CHL Storylines: Spirit going all in to boost Memorial Cup chances
The Memorial Cup is being hosted by the Saginaw Spirit this season and the team is sliding all their chips on the table to make sure they have a legitimate shot to winning major junior’s ultimate prize.
Building on a core that includes exceptional player Michael Misa, Vegas Golden Knights prospect Matyas Sapovaliv, top prospect Zayne Parekh, and goaltender Andrew Oke, the Spirit made moves earlier in the season to acquire Nolan Lalonde from the Sarnia Sting, forward Ethan Hay from the Flint Firebirds, defenceman Jorian Donovan from the Brantford Bulldogs, and defenceman Rodwin Dionicio and forward Alex Christopoulos from the Windsor Spitfires to surround them.
As well, they acquired the rights to forward Luca Del Bel Belluz from the Sting, on the off chance he is returned to the OHL from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
However, the biggest move came prior to Jan 10’s CHL trade deadline that saw them acquire star forward Owen Beck from the Peterborough Petes in exchange for forward Aiden Young and three draft picks.
Beck, 19, was acquired by the Petes last season from the Mississauga Steelheads and helped Peterborough to a 35-29-4 record by registering seven goals and 25 points in 30 games.
He starred in the playoffs, recording eight goals and 16 points in 22 games to lead the Petes to a J. Ross Robertson Cup and a spot in the 2023 Memorial Cup.
The 6-foot forward also helped Team Canada to win a gold medal at the 2023 World Juniors and was part of the leadership team of this year’s tournament that saw Canada finish fifth.
“When the going gets tough and the games get challenging, Beck is a settling, calming force,” TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button said. “It sounds paradoxical to call someone a calming force but that’s what he is. He knows how to play the game when the margins for error are thinner and he knows how to deliver.”
Prior to joining the Spirit, Beck was among the Petes’ leading scorers, recording 16 goals and 30 points in 25 games.
Beck, a prospect of the Montreal Canadiens, made his impact in his debut with the Spirit when he tied a franchise record for most points in a game by torching the Spitfires for two goals and six points during an 11-3 drubbing on Jan. 10.
Beck will be returning to the Memorial Cup this season as a member for the host Spirit, who sit fourth in the Western Conference with a 29-12-1 record.
Saginaw’s assured entry into the Memorial Cup tournament puts the Kitchener Rangers, Soo Greyhounds, and London Knights, who own the top three records in the league, in a tough position to join them.
Members of the West, like the Rangers, Greyhounds, and Knights, not only have to get past Saginaw to reach the OHL Finals, they also must beat the East representative to be eligible for the Memorial Cup.
If Saginaw wins the West, the Eastern Conference representative would automatically join Saginaw as the OHL’s representatives in the Memorial Cup.
This didn’t stop the Rangers and Greyhounds from making big moves to keep pace.
The Rangers bolstered their high-powered offence by acquiring Seattle Kraken prospect Eduard Sale and defenceman Olivier Savard from the Barrie Colts in exchange for defenceman Blair Scott, forward Kyle Morey, and eight draft picks prior to the deadline.
Sale, 19, is in his first year in the OHL after being drafted 20th overall by the Kraken in the 2023 NHL draft. He has eight goals and 21 points in 28 games this season.
The 6-foot-2 winger is fresh off a bronze medal at the World Juniors in Sweden where he had three goals and seven points in seven games.
Savard had two goals and six points in 37 games with the Colts prior to the trade.
The Greyhounds also made noise at the deadline by acquiring American-born forward Gavin Hayes from the Firebirds fresh off his gold-medal victory at the World Juniors.
Hayes, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect, recorded 19 goals and 36 points in 27 games with the Firebirds and began his Greyhounds career with four multipoint games, including a two-goal performance in his debut.
“[The Greyhounds and Rangers] solidified their teams with high-end skill and high-end talent,” said Button. “These are players who have played in really big moments. Hayes just won a gold medal with Team USA at the World Juniors and Sale has played some big-time games internationally.
“You’re just trying to give yourself a chance to be a strong as possible and those additions are significant.”
Arms race in the WHL
The biggest moves at the deadline came from the Wenatchee Wild of the Western Hockey League.
Wenatchee traded two of the biggest names in major junior in Conor Geekie and Matthew Savoie to the Swift Current Broncos and Moose Jaw Warriors, respectively.
The Wild franchise has previously made blockbuster deals in each of the last two seasons where they traded substantial future assets to give themselves a shot at an Ed Chynoweth Cup and a spot in the Memorial Cup tournament, while they were still the Winnipeg Ice.
To replenish their draft and prospect capital, the team elected to trade Geekie and Savoie in exchange for defencemen Josh Fluker and Sam Ward, forward Maddix McCagherty, and 11 draft picks.
Geekie, a 2022 first-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes, registered 20 goals and 49 points in 26 games in Wenatchee. He is joining a Broncos team that sits in sixth place in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with a 22-18-4 record.
In five games in Swift Current, the 6-foot-4 forward has three goals and six points, including a four-point performance during the Broncos’ 7-3 victory over the Brandon Wheat Kings on Jan 12.
“[The Broncos] are trying to get their team as strong as possible for the playoffs and that was the move to do it,” said Button. “They have a lot of 19-year-old kids who have gone through a lot of experiences in their careers, so Geekie is going to help that group.”
Savoie was drafted ninth overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2022 NHL Draft and had 11 goals and 24 points in 11 games with the Wild after he was returned from the NHL. He is joining a Warriors team that already features WHL scoring leader Jagger Firkus and sits in third place in the East with a 27-15-2 record.
The 5-foot-10 forward made an impact in his Warriors debut, scoring two goals and five points in a 7-2 victory over the Vancouver Giants. He has four goals and 10 points in four games with Moose Jaw.
Moose Jaw is looking up at the Eastern Conference standings and seeing the Saskatoon Blades and Medicine Hat Tigers ahead of them. Button believes that making a move for Savoie is as much about matching up with those teams as it is improving their own.
“Not only do they have a really good team in Saskatoon, but they just added [Washington Capitals prospect] Alexander Suzdalev, who’s a game changer offensively,” explained Button. “Getting Savoie is the Warriors trying to match that game changer talent and he can do that.”
Also making a major move was the Portland Winterhawks in acquiring Detroit Red Wings prospect Nate Danielson from the Wheat Kings.
Danielson was the captain of the Wheat Kings and had 12 goals and 26 points in 26 games prior to the trade. He is joining a Winterhawks team that is third in the Western Conference with a 28-11-3 record.
Since joining the Winterhawks, Danielson has appeared in three games, registering two goals and four points.
“Portland is a really good team and they’re strengthening their team at the top end with a guy who can play 23 or 24 minutes of hard hockey [in Danielson], said Button. “They’re trying to put themselves in a position to give themselves the best opportunity to compete come playoff time.”
Injuries a big question in the QMJHL
In The Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League, the Victoriaville Tigres made the biggest move in acquiring Ducks prospect Tristan Luneau from the Gatineau Olympiques prior to the deadline.
Luneau, 19, recorded 20 goals and 83 points in 65 games with the Olympiques last season and won the Emile Bouchard Trophy as defenceman of the year.
This season, Luneau began the season with the Ducks, recording a goal and three points in seven games before being returned to the QMJHL.
Luneau was supposed to represent Canada at the World Juniors but a nondisclosed illness hospitalized the defenceman, knocking him out of the tournament.
His illness continues to cost Luneau this season as he has not returned to the ice.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the QMJHL with [star winger] Jordan Dumais out with the Halifax Mooseheads and Luneau out with the Tigres,” said Button. “A healthy Luneau is a massive game changer, he can play 30 minutes a night and dictate the game.
“I would imagine if he’s healthy and cleared to play, it won’t take him long to get back up to speed but keep in mind that this is about the playoffs. That’s a long way off.”
With the Tigres sitting in third place in the QMJHL’s Western Conference, the addition of Luneau could be the difference between making the finals or falling in the early rounds of the playoffs if he is unable to return.
The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies also made a splash at the deadline acquiring Blackhawks prospect Samuel Savoie from the Olympiques in exchange for six draft picks.
Savoie has yet to play this season after sustaining a broken femur during Blackhawks training camp in September. Last season, the 5-foot-11 forward recorded 26 goals and 90 points in 60 games with the Olympiques.
“He plays hard and competitive but that’s a tough injury to come back from,” said Button. “It’s not about coming back to play; it’s about coming back at a level where he can be the player he wants to be. He only knows one way to play. He plays hard at hard RPMs.”
He added two goals and eight points in 13 playoff games before the Olympiques were swept by the Quebec Remparts in the third round.