If Brett Connolly returns to the Western Hockey League this season, he won't be wearing a Prince George Cougar jersey.
The Cougars traded the rights to Connolly to the Tri-City Americans for a fifth-round bantam draft pick in 2013, a conditional first-round pick in 2013 and a conditional second-rounder in 2014, one of two deals the team completed in advance of the WHL roster deadline Tuesday afternoon.
The Cougars also sent 19-year-old import defenceman Martin Marincin to the Regina Pats along with three draft picks for Ricard Blidstrand, a 19-year-old defenceman from Sweden, as well as the Pats' first- and second- round draft choices in 2012 and a fifth-round pick in 2013.
Connolly, the Cougars' leading scorer in 2010-11 with 46 goals and 73 points, did not rejoin the Cougars this season after he made the NHL roster of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning loaned the former Prince George minor hockey product to Canada's world junior team and he was one of the national team's most productive forwards in the 2012 tournament, scoring five goals to help Canada win the bronze medal.
Connolly signed a $900,000 contract with the Lightning and in 29 games as an NHL rookie has four goals and four assists. The Cougars will be granted the Americans' first- and second-round picks only if Connolly is returned to the WHL this season.
"That's Tampa Bay's decision and it was their decision to keep him," said Cougars general manager Dallas Thompson. "The luxury both Tri-Cities and Tampa have is it can happen right up to the NHL trade deadline [Feb. 27] for them to make that decision. If we would have gotten him back right after the world juniors we certainly wouldn't have done it. But if he does come back it's still a good deal for us because we get lots of picks."
Marincin, a six-foot-four, 187-pound native of Kosice, Slovakia, was the first-overall choice in the 2009 CHL import draft. He came to the Cougars in 2010, having been drafted by the Edmonton Oilers 46th overall in the 2010 entry draft. He played for Slovakia the past two years in the world junior hockey championship. Last year with the Cougars, Marincin picked up 14 goals and 56 assists, the eighth most productive WHL defenceman in 2010-11. He has four goals and 13 assists for 17 points and 25 penalty minutes this season.
Blidstrand, a native of Stockholm, collected three goals 10 assists and 16 penalty minutes in 30 games with the Pats this season, and has a plus-4 rating. To complete the deal, the Cougars also sent Regina their fourth- and seventh-round picks in 2012 and their fourth-round pick in 2013.
"We were OK with keeping [Marincin], but when you get offered a first- and second-round pick and get a player back who will certainly ease the pain of losing Marty, you certainly have to look at it hard," said Thompson. "Marty was at the world juniors twice and he's a second-round pick who is signed. Blidstrand was drafted by Philadelphia [seventh round in 2010, 206th overall] and he's not signed yet, so he has something to play for. He's a big guy too and he's thicker than Marty. He can come in and play some big minutes with us and play the power play a bit and hopefully make some other guys step up."
Thompson tried to acquire a forward in exchange for draft picks but that deal failed to pan out.
Heading into Tuesday's game in Vancouver, the Cougars were just two points out of a playoff spot, trailing eight-place Victoria by two points while holding two games in hand over the Royals. Blidstrand is expected to join the Cougars for Friday's home game against Lethbridge.
Heading into the weekend, the Cougars have 31 games left, 18 of which will be played at CN Centre. Thompson said Tuesday's deals are not an indication he's given up on the Cougars' prospects of life ahead of them in the postseason.
"I fully expect the team to be in the playoffs," said Thompson. "We've been a pretty gritty team on the road, which certainly wasn't evident the last two games at home [both losses to Kamloops]. If we had nine wins at home lie we do on the road, we'd be right in the middle of the pack.
"We're set up so we have a big-time balance of our schedule at home for the last half so we should have no excuses."