The Winnipeg Ice added a top-four defenceman and another veteran to its bevy of talented forwards prior to the WHL trade deadline Monday afternoon.
Two days later, both Tanner Brown and Chase Wheatcroft were in the fold to beef up a Winnipeg team locked in a battle for Eastern Conference supremacy with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
The 19-year-old Brown, a Kelowna, B.C., product acquired from the Vancouver Giants for a first-round draft pick, fills a need on the back end for the Ice.
"Obviously you have to adjust to the system and stuff like that but, I’m not going to try and do anything that I wouldn’t normally do," said Brown, who practised with his new teammates Wednesday morning. "I don’t want to play too fancy or I don’t want to play soft, so I’m just gonna stick with my game and learn the systems and then we’ll start rolling."
The Ice, currently 28-5-2-0 and first in the East Division, have played only twice this month due to a flurry of COVID-19-related postponements.
The team, 5-1 winners over the Warriors in Moose Jaw Saturday, heads out on the road for games in Prince Albert on Friday and Saturday in Saskatoon.
"I’ve played against these kids my whole life so it’s not like I don’t know anybody," said Brown, who counts Connor McClennon, Jack Finley and Mikey Milne as former and now current teammates. "But the guys are really open and welcoming with open arms, so that they actually made the adjustment a lot easier than I thought it would be."
The 19-year-old Wheatcroft, a three-year vet who has 17 points in 22 games with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, admitted he had mixed feelings about leaving southern Alberta.
"It was pretty tough for me — I spent three years there," he said. "My dad (Jim) was alumni there, too. So a lot of familiar faces for him and me and yeah, was pretty tough. But I mean, it’s pretty hard being mad when you’re coming to a place like this."
In Winnipeg, he will be reunited with Ice blue-liner Ben Zloty, a friend since kindergarten in Calgary. Unlike Brown, Wheatcroft had already faced the Ice this season.
"They were super-skilled team straight from straight from the start," said Wheatcroft, who was acquired for a package that included 17-year-old centre Brayden Edwards and second- and fourth-round draft picks. "And they were also pretty hard to play against. They brought a lot of different elements to the game and they’re very good structurally and they’re tough to play against. So very good team here."
The arms race has been expensive for both Eastern Conference super powers, who have been active in the trade market to improve for the stretch run.
Winnipeg doesn’t own a draft pick until the fourth round in 2022, has no second- or fourth-round picks in 2023 and no second-rounders in ‘24 or ‘25.
The Oil Kings, who spent big on bringing in defenceman Kaiden Guhle from Prince Albert in December and centre Justin Sourdif from Vancouver earlier this week, do not have first- or second-rounders in 2022 or ‘23 and are without their first-rounder in ’25.
Ice head coach James Patrick said working the newcomers into the lineup would be no problem at all.
"We have time here and we’re going have a lot of games and they’re going learn the little tweaks to our system," said Patrick. "It’s not much different and I think both of them came from real good organizations with real good coaching. I’m excited to have them and they’re really excited to be here."
The league put team activities for the Brandon Wheat Kings and Kelowna Rockets on pause Wednesday after multiple players and staff were added to COVID-19 protocol, a scenario Patrick is very familiar with.
In light of this development, was he concerned about a shortening or premature end to the regular season?
"We believe we’re going to get the whole season in and that’s what we’ve been told, whether it has to be lengthened a bit," said Patrick. "We’ve got a number of games rescheduled for February and March and it’s going to be incredibly busy if those games go through…
"I mean, do I like the stoppages? It takes away momentum but there’s no use in worrying or thinking about it. All I’m thinking about is what’s best for our team now and who were we practising with today and what we can get out today to make us better."
The Ice is also without veteran blue-liner Karter Profosky who recently left the club for personal reasons. Patrick was asked if he expected Prosofsky back.
"You can always be hopeful but we don’t have a definite answer right now," said Patrick.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.