Lineup additions bolster Surrey Eagles’ playoff hopes

GM Blaine Neufeld says he’s ‘pretty excited’ about deadline-day transactions

From left: forward Dominic Dumas, goaltender Nic Tallarico and defenceman Domenic Masellis were are shipped out of the Surrey Eagles’ nest prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline. (Garrett James photos)

The Surrey Eagles are in the BC Hockey League playoff picture for the first time in four seasons, and if the moves made at last week’s junior-hockey trade deadline are any indication, they aren’t going to be satisfied with a short post-season run.

Prior to the Jan. 10 cutoff, the team acquired a veteran player at every position – goaltender, defence and forward.

“The trifecta,” quipped Eagles general manager Blaine Neufeld Thursday, the morning after the deals had been made.

Forward Dryden Michaud, a veteran of two major-junior hockey seasons, was signed by the BCHL squad after being released by the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades; goaltender Mario Cavaliere was acquired from the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Georgetown Raiders in exchange for forward Dominic Dumas and future considerations; and futures were also sent to the Coquitlam Express in exchange for the playing rights to former WHL blue-liner Ty Schultz, who has sat out the season due to injury but is expected to return to action in the coming weeks.

“We set a goal for our staff to go out and find the best available goaltender, the best available defenceman and the best available forward by the deadline, and barring Schultz’s health, we really feel that we’ve done that,” said Neufeld.

“We woke up this morning pretty excited about our group, and what we’ve done.”

To make room for the new additions, goaltender Nic Tallarico – who had acquitted himself quite well with the Birds since being signed in the fall after his release from the Salmon Arm Silverbacks – was released, and defenceman Domenic Masellis, one of the team’ alternate captains, was traded to the Cowichan Valley Capitals in exchange for future considerations.

The flurry of moves accelerate the Eagles’ rebuild to what they hope is not just a playoff team, but a legitimate contender – something that Neufeld, as well as head coach Brandon West, have routinely mentioned as their goal this season. The last time the Eagles were in the upper echelon of the BCHL was the 2012/13 season, when they won a league title and advanced all the way to the RBC Cup national championship tournament.

That year, the team also made a big splash at the deadline – acquiring future NHL draft pick Adam Tambellini – and Neufeld hopes this year’s moves have a similar impact.

In particular, he was excited about Cavaliere, who will share the net with longtime Eagle Daniel Davidson. Cavaliere’s numbers in the OJHL this season would suggest Neufeld’s enthusiasm is well-founded – the 20-year-old keeper had a 19-8 win-loss record with Georgetown, with three shutouts and a save-percentage of .932. By comparision, his save-percentage would be the tops in the BCHL, while his shutout mark would put him second, behind only Vernon Vipers’ Ty Taylor.

“He’s a goalie who was the best in his league… He comes with a lot of maturity and experience, and that’s what we were looking for,” Neufeld explained.

“It was a deal that we pursued very hard.”

In Schultz, the Eagles are getting something of a wildcard – but one that could pay big dividends. The 20-year-old New Westminster native spent three years with the Medicine Hat Tigers, and had 21 points in 44 games during the 2016/17 season, but was injured for much of the season – he suffered a broken leg after being hit with a slapshot, and missed 10 weeks – and was subsequently not brought back for the 2017/18 campaign.

He then travelled to China where he tried to latch on with Beijing-based professional team Kunlun Red Star of the KHL, but was held back by his injury. Neufeld said Schultz has been skating on his own in the Lower Mainland, and his Eagles’ debut is at least a week away.

“It’s a big deal to add someone like (Schultz)… he’s going to be a big cog in our machine when he gets back – he’s a massive addition,” Neufeld said.

Neufeld said the team had stiff competition for Michaud’s services, considering he was free to sign anywhere after his release from Saskatoon. In particular, he said at least a few other BCHL teams from within the Mainland Division, as well as on the Island, were in pursuit of him.

In 29 games in the WHL this season, he had two goals and two assists.

“Dryden gives us a multi-faceted player,” Neufeld said in the team’s news release announcing the signing. “He can help at both ends of the ice. We love his speed, competitiveness and ability to play in all situations.”

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