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Ryan Gropp unexpectedly returned to Thunderbirds

Ryan Gropp led the Thunderbirds with 34 goals last season (T-Birds photo)

In a shocking move, the New York Rangers have returned Ryan Gropp to the Thunderbirds.

Gropp was a second round pick by the Rangers in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the same draft that saw Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders), Keegan Kolesar (Columbus Blue Jackets) and Ethan Bear (Edmonton Oilers) also selected.

Gropp, who has a late birthday, is the only one of the four who would have been eligible to play in the AHL this season as he has already turned 20 years old. After signing his entry-level contract last New Year’s Eve, it was widely assumed that the Rangers were very high on Gropp and would want to get him into their development system as quickly as possible.

However, in an unexpected turn of events, Gropp will return to the Thunderbirds as the Rangers apparently did not feel he was quite ready for the AHL roster and likely didn’t want to bury him in the ECHL.

It’s welcome news for the Thunderbirds as they’ll be getting back their leading goal-scorer from their 2015-16 Western Conference championship team. However, it presents a new problem as Seattle now has four overage players.

Shortly before the season began, Seattle had only two of their 20-year-old spots occupied with returnees Scott Eansor and Cavin Leth. With one overage spot open, they invested heavily in goaltender Rylan Toth, trading away 19-year-old Logan Flodell, who many expected to be the starter.

There are essentially two directions Seattle could go at this point. Either they make room for Gropp by trading one of the current 20-year-olds, or they continue on the path they already created and trade Gropp’s rights elsewhere.

The latter seems unlikely as Gropp has been a cornerstone of this franchise for the past three years and was instrumental in Seattle’s turnaround. Additionally, when compared to both Eansor and Leth, Gropp’s offensive ceiling is much higher.

At this point, it seems Seattle would be more likely to trade one of their current overagers. Eansor was named captain just before the season started and is currently the T-Birds’ top center, so moving him seems unlikely. After Seattle traded Flodell and his backup, Ryan Gilchrist, to make room for Toth, it’s hard to believe that they’d want to trade him and hand the reins to 16-year-old Carl Stankowski, who has played in just two WHL games.

That leaves Leth, who came over as a 19-year-old at the trade deadline last season and played well enough to earn himself a spot on the team this year, as the likely odd man out. However, he’s already asserted himself as a leader on the team and parting ways with him would not be easy.

While it’s ultimately good news for the Thunderbirds to bring back one of the WHL’s best offensive players, it creates a whole new headache for Russ Farwell and the Seattle front office. Whoever they end up trading, it will be difficult for them to get full value as every team in the league is now aware that Seattle has to make a move.

For Gropp, it’s a huge surprise. The Rangers made it clear how high they were on him by signing him just six months after they traded up to draft him. It now appears he’ll get one more year of seasoning at the Major Junior level and will have another shot at the AHL next year.