Trade winds start blowing Victoria Royals’ way

The annual Western Hockey League trade season began over the past week with a flurry. But will it turn into a full-fledged blizzard like last season?

That is the question being asked as the reeling Victoria Royals, losers of five of their last six games after starting the season 7-0, head into a tough B.C. Division road weekend tonight in Kelowna against the Rockets and Saturday against the division-leading Vancouver Giants at the Pacific Coliseum.

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The Royals, seeing a playoff seam that ultimately closed in on them because of injuries, were big-time buyers last season in the WHL trade sweepstakes.

But every indication is, if they jump into the fray again this season, the Royals could be sellers looking to build for the future. With three listed Royals prospects named Thursday to the B.C. team for the 2019 Canada Winter Games in Red Deer — goaltender Keegan Maddocks of Langley, defenceman Nolan Bentham from Victoria and forward Cage Newans of Qualicum Beach — there looks to be a future to build toward. The Royals, Rockets, Kamloops Blazers and Edmonton Oil Kings have the most prospects named to the B.C. team. There are expected to be other prospects named when the Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba teams are selected for the Games.

“It’s encouraging for us,” said Royals general manager Cam Hope.

Especially noting that while hometown blue-liner Bentham was Victoria’s first-round selection in the 2018 WHL bantam draft, Newans was only a seventh-round pick and Maddocks an eighth-round selection.

“The late picks are showing what they can do. That makes our scouts feel good,” said Hope.

Meanwhile, Hope admitted “the phone has been ringing” as trade season has swung into gear.

“We are sitting back and taking calls but nothing is imminent,” he added. “It depends on what the prices are. It’s too soon to tell.”

With the Royals hardly looking like contenders at this point, are there teams out there who feel they are a veteran goaltender, defenceman or forward away from making a serious and deep run this season and willing to give up high bantam draft picks or promising 16- or 17-year-old players to roll that dice for the spring? It can’t be forgotten that the positive effects of the blockbuster Kevin Sundher trade to Brandon back in 2012 were still being felt six years later by the Royals last season in the form of defenceman Chaz Reddekopp. On the flip side, the Royals resisted moving veteran blue-liner Joe Hicketts in 2016, and were rewarded by a wholly unexpected late-season surge to the Scotty Munro Trophy as WHL regular-season champions.

So, what to do?

The Royals’ three 20-year-olds are goaltender Griffen Outhouse, defenceman Ralph Jarratt and forward Dante Hannoun, and each would certainly add tremendous short-term value for the remainder of this season for teams on the verge. Defenceman Scott Walford, 19, is a third-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens. But all four have been loyal players in Victoria and Royals their entire WHL careers, and they still constitute a solid core to rally around this season.

Hope acknowledged the Royals have been “floundering” of late, something he attributed mainly to injuries.

“But when we are playing well, this is a fun team to be around,” he said.

It should be pointed out the Royals are, despite their recent woes, still on the upside of the ledger at 13-11.

It is thought that last season’s frenetic and heavy amount of trading around the league — which included the Royals unloading some future assets to acquire now-departed veteran forwards Tanner Kaspick, Noah Gregor and Lane Zablocki for half a season of work — was a topic of discussion at league headquarters. These are young men, after all. Yet, this is still a business.

“I think there is going to be more introspection [about trades] this season than there was last season,” predicted Hope.

“Trades are disruptive to players at this age.”

But as evidenced last season and over the past week, teams feel they can’t avoid making those moves.

The annual WHL trade deadline is Jan. 10.

ICE CHIPS: Island players named to the B.C. team for the 2019 Canada Winter Games are Bentham, Newans and two more WHL-listed players in Edmonton Oil Kings forward prospect Kobe Verbicky and Everett Silvertips blueline prospect Ty Gibson, both from Victoria.

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