Graham Sward, Matthew Savoie, and Conor Geekie celebrate a goal on the ice.

(Photo: Russ Alman)

On January 4, 2024, the Wenatchee Wild announced three trades: Conor Geekie to the Swift Current Broncos, Matthew Savoie to the Moose Jaw Warriors, and Ashton Cumby to the Seattle Thunderbirds. With these players being such a critical part of the Wild’s identity and place in the standings, many Western Hockey League fans are asking: why get rid of them?

What’s important to look at is what the Wild received in return for these three players. Twelve draft picks and three players are currently headed to Wenatchee, for a total of fifteen assets. Before Thursday’s trades, the Wild’s earliest pick was a fifth-round in 2024, and in the coming years, they didn’t have a first- or second-round pick until 2027. Additionally, the Winnipeg ICE, (before they were the Wild) didn’t have first- or second-round picks in either of the last two seasons.

“Balancing this year, we knew we’d be pretty decent, we knew that,” Wenatchee Wild General Manager Bliss Littler said. “But if we do nothing, we’re looking at five to seven years before we can have a decent team. It takes three years before a draft pick becomes a pretty good player for us. We don’t have any now, so we would be six or so years without a first-round pick. And the writing was on the wall was that we were looking at seven to ten wins [per season] for five to seven years. To me that’s something I couldn’t ask our fanbase to be put through.” Why the Wild had so few picks becomes clear once the ICE’s history is taken into consideration. 

The Wenatchee Wild’s owners, David and Lisa White, purchased the Winnipeg ICE on June 16, 2023, relocating the team to central Washington. Before that, the team played in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where they came in first place during the 2022-23 regular season and fell just short of winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup in the playoffs that same year. They made it that far with a star-studded roster, with names like Geekie and Savoie leading the way. In preparation for a deep playoff run, the Winnipeg ICE built their impressive roster by sacrificing future draft picks in exchange for good players who would immediately help the team. As Austin Draude of the Wenatchee Wild puts it, “when teams get close to a championship, it is not uncommon to sacrifice a little of the future for the chance to make that championship run.” For example, in acquiring Zack Ostapchuk last season, the ICE sent the Vancouver Giants four younger players and a total of three first-round picks (2024, 2025, 2026) and one fifth-round pick (2024). 

When the team came over to Wenatchee, they had a stellar roster. As of early January 2024, that team—with the expected shifts and changes brought by transitioning into a new season—led the Wenatchee Wild to first in the US Division and second in the Western Conference.

It’s clear the team’s goal is to acquire valuable draft picks to prepare for the future. But why are they so important? How does this ensure the future success of a team? The answer’s simple: the higher a prospect is drafted, the more potential a team sees in them, and the much higher that player’s chances of making a heavy impact on the team are. As Draude explains, “[Of] the league’s top 50 scorers, 41 were selected in the WHL Prospects Draft—more than half of those 41 players were taken in the first round and two-thirds were taken in the first two rounds. […] This simply means once again that in order to consistently have competitive talent on the Wild roster, having high-round draft picks is a necessity.”

As the General Manager of the team, it’s Bliss Littler’s responsibility to plan carefully to ensure he sets the team up for success, both this season and in future ones. Even though the Wild gave up three talented players, they now have the chance to bring in new talent and build a successful team in the years that follow. “[The Wild] has done so much winning here in the past,” Littler said. “When you have no draft picks, can you imagine finishing last and watching Spokane and Vancouver use your draft pick in the lottery? That would be extremely tough. It should make us competitive for the next few years until these draft picks that we have now get through the process and become really good players for us. I think we’ll surprise people. I think we’re going to be better than most people think.” 

The blockbuster trades on Thursday were Savoie and Geekie’s, as they were the two biggest names on the Wild’s roster and the Wild received several assets in return. When it comes to Ashton Cumby’s trade, however, the Wild only gained one sixth-round pick in 2024. The defenseman’s move to Seattle was in part due to the Wild’s need for as many draft picks as they could gather, but also because of the players acquired in the Geekie deal. Two defensemen, Sam Ward and Josh Fluker are coming to Wenatchee from Swift Current. “It’s hard to play with nine [defensemen],” Littler explained. “And Cumby was worth the pick. He wanted [Seattle] and we have guys who play the same role here in Wenatchee.” 

(Photo: Russ Alman)

With Savoie and Geekie gone, that leaves the Wild with six 2004-born players: Evan Friesen, Gabe Ludwig, Rodzers Bukarts, Steven Arp, Kenta Isogai, and Daniel Hauser. With the league’s overager rule (a maximum of three twenty-year-olds per team), the team will have to trim down next season. Right now, however, their priority is developing the players on their current roster, and gunning for a lengthy playoff run. 

Q&A with Bliss Littler:

Gabe Neumann: Now that the team’s star players are gone, who do you see stepping up to fill their shoes?

Bliss Littler: Kenta [Isogai] has been one of our best players all year. Woody [Briley Wood] has been solid all year long and we’ll be asking him to do a little bit more. And [Evan] Friesen. Those three guys will lead us up front. We have six or seven guys who are ready to pop and become really good players in this league. And I think that we have one of the best goaltenders in the league [in Daniel Hauser] who will always give us a chance.

GN: What has been your general consensus or opinion on the team in the first half of the season?

BL: I think we’ve played pretty well. I think we’ve been a little inconsistent early on, we tend to struggle a little in the first period, but we’re lights out the second and real good the third. We’ve been able to score goals, we can do that, but we have to become better defensively.

GN: With the current roster, do you think the team will make the playoffs and have a deep run?

BL: I’m going to be very disappointed if we don’t make the playoffs. I feel that with the group of players that are here, home ice definitely still should be a goal. I think we still have a good team. I think we’re deeper than a lot of teams in the conference right now. With the group we have here, I think we still have a chance with that.

GN: Do you anticipate any more moves involving the Wild before the trade deadline?

BL: If a team blows us away [with an offer], we’ll definitely consider whatever that is, but we’re pretty happy with where we’re at right now.

In short, the Wenatchee Wild did not have enough draft picks to ensure a successful future for the team. To remedy this, the Wenatchee Wild sent Matthew Savoie and Conor Geekie, and later Ashton Cumby to three different teams in exchange for a high number of picks and three new players. The current roster is composed of talented players with heaps of potential who are striving for a triumphant end of their season, and looking ahead to more great seasons down the line.