By Tim Pigulski
The best news Seattle hockey has received in recent memory came Wednesday morning at the Western Hockey League awards ceremony when super-prospect Mathew Barzal signed a contract to join the T-Birds for what is expected to be a remarkable Major Junior career.
Ranked as the consensus No. 1 prospect in the WHL Bantam Draft last year, Barzal took his time before committing to Seattle. While it may have made many T-Birds fans anxious, it displays maturity beyond the Coquitlam, British Columbia native’s years that he would choose to weigh all of his options so heavily.
The young sensation found himself in the spotlight before his career even began, as WHL commissioner Ron Robison made the announcement during the award ceremony’s opening remarks.
The 6-foot, 170-pound Barzal attended the Thunderbirds’ training camp prior to the 2012-13 season, where some scouts considered him the best player in attendance despite facing competition five years older. One agent in attendance, Carlos Sosa of Turning Point Sports Management, said Barzal is the most talented player to come through Seattle since Patrick Marleau in the mid-1990s. Marleau, of course, is now playing for the NHL’s San Jose Sharks and is the team’s career leader in points, goals, power-play goals, and an impressive number of other offensive categories.
Mathew Barzal is considered one of the top 1997-born players in the world. (Seattle Thunderbirds photo)
Most pundits considered Barzal one of the top players born in 1997, with competition coming from Connor McDavid, who was taken first overall in the Ontario Hockey League’s Bantam Draft by the Erie Otters.
McDavid was granted exceptional status by the OHL, allowing him to play in the league at the ripe young age of 15. Facing opponents who were as much as five years older, McDavid averaged over a point per game, tallying 66 points in 63 games. Just last week he was named the Most Valuable Player of the IIHF World U18 Championships, outshining players two years older than himself that are considered some of the best in the world in their age group.
McDavid’s drawn comparisons to and praises from Sidney Crosby. Reebok signed him to an endorsement contract when he was still just 15 years old.
And last year, Barzal outplayed him in the All-Canadian Mentorship Cup. At least, according to Yahoo! Sports Canada’s Cam Charron, who said that both players were quite impressive.
Unlike the OHL where McDavid plays, the WHL has no history of granting 15-year-olds exceptional status, meaning the Thunderbirds’ top pick found himself in much less of a hurry to make a commitment.
However, it’s been said that if the WHL did allow underage players to suit up for a full season, Barzal would have been a shoe-in for the honor. His coach during his Bantam years, who also coached former first overall WHL and NHL draft choice Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, has said that Barzal is a better player and further along in his development than Nugent-Hopkins was at the same age.
This shows the type of impact that Barzal could potentially have in Seattle, likely only for two seasons, as he’s already projected as a very high choice in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
The domino effect of the Barzal signing has the potential to be enormous, as he’s exactly the type of player that an entire roster can be built around. General manager Russ Farwell now has his No. 1 high-scoring center, something the team has been lacking for years. He’ll make everyone around him better, as his playmaking skills, skating ability, and vision are elite.
Additionally, his presence could very well make Seattle an attractive place to play for other top prospects. The chance to play with a talent such as Barzal, who significantly improves the game of those around him, should be an enticing possibility for any player with NHL aspirations.
Last year, playing in the British Columbia Major Midget League for the Vancouver NE Chiefs, the phenom scored an astonishing 103 points in just 34 games, including a league record 74 assists.
Seattle’s thrilling first-round playoff series with Kelowna undoubtedly impacted Barzal’s decision, as he was present for the T-Birds’ game three-overtime victory in front of a raucous crowd.
Pairing Barzal with the Thunderbirds’ other 2012 first-round draft choice, power forward Keegan Kolesar, should create a sort of thunder-and-lightning combination that has the ability to terrorize WHL defenses over the next few seasons.
Check back soon, as we’ll be speaking with Barzal and Farwell about the big commitment and what it means for the T-Birds going forward.
Seattle hockey just became a whole lot more interesting.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.