In a trade that may have come as a surprise to many across the Western Hockey League, the Moose Jaw Warriors traded one of their leading scorers this season in a blockbuster deal on Thursday afternoon.
The Warriors sent 18-year-old Russian forward Nikita Popugaev to the Prince George Cougars in exchange for 17-year-old forward Justin Almeida, 18-year-old Russian forward Yan Khomenko, a 2017 fifth round pick in the WHL Bantam Draft and a 2018 second round pick.
“For our end, in terms of where our team is at, where we believe we can be now and in the future, the return of Khomenko, Almeida and draft picks just fit with what we’re building, how we want to play the game, a new opportunity for Popugaev that benefits him and gives a different look to our team,” said General Manager Alan Millar after the trade.
“We think we got deeper, we got a little bit more responsible, a little more validity in terms of our two-way game and we felt that was important moving forward.”
Popugaev had been a fan favourite in Moose Jaw since the Warriors selected him with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 CHL Import Draft.
The big Russian forward has put up a ton of points over his 110 games in the Western Hockey League, posting 16 goals and 47 points in 71 games as a rookie last season. He was tied for second on the Warriors in scoring this season with 22 goals and 51 points in 40 games.
“We appriecate what Nikita did for our team in the last year-and-a-half, he has a lot of upside, he’s a talented guy, but at the end of the day, our responsibility is to do what’s in the best interest of our hockey club, we understand that not everyone may understand the decisions we make, but we take these decisions seriously,” said Millar.
“There’s been a lot of discussion on this particular trade and at the end of the day, from the outside looking in, you might not see what we see, but we feel this gives us the opportunity to improve our hockey club now and in the future.”
The Warriors received a big return for the ninth-leading scoring in the WHL.
Almeida – five-foot-10, 162 lbs – was the fifth overall pick in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, one pick behind Warriors’ defenceman Josh Brook. He has four goals and 13 points in 37 games this season after posting two goals and six points in 48 games as a 16-year-old rookie.
The Kitimat, BC product was the BC Hockey Now Player of the Year in his draft year after posting 80 goals and 147 points in 70 games with the North Shore Winter Club.
“He’s a big part of the deal and a big part of our future and there’s a lot of things that we like about him, but in particular his hockey IQ is high, he’s a smart player and he’s very skilled,” said Millar.
Khomenko hails from St. Petersburg, Russia and is in his second WHL season after being taken in the second round of the CHL Import Draft by Everett in 2015.
The six-foot-one right winger has doubled his goal total from five to 10 this season and increased his point total from eight to 20 in ten less games.
“Good size, skates well, he’s one of those import players that struggled at 17, but is really getting his feet wet in the league and put up some good numbers playing behind some real good players in Prince George,” said Millar. “We think he’s an under the radar guy and compliments our team real well.”
Millar feels that both Almeida and Khomenko will get more opportunity to shine here in Moose Jaw as oppose to on an older Cougars team.
“Both Khomenko and Almeida were down on the depth chart in terms of a veteran team, they’ll play more and get a little bit different opportunity here,” said Millar. “Those guys will relish the opportunity and will do real well with it.
“We’re still a very young team, we only have four 19-year-olds on our roster, we add another 18-year-old, a 17-year-old and we bank some picks which will be real valuable this year and next.”
Both Almeida and Khomenko are expected to arrive in Moose Jaw on Thursday night and be in the lineup when the Warriors take on the Saskatoon Blades at Mosaic Place on Friday night.