Back in 2011, the Saskatoon Blades went for it. The WHL team traded for A-list prospect
Brayden Schenn, giving up three first-round bantam picks and a second-rounder in the process, along with two players. The Blades had a serious roster before Schenn arrived, but with him, the club smelled glory. Instead, Kootenay made a splash of its own by nabbing
Cody Eakin from Swift Current and in the second round of the playoffs, the Ice swept Schenn and the Blades into the dustbin. Someone always has to lose in hockey, but hope springs eternal, especially in the CHL where the cycle of construction and destruction is a tight one. This season is no different.
With the Memorial Cup being hosted by the Quebec Remparts, that powerhouse loaded up, adding goalie Zach Fucale and the skilled Vladimir Tkachev to a roster already dotted with great juniors. The Remparts also got a boost when the New York Rangers assigned Anthony Duclair (now an Arizona Coyotes prospect), another world junior gold medallist, back to the squad.
But as hosts, the Remparts are guaranteed a slot in the Memorial Cup. Sure, you want to look good in front of the home fans and no team wants to “back in” to the tourney, but teams have lost in the early rounds of their league playoffs and still won the Memorial Cup. No, the higher stakes now belong to the teams in the WHL and Ontario League. The Kelowna Rockets made a statement by acquiring
Josh Morrissey, one of the Winnipeg Jets’ best prospects, and
Leon Draisaitl, the No. 3 overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers, who had been in the NHL. The Rockets were already one of the best teams in the nation. If they fail, next year will be almost out of the question, since most of their top players will be off to the pro ranks. The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds were one of the best in the OHL and loaded up at the deadline, grabbing Buffalo pick
Justin Bailey, Tampa Bay first-rounder
Anthony DeAngelo and top-10 Anaheim selection
Nick Ritchie. All three, not to mention homegrown star defenseman
Darnell Nurse (Edmonton), will likely end their junior careers this season. Are these teams locks? No way. Kelowna must contend with Brandon, while Sault Ste. Marie has Oshawa and North Bay to worry about. But a line was drawn in the sand. “Those teams have separated themselves,” said Peterborough GM Mike Oke, who sent Ritchie to the Soo. Oke’s team was not going to win it all this year, but in the tight circle of CHL life, next year’s looking decent. The Petes have a lot of good 1996-born players, plus a decent NHL draft prospect in D-man Matthew Spencer. Trading Ritchie allowed youngsters to get more ice time and responsibility, which they will build on for next season. And
Kyle Jenkins, a Carolina prospect who came to the Petes in the Ritchie deal, could contribute right away on defense. And since draft picks are thrown around major junior like gift cards at an office Christmas exchange, those big trade plunges aren’t as risky as they may seem: You lose a bunch of selections when you go all-in, then gain a bunch back when you trade your big guy a season or two later. Only four teams can play for the Memorial Cup and we know Quebec is one of them. So there’s going to be heartbreak even for franchises that threw everything they could into this season. But in a CHL where you can go first-to-worst-to-first, there’s always next year. Or at least the year after that.
This feature appears in the Feb. 16 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.