As the dust settles after a monumental few days of wheeling and dealing, it’s become apparent one of the biggest losers of the WHL trade deadline is a team that arguably improved the most.
The Regina Pats made three notable trades between New Year’s Day and Wednesday’s cutoff, enhancing their roster in a season they’re hosting the Memorial Cup in May. But the choices of their rivals have put the Pats in a real bind because of the WHL’s divisional playoff format.
Make no mistake, Pats GM-coach John Paddock couldn’t stand pat. Although Regina is in no danger of missing the post-season, it’s just one point ahead of the Saskatoon Blades for one of two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference. (They fell to 21-19-4 after losing in overtime Wednesday to the lowly Edmonton Oil Kings without Canadian world junior standout Sam Steel.) That’s a less than enviable place in the standings for a Memorial Cup host.
The attempted fix began with re-acquiring former Pat Jesse Gabrielle from the Prince George Cougars. The gritty overage winger spent the first half of the season with the AHL’s Providence Bruins. Next were two separate deals with Saskatoon – first getting Czech world junior standout Libor Hajek and then recent Edmonton Oilers signee Cameron Hebig. Goaltender Ryan Kubic, once a second-round bantam draft pick, was also nabbed in the Hebig trade.
Kubic replaces Tyler Brown, who backstopped the Pats to the 2017 WHL final, but had struggled this season.
The cost was steep. Six players and seven draft picks – including two firsts – were jettisoned in the three deals. Another second-round pick and 17-year-old Owen Williams were dealt to acquire veteran defensive defenceman Aaron Hyman.
But the roster additions were necessary, if for no other reason than the Pats are expected to compete with three of the CHL’s best in May. Because they certainly weren’t beneficial to Pats for the WHL playoffs.
The class of the East Division – and the WHL in general – are the Moose Jaw Warriors and Swift Current Broncos. They hold down the top two spots in the league and are now 25 and 15 points ahead of the Pats. If there was any minuscule chance the Pats could catch either one, it went out the window over the past few days.
The Broncos have loaded up. They spent two first-round picks to get defenceman and Colorado Avalanche draftee Josh Anderson from Prince George. They then mortgaged more of their future to get Oilers goaltending prospect Stuart Skinner and scorer Giorgio Estephan from Lethbridge. Throw in players like world junior golden goal scorer Tyler Steenbergen and Finland’s Aleksi Heponiemi and they’re clearly all in.
The Warriors have only six regulation losses. They didn’t need to add much, but they went out and got perhaps the best player available in blueliner Kale Clague, a Canadian WJC team alternate captain, at the 11th hour.
Because of the Warriors’ and Broncos’ prowess, the other East teams made the appropriate adjustments. Saskatoon retooled its likely wild-card roster with an eye on next year. Most surprisingly, the Brandon Wheat Kings sold despite being in third place in the league. In addition to superstar Clague, they dealt captain Tanner Kaspick to Victoria.
Using the same divisional format as the NHL, the WHL’s playoff structure would have forced the Wheat Kings to go through Swift Current and Moose Jaw to reach the Eastern Conference final if they finished third. That’s a tall task.
The ideal spot heading into the playoffs is the first wild-card position. The team that finishes there crosses over to play the first-place team in the Central Division. Right now, that’s the Medicine Hat Tigers, who at 23-16-3, would be fourth in the East. Lethbridge, second in the Central, would be fifth in the East.
If the Pats had done nothing, there’s a good chance they could have finished there and taken their chances against the much weaker Central. But their improvements, and Brandon’s likely drop off, make closing the 10-point gap for third place in the East more of a possibility.
Regina’s subpar record to this point has conjured up similarities to Saskatoon’s when it hosted the Memorial Cup in 2013. Both teams tinkered with their rosters throughout the season as they underwhelmed while hovering around the .500 mark.
The Blades completed their roster makeover by adding three veterans before the deadline, notably winger Micheal Ferland from Brandon. He, like the Pats’ Gabrielle, spent the first half of the season in the minors.
The difference for the Blades was that Prince Albert was the only competition for top spot in the division. Plus, the WHL operated under the conference format, which the OHL still uses. Finishing first in the division guaranteed a top-two seeding and matchup against the conference’s seventh-best team. (The Blades secured the East crown with the help of a franchise-record 18-game winning streak. It ultimately made no difference. They were swept in the first round by Medicine Hat.)
But Regina doesn’t have the same luxury of playing in a weak division this year. A favourable playoff path isn’t likely then, either.
There’s no question the Pats vastly augmented their lineup this week, something that was important to put on a show on home ice at the Memorial Cup in May. Ironically, there’s a decent chance the moves they made – combined with those of their rivals – will wind up hurting their playoff prospects in their own league.