CHL Notebook: Stakes get higher in the OHL at trade deadline

Canada's Taylor Raddysh, centre, celebrates his goal with teammate Conor Timmins during the second period of IIHF World Junior Championship preliminary round hockey action against Finland, in Buffalo, N.Y., Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2017. (Mark Blinch/CP)

It might not be so daring if everyone does it. For sheer entertainment value, the willingness of a quartet of Ontario Hockey League’s general managers – Kyle Raftis of Sault Ste. Marie, the Hamilton Bulldogs’ Steve Staios, Kitchener Rangers’ Mike McKenzie, Kingston Frontenacs’ Darren Keily – to trade it all for just a little more has made the lead-up to the league’s deadline go to 11.

Sports is supposed to be fun to follow, after all. It’s not clear what triggered such a busy period when the aforementioned Soo Greyhounds, who are on a 26-game point streak, were already the class of the league before getting the two-time world junior championship medallist Taylor Raddysh (TB), the OHL’s best big-game player, from the retooling Erie Otters.

All four of those teams have traded their 16-year-old top choice while loading up, even though only three of the last eight OHL championship-winning teams have deemed it necessary to do so. The Sarnia Sting have demurred from doing so, perhaps since 2017 first pick Jamison Rees is already a top-end forward.

Hamilton’s deal on Monday with the London Knights for Robert Thomas (STL), another contributor to Canada’s WJC championship team, also meant that 30 future second-round choices have been moved since New Year’s Day.

The dust still has to settle, of course. Succinctly speaking, here’s how the landscape might have changed.

Sault Ste. Marie: Already fast and lethal, the Hounds (.888 point pct., first overall) enhanced that by trading for Raddysh, and added a seasoned defenceman, Jordan Sambrook, who can complement No. 1 D Conor Timmins (COL).

Sarnia: The classic add-don’t-alter approach, bringing C Jonathan Ang (FLA) and D Cam Dineen (ARI), both 19-year-old skill players, across conference lines. Each is a good fit for the high-pace Sting (.683, second OHL Western Conference).

Kitchener: Rangers fans have such high expectations they probably think the preamble “an OHL team tries to end a long post-season drought” is about them, not Kingston, Sarnia or Sault Ste. Marie, none of whom has appeared in an OHL final since 1993. The Rangers’ last conference final berth was six years ago. Kitchener went big, adding six-foot-six, 214-pound forward Logan Brown (OTT) and Givani Smith (DET), who’s 6-2, 210. As big as both are, neither fills the Rangers’ needs in net, where a troika of goaltenders have mustered only an .892 save percentage.

On the Eastern side of the league:

Hamilton: The Bulldogs (.700, first in the Eastern Conference) have done quite well with scoring by committee, but Thomas, third in the OHL points per game, gives them a lodestar. Hamilton already had five point-per-game scorers up front, as well as a notable continuity on the back end.

Kingston: In his first games all season, without practising with his hometown team, 18-year-old NHL first-rounder Gabriel Vilardi (LA) had a mere six points in three games last weekend. Kingston coach Jay Varady has the makings of an offensive juggernaut with the Fronts having dealt with the past two Memorial Cup winners to add Cliff Pu (BUF) down the middle, Max Jones (ANA) on the wing and Sean Day (NYR) at the back.

The Frontenacs (.590 point pct., fourth) had already developed a sturdy defence in front of overage goalie Jeremy Helvig. The all-in move might be predicated on how much better Vilardi gets over the remaining half-season, and how departed 17-year-old Nathan Dunkley develops in London.

The long and short of it is that in a league with a following that’s conditioned to accept the buyer/seller cycle, a home run cut with an Aaron Judge-esque launch angle is always the wise play. All those second-round picks – Kingston has only one from now till 2028 – can be recovered at some point down the line.

Sacrificing a first-rounder who’s already a proven asset is another thing entirely. London added Dunkley and a prized 16-year-old in Connor McMichael. Windsor picked up two yearlings, Cody Morgan and Grayson Ladd. That will come to the fore in two to three years’ time.

No standing Pat
Nothing is ever critical for the MasterCard Memorial Cup host team until its pre-tournament training period, where “the longer the better” proved true for the Windsor Spitfires last season. Be that as it may, it will be interesting to see how the Regina Pats and coach-GM John Paddock fortify for their turn as host.

At the roughly 60 per cent mark of the WHL season, the Pats (.523 point pct.) have just a slightly better record than the 2012-13 Saskatoon Blades, the pyrite standard for shaky host teams, did at the same point in their schedule. Those Blades, post-trade deadline, won 24 of their final 29 regular-season games, before being swept in the opening round and going 1-3 at the Memorial Cup.

The Pats, going into the last 48 hours before the WHL trade deadline, have upgraded their 20-year-old complement by dealing for winger Jesse Gabrielle (BOS), who spent the first half of the year in the AHL. How star centre Sam Steel (ANA) re-adapts to the major junior grind after checking off the world junior gold medal box on his career resumé will also be telling.

The Pats play nearly a third of their remaining schedule against the WHL’s top two teams, the Moose Jaw Warriors (five games) and Swift Current Broncos (four). One of those powerhouses will probably be the Pats’ first-round playoff opponent. In the long run, that might be the best thing, since Regina will get a read on how it matches up with the big boys it will see in May.

Armada, Islanders stand out at Q deadline
The co-champions of the Quebec league’s trading period, for different reasons, are the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and Charlottetown Islanders.

The point is the obvious with the league-leading Armada (.737 point pct.), whose trade for Drake Batherson (OTT) made it two seasons in a row hat they have acquired a Team Canada world junior standout from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. The Armada got the best available player. Having overage Alex Barré-Boulet and Batherson means Blainville-Boisbriand, which has perhaps lacked the natural scoring to win a President’s Cup, now boasts forwards who are 1-2 in points per game in the QMJHL.

Out east, Islanders coach-GM Jim Hulton pulled off the balancing act of improving his lineup without depleting future assets. Charlottetown (.658, sixth overall) did not land a name-brand junior star – that role is already covered by defenceman Pierre-Olivier Joseph (ARI), anyway – but diversified their offensive portfolio. Hulton, who gave up only two roster players and didn’t trade a pick higher than a third-rounder, added forwards Cameron Askew, Derek Gentile and Daniel Hardie, each of whom has scored at a near point-per-game clip at his peak in the QMJHL.

The Islanders went to the third round in 2017 with a much more potent offence. Repeating that feat would not only be a coup, but a lesson in sane planning for a sensible tomorrow.

Canadian NHL Team Prospect of the Week: Cameron Hebig, C, Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
Hebig, over the last two weeks, signed a NHL entry-level deal with the Edmonton Oilers and helped spur Saskatoon to a seven-win streak, the Blades’ longest skein of consecutive wins since 2013.

While the run ended with a defeat against the Brandon Wheat Kings on Sunday, that takes scarcely any shine off the perseverance shown by Hebig, who has earned a shot at the next level despite not playing a WHL game for more than 18 months. The five-foot-10, 185-pound centre, who did have post-concussion syndrome earlier in his WHL tenure, was injured at Saskatoon’s 2016 training camp and went an entire year before being medically cleared to return. It’s glib to say that he’s picked up right where he let off two seasons ago, but with 30 goals and 58 points in 40 games, Hebig is putting up numbers that he probably would have been capable of last season if he had been able to play.

Hebig is on a 50-goal pace. Saskatoon has not had a half-century scorer since 1995-96, when it had two players score more than 60 for a team that finished 13 games below .500. Junior hockey has changed, man.

Hamilton Bulldogs centre Will Bitten (MTL) also has 11 points in six games, putting him tops in team scoring for the OHL Eastern Conference leaders. The Gloucester, Ont., native also has an influential hand in Hamilton having the OHL’s No. 1 power play. He leads all forwards with 19 power-play assists.

New name to know: Dillon Hamaliuk, LW, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
Hamaliuk, a six-foot-three, 182-pound winger, is one not-so-small reason that the Thunderbirds are avoiding any post-Mathew Barzal malaise, climbing into a playoff position in the season after a championship. Hamaliuk chipped in a goal last Saturday when the Thunderbirds ended the Kelowna Rockets’ 13-game home win streak. The Leduc, Alta., native has 12 points in as many games since early December. Seattle is also 8-2-2 in that stretch.

As a late-birthdate 17-year-old, Hamaliuk will not be NHL draft-eligible until 2019. He was a sixth-round selection in the bantam draft, but matured sufficiently enough to earn ice time in 17 games during Seattle’s championship season in 2017.

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