In his tenure as head coach and general manager of the Surrey Eagles, Matt Erhart hasn’t been prone to making splashy deadline-day trades.
Instead, the bench boss prefers to tweak his roster well in advance of the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s January deadline, lest he make an ill-advised decision as the clock ticks down.
But he went against type last month, when he acquired Adam Tambellini from the struggling Vernon Vipers in exchange for 19-year-old forward Mason Blacklock on deadline day.
And though the move – or at least the timing – was uncharacteristic of the Eagles under Erhart, it was a move the third-year coach felt he had to make if his team was to make a serious run at the BCHL’s Fred Page Cup.
Tambellini, after all, was one of the league’s top snipers, having posted 22 goals and 39 points in 36 games with the Vipers. And as a rangy six-foot-four centre with what Erhart calls “a pro-level release on his shot” he was garnering attention from not just the BCHL, but the pro ranks, too. A University of North Dakota recruit, he’s currently ranked as a ‘B’ prospect for this summer’s NHL Entry Draft.
“There were some games we lost earlier in the year 2-1 or 3-2, and we just didn’t seem to have that extra difference-maker up front, and Adam gives us that,” Erhart said.
“Our last two years here have been good, getting to the conference final, but we think with the team we have now – including one of the top goalies in the league, and a defence core that, top to bottom, is the best we’ve had in three years… we felt it was as good as time as any to make a move like that, and try to get that extra piece that could put us over the top.
Tambellini, son of Edmonton Oilers’ general manager Steve Tambellini and younger brother of former Vancouver Canuck Jeff Tambellini, has been better than advertised with the Eagles since arriving in South Surrey. He’s scored 12 goals and added 10 assists in just 13 games, and given the team’s power play a significant boost.
He also gelled immediately with Brady Shaw – the team’s leading scorer – and the pair formed a deadly first line, giving Surrey one of the league’s top offensive combos.
“There’s some pretty good one-two punches in this league, and they’re right up there,” Erhart said.
But with an eye towards the playoffs, where the first-place Eagles expect to have a long run, the coaching staff elected to split up the dynamic duo, in an attempt to spread the offensive wealth throughout the lineup.
Last weekend, Tambellini played on a line with captain Brett Mulcahy and Trevor Cameron, while Shaw played primarily with Michael Stenerson and Demico Hannoun, with Drew Best also seeing time on the line.
The move worked. Tambellini scored four goals – including the OT winner Friday against Powell River – and the following night, Shaw had two goals and two assists. On the three-game road trip, Tambellini had five goals and an assist, while Shaw had four goals and four helpers.
“They seemed to score even more once we split ’em up,” Erhart said.
“There’s only one puck, and there’s two goal-scorers, so sometimes – especially on the road – when you put them both on one line, it’s easier for the other teams to check them. In the playoffs, having two big lines can really give the other team matchup problems.
“In the Friday game especially, Powell River was checking the Shaw line pretty closely, and Adam got four goals because he had a better matchup.”
It’s not just Tambellini’s arrival that has sparked hope for a long post-season run, Erhart points out. Goaltender Michael Santaguida has emerged as one of the league’s best, and though he has started all but two games since backup Glenn Ferguson went down with an injury in December, Erhart expects him to be fresh for the playoffs. The team plays just once this weekend, and two more games after that, one of which the veteran netminder will likely sit.
Erhart also gave the team a few extra days off this week to recuperate.
The defence, too, led by Quinnipiac University-bound Devon Toews and veteran Craig Wysomirski, is a strong point; Erhart called his blue-liners “the best we’ve had, top to bottom, in the last three years.”
The only snag in the plans are injuries – the team played without seven regulars Sunday against Cowichan Valley – but Erhart expects all but Troy Paterson and Ferguson to be ready to play come the post-season, barring any setbacks.
“There’s no guarantees in hockey, but we feel we’ve given ourselves the best chance to win this year.”