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Standing Pat: Why the Plymouth Whalers Made the Right Deadline Move

by Bryan Thiel 

Sometimes you don’t mess with a good thing.

Case in point: The Plymouth Whalers.

Leading up to the OHL’s Trade Deadline, many watched as the Sarnia Sting turned their roster upside down to a dangerous degree, the London Knights snapped up two powerful pieces, and the Kitchener Rangers added a big, tough overage forward that cost them some experience on the blueline.

Those teams surrounded (and continue to do so) Plymouth in the standings, and they all made moves. The Knights have led the West for much of the season, with the Whalers in tow, while Kitchener and Sarnia round out the top four. The Whalers though, stood pat at the deadline, comfortable with what they had accomplished earlier in the season.

In a hockey world hungry for moves and changes when we see the word ‘deadline’ pop up, the Whalers did the unpopular thing and…did nothing.

Then again, it’s not like they had any pressing needs anyhow.

In net, the story of Scott Wedgewood came to the forefront at the World Junior Hockey Championships and he’s now been thrust into the spotlight. But behind him is the trustworthy Matt Mahalak, ready for an ascension of his own to a starting roll, owning the second-best goals-against average and save percentage in the OHL and two personal win streaks of five and six games this season. No need there.

On defense, the Whalers have just one player that isn’t a 1993 birthday, and that’s rookie defenseman Mitch Jones who has made it into just one game this season. Overager Beau Schmitz (the only ’91 birthday on the Whalers’ blueline) is in the midst of a career-year offensively, while Colin MacDonald and Austin Levi have punished opposing forwards all season long with bruising size. Up and down the depth chart though, a defense that features one defenseman officially under 5’11’ (Schmitz) and one under 170lbs (Jones) has been protecting their netminders all season long and preventing teams from establishing any kind of pressure-generating fore-check.

Just twice in the past six games have the Whalers surrendered more than 30 shots, while Wedgewood has faced 35 or more just six times in 24 games. Mahalak has faced 35 or more seven times in his 20 games this year.

Up front, it’s more of the same size and experience that has made the defense so good this season. A whopping nine forwards weigh in at 190 lbs or more, and 11 are listed at 6’0” or taller. Nine of them are 1993 birthdays or older, including overagers Jamie Devane and Andy Bathgate.

In terms of their scoring prowess, Stefan Noesen leads the team with 48 points, putting him in a four-way tie for 18th in the league race. While the Sting and Knights both have two players in the top-16 with 50 or more points, neither boasts the able depth Plymouth does.

Plymouth has five players with 40+ points and two with 39. London incumbents Seth Griffith and Vladislav Namestnikov both have 50+ points, but the Knights had to acquire Greg McKegg (42 points) and Austin Watson (36 points) to even come close to Plymouth’s numbers. Sarnia’s Charles Sarault and Nail Yakupov both boast more than 50-point years already, but it took scooping up Brett Thompson (44—37 of them in 27 games with Sarnia), Tyler Brown (39), Ryan Spooner (38), and Adrian Robertson (36) to boost the rest of the numbers of an injury-riddled team.

In fact if you look around the OHL there are just two teams who have four players with 40+ points that didn’t have to acquire one of them during the season: The Niagara IceDogs (Andrew Agozzino-51, Dougie Hamilton-50, Freddie Hamilton-48, Alex Friesen-43, David Pacan-40, and Ryan Strome-40) and Barrie Colts (Tanner Pearson-67, Colin Behenna-56, Zach Hall-45, and Mark Scheifele-41).

The lack of needs for the Plymouth Whalers probably helped in preserving their biggest asset being traded away at the deadline: Chemistry and familiarity.

Plymouth has just seven players on the roster that weren’t with the team last year. Four are rookies, one is Bathgate (acquired during the off-season from Belleville), another is forward Cody Payne (acquired at the beginning of November), and then there’s American forward J.T. Miller, signed in the off-season after he was made a first-round pick by the New York Rangers. They’ve developed a locker room that sticks up for each other and won’t let any member fall behind, and General Manager/Coach Mike Vellucci knows it.

So….why mess with a good thing?

The Sarnia Sting’s chances in the West are based on the new pieces on the roster gelling. Any success the Knights and Rangers have will be based on young rosters stepping up and playing above their heads, and while there are upset specials in the West ready and waiting, each has key questions that need to be answered for a long playoff run.

The only team without any questions that needed answering at the deadline was the Plymouth Whalers. Now they have one.

Will the status quo be good enough?

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