Rob Papineau could have tried to repair the structure that he inherited a year ago by patching a few holes. Instead, the Sudbury Wolves vice president and general manager opted for a full rebuild.
With the Wolves languishing in last place in the Eastern Conference and in danger of missing the Ontario Hockey League playoffs for the third time in four years, Papineau has gone to a full-out youth movement.
In a dizzy span of 72 hours prior to the January 10 trade deadline, Papineau made no less than six transactions after putting up a for sale sign on the Wolves front door.
In fearless fashion, the second-year Wolves hockey boss parlayed five veterans — two overagers with 1997 birth dates and three others who were born in 1998 — for a pair of much-younger plums, while also pocketing a few extra draft picks.
To be sure, Papineau did what needed to be done by exercising a plan designed to make the Wolves younger with an eye to the future while in the present allowing for more ice time to a collection of first and second year players.
Give Papineau credit for going to a Plan B as when the 2017-2018 season started, the Wolves were seen as a definite playoff team and part of Plan A was to be among the top five or six teams in the Eastern Conference. But one major injury after another has had the Wolves limping and licking their wounds while slipping away from playoff contention.
Ergo, facing reality and reacting like a seasoned GM rather than the relative rookie that he is, Papineau shipped out overage goalie Mario Culina to the Kitchener Rangers, overage forward Troy Lajeunesse to the Erie Otters, 19-year old forward (and captain) Michael Pezzetta to the Sarnia Sting, 19-year old forward Dmitry Sokolov to the Barrie Colts and 19-year old defenseman Reagan O’Grady to the Mississauga Steelheads.
In return, the Wolves received high-scoring, 18-year old (1999 birth date) rookie forward Alexey Lipanov from Barrie for Sokolov and a slew of draft picks for the others, some of which were used to pry prize 17-year old (2000 birth date) defenseman Peter Stratis from the Ottawa 67s.
The Wolves now have two other teams first-round picks from the 2016 OHL draft in Stratis and forward Kirill Nizhnikov, who Papineau obtained in a previous trade with Barrie last month for multiple draft picks.
And while Papineau has seemingly positioned the Wolves for better days ahead, Sudbury still has a shot — albeit a long one — at making the playoffs this season in an Eastern Conference that is once again decidedly weaker than the Western Conference.
Still, anything that happens this season beyond precious development for younger players would merely add up to an unexpected bonus as icing on the cake.
Looking ahead — which Papineau has already started with his moves for the future — the Wolves can return the teeth of the current roster for 2018-2019 beginning with a likely overage pair of twin terror, team first forwards in Sault Ste. Marie products Darian Pilon and Drake Pilon.
And down the list from the proposed Pilons are a somewhat attractive, albeit work in progress Wolves pack that includes 1999 birth year forwards Macauley Carson and David Levin, 1999 birth year goalie Jake McGrath, 2000 birth year forward Dawson Baker, 2000 birth year defenseman Emmett Serensits, 2001 birth year forward Blake Murray and 2001 birth year defenseman Liam Ross, among others.
Papineau, from his end, had plenty of response when asked about the multiple moves that he orchestrated.
“First off, what we ended up doing actually began with the number of injuries we sustained that really changed our plans for this season,” Papineau began. “It’s not an excuse but if you count the amount of injuries and include games missed by players away at world hockey competition, we have already lost more than 140 man games in just over half a season.”
That said, Papineau is firm in the belief that he did what was best for the present and the future of the Wolves program.
“The reality is we are in a better position now going forward than we were before the trades,” Papineau told Hockey News North. “It was the best thing for our program. Our younger players now have a unique opportunity to set the identity of our hockey team for the rest of this season into next.
“Not only will there be more ice time available for our younger players to try to take advantage of, there will be quality ice time as in regular minutes and the opportunity to play in key situational and special team instances,” he added.
Still, despite confident that the moves made were in the best interests of shaping the Wolves into an OHL contender, Papineau said trading the players who he did was not easy.
“From a hockey perspective, the trades were the right decision, from a people perspective, they were tough decisions,” Papineau relayed. “Kids are human beings first and hockey players second and when you are a part of a team that spends so much time together, you become like family.
“But at the end of the day, as a hockey program going forward, we really feel better about our position now and for the future,” Papineau concluded.
Meanwhile, from within OHL circles, as teams such as the Soo Greyhounds, Kitchener Rangers, Sarnia Sting, Hamilton Bulldogs, Kingston Frontenacs and the aforementioned Barrie Colts set themselves up for a run at this year’s championship, a general manager from a middle-of-the-road squad messaged Hockey News North to say that “some of the best moves made at the trade deadline might have been made by the Sudbury Wolves.”