Tue Dec 28 03:27pm EST
BUFFALO — Nino Niederreiter brightened when he learned of his Portland Winterhawks' blockbuster trade.
The Western Hockey League-leading Winterhawks have known all season that for all their ability, their playoff resumé is a little thin. Portland coach-GM Mike Johnson addressed the latter Tuesday, trading two players and two high draft choices for Vancouver Giants captain Craig Cunningham (pictured), an overage scorer who was part of eliminating Portland in the second round last season. Cunningham went on to post 24 points in 16 post-season games, on top of his 97 in the regular season).
"To be a leader in Vancouver you have to a big guy and he [Cunningham] is definitely one of the bigger guys up there," Niederreiter, who wears the captain's C himself for Switzerland, said following the 4-0 Swiss loss to Finland at the world junior championship. "We definitely need his experience in the playoffs. We don't have many guys with that so we definitely need him."
Come January, the Winterhawks will have Cunningham alongside a world junior-toughened No. 1 centre Ryan Johansen and Niederreiter on the right wing. To understate it for dramatic effect, Cunningham, a Boston Bruins prospect who ended up being an overager since the NHL club could only offer him an AHL contract, has a good chance at playing in his second MasterCard Memorial Cup. Cunningham was a rookie on the Giants' 2007 championship team, so there's deep ties to the franchise.
"He's a tremendous player," Johansen said. "He had a big role in knocking us off last year."
Johnson is not necessarily making a championship-or-bust move. Giving up a first-round pick in the 2011 bantam draft and a second-rounder in 2012, along with 18-year-old centre Teal Burns and overage left wing Spencer Bennett (12 goals this season in third- and fourth-line duty, is a heavy price.
"Those are two really good friends of mine on the team and it's going to be really hard to see them [Burns and Bennett] leave Portland," added Johansen, who had one point in each of Canada's first two games. "Hopefully, I will get the chance soon to see them as wish them the best of luck."
The Winterhawks can trade away a draft choice or two with the comfort of knowing Johnston and their director of hockey operations, Matt Bardsley, are pretty good at finding talent in the middle rounds. (Remember, Johansen was a seventh-rounder in 2007).
On the Giants' end, we can fairly say this confirms the inevitable. The Giants (.514 point percentage, seventh in the WHL's Western Conference) are in that handwriting-on-the-wall zone, thanks to one injury after another. From The Dub Hub:
"Giants' general manager Scott Bonner admitted Tuesday that it will be a busy week for the franchise.
" 'We needed to change a few things around and we still do,' said Bonner, who Tuesday morning sent his 20-year-old captain to the Portland Winterhawks for two forwards and two high bantam draft picks.
" 'For seven years we've been buyers and I think this year it gave us an opportunity to refill some of those picks and also bring in a couple of bigger bodies.
" 'We've had a weird year. With all the injuries, we've been able to make very few hockey decisions.' "
Cunningham's move also creates an opening in the Giants lineup for Team Slovakia centre Andrej Stastny, who is expected to join Vancouver in January.
Forward James Henry, 19, will now be Giants captain.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.