Trail Smoke Eaters: Big deals coincide with tough losses

Three empty net goals in three games tell the story about the Trail Smoke Eaters weekend series.

Three empty net goals in three games tell the story about the Trail Smoke Eaters weekend series against the Salmon Arm SilverBacks and Vernon Vipers – every game was close but the Smokies ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

With a number of new faces in the lineup, the Smokies still competed, but dropped a pair of home-and-home tilts against the SilverBacks 5-3 Friday and 3-1 Saturday and suffered a 6-3 loss to Vernon Sunday afternoon.

“All three of them were one-goal games, right down to the wire, empty net goals, with a very young team, three APs in the lineup so I’m happy,” said Smoke Eater coach Nick Deschenes “When you can compete for 60 minutes and have that value . . . yes, you want to be on the other side of those, but it’s only a matter of time.”

The Smoke Eaters were the busiest team in the BCHL prior to the Dec. 1 roster deadline. After sending Cody Bardock and Riley Corbin to Chilliwack and Whitecourt respectively, the Smokies dealt Bryce Knapp to the Cornwall Colts of the CJHL for future considerations and the playing rights of Michael Roberts to Salmon Arm for futures on Friday.

And the dealing wasn’t done. On Saturday Trail shipped 19-year-old defenceman Valik Chichkin to the Cowichan Valley Capitals for brothers Mitch and Rylan Ball of Powell River. They signed Castlegar native and former Rebel Riley Ostoforoff, 18, from Alberni Valley, Sheldon Brett from the Comox Valley Glacier Kings of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, and moved Trail’s Riley Brandt to the Beaver Valley Nitehawks for development.

Despite his diminutive size, Brandt is both a physical and passionate player, and had a goal and five assists in 26 games for the Smokies this season.

“From a development stand point it’s in his (Brandt’s) best interest to play a more significant role, to have a playoff opportunity beyond this year, and play as many games as possible as an affiliate . . . he has the fight, he has the passion, he has the character, and I know that he’s been that kind of player throughout the year.”

However, Deschenes believes that increased ice time and a summer of off-ice training will be more beneficial to the 17-year-old Brandt in the long run.

“When you’re 19 and it doesn’t work out then that’s fine, but at 17 he has so many more options to get him developing and playing.”

As for Knapp, after sitting out most of last year with injury, the 19-year-old forward was expected to be an impact player for the Smokies this season, but his production never materialized as the Ontario native scored just five goals and added three assists in 23 games with the Smoke Eaters.

Roberts meanwhile was part of a deal made with the Surrey Eagles Nov. 15, in which Trail traded the playing rights of Luke Sandler to the Eagles for Roberts who dressed in one game for the Smokies.

“He was never in it,” said Deschenes. “Again he wanted to be closer to home and it’s kind of a new age where players seem to be calling the shots. You know you’re in the top Junior A league in Canada, and there are hundreds I could name that would like to be in their shoes, so I think there is a little bit of a disconnect there.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Chichkin trade. Chichkin came to Trail from the Alberni Valley Bulldogs early last season, and in 63 games with the Smokies has netted eight goals and 16 assists, with the Burnaby native becoming a crowd favourite for his bone-jarring hits. However, in return the Smokies get a capable forward in Mitch Ball, who had four goals and 12 assists for Cowichan this season, and a young developing defenceman in 18-year-old Rylan Ball. Both are expected to report today.

“We got a top six forward out of Mitch, we’ve got a young defenceman and Chichkin was looking for an opportunity to play closer to home, so we accommodated that as best we could.”

Over the weekend Deschenes inserted Creston native Colby Livingstone into the lineup and all the AP did was score three goals in two games, including two against the Vernon Vipers. Additions such as Ostoforoff and Greyson Reitmeir of Nakusp are further indications that rebuilding locally maybe a good start.  It is the coach’s version of shopping local. Now that the 25-man roster deadline is passed, Deschenes can concentrate on building a team and culture based on the desire and willingness to play on a Smoke Eater team that has had difficulty attracting top players. With the last month spent mainly on analysis and getting the mix just right, he can now concentrate on the teaching and team building components of the game.

“We’re trying to identify those players from around here that are capable. We are going to do our best to create that team environment that I think we need to have in order to be successful, and the two components are building a solid team and then within that developing individuals so that they can be key components to the team. As a recipe, ingredient number one is having everyone wanting to be there.”

The Smoke Eaters play Langley at home Friday at 7:30 p.m. and the Merritt Centennials on Saturday.