Thunderbirds preseason preview: What to watch for
Training camp is in the books for the Thunderbirds, and while some questions were answered, it seems like even more emerged. The roster has been trimmed for the preseason, which begins on Friday, although an exact list of names has yet to be made public.
Heading into the Everett tournament this weekend, here are a few storylines to keep an eye on:
Are Barzal, Gropp, and Hickman ready to join the league’s elite?
All three players looked outstanding in training camp. Mathew Barzal’s upper-echelon abilities – including his incredible vision – have been there, but his confidence appeared to be on another level during camp. He toyed with his opponents, often gaining control of the puck against the boards with two defenders converging and still somehow coming away with control, always with his head up looking for the open pass. He appears poised for a huge year and the preseason will provide our first glimpse of a 17-year-old Barzal against real competition.
Ryan Gropp and Justin Hickman will fill out the top line, which is clearly established for the first time in years. Hickman provides a physical presence that can win the puck battles in the corners, while Gropp has a knack for finding spaces in the defense and uses his great speed to get to those openings. As this would be the second year the line is together, the chemistry between the three would also give them a big advantage.
All three are expecting big jumps in their point production this year, but how will they fare against the opposition’s top checking line every night? Last season, other coaches would sometimes play their best defenders against the line of Alex Delnov, Roberts Lipsbergs, and Branden Troock, all three of whom are gone this year. That won’t be the case this season, as Barzal, Gropp, and Hickman are sure to draw the toughest competition night in and night out.
Which overagers will stick around?
It’s been the story all offseason, and the only certainty we have is that Jaimen Yakubowski – who was traded to Moose Jaw – won’t be returning. It also appears that Connor Honey’s time is finished in Seattle, as he was not in attendance for training camp.
Still left are Hickman, Sam McKechnie, Evan Wardley, Adam Henry, and Taran Kozun. Hickman, Wardley, and Kozun all will be attending NHL camps, so it’s possible that any decisions surrounding the 20-year-olds will wait until they return to avoid the team being shorthanded for any length of time.
Each has made a case to return, but only three can. Both the forward and defense groups have experience coupled with young talent, but the forwards lack the same amount of seniority with zero 19-year-olds, while the defense has three.
Will Eansor provide a bigger scoring punch this season?
Last season, shutdown center Scott Eansor had just three goals in 52 regular-season games as he spent most of his time trying to keep the opposition’s top scorers out of the box score. He was extremely effective in that role and will be asked to play it again this year.
However, Eansor also had four goals in just nine playoff games, which tied him for the team lead. He’s indicated that he would like to provide more of an offensive spark this season, and his elite speed should help him do just that. During training camp, he looked more focused offensively despite spending most of his shifts hassling Barzal and company.
Can Eansor be a bigger offensive contributor while still doing what he does best, or will he sacrifice some of his defensive effectiveness in an effort to put more points on the board?
How will Seattle fill out the bottom six forwards?
We know Barzal, Gropp, and Hickman will be filling out the top line. Imports Alexander True and Florian Baltram will have spots, as will incumbents Eansor and Keegan Kolesar. Lane Pederson – who was back-and-forth between the T-Birds and his Midget team last year – appears to be a lock to make the roster, and McKechnie will have a spot should he make the 20-year-old cut.
If McKechnie does stay, it’s almost certain that he and Eansor would team up to provide two-thirds of the checking line, but who would play the essential third piece? Kolesar and Pederson got looks in camp, but both may be counted on to do more scoring than this role would allow them.
Overall, that’s nine forwards for 12 everyday spots, and one extra who will hang around in case of injury. Top candidates to fill out the bottom line appear to be 16-year-olds Kaden Elder and Nolan Volcan and 17-year-olds Donovan Neuls and the newly-signed duo of Luke Osterman and Nick Holowko.
Elder and Volcan would be required to play at least 40 games, so if both stick around, which appears to be likely, they’ll snag two of those three spots for a majority of games. Neuls, Osterman, and Holowko will likely rotate with the two 16-year-olds on the bottom line to ensure each gets a decent amount of playing time. But will they get enough? Michal Holub was an up-and-coming 17-year-old last season who would have been a great fit on this year’s team, but a lack of playing time ultimately led to him being traded.
How about the third defensive pairing?
Shea Theodore, Jerret Smith, Jared Hauf, and Ethan Bear look like locks to be returning. Sahvan Khaira, 16, is young but ready for full-time WHL duties.
That leaves just one spot open for Wardley, Henry, and 18-year-old Kevin Wolf. It doesn’t seem likely that the team keeps both 20s, but it’s certainly possible if Seattle finds a good trade partner for Hauf or Smith. Wolf has spent the past two seasons as the T-Birds’ seventh defenseman, a role he may not want to play again as he enters his third season of eligibility.
Khaira, at 16, would need to play at least 40 games barring injury. They could work out a rotation between him and Wolf, keeping one of Henry or Wardley around. Or they could make a trade of a 19-year-old and keep both overagers, which would throw everyone for a loop.
Who will be the two goalies?
Everyone knows the impact Kozun had when he was acquired minutes before the trade deadline last season. Before he came around, Danny Mumaugh had assumed the role as the top guy. Logan Flodell, now 17, appears to be the goalie of the future.
One question will revolve around Mumaugh and whether or not he, as an 18-year-old, will want to spend another year as a backup. He showed at times last year that he had the ability to be a No. 1 goalie, but that won’t be the case if Kozun sticks around.
It doesn’t seem likely that Flodell will be traded, as he looks ready to take over full-time next season and could then potentially be manning the crease for three full years. He may not be ready to start full-time this season, but should he be the primary backup to Kozun or Mumaugh?
If Kozun is traded, it has the added benefit of opening up another overage spot for a forward or defenseman, which the team could certainly benefit from. But can they afford to trade someone who had such a huge impact down the stretch last year? And if Mumaugh and Flodell are both kept, does the latter back up the former for two years and potentially not start until his overage season?
What will the rest of the U.S. Division look like?
Seattle invited 44 players to training camp, just under the league average of 45.32 (according to Alan Caldwell’s Small Thoughts at Large blog). Everett and Spokane were both far below with 30 and 33 invitees, respectively. Tri-City was close, with 40, while Portland had a whopping 78 players attend.
Everett and Spokane look like they’ll be taking a step back this year, while Tri-City hasn’t done much to improve a team that finished last in the division. Portland is the biggest question mark here as the Winterhawks be losing a lot of talent but returning a number of high-powered offensive weapons. Such a huge training camp turnout could indicate that their roster is in a bit of flux right now, or they may just be trying to keep prospects away from other teams’ camps. It remains to be seen what new head coach/general manager Jamie Kompon’s team will look like, but I would guess that the Winterhawks will be taking a small step back this year, which could open the door for a big season for Seattle.