loses in their last six prompted G.M. Bryan Maxwell into acquiring Jeremy Jackson from the Vancouver Giants for steady rearguard Phil Cole.
Looking to boost the club’s offense that’s generated very much by Nathan Barrett, Tomas Kopecky, Ryley Layden and Tim Green, Jackson will help even more on the scoresheet. Unless the aloof Jackson ends his off ice antics that troubled him in Vancouver and Michigan St. (NCAA), even the hard-nosed Bryan Maxwell could have trouble controlling the rebellious Jackson. In order to try and stop the slide, the Hurricanes probably aren’t finished trading yet, especially if their goaltender’s injury woes continue. At the other end of the spectrum the Calgary Hitmen are probably enjoying what could be best described as a pleasant surprise in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season. Fourth in the Central and ready to catch the slumping Hurricanes, the team is solid all around and in what places they could enjoy improvement, the club almost certainly won’t expend any youth to upgrade. Plagued by a nagging kneecap injury that has seen goalie Brent Krahn miss most of the season, the Calgary Flames first round draft pick from 2000 could be dealt – if he’s cleared to play – and even then there might not be any takers because of the wonky knee. Aside from that, the Hitties should be quiet on the trade front.
With the Medicine Hat Tigers the biggest question hasn’t been whether or not superstar-in-waiting Jay Bouwmeester will go first overall in the 2002 NHL Draft but if the club will deal the smooth-skating d-man according to the abundance of Bouwmeester-related rumors making the rounds. The Tigers aren’t by any means out of the race in the Central and are adamant about not trading their budding superstar. Coach Bob Loucks summed it up concisely after the Tigers defeated the ICE last week. “Everybody talks about us trading Jay Bouwmeester,” said Loucks. “We’re not actively pursuing anybody and we’re not actively on the phone looking for anyone.”
“There’s nothing there that I think that’s going to help us and we’re certainly not about to sell the farm.” Usually talk is cheap but I think that the Tigers will make an honest push for the playoffs after a four-year absence and won’t be making any significant deals.
Eastern Division – The biggest surprise of the year, the Regina Pats were supposed to be in a rebuilding year and may have been one of the rare sellers in this year’s trade market. With first place and now a championship firmly in the realm of possibility the Pats will most likely stand pat, if you’ll excuse the bad pun. They’re definite contenders but won’t be making any big deals to improve a surprisingly good club. The Brandon Wheat Kings are another team that could use an upgrade to boost their fortunes but will they be willing to pay the price if they find what they’re looking for? The Wheaties are contenders right now but will be in a dogfight with the Pats to get out of the division. Because of this, the Wheat Kings will be in the market looking for a big catch. Bringing up the middle almost perennially, the Moose Jaw Warriors were supposed to the heavyweight club in the Eastern Conference this year. Almost a disappointment even though they are still a club flirting with the .500 mark, the Warriors will be looking but probably won’t be buying as the price will be high. The club has made some strange moves in a season full of question marks. The thinking here is that they will quit while they’re still ahead.
Bringing up the rear in the division are the Saskatoon Blades and Prince Albert Raiders. Both could be considered sellers if only for the fact that whichever club make the post-season shouldn’t go very far. One will miss the dance and the other will go home early. The only question now is who’ll sell their tickets in hopes of a better chance next year? Saskatoon has gone on record saying that they will not sacrifice any big names (read: Adrian Foster and leading scorer Justin Kelly) because of a six-player deal made last year with the Rebels that saw the club part with Martin Erat, Darcy Robinson and Cam Ondrik for Michael Garnett, Justin Wallin and Martin Vymazal. The reasoning is that they don’t want to alienate their fans any further by any perception of throwing in the towel on the season. Not your typical Coach-speak but unless the standard deal of the century materializes, don’t bank on the Blades doing much. In Prince Albert there have been rumored offers for Greg Watson, Igor Pohanka and Grant McNeil from various clubs, with none of them ever coming to fruition. Prince Albert could gain a bunch if they ever decided to part with some of their prized players but once again, the club isn’t out of the playoffs and giving their fans a first round playoff date is an honorable goal. There’ll be lots of suitors for the Raider’s treasures but only if a steep price is met.
So there you have it or rather, don’t have it. As usual, the rumor and hype machine will work overtime but produce little. Parity, it’s a great aspect for the league, it just doesn’t do anything to enhance the speculative fervor of the trading deadline.