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PLAYING FIELD: Colts brass have big decisions to make

Brandt Clarke remains in the pros with L.A., but will burn a year on his entry-level deal if he plays another game after tonight versus Toronto
Barrie Colts defenceman Brandt Clarke is shown in a file photo from last season.

Two ongoing issues playing out far away from the Sadlon Centre will determine what type of team the Barrie Colts will have as the calendar turns to November and beyond.

The first is the status of defenceman Brandt Clarke. He's expected to suit up in his ninth NHL game with the Los Angeles Kings tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Thirty minutes later, the Colts will host the Kingston Frontenacs.

If Clarke plays another game after tonight’s Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, it will burn a year off his entry-level contract with the Kings. That threshold is often what NHL clubs use when sending junior players back to their amateur clubs.

Having an elite junior defenceman return to any team is significant, but especially so for the Colts, who are thin on the blue-line in any case, but more so with recent injuries.

With Clarke unavailable, the Colts have since had to deal with both Artur Cholach (Vegas Golden Knights) and overager Ian Lemieux being injured. Though Beau Akey has looked good so far — and was recently assigned a B-grade rating by NHL Central Scouting — the effect of having three top blue-liners out is self-evident.

To that end, the Colts blew a four-goal lead at home Thursday night and eventually lost 6-5 in a shootout to the Owen Sound Attack.

Clarke’s situation is expected to become clearer in the coming days, but there's also no clarity on the status on Czech forward Eduard Sale. The Colts took him in last summer’s Import Draft and, on the surface, it was an astute pick. Sale has shot up the draft charts and he could be a top-10 pick at the NHL Draft in Nashville this summer.

Sale is playing for Brno in his country’s top men’s league and he’s a lock to play for Czechia at the World Juniors in Halifax and Moncton over the holiday season.

Sale could come to Barrie after that tournament, but drilling down on his situation does not reveal good news if you’re a Colts fan. A source connected with the at-times oddball business of international transfers recently said there was “no chance” Sale is coming to Canada “any time soon.”

The source, who consults with junior teams for the Import Draft, said Sale’s situation is straightforward: He has an ironclad contract with his club that would require significant dollars in order to be released. Worse yet, from the Colts’ perspective, Brno and its general manager are said not to be keen on letting him go, no matter the cost.

So, even if Colts owner Howie Campbell was willing to get out his chequebook, it may not matter.

Given the circumstances, the Colts will likely do well to get either Clarke or Sale into their lineup this season. Even then, it may not be any time soon. The Kings could hang onto Clarke with an eye on sending him to the World Juniors, burning a year on his contract but saving a year of service, a threshold that falls later in the season. (That mark determines how long a player remains under team control before unrestricted free agency.)

Going back more than a decade, the St. Louis Blues held onto Alex Pietrangelo for a half-season before sending him to the World Juniors and then returning him to junior with the Colts, who had traded for his rights.

Like it did for Pietrangelo in 2010, that would mean Clarke could still end up in Barrie, but not until the calendar flips to 2023.

Beyond Clarke and Sale, the Colts also need to figure out what they are going to do regarding overage players. Evan Vierling was sitting out as a healthy scratch because Lemieux was needed at the back end. Forwards Declan McDonnell and Ethan Cardwell occupied the first two overage spots, and Vierling has drawn into the third with Lemieux injured.

Keeping three forwards to fill all three overage spots each OHL team is allotted may be necessary given the lack of scoring punch elsewhere up front. But if Clarke stays in L.A. even temporarily, the Colts may be forced to keep Lemieux and trade/release Cardwell, McDonnell or Vierling.

Not an ideal scenario.

And, speaking of trades, if Clarke does return, it could be the difference between the Colts loading up ahead of the deadline or standing pat. It’s not as though the Colts have been dreadful this season, but the lineup, as currently constructed, is not the type of team built for a long playoff run.

And, by the time the 2023 post-season rolls around, it will have been five years since the Colts last won a playoff series.

With tonight’s Halloween game on tap, having another year pass without any post-season success is a scary thought to ponder.

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Peter Robinson

About the Author: Peter Robinson

Barrie's Peter Robinson is a sports columnist for BarrieToday. He is the author of Hope and Heartbreak in Toronto, his take on living with the disease of being a Leafs fan.
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