MINTEN MOVES ON, KELLER COMES HOME
By Marty Hastings
Fraser Minten took no time to pinpoint his favourite moment with the Kamloops Blazers, immediately giving the nod to Daylan Kuefler’s overtime winner against the Seattle Thunderbirds in Game 5 of the 2022 Western Conference final at Sandman Centre.
That he picked a team accomplishment and not an individual one will come as no surprise to his former teammates on Mark Recchi Way.
“It’s life-changing, what the Blazers did for me,” said Minten, the 19-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect who cracked the NHL club’s lineup for four games earlier this season.
“You never know if it’s going to be the last goodbye. That’s probably the most emotional part.”
Minten, named captain of the Blazers on Nov. 2, was traded to the Saskatoon Blades on Friday, Nov. 24, in exchange for 18-year-old centre Jordan Keller and three WHL Prospects Draft picks — first- and fourth-rounders in 2024 and a first-round pick in 2025.
“This is an organizational decision,” Blazers’ head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston said. “It’s not one person. We had a plan. We had certain assets. All of that doesn’t make it any easier when you have to move a player and person like Fraser. It wasn’t enjoyable. It was emotional. Fraser was aware [that he would be traded]. The timing was a little sooner than everybody expected.”
Interest in Minten ratcheted up quickly last week, when the Blazers engaged in serious discussions with three or four teams, only one of which was willing to part with a pair of first-round picks and a player Kamloops coveted — one who solidifies an age group (2005-born) and position of need (centre).
“When that player became potentially available, the deal speeds up a lot quicker,” Clouston said. “It was just a real great fit — as good a fit as we could actually look for.”
The Blazers parted with 10 draft picks in a trade with the Everett Silvertips to acquire NHL prospects Olen Zellweger and Ryan Hofer in January, a monumental deal that paved the way for their run at the 2023 Memorial Cup, which took place in Kamloops.
Cupboard restocking was inevitable — and it comes at a price.
“I knew it was going to happen. We discussed that,” said Minten, whose former club is in last place in Western Conference standings. “Anyone who understands the game knew it was going to happen, just based on how junior hockey works.
“It was a little bit of a shocker, with the timeline. I was not necessarily ready for it that soon, which made it a little bit more difficult.”
Minten’s younger brother, 17-year-old forward Bryce, grinded his way onto the Blazers’ roster in time for the 2023-2024 campaign to add sibling intrigue to the club’s complexion.
The Minten parents were planning to drive to Kamloops from Vancouver on Friday, a trek up the Coquihalla to catch both of their sons in action against the Giants at Sandman Centre.
That trip was pre-empted when Fraser was summoned to the rink on Friday morning and told of the trade. By Monday night, he was in Kennewick, Wash., preparing to play his second game for Saskatoon.
“Giving guys like Toledo [head equipment manager Colin Robinson] a goodbye hug, that’s really hard, too, the guys who put in the work behind the scenes and make everything happen and are just amazing human beings every day, that give everything without asking for anything in return,” said Minten, who had a goal and an assist in his Blades’ debut, a 5-4 overtime loss to the Winterhawks on Saturday in Portland.
“I had about an hour at the rink to say goodbye. I had about an hour to go home. I ate a grilled cheese and packed my bag and drove to Vancouver to get on a flight. It was a bit of a whirlwind, for sure.”
Minten, whom the Blazers snagged in Round 4 of the 2019 prospects draft, racked up 58 goals and 150 points in 151 games with the Blazers. The 6-foot-1, 194-pound left shot added eight goals and 20 points in 27 post-season contests.
The Leafs drafted the piano-playing Yaletown product in Round 2 of the 2022 NHL Draft.
“Everybody just really gave me a lot of confidence and really believed in me and that went a long way in my development,” said Minten, noting his mom’s status as an Air Canada employee will help the family with travel to Saskatoon. “I owe a ton to the organization.”
While Minten made his Tournament Capital exit on Friday, Keller was making a homecoming, of sorts.
He grew up in Japan, where his father, Aaron, played and coached hockey professionally, but moved to Kamloops for the start of his teenage years and billeted in Abbotsford while toiling for Yale Hockey Academy.
Aaron won a pair of Memorial Cups while patrolling the blue line for the Blazers in the 1990s and is now the club’s director of player personnel.
Keller was preparing to play for Saskatoon against the hometown Seattle Thunderbirds on Friday and his grandparents, Valleyview residents, were down south for the game, following the Blades on their U.S. Division road trip.
Grandma and grandpa’s itinerary changed on Friday morning when the deal was announced.
They gave Keller a ride to Kamloops and arrived in time for him to make his Blazers’ debut in a 6-3 triumph over the Giants.
“It turned out pretty good. We got the win. It’s pretty awesome,” said Keller, who registered an assist in the victory. “I’ve been told I’m definitely going to get more opportunity here, so I’ve just got to make the most of it and do my best with whatever chance I get.”
Veteran-laden Saskatoon is taking aim at the league title this year. Depth up front ate into Keller’s ice time, with the 5-foot-11, 161-pound left shot logging about 13 minutes to 15 minutes per game.
Keller, who recorded five goals and eight points in 23 games with the Blades this season, played an average of about 23.5 minutes in two games last weekend with the Blazers and had two assists.
“For us, we weren’t really concerned with what other teams decide the value is of different players,” Clouston said when asked about the decision to make the trade in November rather than closer to the January trade deadline. “Saskatoon really liked this player. We really liked their player and picks.”
At the start of the season, the Blazers were slated to pick twice in the first five rounds of the 2024 prospects draft, with selections to be made in Round 2 and Round 3.
The club has maneuvered to collect five picks in the first four rounds — one in the first, second and fourth rounds, and two in Round 3.
Kamloops continued life without Fraser with a 4-3 overtime loss against visiting Everett on Saturday, when the club recovered from three one-goal deficits to force an extra session.
“In one sense, nothing changes,” Clouston said when asked how he framed the trade while addressing the team. “We want to max out our potential as individuals and as a team. We were down a couple times to Everett and kept fighting. To me, that’s what life’s about.
“We don’t expect the players to adjust anything based on where we’re at in the standings right now.”
The hometown Victoria Royals topped the Blazers 6-1 on Tuesday. The rematch is scheduled for Wednesday on Vancouver Island.
Tallying back-to-back hat-tricks against the Kelowna Rockets last season and relishing the Memorial Cup experience earlier this year round out Minten’s top-three list of moments with the Blazers.
Falling short of league and national titles sticks in his craw, but he has no regrets.
“It was probably one of the best places to play in Canada on a nightly basis,” Minten said of the national championship tournament on home ice. “I can honestly say I did everything I could in the playoffs in those moments to try to achieve those goals, so I don’t think that leaves too much room for regret.”
His short tenure — seven games — as team captain might land him on the back of a hockey trivia card at some point down the road, but there is nothing trivial about Minten’s contribution to the Blazers.
“It was hard,” Clouston told Jon Keen of Radio NL shortly after news of the trade was announced. “It was sincerely the hardest conversation regarding a player move that I’ve had to deal with. He means that much to the group, with the qualities he possesses and puts out there for everyone to see on a daily basis. They’re unparalleled.”