More than two decades ago, with his team sitting on top of the NHL standings, New York Rangers GM Neil Smith made three blockbuster trades on deadline day that moved three core players out and brought four veterans into the fold.
“And how did that all work out?” asked Kyle Raftis, the first-year GM of the Ontario League’s Soo Greyhounds.
Like Smith did in 1994, Raftis has a team that’s in first place. Like Smith, Raftis saw that his team was good, but probably not good enough to win a championship. And like Smith, Raftis swung for the fences at the trade deadline.
Unlike Smith, though, Raftis had exactly one OHL trade on his resume prior to making four deals that resulted in four players and two draft picks coming in and three players and 11 draft picks going out. The 28-year-old Raftis, who had no experience as a GM prior to taking over for Kyle Dubas this season, is being applauded around the league for his decisiveness and ability to improve his team without giving up too much in the way of players.
It takes an enormous amount of stones for a 28-year-old greenhorn to come in and take a team that has been ranked in the top 10 in the Canadian Hockey League for most of the season and turn it almost upside down. When the Greyhounds step on the ice tonight for their game in Saginaw, they’ll do so with three players who haven’t even practiced with them yet. For a game Wednesday night against Sudbury, the Greyhounds dressed just four defensemen.
“I think it looks like a lot in a little bit of time,” Raftis said. “But there was a lot of thought put into it. I knew what we had. I think if I had come in and done those moves right out of training camp, it wouldn’t have been the right fit.”
The frenzy started on Tuesday when Raftis acquired right winger Justin Bailey, a 19-year-old Buffalo Sabres prospect, from the Kitchener Rangers in exchange for 18-year-old center David Miller and three draft picks – second-rounders in 2016 and 2018 and a third-rounder in 2015 that had previously belonged to the Plymouth Whalers, plus a conditional third-rounder in 2018.
The next day, Raftis put the finishing touches on a deal that netted him 20-year-old defenseman Connor Boland and 19-year-old left winger Nick Ritchie, who had just come off a gold medal with Canada at the World Juniors, from the Peterborough Petes for 18-year-old defenseman Kyle Jenkins and three picks – a second-rounder in 2015 originally belonging to Plymouth, a third-rounder in 2017 and second-rounders in 2019 and 2020.
Then on Thursday, he acquired Team USA World Junior defenseman Anthony DeAngelo from the Sarnia Sting for 16-year-old center Anthony Salinitri and three more picks – a second-rounder in 2015 that had originally belonged to the Windsor Spitfires, a second-rounder in 2017 and a fourth-rounder in 2018. Along the way, Raftis also found time to send 18-year-old right winger Charley Graaskamp to the Sudbury Wolves for a fourth-rounder in 2016 and a conditional fourth-rounder in 2018.
Whew. All told, Raftis gave up a total of seven second-round picks in the next six drafts. And these deals are not without their risks. Ritchie and DeAngelo are first-round NHL picks, but neither has been able to escape his share of off-ice controversy. But the Greyhounds were seen as a team that lacked the size and experience necessary to make a long run through the OHL playoffs in an ultra-competitive Western Conference.
Raftis did everything he could to put the Greyhounds in a position to not only compete with the Erie Otters and Oshawa Generals, but to have a chance to win the city’s first Memorial Cup championship since 1993. With Canadian World Junior hero Darnell Nurse on the blueline and Russian left winger Sergey Tolchinsky in the lineup, the Greyhounds are primed for a serious playoff run. Then again, they could also lose in the first or second round of the playoffs. Major junior hockey is that unpredictable.
But fans of this team are accustomed to the organization taking risks. In 2011, the Greyhounds hired Dubas as a 25-year-old to run their organization. Dubas then hired former OHL bad boy Sheldon Keefe to coach, a move that has helped propel the Hounds to the top of the league and made Keefe a rising star in the coaching ranks. Under Dubas, the Greyhounds were one of the first junior teams to embrace analytics and have used them as a guiding principle in their approach to the game.
“We really like our group,” Raftis said. “There always seemed to be a narrative with our team that, ‘You guys have to get bigger and older.’ We didn’t make the move just to get older, but when you can add that size and those guys who can play in those tough games without sacrificing your speed and skill, that’s how we looked at it. We play a unique style of hockey that is very possession-based and if you can’t fit into that style of hockey, our coach can’t play you and there’s really no benefit to us.”