As Junior hockey’s Jan. 10 trade deadline approaches, the Trail Smoke Eaters will look to fill out its roster, but will likely retain its assets.
The Smokies made some noise on Tuesday, dealing injured forward John Laurito to the South Shore Kings of Foxborough, Mass, then signed Winchester, Mass. native Nolan Redler, who will join the team for their three-game road trip this weekend. Trail still has two cards open and can add more talent, but Smoke Eater coach and GM Nick Deschenes is both satisfied and hopeful with the group he and his coaching staff have assembled.
“We feel pretty confident what we’ve accomplished so far,” said Deschenes. “It’s been part of the process in what we’re doing here to develop our players and to get the most out of them … I’d like to think we were very quiet this year as far as player movement, and I think a big part of why we are where we are is because we do believe in this group, and think that part of our success is because this group has been together for the most part.”
For the first time in five years, the Smokies are in a playoff position heading into Sunday’s trade deadline, a result of continued improvement after a moderately slow start.
Trail went 6-10 over the first two months, but have a winning record since Nov. 1, going 11-10 including a 6-4 record in December. The Smokies also started off January with a 4-0 win over Surrey Saturday, in what will be their busiest month with 12 games on tap.
The turnaround can be attributed to a variety of factors: great goaltending from Bailey MacBurnie and Linden Marshall, executing systems more consistently, taking advantage of their opportunities, particularly the serendipitous ones in shorthanded situations, an improved power play that is now pushing a 20 per cent success rate, and a strong 84 per cent PK.
But even more significant, the team is healthy heading into the final two months of the season, a luxury they haven’t enjoyed in previous years.
“There’s some illness creeping in a little bit, some bumps and bruises, but we’re coming off a seven day break, and I don’t notice at all that lull or that kind of funk that you get mid-season. I think we might have gone through that already, so we’re hungry and excited to see what the next months will bring.”
Making the playoffs will be a huge step forward for the Smokies, but the question remains, whether the team will have developed enough to compete against the Interior division’s top teams, Penticton, Salmon Arm, and West Kelowna, when the real season starts in March?
“Any team at this point wants to make themselves better and if we have an opportunity to do that, absolutely we will, but we’re definitely mindful of where the group is, and we don’t want to fragment things just for the sake of one player,” says Deschenes. “I think we have to really look at the whole scope of the team, and see if there’s a player that can come in and compliment this group.”
Trail plays the first three games of five on the road this weekend, before returning to the Cominco Arena on Jan. 17. The Smokies face off against the 17-17-4-1 Coquitlam Express tonight, a team that currently sits comfortably in fourth place in the Mainland division but has a potent offence with two Top-10 scorers in Colton Kerfoot with 17 goals and 53 points, and Jackson Cressey, 24-27-51.
On Saturday, the Smokies face their toughest task of the road trip in the Mainland division-leading Chilliwack Chiefs, a team that has lost just twice at home this season.
Trail returns home Sunday after facing the Mainland division’s last place team, the Surrey Eagles, in an afternoon tilt.
“Every game’s important and for us there’s no way around that, but we’re going to take it game by game.”
Trail will then travel to Prince George on Thursday to play the Spruce Kings, and will be in West Kelowna on Friday, Jan. 15. The Smoke Eaters next home game is Sunday, Jan. 17 when they host the Powell River Kings at 3 p.m.