By Matthew Gourlie
After 42 games the Moose Jaw Warriors have the best record in the Western Hockey League and are on pace for the best season in franchise history.
They got significantly better at the WHL trade deadline.
The Warriors acquired Kale Clague from the Brandon Wheat Kings in exchange for 18-year-old defenceman Chase Hartje, 17-year-old winger Luka Burzan, first round picks in 2019 and 2021 and a second rounder in 2018.
“It was important for our management team and our coaches to show our faith in our players, to send a message during the deadline. We’re challenging them to be all in and I had to do the same,” said Warriors general manager Alan Millar. “So we made the decision that we felt that Kale Clague was the best player available at this deadline.”
Clague and Warriors captain Brett Howden are both taking some time to decompress after winning gold at the world juniors. Both players are expected to be in the Warriors lineup Friday night.
On the ice, the Warriors kept rolling as they won their seventh straight game, beating the Calgary Hitmen 8-3.
“We gave up a lot to get a high quality player like Clague, so it’s going to be great to add him into the group here and I’m sure he’ll gel in just fine,” said 20-year-old Warriors forward Tanner Jeannot who had three assists on the night. “It’s a stressful time of the year, you just have to power through and focus each day. Now that it’s past. We’re going to get down to business, focus on the hockey and see what we can do out there.”
After falling behind 1-0 early, Moose Jaw’s Tristin Langan completed a natural hat trick with 24 seconds left in the frame to give the Warriors a 3-1 lead. The Warriors added to their lead with a short-handed goal from Justin Almeida that was the result of miscommunication between Hitmen goalie Nick Schneider and teammate Jake Kryski and some good hustle from Brayden Burke on the penalty kill.
Langan’s fourth of the night signalled the end of the night for Schneider who stopped 16 of the 22 shots he faced. Matthew Armitage turned away 10 of 12 shots.
“Four goals? I’ve never scored three in a game,” said Langan who has 12 goals on the season and is making the most of top-six minutes in Howden’s absence. “It would be really nice to keep it going down the stretch and into the playoffs, but I just have to keep working hard.”
It was a big night for the Warriors depth forwards as Tyler Smithies netted his first career WHL goal and set up Brecon Wood for a goal on a two-on-one. Tate Popple also scored for the Warriors. Jayden Halbgewachs had three assists and Dmitri Zaitsev had a pair.
Jakob Stukel opened the scoring for Calgary and also scored on a short-handed penalty shot. Carson Focht opened his account for Calgary with a power-play goal.
Adam Evanoff made 17 saves in the win.
The Warriors (34-6-1-2) move 10 points ahead of second place Swift Current in the East Division and have now scored 210 goals in 43 games. To that potent attack they add, Clague who has 10 goals and 47 points in 28 games this season.
“We have an opportunity to do something special here in Moose Jaw that’s never been done. To the credit of our players, they put us here today. We have the best record in the Western Hockey League today with a ton of injuries,” Millar said. “The two most important factions in our organization are our players and our fans. We’ve had some ups and downs during my time here. There aren’t a lot of banners hanging over my shoulder here and I think this was the time to make a deal like this to make our best foot forward to try to win a WHL championship.”
Millar said he that after adding Vince Loschiavo, Barrett Sheen and Ryan Peckford, they felt they had rounded out their forward group, they went into the final week before the deadline focused on bolstering their defence.
They added six-foot-four defenceman Brandon Schuldhaus from Red Deer on Friday. Around the same time, Brandon general manager Grant Armstrong told Millar to take the weekend to think about what he might want to offer for Clague and/or forward Tanner Kaspick.
“We would have loved to have gotten both, but hey we don’t have that kind of ammo,” Millar said.
In his time in Brandon, Clague won a WHL title and played in the championship series twice. He has played in a Memorial Cup and has attended the world juniors for the past two years. Warriors head coach Tim Hunter has been on the staff both times. That relationship helped reassure Millar that the steep price was worth it.
“He’s arguably the best defenceman in the Western Hockey League today. He brings a lot to our team on and off the ice,” Millar said. “He had a very good idea over the last two years about what Kale Clague was all about. He brings a lot of intangibles off the ice to help at the important time of the year.”
The deal for Clague was done with more than an hour to spare despite it being announced just as the deadline passed. Millar said it wasn’t an easy choice to trade so many assets despite their affinity for Clague.
“Coming out of it without Daemon Hunt being in the deal, our first round pick last year who is a Brandon kid, was significant. There was some back and forth, but that was an area we didn’t go down,” said Millar who also said they tried very hard not to lose Burzan either. “We had a very small list of players that we would consider moving Luka Burzan for. We worked very hard to try to improve our team without moving Luka Burzan. We weren’t able to do it, at the end of the day, with Kale Clague available. That sums it up in terms of what we think of Kale.”
Millar called this year’s deadline “unprecedented”. With the number of veteran teams contending, in addition to having the three teams with the best record in the league — and the Memorial Cup hosts — all in the same division.
“There were lots of second thoughts and lots of back and forth. The marketplace was set by the time we finalized our deal. I really couldn’t argue with the price based on other deals,” Millar said. “It’s a really competitive year and a unique year. That created an environment that brought the competitiveness on the ice into the board room. And it was heated.”
The Warriors also dealt 18-year-old forward Jaxan Kaluski to Seattle Wednesday for a sixth round pick in 2019.