The arms race is on in the Ontario League's toughest division and the Erie Otters have made it nuclear. Connor McDavid's squad added Vancouver Canucks first-rounder Brendan Gaunce to the lineup last night in exchange for left winger Stephen Harper and four draft picks.
The Otters also get a pick in return, but this trade is all about the present. Gaunce, one of Vancouver's top prospects, was taken 26th overall in 2012 and though he has dealt with some injury problems in the past, is healthy and effective now. A two-way center who plays a power game and has even been projected as a future Ryan Kesler type, Gaunce has been a point-per-game player three seasons running; no easy feat on a Bulls team that succeeded in the past thanks to defense and goaltending.
But with star netminder Malcolm Subban leaving for the pros this year, Belleville's bottom dropped out. They are last in the OHL, while the Otters are a surprise first overall.
The phenom McDavid is a reason, but not the only one. His linemates, Dane Fox and Maple Leafs prospect Connor Brown, are 1-2 in league scoring, while Swedish import Andre Burakowsky (Washington) and rookie Dylan Strome have provided excellent secondary offense. Oscar Dansk (Columbus) and Devin Williams have both been great in net, while the defense has been better than expected, led by New York Islanders pick Adam Pelech.
According to Erie beat writer Victor Fernandes, Gaunce is projected to anchor the second line between Burakowsky and Michael Curtis, a former Belleville Bull himself (bit.ly/IhPVK2). Along with the chance to win an OHL title, Gaunce may also boost his world junior stock. Canada's forward corps is a wide-open competition and perhaps playing in more meaningful games now will give the big pivot momentum heading into December's pre-tourney camp.
With the London Knights hosting the Memorial Cup, the Otters still have a big challenge ahead of them. Since both the Knights and Otters play in the murderous Midwest Division, Erie can't simply get to the OHL final in order to grab that second Memorial Cup berth; they'll need to win it all.
But they have set the trade standard early for other contenders. Dallas Stars first-rounder Radek Faksa will be one to watch, since his Kitchener Rangers are last in the Midwest and he'll be turning pro next season.