The Thunderbirds announced Tuesday afternoon that they have agreed to a three-year contract extension with head coach Steve Konowalchuk, keeping him in Seattle through the 2017-18 season.
Konowalchuk was hired prior to the 2011-12 season after a successful professional career and two years as an assistant to Joe Sakic in the Colorado Avalanche organization.
During his first season in Seattle, with a roster that had largely been put together by previous head coach Rob Sumner, Konowalchuk and the T-Birds struggled to a 25-45-0-2 record and missed the playoffs for the third straight season. Even with Calvin Pickard in net for his final WHL season, the T-Birds finished ninth in the conference, two points behind Everett for the West’s final playoff spot. That year, the team was led offensively by Burke Gallimore, who had just 40 points in 72 games. Seattle’s 173 goals ended up being the second fewest in the entire WHL, finishing ahead of only the Prince George Cougars.
Konowalchuk’s second season in Seattle was only slightly better points-wise than his first, but eventually culminated in the team’s return to the playoffs. The T-Birds nearly upset the second-seeded Kelowna Rockets in historic fashion by winning the first three games of their first-round series before losing the next four en route their elimination. The 2012-13 season effectively served as a transition year for the Thunderbirds — Konowalchuk and general manager Russ Farwell turned over the roster to better fit Konowalchuk’s system, and the playoff series provided valuable postseason experience for the young roster while instilling a winning attitude.
The culmination of that transition came last season when the Thunderbirds eclipsed their point total from the previous year by 30 while winning 17 more games. The 2013-14 season was the first time the team had a winning record since Sumner’s 2008-09 team. Seattle dispatched rival Everett in relatively easy fashion — four games to one — in the two teams’ first ever playoff meeting. Seattle once again fell to Kelowna, this time in the second round, but in much less dramatic fashion as the T-Birds were swept in four games. Led by an assortment of veterans and big contributions from rookies at both ends of the ice, Seattle further developed the winning culture that was established the season prior.
The future looks bright for the Thunderbirds as well. The current roster possesses some elite talents in Shea Theodore, Mathew Barzal, and Ryan Gropp. The pipeline remains strong with incoming players such as Nolan Volcan, Kaden Elder, Lane Pederson, and the recently-signed Sahvan Khaira.
With Konowalchuk signed on for three more years, in addition to the one year left on his previous contract, stability will remain within the coaching staff, which can be an important factor in recruiting high-level talent.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.