The Seattle Thunderbirds season ended earlier than hoped with a Game 6 loss to the rival Portland Winterhawks in the first round of the playoffs, but despite the early exit the season can be considered a success. They were a very young team that was tested a great deal, responded to the challenge, and will be even better prepared for a long run next year.
For T-Birds general manager Russ Farwell, it’s tough to say whether or not this team met his expectations, though, as there were so many changes that prevented them from ever having a healthy roster.
“We ended up with a very different team than what we started out with,” Farwell said. “The issue with (Justin) Hickman was a very significant change in how we were made up and how we operated. We never got our full team on the ice at the same time.”
Team captain Hickman was averaging nearly a point per game when he decided to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery, and he was a major loss for a number of reasons. Not only was his production and leadership missed, but it also forced a number of other players to be placed into more demanding roles, including Keegan Kolesar, who was one of the few true power forwards on the roster following Hickman’s departure.
“The injury thrust Kolesar into that role, and even though he was already doing it, it may have hurt him a bit since all of the sudden he was doing it all by himself,” Farwell said.
It put much more pressure on the 17-year-old Kolesar to play that part for the team, and made it even more difficult for the Thunderbirds to be successful at the end of the season when he too was lost with a broken arm.
The loss of Hickman was just one example of the great deal of adversity that this team faced, from injuries to retirements to players missing time for international tournaments. Regardless, the brief playoff series and the tests over the past eight months provided invaluable experience for the young team.
“It gives the young guys a taste and a feel and an appetite,” Farwell said of the postseason experience. “I think you need that experience to be able to take the next step. We had so many changes through the year that it became one of those things where we were forced to react and react and react.”
It may not have been planned, but with players like Hickman, Kolesar, Mathew Barzal, Alexander True and Shea Theodore all missing significant time with injury, many young players were given the unexpected opportunity to play valuable minutes.
Farwell talked at length about how a number of younger players initially slotted to play on the team’s third and fourth lines had the chance to play much larger roles. Some of those named included Lane Pederson, who got many of Barzal’s power play minutes, Donovan Neuls, who played every forward position, Ryan Gropp, a talented player in his own right who assumed a larger portion of the spotlight, and Kaden Elder and Nick Holowko, two fourth-line players for much of the season whose tenacity and play towards the end of the season has the team hopeful for their futures.
Last year when Seattle was eliminated from the playoff it was a much different situation as it was well-known that they’d need to be big sellers during the offseason in order to reduce their number of overage players. This year the Thunderbirds enter the offseason with a different mindset.
“We’re focused right now on the import draft,” Farwell said. “We want to add a player there. We’d like to get one more defenseman and we have a couple guys on our list we’d like to recruit.
“We’re not in the same position this year (as we were last season). We’ve got (Jared) Hauf and (Jerret) Smith and we anticipate both of them being back on defense.”
Hauf and Smith make up two of the team’s potential 20-year-olds next season, along with forward Cory Millette. It’s certainly possible moves could be made before training camp, especially in net, where the team enters with very limited experience.
“Goal is a different situation,” Farwell said of replacing Taran Kozun, who was a brick wall in net for the T-Birds for the past 1 1/2 seasons. “We signed (Ryan) Gilchrist, but whether him and (Logan) Flodell are ready to step in with where our team is at, that’s something we have to determine. Once the playoffs are done, teams will start sorting out their situations and we’ll stay abreast of what’s happening.”
Much of the turnover that’s occurring this offseason already has a replacement plan in place. On defense, Theodore and Wardley will be leaving, with last year’s seventh defenseman, Sahvan Khaira, and last year’s first-round bantam draft pick, Jarret Tyszka, ready to step in and pick up some of their minutes.
“Khaira was up and down (last season) with a couple of injuries, but he’ll benefit from the experience,” Farwell said of the 17-year-old blueliner. “I expect Tyszka to play on defense. It’s possible (fellow 16-year-old defenseman) Reece Harsch could play, but he’ll need to grow and add some strength.”
Up front it’s a bit of a different story. Hickman was replaced by 20-year-old Roberts Lipsbergs, who has also graduated from the league. Other than that, there aren’t many open spots among the forward ranks. There are a number of 16-year-olds who will be forced to compete for ice time, which is always a good problem to have.
“We don’t have a lot of open spots up front,” Farwell said. “(Matthew) Wedman had a good year and practiced with us at the end of the season, so he’ll be a candidate. Wyatt Bear will be a candidate. Then there’s (Baker) Shore, and we’ll have to see where he’s at.”
One of the burning questions over the past two years has been the status of Dante Fabbro, an elite defensive prospect from British Columbia who was exceptional at T-Birds training camp as a 15-year-old. Fabbro spent the last year in the BCHL with the Penticton Vees and has said that he’d like to wait until his season is over before making an official decision.
Unfortunately with the nature of Major Junior hockey, the T-Birds don’t have the luxury of waiting for Fabbro to make a decision, though they’d surely open up a spot for him if he were to commit.
“(Fabbro) is going to take a while. I think he’s intrigued by playing, but I think the family has their hearts set on going the other way,” admitted Farwell. “At the end of the day that’s going to be hard for him to do. He has another year of high school to play and he’s going to really be stalled if he stays at that level. We’re just trying to work with that. No progress at this point and we have to operate, until we know, as though it’s not going to happen. We’re hopeful and working on it and would love to have him, but that’s all we know at this point.”
With or without Fabbro, the future is bright for the Thunderbirds. Valuable playoff experience has been gained by the current roster, everyone has played important minutes at some point, and the limited roster spots are being fought for by a number of talented prospects. The competition will surely be beneficial as it breeds a greater level of competition among those on the roster.