The St. John's IceCaps enter tonight's (Saturday's) game against the Syracuse Crunch with the American Hockey League's best winning percentage, but the IceCaps' lofty position hasn't stopped St. John's general manager Craig Heisinger from opening up the hood in an attempt to fine-tune an already well-running engine.
With Monday being the deadline for transactions between AHL teams as well as the day on which clubs must declare their playoff rosters, Heisinger has swung deals to bring in two veteran, playoff-experienced forwards — Brock Trotter and Raymond Sawada — into the St. John's lineup.
On Friday, the IceCaps loaned forward Kenndal McArdle and goaltender Peter Mannino to the Portland Pirates, with centre Trotter going the other way. In another move on the same day, St. John's traded winger Shawn Weller to the Texas Stars and reassigned forward Mike Forney from Colorado of the ECHL to Texas as compensation for the loan of Sawada to the Caps.
Trotter is a player with whom St. John's fans might first-hand familiarity. In October, he visited Mile One Centre as a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs and showed up here later in the month as a member of the Pirates after a trade between the Montreal Canadiens (Hamilton's parent team) and the Phoenix Coyotes (Portland's NHL partner).
If so, they know the 24-year-old as a highly-skilled centre, one who has put up 38 points (14 goals, 24 assists) in 40 AHL games this season.
The 27-year-old Sawada is a big-body winger who has played 26 games for Texas this season, putting up six goals, 10 assists and 59 penalty minutes.
Heisinger knows Sawada well, since the six-foot-two, 210-pound right-winger played with the Manitoba Moose in 2008-09, when Heisinger was Manitoba GM and IceCaps' bench boss Keith McCambridge was the assistant coach of the Moose.
Trotter also has a Manitoba connection. The five-foot-10, 185-pounder is a Brandon native and played for the Dauphin Kings in the Manitoba junior hockey league before attending the University of Denver (where he was a teammate of Mannino's).
Both Trotter and Sawada have dealt within injuries recently. In fact, Trotter is not joining St. John's immediately, but is going to Winnipeg to be checked out by Jets team doctors (the Jets/IceCaps were aware of his injury status when they acquired him). Sawada, meanwhile, has dealt with injures this season, and appeared in just one game in the last 11 weeks. However, he has been cleared to play, although he did not suit up for the IceCaps Saturday night, having arrived in Syracuse only about two hours before the game against the Crunch.
Some observations about Friday's IceCaps transactions and the players involved:
• Sawada brings valuable Calder Cup playoff experience, having appeared in two of the last three Calder Cup finals (with Manitoba in 2009 and Texas last spring). Trotter also has seen considerable AHL post-season action, especially in 2010, when he averaged a point per game as the Bulldogs went all the way to the conference finals.
• While Trotter — a top-two centre — and Sawada — a considerably bigger, physical, checking forward — carry different skill sets, they are similar in other ways. Both have had short stints in the NHL (Trotter with Montreal, Sawada with Texas) and both shoot right, bringing some balance to the IceCaps in that regard. With the departure of Weller and McArdle, both left shooters (so is Forney, for that matter), and the arrival of the opposite-shooting newcomers, St. John's now shows seven right shots among the 16 forwards on its roster.
• Like Trotter, Sawada played NCAA college hockey. He was a teammate of St. John's native Colin Greening at Cornell University, and like Greening, was both a co-captain of the Big Red and a member of the prestigious Quill and Dagger society at Cornell.
• With Trotter on board, the IceCaps have nine forwards who are listed as centre, but there is little doubt Trotter fills a void left since Christmas, when Marco Rosa — then the team's No. 1 pivot — was sidelined with a concussion that makes his return this season questionable.
• The AHL website shows Trotter being assigned IceCaps jersey No. 22 (previously worn by McArdle), while Sawada will have 23 (Weller's old number)
• All six of the players involved in Friday's transactions are set to become free agents of some description. Weller was the only player who was actually traded — between St. John's and Texas — because he has an AHL contract. All the others have two-way NHL deals and are officially being loaned to their new clubs, since trades of NHL-contracted players couldn't take place after the Feb. 27 National Hockey League trade deadline.
• Weller had seven points in his last eight games with St. John's, while McArdle departs the IceCaps' as No. 2 on the team in penalty minutes (64 PIMs in 35 games. Forney, who was pointless in three games with the IceCaps earlier this season, averaged about a point a game with the ECHL's Colorado Eagles.
• Of all the players the IceCaps loaned out, Mannino may have the most to gain — he had been playing with the ECHL's Chicago Express after being squeezed out of the Cap's netminding triumvirate mid-season. He is going to a Pirates' team where one of the goalies is Marc Cheverie, who was a back-up to Mannino at the University of Denver.
• The Pirates made another deal Friday, sending centre Patrick O'Sullivan to the Peoria Rivermen, with winger Brett Sterling going to Portland.
One final observation: if IceCaps' fans aren't convinced of Heisinger's long-stated resolve to do what he can to bring a Calder Cup to St. John's and the Jets' organization, they should be now. It would have been easy to take a "leave well enough alone attitude" with a very good team, but Heisinger has swung four deals since Christmas, bringing in Sawada, Trotter, centre Maxime Macenauer (for Riley Holzapfel) and defenceman John Negrin (for Akim Aliu).