Stick­ing to the plan

Cougars re­tain their as­sets on trade dead­line day

The Prince George Citizen - - Sports - Ted CLARKE Cit­i­zen staff

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 well­stocked 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-yearold 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 fourthround 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 thir­drounders, 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 fir­stand 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.”

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. — Gen­eral man­ager Mark Lamb

Port­land has a his­tory of giv­ing up its ban­tam draft picks to ac­quire short-term help from high­lytouted 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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