The Kamloops Blazers got younger Monday, sending first line-forward Tim Bozon and defenceman Landon Cross to the Kootenay Ice.
The trade of two prominent 19-year-olds could be seen as a sign that the focus is shifting more towards next season, although the club denies this.
In return for Bozon and Cross the Blazers received forward Collin Shirley, defenceman Matt Thomas, a 2014 third round pick and first and fifth round picks in 2015 WHL Bantam Draft.
Bozon has played his entire WHL career in Kamloops and in 153 regular season games he 169 points, including 75 goals. Cross played 134 games for Kamloops, tallying three goals and 21 assists.
Bozon told the Kamloops Daily News he's known a deal was coming for the last 10 days.
"It's a weird feeling," he said, "but like I told lots of people before, I expected that, that was the plan. . . . I knew that I was going [to be] part of a trade, myself and [general manager] Craig Bonner decided for both parties - the team and myself - it would be better if I move on. I didn't know when, I was playing for the last 10 days knowing that it would be my last days in Kamloops . . . it's pretty exciting but also sad to leave Kamloops."
Bonner didn't go as far as to say Bozon requested a trade, instead describing it as a mutual decision that was best for both parties. Bozon said through discussion with his agent and Bonner it was decided it would be best if he finished his season off elsewhere.
Bonner added that it was important to recoup some of the draft picks the Blazers have traded away in years gone by. With only seven on the roster it was also necessary to bring in a defenceman as part of the deal.
With restrictions on import players, like Bozon, who plays internationally for France, including roster limits and trade restrictions, Bonner said the pool for a trade was already somewhat limited. Kootenay came forth with what he says was the best deal available at the time.
"Obviously our record isn't where we want it to be and Tim being one of the guys - his play obviously changed without Colin Smith and JC Lipon on our team," Bonner said of Bozon's former linemates, both of whom are now playing professionally. "I just thought, for both parties, it was probably time to move on and look at some options.
"I could see in the way he was playing he just wasn't having the success and playing the way we expected him to. It's tough when you go from playing with Colin Smith and JC Lipon to younger players."
Bozon's play to this point in the season hasn't lived up to seasons past. He has just three goals and four assists in 13 games, after seasons of 91 and 71 points. The Blazers are 4-9-0-0 and Bonner felt the team needed a change. He said dealing the 19 year olds didn't mean the team was giving up on the playoffs or signaling that its focus has shifted towards next season.
"We're 4-9 right now so to say that things are going good now, and we're getting rid of [players] and just going for the future isn't exactly a correct statement…Quite frankly I'm - and the organization's - not happy with where we're at, we feel a change is needed at this point."
The change comes in the form of Shirley, 17, and Thomas, 18. Shirley has 26 points, including 11 goals, in 71 career WHL games with the Ice. Head coach Dave Hunchak said he sees Shirley as a high-end player who will be playing in a top-six role for the Blazers.
Thomas stands 6-foot-3, 192 pounds and will be given the opportunity to compete for a spot in the lineup.
Hunchak said the deal will also free up space for the likes of Jesse Shynkaruk, Nathan Looysen and Eric Krienke to get more ice time; the deal is just as much about them. He said the coaching staff will be talking to the players about taking responsibility for this team and making use of the opportunity being given to them.
And he rejected the notion that his players might take Bozon's departure as a sign that the Blazers were giving up on this season.
"Our expectation is to make the playoffs," he said. "That's never changed."
Bozon has spoken to Kootenay already and has been told that it is looking for him to put up points and score goals, which shouldn't be too hard considering he says the Ice plans to play him alongside centre Sam Reinhart. Reinhart, the Ice's captain, is expected to be a high pick in the first round of next year's NHL draft. He was tied for second in league scoring with 32 points headed into play on Tuesday.
Bozon added the transition will be easier with Cross being traded as well. The two came into the league together and Bozon said Cross is one of his best friends. He was hoping he would be traded with another player, it was just good luck it was Cross.
Cross, from Brandon, has been one of the Blazers' top defencemen this season, often playing in a shutdown role with Sam Grist.
Though happy to be moving on, Bozon leaves the Blazers with good memories. The Ice will visit Interior Savings Centre on Dec. 6 and Cross and Bozon will play what might be their final games in Kamloops.
"The last two years have been amazing," Bozon said. "The organization was great, I'm so thankful for that, they helped me to reach my goals. . . . It's going to be weird to be on the ice in a different jersey and not be able to be in the same dressing room. I'm still two months away from it. I love the fans there, they're great, I have so many good memories, every time I score a goal, to share my goals with the fans that's pretty amazing and I'm going to miss that for sure. . . . I'm looking forward to it."