The Swift Current Broncos had more than a strong wind go through their roster this week.
Three key members of the Lethbridge Hurricanes will bring very different skills to the table after being acquired by the Broncos in a blockbuster deal before the WHL trade deadline.
Skilled centre Giorgio Estephan, rugged winger Tanner Nagel and Edmonton Oilers prospect goaltender Stuart Skinner came to the Broncos on Tuesday in a huge deal for several players and assets. They all arrived in Swift Current and attended their first practice on Wednesday.
“It's exciting,” Estephan said. “Everyone here is excited. The fans are excited, all the players are excited and they've been welcoming for sure.”
That excitement has been reflected in the sale of close to 200 new pro-rated season tickets by the Broncos since they announced the deal.
It was a quick turnaround for three players who helped guide Lethbridge to the WHL Eastern Conference final last season.
“It feels really good to be here,” Skinner said. “Just 24 hours ago I just got the news. It's been fun... these guys welcomed me just like family right away. I can tell the group of guys in here are really close and we're going to be a really tight group. I'm super excited to be here.”
Estephan and Skinner both played their entire WHL careers in Lethbridge. Both are former first round draft picks of the Hurricanes and had to deal with the emotion of leaving a place where they have spent their formative years.
“It's been a long time in Lethbridge,” Estephan said. “We've had a lot of good memories, a lot of tough memories, but there's been a lot of good times. It's tough to leave there, but a new start and looking on to this chapter. I'm excited and we're going to do some good here.”
Despite that their new teammates in Swift Current have quickly embraced the former Hurricanes and made them feel at home.
“I'm already starting to feel like a Bronco,” Skinner said. “New beginnings are always great. I think we can do something super special here. Now I've got a new set of family, I've got new brothers in the dressing room and a whole new environment here. It's a super positive environment. It's a lot different than where I was and I knew being here that these guys are helping me become a Bronco.”
For Nagel it's a bit of a homecoming. The Mossbank, SK product actually played some of his minor hockey in Swift Current.
“It's awesome,” Nagel said. “I played bantam a few years ago and loved it. It's great to be back. It kind of came out of nowhere, but it's a nice surprise. There's a lot of great players here and I think we're going to make a really good push.”
Just as it benefitted Matteo Geannro and Beck Malenstyn to get traded to Swift Current together from Calgary, the former Hurricanes also benefit from that sense of familiarity.
“100%,” Estephan said. “Anytime you pack and move from somewhere you know really well it helps that there's two guys you're pretty familiar with and bonded with through the thick the season last year. I've known Skinner quite a while too. We've got a good friendship and it helps a lot for sure.”
There is also the confidence that he has playing in front of Skinner the last few years.
“His stature kind of says it all,” Estephan said. “(Skinner is a) big goalie that you don't see a lot and you don't score a lot either. He's goalie that really takes your confidence away. That's why he's so sought after and the Oilers picked him.”
Having played with Estephan and Skinner for the last year and a half, Nagel offers a very optimistic view of what his colleagues bring to the Broncos.
“Stu is going to be kicking every night,” Nagel said. “He's a fantastic goalie and always brings his best. They can expect that. Giorgio is a great player. He's got great hands and great vision.”
Nagel is perhaps the least well-known of the three additions as he generally plays a less high profile, but still very important role.
“I think I bring that kind of gritty, hard work style of play,” Nagel said. “I like to get in the corners and play a little rough. When you have skilled guys you need people out there that can go make some space for them and create more room for them to make their magic. I think the staff has put together a great team to make that happen.”
Those elements may be the key to his game, but the 19-year-old forward can also produce when called upon. He had 10 goals as a WHL last season.
For Estephan putting up points has seemed almost second nature. He looks to play a skilled game.
“Size, speed, skill,” Estephan said. “Try to be dynamic. Try and use my hands and hockey IQ to build chemistry with my linemates and try to create something special with them for sure.”
The overage forward is one of the WHL's top scoring forwards. He's 15th in the league with 58 points and is on pace for surpassing his career high of 89 points.
Estephan is now also surrounded by scoring talent four lines deep and won't be required to carry as much of the scoring burden in Swift Current.
“It's nice,” he noted. “Sometimes you can leave it to someone else to make a play and it's not all relying on you. I'm willing to do what it takes for the guys to win. I think everyone here is ready to buy in. It's something special we've got going on here. If it's not me doing it it's someone else and I think we'll all be pretty proud of that.”
With Glenn Gawdin and Matteo Gennaro already on their roster, the Broncos coaches will have to decide whether to line three first line level centres up on three different lines or to convert one of them to the wing.
“I haven't played a lot of wing,” Estephan said. “I'm pretty comfortable switching anywhere. It's just in the d-zone whoever gets back first and being a strong defensive player. Throughout your whole career you always have to play every position. I'm pretty comfortable with both positions.”
Lethbridge picked Estephan one spot ahead of Gawdin in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft. They've been competing ever since with Estephan outscoring Gawdin 297 points to 263 in their career numbers.
“We've been squaring off against each other for a while,” Estephan said. “We always had some spirited tilts, but it's nice to be on his team. We're going to make something good happen here for sure.”
Gennaro was a second round pick in that same draft which now gives the Broncos likely the best centre ice depth in the WHL.
None of that matters if you don't have a goaltender who can stop the puck. Skinner believes he can do just that.
“A guy who just battles and competes no matter what,” Skinner said. “In any situation I'm always there supporting the guys, moving the puck well to my defencemen... butterfly goalie that's structured well... winning or losing no matter what I'm a guy who never gives up.”
Skinner's numbers are actually down slightly this year with a 3.38 goals against average and 0.897 save percentage for a team that did stumble this season. His career best numbers were 2.73 and 0.920 when he was a 17-year-old and his very strong play in last season's playoff.
Despite that he is very comfortable with where his game is at.
“I feel really good actually,” Skinner said. “I talked to my psychologist about numbers and stuff. Obviously the numbers aren't the greatest and it wasn't the greatest last season either, but had a really good playoff run. I think winning is kind of the biggest part of it. Stats like save percentage and goals against average I think that goes with how the team is playing. Numbers is all about the team... I know that my numbers my not show the best right now, but I feel really confident in my ability. I feel really good, I feel like I'm in great shape, I feel like I'm seeing the puck well and I feel like I'm ready to win some games here.”
Skinner was perhaps at his best last season during his team's run to the conference final. The 6'4 netminder has faced intense situations before such as representing Canada one form or another in the Canada/Russia series, U18, U17, U16 and U15 tournaments.
“I feel like I play better when there's more pressure on me,” Skinner said. “When in doubt I'm always there to help my teammates. It was a really good team effort last year... not to think about the past or anything, but I think our team is a little bit better than what we had in Lethbridge. I'm just excited to see what we can do with this kind of team in a playoff run. I believe in us and I believe we can win a championship out of this.”
The former Hurricanes aren't the only new faces for the Broncos lately. They signed Jacson Alexander before Christmas, dealt for Josh Anderson from Prince George and added Andrew Fyten from Calgary.
Just in time for them to head on their US Division road swing next week.
“I think it's perfect timing,” Nagel said. “With trips like this guys get time to bond and hang out. I bet it'll only bring us closer together.”
Estephan, Nagel and Skinner could all make their Broncos debuts on Friday in Prince Albert. Swift Currents hosts the Oil Kings on Saturday.
Other big additions at the WHL trade deadline included Kale Clague going from Brandon to Moose Jaw and Cameron Hebig getting dealt from Saskatoon to Regina. You can click here to see all the deadline deals.