If he hadn’t already made up his mind, Wednesday’s 10-2 thrashing at the hands of the Calgary Hitmen should have clinched it for Brandon Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon, with the WHL trade deadline only six days away.
It’s now 40 games into this WHL season, and the Wheat Kings (14-22-2-2) simply haven’t provided any compelling evidence that this is a playoff team. Particularly troubling is the fact that the Wheat Kings have given up more goals (170) than any other team in the league and are a disaster on specialty teams — 19th out of 22 teams on the power play (15.7 per cent) and dead last in penalty killing (a dismal 69.0 per cent). Those aren’t the kind of statistics that translate into playoff success.
With that said, the Wheat Kings do have a couple of aces to deal if they choose to shuffle the deck and reload for the future by trading recently reassigned 20-year-old left-winger Michael Ferland and 19-year-old import left-winger Alessio Bertaggia.
Both should garner plenty of interest prior to Thursday’s WHL trade deadline, but McCrimmon isn’t ready yet to declare whether he will be a buyer or a seller this year.
“You know, it’s a week away and yet there’s still a lot of things that could happen and that’s often the case,” McCrimmon said. “As much as people on the outside looking in think that likely a lot of those decisions have been made, in fact they haven’t.”
In the Wheat Kings’ case, it should be pretty clear.
Yes, Brandon is only four points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but I wouldn’t like their chances in a first-round matchup with the defending WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings, Prince Albert Raiders or the Hitmen, who hold down the top three spots in the conference.
While McCrimmon would not comment on any individual players, it’s clear that the tough and talented Ferland (47 goals, 96 points, seven fighting majors last season) and slick scoring Bertaggia (the Wheat Kings’ scoring leader with 16 goals and 34 points in 29 games) are the most marketable players among their 19 and 20-year-olds. Both also have 32 games or less remaining in their WHL careers, with Ferland in his overage season and Bertaggia having signed a contract to play pro in Switzerland next season.
With four overagers now on the roster — one over the limit — McCrimmon must move one of Ferland, fellow forward Nick Buonassisi or defencemen Tyler Yaworski or Ryley Miller by Jan. 10. The obvious trading partners are the Oil Kings and the fourth-place Red Deer Rebels, who both have room to add a 20-year-old, while some of the other contenders may also want to upgrade one of their overagers.
“We’re looking at all options with our 20-year-old players,” McCrimmon said.
Ferland, for one, appears prepared for the possibility of being traded.
“I talked to Kelly (McCrimmon) about the trade deadline here,” Ferland told the Calgary Herald on Wednesday. “I’m not going to be surprised if I get moved here and if I do, it’ll be a new chapter in my career and I’ll move forward.”
As for Bertaggia, the Kelowna Rockets — currently third in the Western Conference and eighth in the CHL rankings — have an open spot to add a second import and could be interested in the Swiss sniper. Meanwhile teams like the Raiders — with 19-year-old Norwegian centre Jonas Knutsen (only three goals) — and the Oil Kings — with 18-year-old Latvian left-winger Edgars Kulda (four goals) — may be among the contenders looking to upgrade at the import spot for their playoff runs.
While they are very popular with fans and teammates alike, biting the bullet this year and trading both Bertaggia and Ferland could yield a nice package of young players, prospects and draft picks for the future.
Brandon is already blessed with some promising 16- and 17-year-old players on the roster, from the likes of standout Jayce Hawryluk of Roblin, John Quenneville, Tim McGauley, Taylor Cooper, Geordie Maguire, Jack Palmer and Kord Pankewicz up front to defencemen Ayrton Nikkel, Colton Waltz and Riley Van Horne on the blue-line (not to mention 18-year-olds like dynamic defenceman Ryan Pulock and big Czech import Richard Nejezchleb).
The Wheat Kings’ 50-player protected list also includes top talent in 15-year-olds like Braylon Shmyr — who scored his first WHL goal in his first game Wednesday in Calgary — as well as fellow forward Jesse Gabrielle and blue-liner Tanner Browne. The list also includes 16-year-olds like Tyler Coulter of Brandon and Ryley Lindgren of Winnipeg — who have both already been called up and made their WHL debuts — and talented netminder Jordan Papirny of Edmonton, a former first-round bantam draft pick.
It’s a good group to build around for next year and will only get better if McCrimmon moves Ferland and Bertaggia for more young talent.
It will be interesting to see what the Wheat Kings’ GM does over the next six days.
ODDS AND ENDS: Brandon’s Cassie Hawrysh, 27, resumes her World Cup skeleton racing season today in Altenberg, Germany. Hawrysh is now ranked eighth in the world. Meanwhile, Russell’s Jon Montgomery, 33, races on Saturday in Altenberg. Montgomery, the 2010 Olympic champion, is currently ranked 13th in the world . . . Brandonite Amanda Thornborough, 22, has completed her studies at St. Francis Xavier University and has now moved to Victoria to train full-time with Canada’s national women’s rugby team . . . Brandon’s Kurtis Cullen, 19, has cracked the top 10 for the first time, moving up to eighth in the Canadian men’s racquetball rankings. A former Canadian junior champion, Cullen had a good December, winning singles and doubles titles at a pro event in Grand Forks, N.D., as well as a doubles title in Minot, N.D. . . . Former Brandon Wheat Kings RW Toni Rajala, 21, of the Stockton Thunder has been picked to play in the ECHL all-star game on Jan. 23 when the league all-stars will face the host Colorado Eagles. Rajala is ninth in ECHL scoring with 18 goals and 36 points in 27 games . . . Melita native Kory Karlander, still going strong at the age of 40, is not only the oldest player in the ECHL, but is older than his Kalamazoo Wings head coach Nick Bootland, who is 34. Karlander is second in team scoring with 26 points in 31 games this season — his 18th year in pro hockey.