By Tim Pigulski
Now that the Thunderbirds season is over, it’s time to take a look back at the 2013-14 campaign. First up is postseason awards.
Most Valuable Player: Shea Theodore
There wasn’t much of a contest here, but there may have been if goaltender Taran Kozun had spent the entire season with the team and performed the same way he did after his acquisition. The Thunderbirds had a number of important players, but none more so than Theodore, who not only led the team in points with 79 in 70 contests, but also often played against the opposition’s top scorers.
While no one has questioned his offensive ability, Theodore’s play in his own zone has been viewed as a work in progress since his arrival in the league. There are still questions surrounding Theodore’s decision-making, but he was undoubtedly a much better player this season than he was last year.
A first-round draft choice of the Anaheim Ducks last season, Theodore was recently called up to the Ducks’ AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, where is scoreless in three games so far. As a 19-year-old next season, Theodore will have to either play in the NHL or with the Thunderbirds, so it’s a good bet he will return, although not a 100 percent certainty.
Playoff MVP: Scott Eansor
The rookie from Colorado tied for the team lead during the postseason with four goals in nine games, most of which came at opportune times. Perhaps more importantly, he was lined up against both Everett’s and Kelowna’s top offensive lines and performed admirably. Against the Silvertips, he, along with Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie, shut down Everett’s only real offensive threats in Josh Winquist, Jujhar Khaira, and Ivan Nikolishin. Towards the end of the series, ‘Tips coach Kevin Constantine was forced to separate his scoring line in an effort to avoid the T-Birds’ checking line led by Eansor.
Rookie of the Year: Mathew Barzal
Barzal entered his rookie season with the fanfare of few prospects before him. He met expectations, averaging nearly a point per game with 54 in 59 contests. As the season progressed, so did his 200-foot game, making Barzal an impact player at both ends of the ice. Rookies often take a good amount of time to adjust to the league, but Barzal’s adjustment period was brief and he never really showed the timidity often expected of newcomers. Next season, in his draft year, Barzal should make a big jump and perhaps could be the first T-Bird to surpass 100 points since Bret DeCecco during the 1998-1999 season.
Ryan Gropp deserves an honorable mention here, and may have even earned our top rookie honor had he spent the entire year with the team. With 42 points in 59 games, Gropp should join Barzal in creating a formidable 17-year-old tandem next season.
Top Newcomer: Taran Kozun
He only spent about half of the season with the Thunderbirds, but the goaltender from Nipawin, Saskatchewan’s impact was undeniable. In a tight race for home-ice advantage that lasted through the regular season’s final weekend, Kozun’s four shutouts end up looking like the difference between fourth and fifth place. He compiled a 14-9-0-1 regular season record during his time in Seattle en route to winning multiple CHL awards.
When Kozun was acquired, it looked like he may be a rental player who could help the team this year in their push for the playoffs. However, after his impressive performance at the end of the year, Kozun could certainly be in the running for one of the team’s three overage spots next season.
Player Who Will Be Missed Most: Russell Maxwell
This could change as this roster will look much different in a few months, but as of right now, the only players guaranteed to be leaving are Mitch Elliot, who graduates from the league, and Maxwell, who is forgoing his final season of eligibility for religious reasons.
Elliot’s commitment to the team and fans, both on and off the ice, is undeniable and certainly deserves recognition. But Maxwell’s addition at the trade deadline proved extremely important for the team, especially when Eansor went down with injury. The 19-year-old center was able to play in all situations and adjusted quickly when he was asked to move back and forth between offensive and defensive roles. He had 10 points in 29 regular season games with Seattle and was a +6, then improved on those numbers in the playoffs where he had seven points in nine games.
Top Forward: Justin Hickman
While he may have been outscored by the likes of Alex Delnov, Branden Troock, Barzal, and Roberts Lipsbergs, Hickman was a consistent contributor in every situation. Playing with two talented rookies in Barzal and Gropp, the big forward was tasked with being their protector on the ice, but also was counted on to create space for the younger players to allow them to work their magic.
Hickman scored, killed penalties, fought, delivered bone-crushing hits, and captained the team to their best playoff performance in over five years. As a result, he received an Amateur Tryout Contract from the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers, which increases the chance that Hickman won’t return next year as a 20-year-old, which would be a huge loss on and off the ice for the T-Birds.
Top Defenseman: Shea Theodore
It’s easy to look at Theodore’s offensive contributions to know how valuable he is to the team, but his improvements in his own zone this season deserve to be called out as well. There is certainly still work to be done, but Theodore, along with defensive partner Jerret Smith, often played against their opponent’s best scorers, something they weren’t asked to do in past years. The improved competition makes Theodore’s high point total even more impressive.
He still needs some work in his decision making, but Theodore’s outstanding skating ability allows him to cover for many of his mistakes. If Theodore returns next season, which appears likely at this point, he’ll be one of the top defensemen in the entire WHL.
Most Improved Player: Keegan Kolesar
Kolesar is the type of player who usually has difficulty adjusting to the better competition in the Western Hockey League. He’s a big, strong player whose foot speed needed work if he was going to achieve what was expected out of him as a first-round draft choice.
At the beginning of the season Kolesar often looked overmatched, but during the season’s final weekend he was one of the Thunderbirds’ best players. If he continues to work as hard during the offseason as he did during the regular season, he’ll greatly improve on his eight points in 60 games next season.
All of Seattle’s rookies deserve an honorable mention here, including Barzal, Gropp, Eansor, and defenseman Ethan Bear. All five made huge strides since the beginning of the season as they became dependable players that coach Steve Konowalchuk could count on.
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