(Courtesy of Rob Henderson, Brandon Sun) -- Brandon Wheat Kings general manager Kelly McCrimmon has added some valuable building blocks that help solidify the future of his team, but he’s less than thrilled about the circumstances.
Never shy to make a big move before the Western Hockey League’s trade deadline, McCrimmon was in the spotlight again on Thursday but this time as a seller rather than a buyer, shipping away three players, including the Wheat Kings’ top scorer and a homegrown star.
"Probably the first time in 20 years that we’ve been forced to take this approach at the deadline, which is a function of how our season has gone," said McCrimmon, whose Wheat Kings are last in the Eastern Conference with a 14-25-2-2 record. "We’ve been pretty fortunate over many years to have contending teams and this day was always a day about trying to make your team better. So from that standpoint (it’s) disappointing that this was our course of action and at the same time, we felt that we made progress going down that road."
Two seasons ago, the Wheat Kings sent star Brayden Schenn to the Saskatoon Blades, but between stints with the Los Angeles Kings and the Canadian junior team he played only two games with Brandon — neither of them within a month before the deadline.
Yesterday’s moves changed the face of this year’s team more dramatically.
Alessio Bertaggia, a 19-year-old Swiss winger who leads the Wheat Kings with 16 goals and 34 points in 30 games, was shipped to the Spokane Chiefs, while 20-year-old Brandonite Mike Ferland — recently returned after spending the first half of the season in the Calgary Flames’ system — is headed to Saskatoon where he’ll finish his junior career in the Memorial Cup this spring.
The return for Ferland was a first-round pick in this year’s WHL Bantam Draft, while Spokane sent Czech forward Marek Kalus, 19, Saskatchewan Midget AAA forward Rhett Gardner, 16, and third- and fifth-round picks this year to Brandon for Bertaggia.
Also gone is second-year defenceman Ayrton Nikkel, 17, who was traded by the Wheat Kings to the Everett Silvertips along with a conditional sixth-round pick in 2015 for blue-liner Nick Walters, 18, and Taylor Sanheim, a 16-year-old forward from Elkhorn who is playing Midget AAA hockey this season with the Yellowhead Chiefs.
"We think we’ve improved our defence," McCrimmon said. "The addition of Nick Walters gives us a proven, experienced defenceman. He’s an NHL draft choice (picked in the fourth round by the St. Louis Blues this year), he fits in age-wise with our team to be a returning player, so that is a move that we felt is going to improve our team this year and next year. After that, we added roster players, we added draft picks, we added prospects. I think what it does is not replenishes those age groups but strengthens some good age groups for us to give us some real depth with that group of players."
Ferland made his debut with Saskatoon in Friday's 3-1 loss to the Red Deer Rebels. While sad to leave his hometown, he was thrilled to have another chance at the Memorial Cup after losing in the 2010 final as a rookie with the Wheat Kings.
"I’m looking forward to it," said Ferland, who will be reunited with his old Brandon linemate Brenden Walker, who is now the Blades’ captain. "It kinda sucks leaving Brandon. I’ve played there for three years and I thank Kelly McCrimmon and the coaching staff there for what they’ve done for me. They’ve been great to me ever since I’ve been there."
As for the players who remain, there is a message to be gleaned from McCrimmon’s moves. He believes the team has not played up to its potential this season and he said the time is now for the current Wheat Kings to prove they’re part of the team’s future.
"Part of getting better is pushing people and being demanding, holding people accountable," he said. "I think that’s what the second half of the year is going to be about for our team. The players that survive and move on to next year, I think are going to be part of a good young team and the players that don’t show us that probably are going to fall by the wayside."
As for some of the new faces coming back to Brandon, Walters is looking forward to a fresh start with the Wheat Kings.
"It was a little bit surprising but as soon as you turn 18 in this league, you have as good a chance as everyone else to get traded," said Walters, who was chosen by the St. Louis Blues in the fourth round of this year’s NHL draft. "Everett is going through a rebuild right now and this is something that Garry (Davidson), the GM, felt was necessary for the team and I respect that."
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound native of St. Albert, Alta., had a goal, nine assists and 70 penalty minutes in 35 games for the Silvertips this season, posting a plus/minus of -19. The Silvertips have been a sub-.500 team ever since he arrived and although he moves from one rebuilding club to another, he’s optimistic about the future with the Wheat Kings.
"A lot of stuff has gone down here in Everett since I’ve been here," he said. "There’s been three coaches and two general managers, so it’s going to be good to get a fresh start."
Sanheim, a 16-year-old forward from Elkhorn, is the fifth-leading scorer in the Manitoba AAA Midget Hockey League, with 22 goals and 45 points in 32 games for the Yellowhead Chiefs. He aspires to play in the WHL and likes the idea of doing so in a Wheat Kings uniform.
"It was a good thing for sure because you got closer to home, your family and friends," said Sanheim, who went to camp with the Wheat Kings in 2011 before being listed by the Silvertips later in the year.
The Wheat Kings also added Czech forward Marek Kalus, 19, and the rights to forward Rhett Gardner, 16, along with a couple of draft picks, as part of a separate deal that sent leading scorer Alessio Bertaggia, to the Spokane Chiefs.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound Kalus didn’t make his season debut until the end of November due to a collarbone injury and he has only four assists in 11 games. But he was productive last year with 20 goals and 42 points in 68 games.
Gardner, a 6-foot-2, 180 pound winger, leads the Moose Jaw Generals of the Saskatchewan AAA Midget Hockey League with 15 goals and 31 points in only 20 games.
Both Kalus and Walters will make their Brandon debuts Saturday night against the visiting Regina Pats.