With the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s trade deadline just days away, 16 team hoping to find themselves in contention at the 2016 Royal Bank Cup in Lloydminster come May have started their trade engines already in hopes of improving their odds.
As the leaders in the Viterra AJHL North Division, the Spruce Grove Saints made two notable moves in net this week, shipping goaltender Garrett Mason to the Whitecourt Wolverines Tuesday in exchange for winger Dondre Watson and acquiring goaltender Ravi Dattani from the Fort McMurray Oil Barons Thursday afternoon in exchange for future considerations.
The first deal helps both teams with their depth heading towards the post-season. For the Saints, they gain another potent offensive threat while the Wolverines find themselves with one of the most formidable goaltending duos in the league now in Tanner McCorriston and Mason, though trading a producing forward to the division leader you’re trying to catch does raise some eyebrows.
Having won five straight and given up two goals or less in their past four games, it’s safe to say that goals will come at a premium in the rest of the regular season and playoffs for the Wolverines’ opponents.
Regarding the Saints’ second trade, Dattani will close out his time in junior hockey with the Saints, sitting 18 minutes short of 10,000 for his career. Though he’ll likely play second fiddle to Matthew Murray down the stretch, Dattani will be a more than capable backup. Should Murray seem sluggish at any point, the Calgary native shouldn’t have a problem filling in.
In the Viterra AJHL South Division, the Brooks Bandits also recently shored up their crease, adding Garret Hughson into the fold who, like Dattani, will be a capable backup in a crowded crease that already features Josh Davis and Jonathan Reinhart.
The top offence in the league and best defence in the South Division may decide to sit pat at the deadline given their previous acquisitions of Tristan Thompson, Landon Welykholowa and Tyrell Mappin, but if there’s one thing the Brooks Bandits do well, it’s surprise, so it wouldn’t be out of the question to see them add another piece to their ever-growing list of threats.
Making a strong push in the North Division are the Bonnyville Pontiacs, who are quickly proving that last year’s appearance in the North Division Finals was no fluke and they could get themselves there again.
An open overager spot opens up possibilities for the Pontiacs, who could either add an experienced top six forward to provide offence or making one of their depth lines a little bit more dangerous. Adding another hand on the blue line could also help take some pressure off of Brinson Pasichnuk as the season and playoffs drag on.
In the Border City, the Lloydminster Bobcats have a guaranteed route to the RBC Cup, but like any team will say, they’d rather earn their way in than spend an extra month or two waiting. At 29-8-2, the Bobcats find themselves fourth a tough North Division with some games in hand, though with six more points they’d find themselves in the division lead.
That puts Gord Thibodeau into a bit of a bind, with the pressure of hosting the national championship and the team sitting at the bottom of the top-tier. If there’s one thing the rest of the AJHL knows about Thibodeau, it’s that his ability to wheel and deal is hard to match and he’s never been one to shy away from making a big trade in order to spark his club.
Their goaltending duo of Alex Leclerc and Pierce Diamond have stabilized the team’s up and down play, giving the Bobcats the second-best goals against average in the division. Dec. 1 acquisition Kris Spriggs has six goals and 10 points in 13 games while offence has been slow to come to others like blue liners Greg Moro and Stefan Wood. Maxed out at their six overage spots, if the Bobcats want to make a move, they’ll have to look to the future.
Shifting back to the Viterra South, the Camrose Kodiaks and Okotoks Oilers have once again presented themselves as the main challengers to the Bandits for the South Division crown. With six overages and seven 1996-born players, it’s clear roster changes will be on the Kodiaks’ horizon, but it’s difficult to tell if that will come as soon as this weekend.
For the Oilers, their situation has a bit more breathing room. They have two open overage spots and could be in the market for a fifth and sixth over the weekend. The Oilers also have just three of their six overager spots committed for next year as well, meaning that making a playoff run and re-tooling well for the 2016-17 campaign is with the team’s realm.
In Canmore, what started out as a strong season for the Eagles has quickly slowed to the point that they sit two points ahead of the Drumheller Dragons for fourth place in the division.
Eagles general manager Andrew Milne has a full set of overagers on his roster and moving one to gain a necessary piece for future years could be a possible route for the club, though things get tricky heading into next year with eight 1996-born players on their roster. The Eagles will have some interesting choices to make in the coming days.
Speaking of the Dragons, a 6-2-2 streak in their last 10 games have them in the thick of contending for home-ice advantage in the first round of the Gas Drive Cup, which would be a sharp turnaround for the club after they appeared to be packing it in following a poor first half.
A long list of 1995 and 1996-born players command the top of the Dragons’ charts, it appears they could be giving one big shot at a playoff run from the middle of the pack. In players like Ryan Chenoweth, Clint Filbrandt and Levi Wunder, the Dragons have the tools for a run this year, but the waitlist of teams ahead of them could prove to be too much. With limited flexibility in terms of the players they’re committed to over the remainder of this season and next, it appears as though the Dragons will have to be content to let the chips fall and see where they land.
Another team facing a toss-up situation similar to the Dragons are the Sherwood Park Crusaders, who also find themselves fifth in their division, knocking on the door of fourth place. That also places the Crusaders on the edge of buying or selling. A strong core of overagers for next year could influence that, with the Crusaders postponing their dreams by a year, but another piece this year could also push them over the top.
For both sixth place teams in the respective divisions, Drayton Valley in the North and Olds in the South, an impending tough playoff matchup awaits, but so does a bright looking future for both clubs. With the Grizzlys deploying just four overagers on their roster and sitting well back in the standings, using one of those players as a trade chip for some up and coming players becomes the go-to thought of the moment.
As the Thunder find themselves firmly locked into sixth place at the moment, their fortunes may change with the return of goaltender Brett Zarowny from injury, but that appears to be the only significant addition for a team with all six overage spots for this year and next occupied.
With the bottom two teams in each division, the idea to sell any assets, such as 1995-born forward Cole Todd with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, Luke Mahura with the Grande Prairie Storm, or Vincent Paquette and Everett Putz with the Calgary Mustangs become attractive pieces to any team looking to add a scoring veteran for the playoff push.
Once Monday comes and goes, one team out of the 16 in the league will possess the roster of the 2016 Gas Drive Cup Champion. How it’s shaped and where it comes from is an answer we’ll need to wait a little longer to find out.
By Robert Murray