Sticking to the plan

Cougars retain their assets on trade deadline day

It was all quiet on the Prince George Cougars’ trade front.
The Cougars had offers for a couple of their older roster assets but decided not to play let’s make a deal as the Western Hockey League trade deadline arrived Thursday afternoon.
The Cougars are still in the hunt for a playoff spot and general manager Mark Lamb wasn’t about to move any bodies without getting a player in return and none of those potential deals offered by the teams he was talking to were enticing. The Cats are well-stocked with draft picks the next two years and Lamb said there was no need to acquire more of those bantam-aged futures, knowing that losing a player from the current roster would weaken the team.
“The biggest thing is we do have a plan in place, it’s not like we didn’t have people who wanted our players,” said Lamb. “If we were going to make trades we needed people to come back in our lineup. We needed to make hockey trades and they didn’t come to any fruition at all.
“We have all kinds of draft picks, which are very important. To take guys out of our lineup and not put good players back in the lineup makes no sense to us at all. We’re right in the mix of a playoff spot. Teams that are good and are going for it are looking to upgrade and if we’re going to upgrade then they have to upgrade us and it has to be a younger player.”
Not interested in moving any of their younger players, the Cougars elected to keep their three 20-year-olds – D Joel Lakusta, RW Mike MacLean and RW Josh Curtis – and also stuck with their four 19-year-olds – D Ryan Schoettler, D Austin Crossley, RW Vladislav Mikhalchuk and LW Josh Maser.
“We like the chemistry of our group here and what our overagers bring so that didn’t really come into a lot of the conversations at all, it was some of the younger guys, the (1999- and 2000-born players) who had the most action,” said Lamb.
“When you move somebody, somebody has to come in and we didn’t have those offers. To trade a 19-year-old for draft picks and not get anybody back right now doesn’t make any sense to us.”
The Cougars’ draft-pick cupboard is well stocked. They own Swift Current’s first-rounder in 2019 (from the Josh Anderson trade last year) as well as their own. That Broncos’ pick could be first overall if the Broncos continue to falter. This year, the Cougars also have two picks in the second, third and fifth rounds, as well as a sixth-rounder and two in the seventh round.
If Portland signs F Bobby Brink, a 17-year-old University of Denver prospect now with the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, in addition to the seventh-round pick the Cougars already received when they traded Brink’s WHL rights to the Winterhawks Dec. 28, the Cats will get Portland’s second- and fourth-round picks this year.
In 2020 they’ll have their own first-round pick as well as Portland’s (from the Dennis Cholowski trade), a second-rounder, two third-rounders, their own picks in the fourth, fifth and sixth rounds and two seventh-rounders.
Except for the Brink deal, all those additional picks in the next two drafts were acquired in trades made last season by Todd Harkins before he and the Cougars parted ways in the spring.
Around the league, there were no massive airlifts of players on deadline day like the seven-player trade last season between the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Swift Current Broncos, which helped both teams go far in the 2018 playoffs. The Hurricanes, who also picked up three high draft picks in the deal, were seen as sellers and the Broncos were the buyers but it worked out well for both teams. The Broncos won the WHL championship and the Hurricanes made the Eastern final and are now first in the Central Division.
The Broncos, now last overall in the WHL, were part of the whopper deal of the day Thursday when they sent 18-year-old goalie Joel Hofer to the Portland Winterhawks for six draft picks. The Hawks gave up their first- and third-round picks in 2019, their second-, fourth-, and fifth-round pick in 2020 and a first-rounder in 2021 to get Hofer, picked in the fourth round of the NHL draft last year by the St. Louis Blues. It’s not a deal Lamb would have made as the Cougars’ GM.
“I thought that was unreal,” said Lamb. “You get six draft picks, that’s a big haul. It didn’t surprise me that Hofer got traded, what surprised me was all the draft picks. When the price is so high like that you’d like to put something in your lineup. It takes a while to build because those (drafted) players can’t play on your team.
“Sitting here, we have to rely way too much on draft picks. Short-term solutions don’t help. We have a tough time scoring but to go and get (Joachim) Blichfield or (Cody) Glass or whatever you’re going to be trading first-round picks and you just can’t get in that business. You’ve got to grow your own.”
Portland has a history of giving up its bantam draft picks to acquire short-term help from highly-touted college players – players like New York Islanders prospect Kiefer Bellows – who decide to forego their NCAA scholarships and join the WHL as older-aged juniors. It’s a formula that’s worked well for them. The Winterhawks haven’t missed the playoffs since 2009 and in that time they’ve only failed once to make it to the second round. They made the finals four straight seasons  (2010-2014) and won the WHL championship in 2013.
“They recruit in a different way than we do, they have a whole whack of college guys who are committed and they seem to get those guys,” said Lamb. “Prince George and most teams in this league really have to rely on draft picks. That’s why, positionally in the league, we’re sitting at a very comfortable spot. What we have to do now is do a real good job drafting.
“First-round draft picks to us are huge and Portland doesn’t have many. That’s how they do business and they seem to be at the top of the standings all the time.”
The Cougars, who host the Kelowna Rockets tonight at CN Centre in the first of a two-game set, are looking up at most of the rest of the Western Conference teams right now. Prince George (12-22-1-2) is seven points behind the Rockets (17-19-3-1) for third place in the B.C. Division and a guaranteed playoff spot. A pair of wins over Kelowna this weekend would tighten the playoff race considerably.
The Cougars are coming off a 4-2 loss Wednesday in Spokane, having started 2019 with wins over Kelowna and Tri-City. The three-game trip marked the WHL debut of Cougars centre Craig Armstrong, 15, their ninth-overall pick in the 2018 bantam draft and Lamb was impressed with the Airdrie, Alta., native.
“He just played three games and he was outstanding for us,” said Lamb. “(Cougars coach Richard Matvichuk) put him out there in any situation and he can play at his age.”
Lamb also likes what he’s seen lately from goalie Taylor Gauthier. The 17-year-old recorded his second career shutout Tuesday against the Americans, stopped shots and played well in Spokane and Kelowna. Gauthier has been selected for the Sherwin Williams CHL Top Prospects Game Jan. 23 in Red Deer.
“There’s not too many goalies who can come in and play as a 16-year-old, he’s a very young player and I just see him starting to get some traction right now and he’s showing his potential,” said Lamb. “He’s still going to have some stumbling blocks but he’s learning as he goes here. It’s a tough position to play and all goalies have tough times and they’re going to let in bad goals and stuff, but I think a lot of people forget how old he is.”
D Cole Moberg returned to action Wednesday after missing a week with a lower-body injury. C Ilijah Colina (upper body) remains sidelined.

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