By Tim Pigulski
Much was made during the season about Seattle general manager Russ Farwell’s decision to load the Thunderbirds’ roster with 19-year-olds.
Before the season began, Seattle’s roster featured six 19-year-olds, a manageable number that would be easy to get down to the maximum of three once the season concluded.
As the months wore on that total increased by five, as the Thunderbirds finished the season with 11 19-year-olds, reminding some of last season’s Saskatoon Blades, who decided to make an all-out push for the Memorial Cup in a year that they were hosting it and therefore granted an automatic placement in the CHL’s final tournament.
While Seattle’s situation isn’t quite as dire as Saskatoon’s, who had 13 potential overagers on their roster, many decisions still have yet to be made before the 2014-15 season gets underway.
As pointed out by Andy Eide, some decisions will be made for the Thunderbirds.
Center Russell Maxwell, acquired at the trade deadline from the Lethbridge Hurricanes, has confirmed that he will not be returning for his final WHL season as he pursues a mission trip for his church.
Branden Troock signed a contract with the NHL’s Dallas Stars on Tuesday, which means he’ll likely spend next season with Dallas’ AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars. After an injury-riddled major junior career, Troock was able to (for the most part) stay healthy this season en route to earning himself a contract.
Seattle’s two import players, wing Roberts Lipsbergs and center Alex Delnov, likely won’t be back either and will not easily be replaced. Each team has three roster spots for 20-year-olds and two for import draft choices. If either Delnov or Lipsbergs stuck around, it would mean that they’d occupy both an overage and an import spot.
Wing Justin Hickman, Seattle’s captain this past season, was signed to an amateur tryout contract with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the New York Islanders’ AHL affiliate. He scored a goal in his second game and plays a physical style that appeals to NHL teams, so he very well may have played his last game in Seattle as well — although this is not a certainty by any means at this point.
Another wing, Connor Honey, is a huge question mark at this point. One of Seattle’s most talented players two seasons ago and a great locker room presence, Honey began this past year with six points in seven games while playing on Seattle’s top forward and powerplay lines. However, he suffered an upper-body injury and was never able to return to the ice, despite the team feeling at many times throughout the year that he may just be a few days away. At this point his health remains an uncertainty, which could make it difficult to invest a valuable overage spot in him.
If each of those players leave, which again isn’t a certainty, Seattle is left with five potential overage players vying for three spots on their roster next year. Forwards Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie, both of whom were also acquired from Lethbridge early this season, defensemen Adam Henry (another Lethbridge acquisition) and Evan Wardley, and goaltender Taran Kozun.
Yakubowski was a welcome addition to the Seattle roster, finishing with 18 points in 47 games with Seattle, as well as 158 penalty minutes in 58 total games this season, fifth in the entire WHL. Many of his penalties came on fighting majors — he had 15 with Seattle and 17 total this year. If the team does indeed lose all of Maxwell, Troock, and Hickman, Yakubowski’s physical style of play would be important to have next season.
McKechnie finished with similar offensive numbers to Yakubowski (15 points in 57 games with Seattle) and very well may have been the team’s best penalty killer.
Both players were essential when the team was shorthanded, and as defensive specialists their plus-ratings while lining up against the opposition’s top scorers shouldn’t go unnoticed.
On the blue line, Henry and Wardley both provide value, although in very different ways.
When Henry was acquired eight games into Seattle’s season, he not only brought veteran experience, but was also a puck-moving defenseman who could take some of the pressure off of Shea Theodore. There’s a slim possibility Theodore doesn’t return next season, which would increase Henry’s value even more. The Winnipeg native scored points (38 in 64 regular season games), manned the point on the second powerplay unit, killed penalties, and mentored defensive partner Ethan Bear, whose future is very bright. Henry was a sort of jack-of-all-trades for the Thunderbirds and he wouldn’t be an easy player to replace.
Wardley, on the other hand, was an enormous physical presence on the blue line. He was certainly the hardest hitter on the team, and may have been one of the strongest players in the entire WHL. His season was highlighted by a Feb. 25 body check that sent Prince Albert’s Chance Braid through the glass at the ShoWare Center. Wardley is one of few players who can change the momentum of a game with his physical play, and this season he did a much better job of not taking bad penalties.
In net, Taran Kozun was essential in helping Seattle secure home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs against the Everett Silvertips. In 24 games with Seattle, he put up an eye-popping .928 save percentage and four shutouts en route to a 14-9-0-1 record.
Seattle’s prospect pool on defense is deep, and even if Henry and Wardley aren’t included, there will be a battle for roster spots next season that could feature seven or more players. The team is hopeful that highly-touted Dante Fabbro will sign soon and Luke Osterman was impressive in training camp last season, leaving many thinking that he deserved a roster spot.
Add those two prospects, as well as a couple of others who will be fighting for spots, to the current defense corps of Theodore, Jared Hauf, Jerret Smith, Bear, and Kevin Wolf, and you have a group that is both deep and heavy on experience. Theodore and Hauf have both been receiving consistent minutes since they were 16, and Smith since he was 17.
Kozun will be difficult to move, not because other teams won’t want him, but because he put together such an incredible finish to the regular season. When he was acquired it was thought he may only be around as a half-season rental, biding time for 17-year-old Danny Mumaugh, who appeared expected to start this upcoming season. That may not be the case now after Kozun’s outstanding season-ending run, but if Kozun is kept around, finding a place for Mumaugh could be tough, as the team also has Logan Flodell waiting in the wings, who will be entering his 17-year-old season in 2014-15.
Up front, the team loses a great deal, including a combined 113 goals and 229 points (excluding Honey). Seattle scored 228 goals as a team last season, so the five forwards potentially leaving account for nearly 50 percent of their scoring. Both Yakubowski and McKechnie have shown the potential to score, with 32 and 26 goals respectively for the Hurricanes during the 2012-13 season. Last season they showed they can excel playing a defensive game as well, meaning one or both would be very valuable to keep around.
Ultimately, who the Thunderbirds keep will likely come down to the return that they can receive in trades. Each of the aforementioned players, whether they’re 19 now or younger, could be an excellent fit for a different team, bringing back draft choices or players who could fill in where the T-Birds are lacking — namely in next year’s 18-year-old age group, where Calvin Spencer and Scott Eansor will be the only forwards in that group and Wolf will be the only defenseman.
It’s also possible that any of the unsigned 19-year-olds could receive tryouts from professional teams, affecting their status with the Thunderbirds, as Hickman did. Earlier this season Farwell mentioned that in addition to Hickman, Wardley had been receiving interest from NHL teams, who were big fans of his hard-nosed style of play.
Last offseason it appeared as though the Thunderbirds were gearing up to make a big push for a WHL championship and Memorial Cup appearance sometime in the next few years, perhaps at the height of Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, and Ethan Bear’s major junior careers. With the influx of 19-year-olds during the season, it appeared that the front office may have felt the time to chase that title may be now.
Although that didn’t happen, the future is still extremely bright for Seattle. Barzal, Gropp, and Bear return and will all see huge improvements in their game. Other young players such as Keegan Kolesar, Eansor, and Spencer have already seen significant time in the WHL and will be ready to play a bigger role next year.
Prospects such as Lane Pederson, Fabbro, Nolan Volcan, Kaden Elder, and Donovan Neuls will be very good in supporting roles, likely next season, before they get the chance to establish themselves as everyday high-caliber players.
With big changes to the roster imminent, Seattle has enough of a core that they should be at least as competitive as they were this past year. If they can capitalize on their import draft choices, perhaps by adding a couple of goal-scoring forwards, and can get a decent return in trades, they’ll be a competitive team with the potential to be even better than they were in 2013-14.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.