Buzzing The Net - Junior Hockey

Niagara IceDogs ‘beat the rush’ by moving Jesse Graham to Saginaw Spirit

A year after holding on to his veteran assets, Niagara IceDogs coach-GM Marty Williamson moved fast.

Supply is elastic, so not every veteran defender on a 'seller' team is going to be available at once. That is why the IceDogs, who are committed to a full-scale rebuild, made their big move last week by trading captain Jesse Graham to the Saginaw Spirit. Williamson got a good return for the 19-year-old New York Islanders fifth-rounder: two guaranteed second-rounders, a third. The Spirit also owe Niagara a 2018 second-round pick if Graham, an undersized puck-moving defenceman who's unsigned by the Islanders, plays as an overage.

"Most of the time, the talk really heats up at the first week of December," Williamson said. "We kind of wanted to beat the rush, to some extent. [The Windsor Spitfires' Nick] Ebert and [Slater] Koekkoek, Trevor Carrick in Mississauga, there's going to be some defenceman who come on the market. We wanted to get our deal done. There were teams who wanted to get it done early. We were pretty focused on where we wanted this team to go, the direction we're going in. They paid a bit of premium to get it done early."

The NHL lockout put Niagara in no-man's land 12 months ago. The IceDogs, coming off an Eastern Conference title in 2012, needed to replenish. However, there was no telling if their 19-year-old Team Canada trio of Dougie Hamilton, Brett Ritchie and Ryan Strome would remain in junior once the NHL belatedly began. The lockout's end coincided with the deadline and the OHL also had more of a bear market during a pre-Memorial Cup year, so Niagara ultimately kept all three. Hamilton did move up to the Boston Bruins, while Ritchie and Strome played out their junior string.

The IceDogs faced a rebuild this season, regardless. Williamson has amassed a passel of young defencemen, with the 17-year-old quartet of sophomore Aaron Haydon and rookies Vince Dunn, Aleksandar Mikulovich and Blake Siebenaler. Dunn, who just turned 17 on Oct. 29, pulled down about 25 minutes of ice time last Saturday in his Peterborough during the team's first Graham-less game.

Those are minutes that Graham normally would have taken on. Now they'll get distributed to the young nucleus, which also includes 16-year-old second-rounder Zach Wilkie, who's only suited up five times due to the numbers game.

"We were carrying eight defence and Jesse was taking up 25-30 minutes of ice," Williamson said. "As a coach, when I get on the bench I want to win hockey games and when I have Jesse on the bench, I'm going to play him. Now the 17-year-olds are going to play more.

"Our '96s need to play in all situations, they need to play power-play time to get ready for next year," Williamson adds. "Otherwise we're just spinning our wheels again."

Niagara (.308 point pct. through 26 games) and Belleville (.280 through 25) are early leaders, to so speak, in the first overall pick derby. The progress of their youngsters will bear watching. Dunn and Siebenaler, a converted forward, each have potential as offensive defencemen.

The first of the Saginaw seconds is in this spring's OHL priority selection. That could help Niagara land a player who can go directly from minor midget to major junior in September 2014, when the IceDogs are scheduled to move into the new Meridan Centre.

"Those two second-round picks are for holes that we need to fill," Williamson said. "Those are players that play in your league. You can get 7-8 years of service there if they both end up being four-year guys. With Jesse, our belief is he has a good chance of signing. If not, if he plays an overage year, there's another second. What I'm hearing from other GMs is we made out very well."

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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