Trail Smoke Eaters net top defender at trade deadline

Trail Smoke Eaters acquire 20-year-old defenceman Connor Welsh from Alberni Valley Bulldogs

Connor Welsh

Connor Welsh

The Trail Smoke Eaters got the man they were looking for at Wednesday’s BCHL trade deadline.

The Smoke Eaters closed the deal on 20-year-old defenceman Connor Welsh from the Alberni Valley Bulldogs in exchange for future considerations just hours prior to the 8 p.m. closing.

“The blunt truth is that Connor was just the best defenceman out there,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “So that’s why we picked him up.”

The five-foot-nine, 165-pound Halifax native is in his second season in the BCHL, scoring seven goals and 24 points in 40 games as an assistant captain with the Bulldogs this year.

“He’s been on our radar since around Christmas time … and we wanted a kid who could help out not just on defence but offensively as well.”

The Smokies had been on the lookout for an experienced and seasoned d-man to bolster their blue line for its remaining 17 games and had a card open and ready to fill. Welsh is a talented, quick defender, who despite his size is known for his resilience, playing in 97-of-98 games the past two season.

Size was a factor in last season’s playoff loss to the Vernon Vipers in the Interior Division semifinal, but Keith is confident the Smokies addressed that shortcoming and the addition of Welsh gives the Smokies more depth.

“Vernon’s not built the same way that they have been in the past, they went out and got more offensive so we didn’t believe we needed to get tougher, we believed we need to get more puck-moving defencemen to get the puck up to our forwards.”

The veteran defenceman joins an already sizeable and competent Smoke Eaters backend with six-foot-six Ethan Martini, and six-plus footers Seth Barton, Troy Ring, Trevor Zins, and Kyle Chernenkoff.

Welsh will join Trail for its game in Penticton tonight (Friday) against the Vees, and play his first match at the Cominco Arena for the Smoke Eaters against Merritt Saturday.

“Obviously he remembers playing in Trail (Nov. 17 ) and he’s extremely excited to be back in that atmosphere. He’s been in Alberni for two years now and they haven’t been winning, and it was looking like he was going to finish his junior career without the chance of making playoffs – now he’s just excited to be a part of it.”

Welsh promises to be a leader on the ice, as what impressed coach Keith most when he spoke to Welsh after the trade was his character.

“His first comment was, ‘What role do you want me to play, how do you want me to fit in?’” said Keith. “He wasn’t concerned about getting on the power play, he’s more excited to be part of a team that’s going to go for the Royal Bank Cup.”

Every Interior Division team looked to improve prior to the deadline, including Vernon who picked up top-scoring forward Derek Brown from the Bonnyville Pontiacs of the Alberta Jr. Hockey League (AJHL) in exchange for d-man Sol Seibel. The Vees re-acquired 19-year-old defenceman James Miller, who was on the University of New Hampshire roster the first half of the season. Miller played the 2016-17 campaign in Penticton where he scored six goals and 18 points for the Vees.

After leaving Merritt for the North American Hockey League (NAHL) at the start of the season, the Centennials repatriated 19-year-old forward Zach Risteau. The Lakeville, Minn. product led the Cents in scoring last year, 26-24-50, but managed just five points in 19 games with the Central Illinois Flying Aces.

West Kelowna also bolstered their roster with the addition of the Bulldogs leading scorer Ryan Steele, 20, in exchange for 18-year-old forward Spencer Hora, while Salmon Arm acquired the rights to Seibel in exchange for futures.

“Everyone kind of did something, and are amping up for what is going to be a really tough division to get out of and it doesn’t matter who you get in the first round, especially with Merritt getting Risteau back and West Kelowna picking up Steele, no matter what team you’re playing now it’s going to be extremely tough.”

The Smokies will now look to gain more ground on the league-leading Vipers starting with Penticton tonight (Friday) . The Vees were also plagued by injury, but have won three in a row after a 4-3 victory over the Cents on Wednesday night.

The Vees also signed Wyatt Sloboshan, a 20-year-old native of Vanscoy, Sask., and veteran of 219 Western Hockey League games. Sloboshan also served as captain of the Saskatoon Blades for the first 30 games of the 2016-17 season. He scored 44 goals with 77 assists during his time in the WHL.

“We’re back in the mix of trying to get home ice in the first round, and we play Penticton four more times, three more in their rink, so we have to find a way to win in their rink,” said Keith.

The Smokies return home Saturday for a tilt against the Centennials, a team that has just one win in January but beat a shorthanded Smokies squad twice in December.

“These divisional games are four-point games so they’re all very important. Give credit to Merritt they’ve come a long ways from where they were at the beginning of the season … they’ve grown as a group, so give them a lot of credit. Even with a shortened lineup, they play really hard and have really good goaltending, a combination of everything.”

The puck drop for Saturday’s game against the Cents goes at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.