Here's a hypothetical question for you: Let's say you're the 9th place team in an 8-team conference. The team you are chasing for the final playoff spot is just three points ahead of you in the standings but have 4 games in hand thus potentially increasing that lead to as many as 11 points.
Let's further suppose that three years ago you just squeaked into the playoffs and were soundly swept in 4 straight games. You probably would have dealt your best player before the deadline that year but he got hurt at Canada's WJC camp and was done for the season, preventing you from stockpiling the youth and picks he would have garnered in a deal.
Now imagine that the next year you not only miss the playoffs but finish dead last in the league because your new star player was hurt at a summer camp for Hockey Canada and battled injuries all year long, only appearing in 16 games. He comes back the next year and with some promising youth and additions, you make it back into the postseason but fail to win a playoff game once again.
You prepare for 2011-12 as though you may have the pieces in place to not just make the playoffs but potentially host in the opening round as a top-4 team. Your key import is sent back to you instead of the AHL and all seems right with the world.
Then, that star player that you were counting on to guide your team to the top of the standings? He surprises and sticks with his NHL club as a 19-year-old meaning you can't have him on your roster and you've lost another franchise player without getting anything in return.
Now... with a month to go before the trade deadline, you've got a decision to make. Do you try and rally the troops to overcome the 3-11 point deficit so you can just make it into the playoffs (to face a potential Memorial Cup champion in the first round) or do you take advantage of the first chance you've had in 4 years to make trades to better your franchise for the future?
Such is life for the Prince George Cougars who have two impact players on their roster that they know won't be back in the WHL next year. One is definitely available, the other is a guy 21 other teams would love to add to their squad.
Yesterday I asked GM Dallas Thompson what he plans to do with 32-goal scorer Charles Inglis and stud import defenceman Martin Marincin.
Losing Dana Tyrell (above) to injury in 2009 really set the Cougars back. That was a player that Prince George could have, and would have, dealt before the January 10th trade deadline and received quality assets in return.
The fact that Brett Connolly worked his way on to Tampa Bay's opening night roster was a surprise to most who expected to see the Prince George native back with the Cougars this year.
I chatted with Dallas Thompson during the second period intermission of Tuesday's WHL game in Edmonton between the Oil Kings and Calgary Hitmen. Before the game the GM quipped that "our Emerson Etem is a healthy scratch tonight for Tampa" in reference to Connolly who did not play in a 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders.
It's not farfetched to believe that Connolly would of had an Etem-esque impact for the Cougars this year. Instead, Prince George is where they are in the standings and have to be weighing their options.
Forward Charles Inglis (right), acquired last year from Saskatoon for a 2nd round pick, has been sent home by the team after some undisclosed off ice conduct, apparently in Kamloops earlier this month. Inglis, 19-years-old, has 16 points in 16 games this year but wasn't on the same page as the team according to Thompson.
"[Last year] we had an older leadership group with Connolly, Sena Acolatse and when you have those guys you can kind of keep the rest of the guys, if there are some guys that have a little bit of checker to their past, you can keep them in line," Thompson said, "This year when Brett didn't come back and Charles was the top dog, some of the things that we're trying to do as a team and some of the things that he was trying to do just didn't work out."
The Cougars chose to send Inglis home while they try and complete a trade. Prince George is probably looking for fair market value for a 32-goal scoring 19-year-old while clubs elsewhere will likely try and exploit the situation PG is in with a player on the roster who is not coming back. Unless there are a few teams with interest, it would be tough to suggest that the Cougars are dealing from a position of strength.
That said, the other potential trade chip Thompson has up his sleeve would have several clubs lined up. Martin Marincin will turn 19 in February and is almost certain to be in the AHL next year with the farm team of the Edmonton Oilers who chose the Slovak defenceman in the 2nd round of 2010.
Marincin is coming off a 56-point rookie season last year but at a slower offensive pace because of the difference in PG's line up.
"Marty's taken a step for sure," began Thompson, "The Oilers wanted him to come back and work on his defensive game a bit more and I think there were time last year where we were a little more of a run and gun team; we had a pretty good dynamic duo back there with Sena Acolatse and Martin on the point."
"He's concentrated on his defensive game, his offensive game has struggled a little bit," added the GM, "I think that part of that is because of some of the younger guys that we have up front. Frankly we have a little trouble scoring at the best of times and certainly on the power play."
"He's still a boy," Thompson suggested of the 6'4, 187 lb Marincin, "He didn't gain a whole bunch of weight in the summer but he works at it very hard and he's a great kid. Everyday in Prince George he's got two tutors working on his English and he's starting to get a very good grasp of that. He's a guy that I think will take a little bit of time but in the end he's going to be a very good pro."
Inglis we know is on the block, that's not a secret and I won't be surprised if something happens soon. The big question though is whether the Cougars are in sell off mode yet and if not, when will they make the decision to stand pat or to unload Marincin?
"We want to get through the Christmas break here; we have four of our 16-year-old going to the U17's and Martin will be playing in the WJC so we're going to have five guys away until about January 6th," Thompson pointed out, "We're going to play our cards as they lay right now. we have a couple more road games, we play the Vancouver Giants twice before Christmas. We'd like to put a string together because we're just a couple of wins from moving up [into 8th place] and the middle of the pack isn't that far away."
"Prior to January 10th we'll be figuring out where we are," Thompson summed up, "With our 16-year-olds we are young enough, we need to get some guys hopefully in the '93 and '94 age group if we decide to move some guys. We'll see after Christmas and all the tournaments where we stand."
Finding a taker for Marincin normally wouldn't be hard but because of his passport, the team would either currently have only one European or be willing to move one of the two on their current roster.
Portland only has one but the Winterhawks blueline is good enough as is. Edmonton's two current imports are both Oilers prospects already so it's highly unlikely that the Oil Kings would be in the running for Marincin (but maybe for Inglis).
The Moose Jaw Warriors have the room and an addition of Marincin to a defensive group already considered upper echelon would be bad news for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Tri-City has a pair of Europeans right now but Bob Tory's club is as close to a favorite as they are likely to be considering they will lose Brendan Shinnimin and Adam Hughesman at the end of the year. Marincin would be an upgrade to the Americans blueline and at the import position.
Vancouver and Medicine Hat are two other possibilities although until very recently, the Giants were believed to be shopping their own star player Brendan Gallagher. A hot streak has that club back near the top of the Western Conference so maybe adding rather than subtracting is in store after all.
The Tigers have an import spot available but I'm not sold that Medicine Hat is headed down the path towards a big trade this year.
If Prince George decides to pull the chute, do they even try to move netminder Drew Owsley? The overage issue really comes in to play then but there are only two '91-born players on the roster in Moose Jaw - could the Warriors upgrade in net with Owsley or the blueline with Marincin or add a scorer in Inglis? Maybe two of the three... or all of the above?
What better way for the Warriors to usher in a new era for Moose Jaw than with a new building and a Memorial Cup caliber team?
Exciting times in the WHL as the trade deadline watch begins in earnest.