Charlottetown Islanders head coach Jim Hulton speaks to his players during practice earlier this season.
General manager Grant Sonier is trying to improve the Charlottetown Islanders while facing a big variable outside of his control.
It is the question fans, owners, players, coaches and others across the Island have wondered the past two months: Is Daniel Sprong coming back?
Only the Pittsburgh Penguins have the answer to that question and they could wait until their 39th game to make the final decision. If Sprong is on the roster when the team plays its 40th game on Jan. 6, Sprong becomes eligible for restricted free agency a year earlier than if he is sent back to junior.
The 18-year-old right-winger has two goals in 17 games this season while playing limited minutes. The team recently replaced its coach and is dealing with injuries.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League trade period opens Saturday and closes hours before the Pens' 40th game.
"We're trying to go into a trade period where we're building our hockey club to be better without knowing if the absolute best player on our team is back or not," Sonier said. "It's a really tough scenario for us."
It has created multiple paths for the team's brass to consider.
If the playoffs started Thursday the Islanders (13-18-2-1) would get the final spot and play the top team in the league.
"I know the fans are restless. I know the owners are restless. I know the players and coaches and the GM is restless," Sonier said. "We didn't expect to be where we are in the standings."
Some of the Islanders key players have not played as well as expected and injuries have hurt, including assistant captain Kameron Kielly missing the last 10 games, when the team went 2-8.
Sonier is searching for ways to boost the team's offence, regardless if it gets Sprong and Kielly back this season. The team has scored 95 goals, third fewest in the league.
"I believe we need another high-octane forward to keep up with the Joneses of the league and I would like to add . . . a quality experienced defenceman," he said.
The asking price right now is high, Sonier said, noting the Islanders do not have any deals finalized waiting to be announced when trade period opens Saturday.
Sonier said he's had calls about trading Sprong's rights and goalie Mason McDonald, who is away with Canada at the world junior hockey championship.
"I'm not interested in giving someone else a superstar," the general manager said of Sprong, and "I'm not actively trying to move Mason McDonald."
Sonier said the Islanders are not giving up on the season.
"Nobody in our organization is interested in another complete reload," he said. "We have to find a way to salvage this year and it can be more than salvaging this year if some good things can happen our way and it starts with Daniel."
He said most of the roster players are having better statistical seasons than last year and it has four 16-year-old players in the lineup. If they can get increased production from its key players, Sonier said, things could turn around in a hurry. He pointed to having about 10 one-goal losses this season.
"We're in all these games, but our margin for error right now is really small," he said.
The following is a look at some of the top 2016 draft picks the Charlottetown Islanders have that could be used in trades.
- The Islanders do not own their first-round pick. It was traded to Saint John for Oliver Cooper. The team does have Val-d'Or's pick from moving back in last year's first round.
- Charlottetown does not have a second-round pick. It was traded at last year's draft in order to move back into the second round and take goalie Matthew Welsh.
- Charlottetown has its own pick.
- Charlottetown traded its pick as part of the package for Kameron Kielly.