With the Canadian junior hockey trade deadline just days away, the Surrey Eagles are in a position they’ve found themselves in only a handful of times over the past half-dozen seasons:
Looking to buy.
The BC Hockey League team finds itself firmly in the middle of the standings as the post-holiday break schedule gets underway, and in a league in which all but one team qualifies for the playoffs, a return trip to the postseason seems likely.
The team currently sits fourth in the five-team Mainland Division, and is 13 points clear of the league’s last-place team.
“The only thing we’re looking to do is add to this group,” said Eagles general manager Blaine Neufeld of the Jan. 10 trade cutoff.
The team – which sports a record of 14-17-2-4 (win-loss-overtime loss-shootout loss) as it heads into a three-game weekend schedule – certainly has room to add a veteran player or two, should Neufeld and head coach Cam Keith choose to do so. Currently, the Eagles have just one 20-year-old on the roster – forward JJ Fectau – and junior ‘A’ rules allow for a maximum of six.
However, Neufeld said they’re happy enough with their group – especially considering how it shapes up for next season – that it’s unlikely they would make a transaction that would upset the current core of the team.
“It’s a young, young group. In junior hockey, there’s always a lot of turnover, but we see that we have such a quality group, we want to keep it intact,” he said.
“So you’re not going to see us make a bunch of ‘futures’ deals (where young players would be shipped out). Hopefully, there will be some opportunities where we can just add players to our group, with out having to delete anybody from it.
“If we can add a little bit of maturity and leadership to our core group, then great. But if we can’t, we’re satisfied with what we already have in the room.”
Neufeld acknowledged, however, that to make room for any potential new addition, a roster spot would need to be opened up, but added that “we would try to make those moves as minor as possible.”
Last season, the Birds were in the spot in which no BCHL team wants to find itself – as the lone non-playoff squad – so this year requires a different mindset when roster building, Neufeld said.
“Our focus is on catching (second-place) Chilliwack this year, versus (trying to stay out of the basement),” he said.
Another difference between this year and last is the amount of roster turnover, or lack thereof. Last season, 43 different players suited up for the Eagles, including eight different goaltenders – not to mention three head coaches, dating back to just prior to training camp.
This year, the team has made fewer roster moves, which Neufeld attributes to the team’s improvement over last season. He also heaps credit upon Keith who, as associate general manager in addition to head coach, has also played a significant role in building the roster, both in the summer and as the season has progressed.
“Cam and I… see the same quite similarly, so it’s been very easy to work together and build a hockey team we both want,” Neufeld said. “Give him full credit – he’s been able to develop them and put together a good team in a short amount of time. He’s done a fabulous job.
“We’ve also been a fairly stagnant group in terms of trades, and I think that’s helped the kids grow – because they know they’re going to be here.”
That’s not to say the team hasn’t had any roster upheaval. In October, the team made one of the BCHL’s biggest trades of the season when they sent defenceman Cody Schiavon – their captain – to the Trail Smoke Eaters in exchange for Kieran O’Hearn and the rights to Liam Freeborn. A few weeks later, Freeborn was flipped, along with forward Jesse Carr, to the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Calgary Canucks in exchange for forward Hassan Akl.
Surrey also added former defencemen Brendan Kim and Jordan Hendry from Vernon and Powell River, respectively, in exchange for future considerations.
“We’ve felt that we’ve won on every trade that we’ve made so far, which is exciting for us,” Neufeld said.
“There are different reasons for every trade, and you’re always nervous when you make a deal because you don’t want to take a step back, and we’ve taken steps back in the past.
“But we’ve really done our homework and Cam’s done a great job of analyzing the players coming in – and a few of them he knew beforehand – so that’s helped.”
One significant blow to the team was when veteran forward Holden Katzalay left the BCHL for the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants. Katzalay – who joined the Eagles midway through last season after being cut by the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds – had 33 points in 27 games with Surrey this season before leaving in late November.
“It was a bit of a surprise to us that the Giants were courting him to come and play there, but at the same time, he’s a guy with (major-junior experience)… He’s ineligible for the NCAA, so we understood the decision. It made sense for him,” Neufeld said.
Neufeld said that replacing Katzalay’s offence would be a priority over the next few days.
“That’s our target – scoring. In the playoffs, you do need to score by committee, but it’s also nice to have game-changers who can get you a goal when you need it sometimes,” he said.
“But coming back from the Christmas break, it sometimes feels like you’ve got half a new team because a lot of the guys take that next step – that happens a lot in junior hockey. That’s why we feel like, even if no moves are made, we can go on a good playoff run this year.”