The speculation surrounding a Stephen Harper-for-Brendan Gaunce trade between the Erie Otters and Belleville Bulls began to build on Wednesday. On Thursday, it was time to speak to the men who make deals for those teams – Otters GM Sherry Bassin and Bulls GM George Burnett.
“It’s absolutely untrue,” Bassin said, a statement that Burnett corroborated. “There’s no truth to any of it,” said Burnett, who added that he hasn’t had any discussions with Bassin about Gaunce. “We’re not actively trying to move him.”
Bassin said he has spoken in general terms with Burnett, as he has with every other team in the OHL. “I’ve talked to at least eight teams seriously,” said Bassin, who figured talks among GMs would occur Thursday night at General Motors Centre in Oshawa, Ontario, during the OHL’s first of two games against the Russian junior national team in the Subway Super Series.
“There’s been talks involving all kinds of good players in this league,” Bassin said. When asked how close he has come to making a trade, Bassin said, “There’s no such thing (as being close). You either make one or you don’t. You never know how close you are until you make it.”
Burnett is focused on turning around a team that has a league-worst 5-14-2-2 record. With nine first-year players on the roster, Burnett said he needs veterans like Gaunce, the team’s captain, to provide “big minutes and big work from … on and off the ice to get these kids comfortable and make the next 23 games more successful than the past 23.”
Burnett hasn’t made a decision on Gaunce’s future in Belleville. “At this particular time, our focus is clearly trying to stabilize ourselves presently. Brendan is and can be a huge part of that. He is our captain. Has there been interest shown in our captain throughout the league – absolutely. We’ve made no decisions at this particular time to make a move.”
Meanwhile, Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch doesn’t want his players focused on trade speculation.
“It’s unfortunate the player (Harper) has to think about that,” Knoblauch said. “For the players, it’s a little distracting. Certainly, it’s nothing they can worry about.” According to Aaron Cooney, Otters director of broadcasting and media relations, Harper chose not to speak to the media Thursday.
Now here’s my take…
Tthe Otters would be the clear-cut league championship favorite with an offensive threat like Gaunce, who has averaged a point per game the past two-plus seasons – 10 goals and 23 points in 20 games this season after totaling 61 goals and 128 points in 128 games the past two years. Imagine Gaunce, a Vancouver Canucks prospect, centering the No. 2 line between fellow first-round pick Andre Burakovsky and former Bulls teammate Michael Curtis.
Knoblauch would have two No. 1 lines at his disposal. Not to say that a line of Burakovsky, Curtis and Harper couldn’t be consistently potent. But Harper has struggled this season, with only four goals and 12 points in 20 games. He hasn’t been the same player that burst onto the OHL scene as a rookie two seasons ago, when he had 24 goals and 35 points in 63 games. He has 22 goals and 50 points in 87 games since then. A season ago, his inconsistent play wasn’t surprising, since he was making the transition to being a power forward. His offensive game struggled at times as he focused on playing a more physical style.
But Harper hasn’t found his game yet this season, so other players have been used as the left wing on the second line, most recently rookie Dylan Strome. Perhaps Harper would benefit from a fresh start on a new team.
He hasn’t played as much in all situations this season, mainly because of his struggles and the team’s skilled depth up front. On a young team like Belleville, he would be a frontline forward playing a ton of minutes in all situations. That could be what he needs to take his game to the next level.
Meanwhile, a young team like Belleville could use an experienced power forward who could still reach his potential. Even with his struggles, a player with Harper’s natural ability would be highly coveted on the trade market.