As the SHL season winds toward next week’s trading deadline, the Hamilton Pistols find themselves in an admirable position. They’ve been on top of the Eastern Division all season, and they’re virtually certain to make the playoffs. They’ve even got a decent chance to go all the way and win the Vandy.
That all sounds pretty good. So why is Pistols GM Marcel LaClaire saying that his team is in a “painful position”? When LaClaire says that “we have some difficult decisions to make over the next week,” what does he mean?
The awkward truth is that Hamilton arrived to contention ahead of schedule. Coming off a 29-30-1 finish in 2017, the Pistols organization looked at this as a building season: get over .500 for the first time, possibly contend for a playoff spot, and give their young core a chance to get its feet wet in meaningful games. But after the Hershey Bliss bellyflopped out of the gate, there was an unexpected vacancy at the top of the stands, and the Pistols have filled it.
But Hamilton’s unexpected ascendance has scrambled the calculus of their deadline decisions. If they were a fringe contender, the Pistols might make a minor deal for a veteran or two to provide experience and depth, but they’d leave their store of prospects largely untouched. But now that they have a realistic shot to go all the way, should they consider dealing some of those prospects and going all in this year?
That’s the quandary that’s keeping LaClaire up at night. “I realize that this is a very lucky problem to have,” said the Pistols GM. “How do spend your lottery winnings? But this choice could affect our course for years to come.”
The case for going all in this year is simple: The league may never be this wide open again. With Hershey effectively out of the picture, the East is Hamilton’s for the taking. Both the Quebec Tigres and Washington Galaxy are having solid seasons, but both have obvious weaknesses: Quebec is limited by a so-so offense, while Washington’s success is heavily dependent on its top line.
Out West, the defending division champion Anchorage Igloos have been stuck around the .500 mark and don’t look likely to repeat. The Michigan Gray Wolves are the consensus Vandy favorite, but even they have chinks in their armor; goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist hasn’t been his typical dominant self, and top D “Mad Max” Madison has battled injuries.
And if the Pistols are inclined to load up for a deep run, there’s no shortage of targets available. The Dakota Jackalopes are shopping Cs Lars Karlsson and Harvey Bellmore, and may be willing to deal D Matt Cherner. The expansion Boston Badgers and Kansas City Smoke are both entertaining offers on their veterans. And other struggling teams like the Bliss, New York Night, and Saskatchewan Shockers may be willing to deal as well.
“Flags fly forever,” said Pistols LW Steven Alexander. “We’ve got a real shot to win this thing, and I’m all for anything that helps us get there.”
On the other hand, the Pistols have made no secret of their desire to build a dynasty. “We don’t think that we only have this one shot,” LaClaire said. “We believe we have the talent to be a top team for many years.” Their minor-league affiliate in Oshawa is currently leading its division, and they’ve got a number of highly-touted prospects. If the Pistols were to trade those players away for veterans on short-term deals, they might maximize their chance to win this season but cost themselves a shot at building an affordable contender down the road.
“It is not an easy thing,” said LaClaire. “I want us to be good for the next ten years. But if this is our best chance for a title… I want the title.”
For his part, Hamilton coach Keith Shields retains his trademark optimistic outlook. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got a championship-caliber team in our locker room right now,” the coach said on Friday. “We don’t need to make a single deal and we’re awesome. If Marcel decides to go and get me a player who makes us even better, I love it! I’m happy either way.”
Easy for him to say. But for LaClaire – the man who has to find a way to balance the present and the future – the decisions are anything but easy. “I’ll be happy when [the deadline] is over,” he said. “After that, we just have to go settle it on the ice.”