By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The clock is ticking, as NOJHL teams look to bolster their rosters prior to Thursday’s Canadian Junior Hockey League trade deadline.
With all but one of the NOJHL’s 12 franchises still having a legitimate shot at advancing to the playoffs and four teams in position to challenge the Powassan Voodoos for top spot overall, this year’s deadline could be busier than normal.
The Timmins Rock, boasting the second-best winning percentage in the NOJHL, have already made a significant move — acquiring goalie Albert Rogers from the French River Rapids in exchange for forward Tyler Planetta on Nov. 17.
Since the deal, Rogers (186:00, 2-0-1-0, 0, 2.26, .941) has quickly become a favourite of fans and coaches alike.
“He is a nice person and he is great in the dressing room,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“On the ice, we have seen what he can do. He is so calm with the puck. He controls his rebounds really well and his compete level is really incredible. Even in practice, he just doesn’t want to be beaten. That’s a good trait to have, definitely.”
At 6-0 and 181 pounds, the 20-year-old North Haven, CT, native has good size and has demonstrated a lightning-quick glove hand — especially during Saturday night’s double-overtime loss to the Voodoos.
“They kept trying to beat him to his glove-hand side, but the word is going to get around pretty quick and you won’t see too many players trying to beat him there in the future,” Gagne said.
Planetta (4, 2-1-3, 2), meanwhile, has taken advantage of increased ice time in French River to get off to a fast start with the Rapids, as well.
Like the other 11 general managers across the NOJHL, Gagne plans to continue working the phones right up until the deadline.
“We would like to add a couple of forwards,” he said.
“If the deals come through, they come through. If they don’t, they don’t. We just don’t want to do anything stupid for no reason.
“Basically, we are just looking to add more depth. We will be heading into the playoffs soon and we want to make sure we have enough bodies in case we run into injuries, or some players who are not playing up to par.”
The coach is pleased with how his current roster stacks up against the other 11 teams in the NOJHL.
“We are not looking at removing anybody from the club, we just want to add to the mix,” Gagne said.
Even with the addition of Rogers, the Rock are continuing to look at bolstering their goaltending, as well, especially given the injury history of Matthew Nixon (773:00, 8-5-0-0, 0, 3.96, .897).
“It is something that is on the table and we will see where that goes,” Gagne said.
Nixon returned from a lower-body injury to back up Rogers the past two games, but the club is still awaiting the results of an MRI before pronouncing him healthy enough to return to the crease in game action.
After having three goalies go down with injuries during a close period of time during the 2015-16 campaign, Gagne knows how important it can be to have an extra puck stopper available.
“That’s a situation we don’t want to find ourselves in,” he said.
“For some reason, we have found ourselves in this position in each of the last two seasons. We don’t want it to happen again.”
Gagne expects to see more activity leading up to and at the deadline this season than in a typical year.
“It’s a situation where all teams would like to improve,” he said.
“That might help them get into the playoffs, or move on to a second or third round.
“I can’t speak for other teams, but we know what we need to do.”
In Cochrane, Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard has been busy in the past week or so fine tuning his roster in advance of the deadline.
On Nov. 22, the Crunch traded forward 19-year-old forward Rory Milne (24, 8-17-25, 4) to the Wellington Dukes, of the OJHL, in exchange for 20-year-old forward Dean Kiriacou (11, 0-1-1, 2).
Two days later, the Crunch dispatched Kiriacou to the Brockville Braves, of the CCHL.
Then, on Saturday, the Crunch announced the acquisition of forward Justin Hess (25, 2-3-5, 71) from the Orangeville Flyers, of the OJHL.
It didn’t take Hess long to make an impact on the Crunch lineup, as he picked up an assist and a pair of minor penalties in Cochrane’s 3-1 win over the Eskis in Iroquois Falls Saturday night.
“We replaced Milne last week with Hess, who we feel has a lot more speed and a lot more skill and ability,” Leonard said.
“He is probably going to be one of the flashier players in the league. He is quick. He is fast. He is a really-good all-around player who is physical.
“We think he going to be a little spark plug, kind of like John Stevenson was for us last year. It will be nice to have him in the lineup.”
The wheeling and dealing won’t end their for the Crunch, either.
“We just made another one yesterday (Monday) that should be announced sometime today (Tuesday) by the league,” he said.
“We will have two or three more moves done before the deadline, as well. We are looking to add one more veteran defenceman to get our Top 4 finalized. We have been struggling on the back end.
“That has been one of our Achilles heels, of late. We thought that was going to be one of our strengths this year because we had five returning veterans, but a couple of them are struggling at this level this year.”
While the first of those moves has been completed, Leonard was not able to confirm the details until it is approved and announced by the NOJHL.
Leonard isn’t so sure there will be a league-wide flurry of activity between now and the deadline.
“Some teams may make some moves, some may not,” he said.
“With the moves we have made so far, we have only moved one player out of our Top 12 forwards we have been using all year. All of the players we have moved so far have been extra players who were maybe playing one game then sitting out for three.”
The Crunch went through a stretch that saw them play a large number of games in a short period of time and necessitated keeping a few extra bodies around.
“Now, we are looking to drop down to 22 or 23 bodies by Friday morning,” Leonard said.
Like the Rock, the Crunch are also looking to bolster their goaltending prior to the deadline.
“It is all going to come down right now to our American import cards,” Leonard said.
“That’s why sometimes you see a lot of movement of American players. You are only allowed to have six on your roster at a time.”
Even though the Voodoos featured one of the top goalie tandems in the NOJHL with Nate McDonald (976:00, 14-2-1-0, 3, 1.90, .931) and Nicholas Campbell (641:00, 9-0-0-0, 2.25, .910), Powassan opted to deal 17-year-old Campbell to the Ottawa Senators, of the CCHL, and bring in 18-year-old Andrew Suriano (4.26, .895) from the Yorktown Terriers, of the SJHL.
The Voodoos also picked up 20-year-old defenceman Justin Schebel (6, 0-0-0, 0) from from the Wellington Dukes, of the OJHL, and shipped blue-liner Jacob Elrod (14, 0-2-2, 2) to the Blind River Beavers.
Meanwhile, the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, who currently sit fourth in the NOJHL’s East Division standings, brought in 19-year-old goalie Allan Menary (2.82, .903) from the Stayner Siskins, of the PJHL.
Menary has past NOJHL experience with the Crunch (2015-16) and the Elliot Lake Wildcats (2014-15 and 2015-16).
He will compete for playing time with Victor-Olivier Courchesne (1339:00, 10-12-2-0, 1, 3.58, .884) and Jeffrey Veitch (470:00, 3-2-0-1, 0, 3.19, .890)
Following are other moves made across the NOJHL during the past couple of days in anticipation of the trade deadline:
• The Rapids traded 20-year-old forward Brennan Kelly (8, 2-0-2, 0) to the Elliot Lake Wildcats. They also traded 20-year-old forward Kaden Hintz (22, 4-12-16, 26) to the English River Miners, of the SIJHL, in exchange for 19-year-old forward Alex Goettlicher (8, 0-0-0, 0).
• The Beavers have traded 20-year-old defenceman Vincent Robbins (24, 0-12-12, 14) to the Paris Mounties, of the PJHL.