There is a serious case of Broncos fever breaking out all throughout southwest Saskatchewan this week.
Shortly after making one of the biggest moves of the recent WHL trade deadline, the Broncos sold over 200 additional pro-rated season tickets with no end to the demand in site.
That has to have been a nice positive re-enforcement for Broncos Head Coach/Director of Player Personnel Manny Viveiros as he made the difficult choices to pay the steep price it takes to add veteran talent like Josh Anderson, Giorgio Estephan, Stuart Skinner, Tanner Nagel and Andrew Fyten.
“We're pleasantly surprised,” Viveiros said. “Right after that we announced our trade... we were so pleased before with the amount of fans we had this year and the season tickets, but to see it escalate the way it has right now is absolutely magnificent as far as the enthusiasm that is going through the community. Our season tickets are just going through the roof over the last 48 hours and not slowing down.”
The reaction in the dressing room has been just as positive.
“Overwhelming,” Viveiros noted. “The kids are all excited about it too. Certainly there's always a difficult time when you lose some of your close teammates and they are gone, but they understand that... they're very, very excited.”
With one of the top records in the WHL this season the Broncos had to decide if they were going to use their prospect and draft pick capital to deepen their roster enough and make a run at being a championship level team.
“We wanted to approach this as carefully as possible without getting in too deep and it's going to affect this franchise for many years,” Viveiros said. “We knew it was going to be painful in some areas as far as what we had to give up... this is an opportunity that doesn't happen very often in junior hockey. There are certain cycles for teams to be able to put themselves in a position to compete or do well... go deep in the playoffs. We certainly felt that it was something this organization and the community needed.”
Last season the Broncos surprised some people by eliminating Moose Jaw in a hotly contested first round series and came within a hair of eliminating the league leading Regina Pats in the second round. That experienced helped encourage them to believe in what their roster could do.
“Going from last year how close we were of going to that third round,” Viveiros said. “Going in this year we didn't really know where we were going to be. As the year went along we thought maybe we are a little better than we think we are and started adding pieces. We knew exactly what we had to add... and we were fortunate enough to address all those needs.”
The line of Tyler Steenbergen, Glenn Gawdin and Aleksi Heponiemi attracted a lot of attention early this season as the three players took all three top spots in the WHL point scoring race. With a group of veterans that special the Broncos had to consider bolstering their group for a playoff run. How they played going 8-4-1-0 when Heponiemi, Steenbergen and later Artyom Minulin were away at World Juniors seemed to have been the last bit of encouragement the Broncos needed to push their chips to the middle.
“When we were missing some of our players for the World Junior Championship,” Viveiros said. “We lost three core players of our hockey team for the better part of three weeks. I saw how we were very fortunate we made that deal with Calgary before hand and it certainly showed our group OK listen I think we are pretty close here. If add some pieces for our club maybe we have an opportunity to compete.”
With the East Division being as loaded and strong as it has been in recent history the Broncos know they will have to go through some very good teams early in the playoffs. Moose Jaw had the best record in the league before the deadline and added star defenceman Kale Clague, while Regina completely re-shaped their roster with veteran talents.
The strength of the division may have been part of Brandon's choice to trade away a couple of their top players for young assets. The Broncos felt like they were instead at the peak of their development cycle and it was time to double down on their team.
“It's hard to predict how we're going to be next year,” Viveiros said. “We felt that we had a certain core group here which are more than likely to be their last seasons with us this year. We thought this is the time to utilize that... our core group is a pretty special group here. We do have some kids that they come around not very often in junior hockey.”
Having already added Matteo Gennaro and Beck Malenstyn in a deal with Calgary over a month ago, the Broncos started deadline week by acquiring a big, physical defenceman in Josh Anderson from Prince George who will be tasked with shutting down some of the top skilled players.
“He brought another physical presence to our back end,” Viveiros said. “Josh moves very well, can make a good first pass and a defenceman that is tough to play against in his own end. Anybody coming to the net front area he's going to make them pay. He's going to be one of the guys we count on to be able to shut down the opposition's top lines. He brings a certain fear to the opposition when he's on the ice.”
A haul of Gennaro, Malenstyn and Anderson was significant enough, but the Broncos weren't done. They added another blockbuster on Tuesday acquiring Giorgio Estephan, Stuart Skinner and Tanner Nagel from Lethbridge. To get a 20-year-old offensive weapon like Estephan they had to open up an overage spot and reluctantly parted with starting goaltender Logan Flodell.
“We felt we needed to add another top six forward to our group,” Viveiros said. “In order to do that it was very difficult... we had to free up a 20-year-old spot for us. Unfortunately Logan Flodell had to come to the equation, but we knew we were getting a really quality goaltender (Skinner) coming back. He's a guy who has proven himself and took them deep in the playoffs last year. Statistically he's not having a great season as far as he's normally accustomed to. We're not worried about that. A change of scenery for him is a good thing.”
Gawdin, Gennaro and Estephan could be the strongest trio of centres in the league. Given their familiarity and comfort in that position the Broncos will start by spreading them out to three different lines.
“If you're going to win in the playoffs you're going to have quality through the middle,” Viveiros explained. “That's something that we certainly do have in our top three centres for sure. We have many different options... All those guys are used to playing against the opposition's top lines. We've got three lines that teams have to respect that all have skill and also play a heavy game.”
Not every player they added is a top flight scorer or NHL draft pick. The additions of 19-year-olds Nagel from Lethbridge and Fyten from Calgary give the Broncos some veteran depth to their forward group and a gritty edge.
“These kids bring a real good energy to a hockey team,” Viveiros said. “They really get after the opposition on the forecheck, they play a physical game and they also penalty kill. That's going to reduce some of the ice time for some of the players who up until this time have been playing a lot.”
That could signal a big change for the Broncos on the penalty kill. Traditionally the Broncos have relied on their top players to deal with most of the ice time when shorthanded. Now that's something they plan to spread out a little more.
“We want to share the ice time,” Viveiros said. “Some of our players like Gawdin, Steenbergen and Heponiemi... spend a lot of time on the penalty kill. This gives us options where they're still going to kill penalties but they're not going to be taxed as much.”
Experts will often talk about teams finding chemistry after big trade deadline moves. One instant advantage for the Broncos is that most of their top six knows each other well and are used to playing with each other already. Another advantage is that with five new faces the team will be going on a US Division road swing next week with a chance to spend a lot of time together.
“I think it's really good for a team to bond,” Viveiros said. “It's a really good time for the kids to spend time together and get to know each other. More importantly these guys are character, veteran players. They've all been captains or assistant captains on their hockey team. They know what it's about to be integrated into a team as quickly as possible. They're good kids and they want to win.”
As much as the feedback in Swift Current has been overwhelmingly positive to the trades this week, some have expressed concern over how trading all these young assets could impact the organization's future. Swift Current dealt away first round picks (either current players or future picks) from their 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 drafts. The Broncos understood the price they had to pay and felt the timing was right for that kind of investment in this season.
“We knew going into next year it's possible we're going to be in a rebuild or reset,” Viveiros said. “This is our team and every team goes through that. We understand that cycle. We discussed this at length in the coaching staff... if we did nothing I think our fans and community would be a lot more disappointed than anything. We did everything we possibly can to give ourselves the best opportunity we have to compete against the best teams in the each division. There are certainly no guarantees.”
People will say there's a lot of pressure on the team to win. I'd rather have the pressure that we're supposed to win rather than not having a chance to win. We welcome the pressure.”
How long could a future rebuild take? The Broncos are optimistic they still have a lot of good young pieces as a nice starting point. With players like Jacson Alexander, Connor Horning, Ben King, Nolan Corrado, Carter Spenst and Isaac Poulter the cupboards are not as bare as some would have you believe.
A quick Twitter thread discussing the perceived bare cupboards for the @SCBroncos -- while certainly they have lack of picks going forward there are still some very good prospects in the system.— Shawn Mullin (@shawnmullin) January 12, 2018
“We're not concerned about that at all,” Viveiros said. “We still believe we have a lot of young talent in our system. We're going to be fine here. It's nothing we're too concerned about... we're not going to do something that sets us back for years-and-years to come. Sure there's always going to be a little bit of a rebuild. We don't look at that as a negative... it's just a part of it and we're looking forward to the challenges.”
For now the challenge is finding chemistry, winning hockey games and perhaps attempting to challenge Moose Jaw for first place in the WHL standings. That won't be an easy task as the Warriors lead by ten points, while the Broncos have a game in hand with 30 games left in their regular season schedule.
That chase starts in Prince Albert tonight and back home against Edmonton tomorrow. You can listen live to tonight's game on The Eagle 94.1 FM with Robertson Family Group Broncos Hockey at 6:30pm.
The Broncos have a promotion in place to keep momentum rolling on pro-rated season tickets. They will be on sale until January 31st and if the team gets to 2100 tickets sold they will give away ten free 2018-19 season tickets to current season ticket holders.
Saturday's game is also a special World Junior Tribute Night with Tyler Steenbergen returning to the Innovation Credit Union iPlex after scoring the gold medal winning goal for Team Canada. The Broncos will pay tribute to Steenbergen, Aleksi Heponiemi and Artyom Minulin for representing their countries and the Broncos so well on the world stage.