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PLAYING FIELD: Will Clarke, Wright reunite in Barrie?

There's lots of speculation since Kings sent Clarke back to Barrie for remainder of season

Colts defenceman Brandt Clarke is back in town with a gold medal dangling around his neck.

After Thursday’s dizzying high at the World Junior Hockey Championship, where Canada won its second consecutive gold medal, the junior hockey world’s gaze has now turned to where the winning captain will land by Tuesday.

Before then, the Colts host the Niagara IceDogs tonight. Puck drop is 7:30 p.m.

Speculation will be swirling at Sadlon Arena as to whether Shane Wright could soon reunite with his former Team Canada/Don Mills Flyers teammate in Barrie. Little more than a figment of internet speculation a month ago, the scenario became possible when news broke Friday afternoon that the Los Angeles Kings were sending Clarke back to Barrie for the rest of the season.

The Colts are one of two or three teams that remain interested in Wright and may have the required assets to pry him loose from the Kingston Frontenacs, to whom he was sent back a few hours before Clarke by the Seattle Kraken.

The cost will be significant. A source, communicating before Wright and Clarke were officially returned to junior hockey by their respective NHL clubs, said the price was “very high” for Wright.

Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek later tweeted the Frontenacs were seeking a high-end 2005- or 2006-born player, plus a basket of draft picks. It could require both a 16- and 17-year-old player, presumably if the bounty of picks is not to the Frontenacs’ satisfaction.

The Frontenacs are in an in-between year and want to hold back another season to load up for what they hope is a successful 2024 Memorial Cup bid.

Hypothetically speaking from the Colts’ perspective and using Marek’s scenario as a reference point, Barrie would likely have to part with at least one of Beau Akey, Cole Beaudoin and/or Kashawn Aitcheson, plus a bounty of picks roughly equal to what it ponied up to land Tyler Savard earlier this week.

Ouch. Not to be impolite, but at that price it better work out with a run to the league final. At least.

Which brings the conversation to another potential shifting scenario: Czech forward Eduard Sale.

The Colts own Sale’s rights. He started the season with Brno in his home country’s top men’s league and is a top prospect for the 2023 NHL Draft. Sale, who turns 18 in March, was part of the Czechia squad that lost a heartbreaker in overtime on Thursday night in Halifax. He played a significant role in the Czechs’ first goal to cue a comeback that fell short when Canada’s Dylan Guenther scored the overtime winner.

Clarke started the play with an astute pass up ice to Guenther; it was a different type of pass in the offensive zone, but Clarke also assisted on Connor Bedard’s epic overtime winner against Slovakia on Monday night.

The attraction of having both Clarke and Sale in a junior lineup is obvious. The question is whether it can be done given the significant hurdles that have to be cleared before Tuesday’s deadline.

The Colts still retain hope, however faint. Complicating the issue is Sale’s contract with Brno, the money it may require (and who would get the NHL development fees when he is inevitably picked in June) and Sale’s ability to play in the American Hockey League upon his selection, rather than being subjected to the normal age restriction placed on North American-based juniors such as Clarke and Wright.

What is clear is adding Sale at the same time as getting Clarke back would make the Colts the undisputed deadline winner in the OHL’s Eastern Conference without even making a trade, with respect to Wright (and Savard), of course.

Around the league, there are five teams in the Western Conference that have doubled down, highlighted by the defending conference champion Windsor Spitfires, London Knights and Sarnia Sting.

Aside from the Peterborough Petes, the situation is more nuanced in the Eastern Conference.

The Colts’ improved play of late has provided new direction despite the mixed signals after essentially being forced to deal disgruntled forward Hunter Haight, a former first-round pick, last month.

Haight’s trade and the potential of having to part with Akey and Beaudoin brings up an uncomfortable truth about the Colts: The team has a poor record with its first-round picks.

Whether it’s Ryan Strome, Brendan Perlini or Givani Smith, all originally selected by Barrie and later played in the NHL, or others such as Matthew Kreis, Jacob Tortora, Riley Piercey, Ryan Suzuki or Haight, too often, and for varying reasons and return, the Colts have bid farewell long before their junior careers were finished.

All eight of those players were first-round picks in the OHL Priority Selection.

Clarke, of course, is an exception. He was taken fourth overall four years ago. Akey and Beaudoin remain to provide a nice buffer between the desire to win now and keep assets for a rainy day.

How much Clarke’s final half-season in Barrie, after three years defined by pandemic cancellations and then restrictions, glimpses of offensive brilliance and bad luck with injuries, can write a new chapter remains to be seen.

Exactly who’ll accompany Clarke on that journey is still to be decided.

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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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