Ordinarily, a trade between two of the SHL’s worst teams wouldn’t attract much attention. Just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic, a cynic might say. But this week’s deal between the Dakota Jackalopes and Kansas City Smoke raised eyebrows around the league, and prompted the persistent whispers about the Jackalopes’ financial stability to grow a bit louder.
On its face, the deal looks like an old-fashioned challenge trade. The Smoke shipped G Brooks Copeland and D Geoff Moultrie to Dakota in exchange for backup netminder Dennis Wampler and reserve D Terry “T-Rex” Hendricks. There’s a case to be made that the parties involved could use a change of scenery.
The 24-year-old Copeland began the season as KC’s starting goalie, and the team hoped the former Michigan draft pick would seize the opportunity. However, he quickly lost the job to rookie Jim Fleetwood; he was later banished to the minors after compiling an 0-5-0 record with an unsightly 5.00 GAA and an .843 save percentage.
Kansas City acquired the 22-year-old Moultrie from Quebec last season, but struggled to find a spot in the Smoke’s blueline rotation. Like Copeland, he was demoted to Omaha after recording a single goal and a -6 rating in 8 games with KC this season. He had reportedly asked for a trade.
Like Copeland and Moultrie, the players KC received had worn out their welcome with their former team.
The 24-year-old Wampler has underwhelmed for Dakota this season, going 1-4-0 with a 4.50 GAA and an .865 save percentage. According to sources within the organization, the Jackalopes were considering sending him to the minors before working out the trade.
The 24-year-old Hendricks was drafted by Dakota in 2016 and became a fan favorite due to his hard-hitting style. However, his ice time has steadily decreased from season to season, and he seemed virtually certain to leave in free agency this offseason. He appeared in 7 games for the Jackalopes this season, recording 2 assists.
So why the fuss about the deal? In a word, money. Dakota is the SHL’s smallest market, and their financial troubles have been an open secret for several years. The organization has pared payroll sharply in the last couple seasons, causing fan discontent to grow and attendance to shrink. It’s a negative spiral that may ultimately force the team to relocate.
This year, according to rival GMs, Dakota has been trying to dump its few remaining high-salary players. They’ve aggressively shopped their top defensive pairing of Matt Cherner and Rusty Anderson, both of whom are on expiring deals. They haven’t directly shopped star winger “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston, but they’ve said to be listening to trade proposals. Dakota’s payroll is among the league’s lowest; if those players (especially Airston) are traded, they’d be well under $10 million, an alarming figure in a league with a $25 million salary cap.
Given that, it’s hard to ignore that the trade saves the Jackalopes $650,000 in salary. While it’s not certain that this motivated the deal, it did raise some red flags around the league.
Trading Wampler, in particular, seems curious. The Jackalopes signed him to a three-year deal worth $750,000 per season. The contract was intended in part to reassure skeptical fans that Dakota was willing to spend. Could the organization really have soured on him after less than half a season?
Wampler seemed perplexed by the trade. “When I signed on with [the Jackalopes], I thought we were making a long-term commitment to each other,” the goalie told reporters. “I knew it was going to be a long season, but I thought we were building toward the future. A month later, I’m packing my bags. Go figure. But hey, I like barbecue, so KC should be fun!”
As if to prove his value to his new club, Wampler debuted on Thursday, stopping 24 of 25 shots to lead the Smoke to a 2-1 win over Quebec.
Jackalopes GM Paul Mindegaard vigorously denied that he’d made the trade for financial reasons. “I know everyone thinks we’re passing the hat in the stands to keep the lights on, but it isn’t true,” Mindegaard said at the press conference. “We made this deal for hockey reasons. Brooks Copeland is a promising young netminder; we’ve had our eye on him for a while. In the right environment, he can thrive. Geoff Moultrie is a rugged two-way defenseman who fits right in with the corps of young, talented blueliners we’re trying to create. That’s what matters to us. We didn’t make this trade just to make payroll.”
The deal didn’t seem to trouble the team. In their first game post-trade, the Jackalopes tied New York 2-2, snapping their 11-game losing streak.
Smoke GM Garth Melvin, meanwhile, likes his team’s return in the trade. “We’re real glad to have Wamp on board,” Melvin said. “He’s a rising young player, and I look forwarded to seeing what he and Fleet can do together. And T-Rex is a great young D-man. Our fans are going to love him! We might not win the Vandy this year, but we’re in for a fun season.”