Bruce Hamilton pulled another rabbit out of his hat on Friday — well, rather a Penguin.
Another former Raider, and certainly a ringer.
Hamilton and the Kelowna Rockets made their big splash ahead of Tuesday’s trade deadline by acquiring Reid Gardiner, a top-10 scorer in the WHL last season who had been playing professionally for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — the AHL affiliate of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Gardiner, who is expected to make his Kelowna debut in tonight’s home game against Kamloops, was limited to three goals and six points through 23 games as a rookie pro but now returns to a level that he dominated with 92 points, including 43 goals, in 71 games for the Prince Albert Raiders during the 2015-16 campaign.
“We had an opportunity to acquire one of the league’s best scorers over the last few seasons,” Hamilton said in announcing the trade on the team’s website. “He brings something we’ve been missing in that he’s a pure shooter.”
Gardiner didn’t come cheap, with his junior rights still belonging to Prince Albert. To get him, Kelowna had to swing a deal that was reminiscent of the Rockets landing Leon Draisaitl on the same date in 2015 from the same team for much the same return.
Yes, for the second time in three years but only the second time in a quarter-century of management experience, Hamilton parted with a first-round pick in the WHL bantam draft. A conditional first-rounder in either 2017 or 2018, with Prince Albert to decide on the year at least 15 days in advance of this May’s draft.
The Raiders also received a fifth-round pick for 2017 and another conditional fifth-rounder for 2019.
“It was a big price to pay, but we feel we owe it to our fans to compete again this year,” Hamilton said.
By comparison, Draisaitl fetched a first-rounder and two fourth-rounders, plus two depth roster players in Kris Schmildi, a Swiss forward who had to be moved to make room for the German, and hard-nosed defenceman Dalton Yorke, who is now an over-ager for the Tri-City Americans.
The similarities between the trades are uncanny, with Draisaitl also returning to junior at the time of that deal, having been reassigned by the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers following a 37-game stint in the big league. He never played for Prince Albert before being shipped to Kelowna.
That blockbuster paid dividends, with Draisaitl leading the Rockets to a WHL championship and the Memorial Cup final — earning MVP honours for both the league playoffs and the tournament in Quebec City.
Talk about a tough act to follow for Gardiner, who will be hard-pressed to match that impact but should be a difference-maker among Kelowna’s top-six forwards once he settles in and develops chemistry with his new linemates.
“He’s excited about the opportunity to play for a competitive team with high-end teammates and with his brother Erik,” said Hamilton, who acquired the younger Gardiner from Regina on Nov. 30, along with defenceman James Hilsendager, in exchange for Jonathan Smart.
Erik Gardiner, 17, was the 35th overall pick in the 2014 bantam draft — 13 selections after Smart, the final pick of the first round that year — and has been a pleasant surprise since joining the Rockets on their pre-Christmas road trip around Alberta.
Erik emerged as a point-per-game player through six games, with one goal and five assists, but impressed Kelowna’s coaching staff with more than just his offence — playing in all situations, including both special teams, and blocking several shots on the penalty kill.
Prior to that, Erik had been playing for the SJHL’s Humboldt Broncos after being one of Regina’s final cuts following training camp, but he’s made the most of his call-up to Kelowna and will be spending the rest of the season here with his older brother now in the fold.
By bringing in the elder Gardiner, 20, the Rockets were forced to send fellow over-ager Riley Stadel to the Edmonton Oil Kings for a fifth-round pick in the 2018 bantam draft.
“This was an extremely tough decision for us. Riley has been a heart-and-soul guy for us for a long time now,” Hamilton said. “He epitomizes what a good guy and a great teammate is. He has impeccable character, and this is a significant loss. It won’t be easy news for his teammates to hear.”
Stadel played in 331 games for the Rockets, including playoffs, and recorded 35 goals, 118 points and 334 penalty minutes over the past five seasons. He also had a plus-51 rating.
That Kelowna decided to upgrade its over-age talent comes as little surprise, though it was shocking to see Reid Gardiner round out that group, with captain Rodney Southam and starting goaltender Michael Herringer.
Some had been holding out hope for Justin Kirkland’s potential return from the Nashville Predators’ organization, but when that door closed, Gardiner became a target for Kelowna — especially with Erik already here to help lure Reid from Pennsylvania to the Okanagan.
Hamilton’s magic worked again, and now the Gardiners will become the latest in a long line of brothers to play for the Rockets at the same time.
They will join the Footes, Cal and Nolan, on the current roster — both top bantam draft picks by Kelowna in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
The Gatenbys, Joe and Danny, both patrolled the blue line for Kelowna last season before being traded together to Kamloops for forward Jake Kryski.
Going back to 2015, the Rockets reunited the Morrisseys in similar fashion to the Gardiners, with Josh another prized acquisition from Prince Albert as a world-junior defenceman joining his younger brother Jake, who had been Kelowna’s third-string goalie that season.
Gardiner was the highlight of a busy Friday for Hamilton, who also made a third trade to recoup another conditional fifth-round pick from the Vancouver Giants in exchange for sophomore forward Jordan Borstmayer.
“It was just a situation where we felt it would be beneficial for both sides if Borstmayer had a change of scenery,” Hamilton said. “He deserves more ice-time and, by circumstance, he wasn’t able to get it here.”
Borstmayer had been centering Kelowna’s fourth line but may have become a healthy scratch going forward. He played in 113 combined games for the Rockets, producing six goals and 12 points with 14 penalty minutes and a minus-23 rating.
Blazers 3, Rockets 1
Dillon Dube made a surprising return to the Rockets’ lineup and scored their lone goal in a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the rival Blazers in Kamloops on Friday night.
Dube flew back from Montreal in time to suit up for Kelowna, just 24 hours after settling for silver with Team Canada at the world juniors.
Coming off that heartbreaking 5-4 shootout loss to the United States in the championship game, Dube didn’t skip a beat in netting just his second goal of the WHL season on a second-period power play.
That cut the deficit to 2-1, but Kamloops goaltender Dylan Ferguson — continuing to play in place of Dube’s world-junior teammate Connor Ingram — denied Kelowna’s comeback bid by stopping 30 shots for first-star honours.
Ferguson spoiled the return of not only Dube but also Calvin Thurkauf, who had captained Switzerland at the world-junior tournament, and Tomas Soustal, who represented the Czech Republic.
Both of Kelowna’s import forwards were expected to rejoin the fold Friday, having been eliminated in Monday’s quarter-finals, but it was anticipated that Dube would sit out the weekend home-and-home to rest and recuperate.
Instead, the Rockets (23-15-3-0) should have a near-full lineup for tonight’s rematch against the Blazers (25-15-1-1), 7 p.m. at Prospera Place.
That is good news for Kelowna, which has dropped four straight contests (0-3-1-0) to fall three points behind second-place Kamloops in the B.C. Division standings.
The fourth-place Victoria Royals (22-15-4-0) have closed to within one point of Kelowna thanks to a five-game winning streak since the holiday break. Three of those victories have come against the top-ranked Prince George Cougars (27-11-2-0) — including Friday’s 2-1 triumph in P.G., the opener of a doubleheader there, with that rematch also going tonight.
At Kamloops, Herringer made 33 saves in a losing effort, with the Blazers getting goals from Jermaine Loewen, import Rudolfs Balcers, who also played in the world juniors for Latvia, and recent trade acquisition Luc Smith.
Balcers scored what stood up as the winner in his first game back from losing to Finland in the relegation round on Tuesday.
Kelowna will be missing defenceman Gordie Ballhorn (hand, 2-3 weeks) and forward Kyle Topping (upper-body, week-to-week) to injury tonight.