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Is Niagara IceDogs retaining Ryan Strome, Brett Ritchie actually a defensible decision?

Ryan Strome is one of two juniors headed to the New York Islanders camp (OHL Images)

Whether the Niagara IceDogs truly messed up by not moving their three on-the-NHL-bubble stars is all in how you ask the question.

How an OHL team would carry on under normal circumstances should be struck from the discussion. Normal does not apply at a time when major junior players are spending 40 hours schlepping back from the world junior championship, putting in an appearance or two with their junior team and jetting (or Jetting, in Mark Scheifele's case) off to a condensed NHL training camp.

The IceDogs under co-owners Bill Burke and Denise Burke have not typically been the selling kind. By many rationales, it's a missed opportunity to have not traded either defenceman Dougie Hamilton, wing Brett Ritchie or centre Ryan Strome, who are respectively bidding to make their NHL debuts with the Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars and New York Islanders. One argument — and it's a reach argument, admittedly — is, were they really Niagara's to trade in the first place?

Obviously, junior clubs have autonomy over whether to trade a NHL prospect, although the big-league organizations like to have some input (as the Ottawa Senators did with Cody Ceci's move from the Ottawa 67's to the Owen Sound Attack). The IceDogs chose not to exercise its; under owners Bill Burke and Denise Burke, the St. Catharines, Ont., franchise has typically never been big on selling. The way coach-GM Marty Williamson explained it to St. Catharines Standard sports editor Bernie Puchalski — "We made a decision unless we were getting full value for Ritchie and Strome, we weren’t going to move them for a couple picks and let someone else win a championship with our guys” — says this was a company decision.

The reality of it is the OHL trade market was very tight this season. It was bereft of break-the-bank offers, much like 2010-11 when Windsor Spitfires GM Warren Rychel held on to 19-year-olds Ryan Ellis and Zack Kassian. The Ottawa 67's actually had to include a draft pick with Cody Ceci when they moved the star defenceman to the Owen Sound Attack.

The lockout and the league's decision to maintain the Jan. 10 trade deadline also played into it.

Then there's the hypothetical.

One reason Dougie Hamilton was not mentioned is obvious; he's expected to be in the Bruins' opening night lineup. That segues into the main point. Throughout the NHL lockout, high draft picks under the age of 20 with legit aspirations of playing in The Show were considered junior hockey players. However, Garden City Three's teammate on Team Canada, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, was never considered a junior despite being the same age. He was a locked-out NHLer due to a full season's service with the Edmonton Oilers.

There is no way to make it stick that Hamilton, or Strome, or Ritchie, or Jonathan Huberdeau, or Boone Jenner, or Morgan Rielly, okay you get the drift, is in the same boat as RNH. They did not miss any paycheques due to the lockout. However, any teenager who does make a NHL team this year will have essentially done so retroactively.

Anyone who goes up to stay for the season was not really a junior hockey player. He was a National Hockey League player who was kept from being one due to circumstances well beyond his control. Hamilton, Ritchie, Strome, et al., were kept in major junior due to the NHL-CHL agreement being honoured during the lockout, rather than being allowed to play in the AHL like Nugent-Hopkins did.

Whether the IceDogs really blew it depends on what happens with the Garden City Three. Hamilton is believed to have the strongest chance of sticking, followed by Strome and then Ritchie. Strome's case for wearing Islanders blue and orange might be stronger than originally perceived.

From B.D. Gallof:

The Islanders’ development camp perception was that Strome needed another year before being NHL ready. His professional career, however, might begin sooner. His play in the OHL, where he was described as “a man among boys,” has progressed so much that he will get a serious opportunity. Without Strome, Frans Nielsen is on paper the second line center, but everyone knows that he is far more suited to be a two-way third line anchor.

The problem is that Strome must show the Islanders that he belongs on the top two lines to make the NHL roster. He is not the type of player you let languish on a third or fourth line.

those same sources that were in awe of his play in the OHL, said Strome does have a very good shot to make the team, along with Niño Niederreiter.

Why?

“They are already in game shape. A compressed season will be very hard on vets,” a source told me. (WFAN.com)

In other words, the IceDogs might not have lost anything with their plan of inaction. Williamson and the Burkes are in the same place they would have been if Hamilton and Strome had made the NHL in October. That's a fact of life in junior hockey. Players are there to develop and sometimes do so before their team can harvest their remaining time in the league for younger players and draft picks.

The decision might come back to haunt the IceDogs, but Williamson's other two trades at least ensured Niagara of picking in both the first and second rounds of this spring's OHL priority selection draft. At least there's that. There's also a tendency to treat every second-round draft pick that changes hands like a promissory note, but it's still incumbent on every team to find later-round rough diamonds that a coaching staff can polish into gems.

It's also possible that, having been a conference final and league final in successive seasons, the IceDogs wished to keep providing the paying public a viable playoff team rather than force it to go cold turkey after a full fire sale. It's complicated, but there's some place for a case this will not be totally disastrous for the 'Dogs. And who knows, maybe all three find their way back and Niagara banks an extra round's worth of playoff revenue.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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