One of the ongoing storylines in the SHL over the last couple of seasons has been the Dakota Jackalopes’ financial stability. The Jackalopes have steadily pared payroll over the last couple of seasons, to the point that observers around the league have wondered whether the team will survive. Those rumors bubbled up early this season when Dakota dealt netminder Dennis Wampler a few weeks after signing him to a sizable free-agent deal. They swirled again a couple weeks later when goalie Christien Adamsson ripped the team as “cheap” in a postgame rant.
With the trading deadline arriving this week, the Jackalopes were expected to consider trades that would reduce their payroll even further. They did just that, trading both of their top-pairing defenseman north of the border: Matt Cherner was dealt to the Quebec Tigres, while Rusty Anderson was sent to the surging Saskatchewan Shockers.
Predictably, the trades set off another round of rumors that the Jackalopes are in financial trouble. GM Paul Mindegaard stoutly rebuffed those rumors while announcing the deals to the press. “Neither of these was a dump deal,” said Mindegaard. “These are hockey trades, and we think they’re going to make us stronger in the long run.”
Mindegaard noted that both Cherner and Anderson will be free agents in this offseason, and that Dakota had concluded that they couldn’t resign either player. “We’ve been in talks with Matt’s and Rusty’s agents for a while now, but we’ve recognized there isn’t a fit there,” the Dakota GM stated. “And we’re not competing for a playoff spot, so we made the difficult decision to make these trades and get some value back.”
The trade of Cherner was particularly hard on both the player and the fans. The defenseman has been with Dakota since the SHL’s inception, and he has developed over time into one of the league’s top two-way defensemen. Cherner has also been vocal about his desire to stay with the Jackalopes. When news of the deal came down, he broke down in front of reporters.
“I’ve really been hoping there was a way that this wouldn’t happen,” Cherner said. “Playing for this team in front of these fans has been a real joy. This has become my home. I guess I’ve seen the writing on the wall for a while, but now that it’s here, I just – just can’t… sorry, I have to stop now.”
In exchange for Cherner, the Tigres sent D Kirby Hanlon, C Jacob Cunniff, and their first-round pick to Dakota. The 21-year-old Hanlon is having a solid rookie season with Quebec, putting up 16 points (3 goals, 13 assists). Cunniff, also 21, has been a steady contributor with Quebec’s CHL affiliate (12 goals, 20 assists on the season), and he addresses a position of need for the Jackalopes, who are very weak in the middle.
“Matt’s one of the best defensemen in the league, and we weren’t going to let him go for cheap,” said Mindegaard. “We got two very promising young guys – a quality blueliner and a top prospect center – plus a first. I’ll stand behind that.”
Quebec, meanwhile, views Cherner as just the shot in the arm they need to make up ground in the East playoff race. “Our identity is built around defense first,” said Tigres GM Pete Gondret. “We’ve struggled a bit with keeping guys healthy, but we’ve added the best player available at the deadline. I can’t wait to see what he achieves with us.”
To acquire Anderson, the Shockers parted with C Tanner Brooks. The 22-year-old appeared in the CHL All-Star game; he’s known as strong on defense, and his offensive game has blossomed this season. He’s widely regarded as the best center who hadn’t yet made the SHL.
“Tanner is a player we’ve coveted for a long time,” said Mindegaard. “Between him and Jake Cunniff, we’ve gotten a lot stronger in our weakest area. We’ve taken a step back on the blueline, but we have a lot of defensive prospects in the pipeline.”
This is the first time Saskatchewan has been a buyer at the deadline, and GM Cooper Matthews appreciates his haul. “Rusty Anderson fits right in with our blueline corps, and strengthens us in an area where we’re already strong,” Matthews told reporters. “It was a tough decision to part with Tanner, and I know I probably made [the Jackalopes] crazy going back and forth on that. But we see an opportunity here, and we’re going for it.”
It must be noted that with the deals, the Jackalopes shaved about $2 million off of a payroll that was already second-lowest in the league. Mindegaard stressed that he plans to work quickly to sign extensions with their newly-acquired players, as well as key members of their existing team. “
“We’re not going broke, folks,” said the Dakota GM. “Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s fake news.”