KENT, Wash. - With the Western Hockey League's Tuesday trade deadline quickly approaching, one of the most attractive names churning through the league's rumour mill is Seattle Thunderbirds goaltender Calvin Pickard.
Though positioned to make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, the Thunderbirds are still a sub-.500 team. Pickard, a 19-year-old Winnipeg native, is likely headed to the American Hockey League next year, and could be a difference-maker as a half-season rental for a contending team.
A deal could bring Seattle general manager Russ Farwell a haul that could help his team prepare for life after Pickard, who's carried the often-overmatched Thunderbirds over the past three seasons.
But trading Pickard, who is fourth in the WHL with a .915 save percentage this season and also ranked fourth last year, could endanger the team's playoff chances this year under first-year coach Steve Knowalchuk, who's trying to turn around a losing culture.
Twitter rumours circulated last week that Pickard was headed to the Brandon Wheat Kings, but the speculation turned out to be false. Similar rumours stand to be the norm as the deadline approaches.
With a goals-against average north of 3.00 in each of his four WHL seasons and 82 wins in 210 career games, some of Pickard's raw numbers don't pop out to casual observers. But around the league, he has a reputation of being one of the few netminders who can routinely steal games against superior opponents.
Playing for a U.S.-based CHL team that has struggled on the ice makes building a public profile a tough proposition, though scouts and observers around in the WHL consistently mention Pickard as arguably the best goaltender in the league.
That made it all the more curious that Pickard didn't even earn an invitation to Canada's world junior selection camp in December, after attending last season as an 18-year-old. With Don Hay, whose Vancouver Giants face Pickard four times a year, at the helm of the Canadian team, most assumed Pickard's invite was a no-brainer.
But when the list of invitees came out, the only WHL netminder included was Medicine Hat's Tyler Bunz, who didn't make the final roster for the bronze medallists.
"I didn't get off to the start I wanted this year," said Pickard, who tweeted his support to those players who were invited upon hearing the news. "I got going right before the invites went out, but it was too late.
"There were only four spots in the camp, and I was probably fifth or sixth, so it was tough luck."
Hay also coached a team of WHL all-stars in the Subway Super Series against Russia, and started Pickard in each of the two exhibitions. Pickard was outstanding in a 5-2 win over the Russians, but dismal in a 7-5 loss the second night.
Not one to sulk, Pickard responded to his snub by compiling a .931 save percentage in December and posting shutouts against Moose Jaw and Hay's Vancouver squad.
The Colorado Avalanche made Pickard the 49th overall selection ??? and third goaltender picked ??? in the 2010 NHL draft. The first two goalies, Jack Campbell and Mark Visentin, played key roles in the world junior tournament the last two years for the U.S. and Canada, respectively.
To say that Pickard's the busiest goaltender in the league is an understatement. He's the only netminder to make 2,000 saves in a WHL season since 1998-99, and he's done it two years in a row. His 2,443 stops last year were nearly 500 more than the next name on the list.
Despite the heavy workload ??? he's faced at least 35 shots 64 times in the 101 appearances he's made since the start of the 2010-11 season ??? Pickard has been one of the toughest in the league to beat.
One might expect a teenager to eventually wear down under such pressure, but Pickard thrives on it while maintaining a light-hearted attitude. He jokes publicly with teammates and opposing players on Twitter and posts encouraging thoughts even after heart-wrenching losses. Prior to a recent game against the Portland Winterhawks, he slyly implored his rivals to put "everything in the chest."
"I'm a happy, positive, fun guy who likes to crack jokes," Pickard said. "I think that's the way to go about life. There's time to be serious, but the happy-go-lucky guy is who I want to be."
As for the trade talk, Pickard says he does his best to stay out of it, though he acknowledges that it's on his mind.
"I know what date it is," he said. "It's out of my control, I'm not the one getting the phone calls so I have to let the GM take care of that stuff."
For what it's worth, Pickard says he'd like one more chance to bring some winning momentum to the Thunderbirds, a franchise that has never won a WHL championship in 34 years in Seattle. The club sits sixth in the Western Conference in terms of winning percentage, five points ahead of ninth-place Prince George.
At 16-19-0-1, the Thunderbirds are improved over the last two seasons but still aren't likely to be able to put together a deep post-season run even with Pickard between the pipes.
"We're trying to build an identity," said Pickard. "There's a losing mentality that lingers and it's easy sometimes for our guys to fold.
"It's hard work to win and we have to get used to that. I want to win for the fans (in Seattle) and this might be my last chance in this league so I want to go out on a good note."