Storm GM loads up on Canadian junior team talent for playoff push

World Juniors Team Canada centre Nick Suzuki was recently acquired by the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

TORONTO — George Burnett of the Guelph Storm didn’t initially set out to be the busiest general manager ahead of the Ontario Hockey League trade deadline.

But the opportunities to add top-end skill to his roster, including the addition of three returning Canadian world junior team members, was too good to pass up.

"I don’t think we were thinking we’d have six new faces in the last week or so before the deadline," Burnett said on Wednesday.

"Busy few weeks, don’t know if it started out looking that way but through the Christmas break. We knew we wanted to strengthen our back end with more veteran presence and wanted to add a top-flight forward."

Burnett made five trades between Jan. 4 and the Jan. 10 deadline to fill his club’s voids, and then some, adding key pieces that he hopes will take the Storm deep into the post-season in the OHL’s tough Western Conference alongside the London Knights, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and Saginaw Spirit.

Burnett had already acquired forward Mackenzie Entwistle from the Hamilton Bulldogs, defenceman Markus Phillips from the Owen Sound Attack and forward Fedor Gordeev from the Flint Firebirds when he made his biggest trade of the week on Wednesday, getting forwards Nick Suzuki and Zachary Roberts and defenceman Sean Durzi in a second deal with the Attack.

In all, Burnett shipped out three skaters and 20 draft picks to overhaul his team, which has been relying heavily on rookies recently to stay competitive due to significant injuries to three top players — centre Cam Hillis, winger Pavel Gogolev and defenceman Jack Hanley.

"Our maturity level as a team has improved significantly with the additions we’ve made," said Burnett. "You can talk about winning and playoffs runs, that’s fine but (now) we have to take care of the details."

Burnett says that the additions of Suzuki, Entwistle and Phillips weren’t exactly part of a master blueprint, but he had given himself options to make the moves when he shipped out offensive defenceman Ryan Merkley to the Peterborough Petes and forward Tag Bertuzzi (son of former NHLer Todd) to Hamilton in mid-December for eight combined draft picks and Gogolev, who had eight points in four games with Guelph before suffering a lower-body injury on Jan. 2.

"We didn’t set out to be (draft-) pick poor and we’re not. There were enough picks, some even accumulated before I got here," said Burnett who also serves as head coach and is in his second season with the Storm.

"You could have all the draft picks in the world and if you don’t use them appropriately they’re only as good as how you use them."

This year’s deadline included many blockbuster trades, with Suzuki, Entwistle and Phillips being only three of the six Canadian junior team players to find themselves with a new club.

Saginaw acquired forward Owen Tippett from Mississauga (only days after the Steelheads also sent the Spirit forward Ryan McLeod), while forward Jack Studnicka went from the Oshawa Generals to the Niagara IceDogs.

Meanwhile in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, defenceman Noah Dobson went from the reigning Memorial Cup champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and forward Shane Bowers, who plays for Boston University, had his rights moved from the Saint John Sea Dogs to the Drummondville Voltigeurs.

London added some fire power up front by acquiring forward Kevin Hancock, who sits third in OHL scoring, from Owen Sound. Oshawa added forward Brandon Saigeon, who is fifth in points, from Hamilton and the Ottawa 67’s made a trade with the Erie Otters to get forward Kyle Maksimovich, who is currently ninth in league scoring.

"The Western Conference is very strong, as is he East. The three teams ahead of us presently all (got) better this week," said Burnett. "The thing for us is taking care of our own business."

Burnett is optimistic that his team still has time to find the chemistry before the post-season, especially since he expects to get back his injured regulars. Hillis is expected to return in mid-February. Hanley has a March timeline on returning and Gogolev is expected back when the playoffs start.

"We have just 29 games remaining, it’s getting people healthy and but also getting everyone on the same page where we’re playing for each other consistently," said Burnett.

Notes: OHL teams are currently allowed to trade draft picks a maximum of six years into the future, but that is being changed. By 2020, it’ll be down to five years and by 2021 it will be four years into the future.

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