It is still the early going of the 2018-2019 season. The January 10 trade deadline in the Ontario Hockey League is more than two months away. But the restless hands of time are ticking as buyers and sellers take stock of their assets.
Flint Firebirds, who are at the bottom of the overall standings with a disappointing start to the season — and a coaching change in the books — have put general manager Barclay Branch in a mode of big decision.
Does Branch listen to trade offers for a host of marketable 1999 and 2000 birth year skaters such as defensemen Fedor Gordeev, Dennis Busby and Riley McCourt and forwards C.J. Clarke, Ty Dellandrea, Hunter Holmes and Connor Roberts? Or does he stay the course — or even add on — in the hopes that the Firebirds can turn their season around and sneak into the Western Conference playoffs?
Branch, to be sure, is in a tough spot.
The Firebirds have missed the playoffs in two of the three seasons that the franchise has been in Flint, including the 2017-2018 campaign. Ergo, if Branch decides to be a major seller ahead of and/or at the OHL trade deadline, the fan base in Flint could dwindle to a point of no return.
Making the playoffs this season — or at least giving the appearances of trying to do so — is a virtual must for Flint, which still has plenty of time to make a push to try to overtake the Erie Otters and Sarnia Sting for eighth place in the Western Conference.
Another downside to selling off is that, its last-place standing aside, the Firebirds do have a roster that is capable of getting into the playoffs. So, why sell off now when the aforementioned likes of Gordeev, Busby, McCourt, Clarke, Dellandrea, Holmes and Roberts can all return to the Firebirds next season as 19 and 20 year olds alongside budding, younger stars led by 2001 birth year forwards Ethan Keppen and Jacob Winterton?
Flint went out and brought in a new head coach recently, hiring 28-year old Eric Wellwood away from the Ontario university hockey ranks. And Wellwood at least deserves a shot at trying to get the Firebirds into the playoffs with a roster of players that gives Flint a chance.
Besides, the Firebirds have had a rash of injuries to deal with through the first month of the season and once healthy, Flint just could get itself into position to take a shot at a playoff spot.
Meanwhile, reigning OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs and their finalist counterparts from last spring, the Soo Greyhounds, were seen in some corners as being builders this season.
But both teams — especially the Soo — have looked good through the first several weeks of the 2018-2019 campaign.
Those who do not have a feel for the game prematurely referred to the Soo as buyers before the season even began and called for the Greyhounds to deal starting goalie Matthew Villalta and star forwards Morgan Frost and Barrett Hayton. But the Soo recently put together a 5-0-1 record during a six game home stand that made the Greyhounds again look like legitimate Western Conference contenders.
On the side of both Hamilton and the Soo is that Steve Staios of the Bulldogs and Kyle Raftis of the Greyhounds are among the more shrewd general managers in the entire OHL.
A team does not have to win a championship to term any season a success. After all, there is only one champion per season.
But make the playoffs — and get into the second round and have five or six home dates — and the bottom line improves in a nice way.
And let us not forget that as junior hockey is designed to develop players and coaches it is also, plain and simple, a business.
A business that depends on fan and corporate support to enhance the bottom line.