By Tim Pigulski
For a team with a winning percentage of .384 over the past three seasons, saying that only five players need to step up for the team to have success is a bit far-fetched. The truth is, this team is going to need solid seasons from everyone on the roster, but these five are going to hold the keys to the Thunderbirds finally cracking the playoffs.
W Branden Troock. The T-Birds’ first round pick in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, Troock came in briefly during his 15-year-old season and scored six points in nine games, giving fans the hope that he would be an impact power forward in the league as soon as he arrived full time. However, Troock missed the entire 2010-2011 regular season due to chronic headaches, creating a major setback in his development and leaving the team wondering if he’d ever be able to return. After successful acupuncture treatments finally caused the headaches to subside, Troock was able to return last season, scoring 26 points (14 goals, 12 assists) in 58 games, putting himself in place to be selected in the fifth round of the NHL Entry Draft, 134th overall, by the Dallas Stars.
Troock is the most talented power forward currently on the roster and his point production will need to reflect that for the T-Birds to be successful. At the NHL Draft Combine he scored very highly on the strength portions of the test, meaning that he should find the most success in front of the net on the power play and along the boards. That’s not to say that Troock isn’t a good puck handler, but his biggest contribution to the team won’t come from utilizing his stick skills.
W Connor Honey. Honey has an interesting story. After receiving a scholarship offer from Denver University, Honey decided that he’d accept the offer, seasoning himself in the United States Hockey League until he was old enough to enter college. However, those feelings quickly faded, as halfway through one season with the Green Bay Gamblers he decided to join the T-Birds. He played in 46 games for Seattle, registering 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) and 44 penalty minutes. After a bit of transition phase, Honey finished the season strong, joining a line with Troock and center Brendan Rouse. Should Rouse return to occupy one of the 20-year-old spots, this line has the potential to continue developing the chemistry they showed last season and be the T-Birds’ top line.
Honey is a well rounded forward, displaying solid offensive and defensive skill and a willingness to drop the gloves. Last season he went toe to toe with Portland’s Brad Ross, who is no stranger to dropping the mitts. Honey said in an interview that the best path for his development is the WHL, so hopefully he can capitalize now that he’s here.
Seth Swenson, acquired from Portland at last season’s trade deadline, will need to continue to improve for the T-Birds to find success. (Photo courtesy of WHL.ca)
W Seth Swenson. Acquired as part of the Marcel Noebels trade at the deadline last season, Swenson had found himself buried on the extremely deep Portland depth chart for over two seasons. Upon his arrival in Seattle, Swenson made an immediate impact, scoring 17 points (10 goals, 7 assists) in 34 games, a higher output than he had registered in any of his previous seasons with the Winterhawks. Swenson attributes the increased success to more confidence, which arose from more ice time and a more significant role with the team. Now a 19-year-old, Swenson will be thrust into a leadership role with expectations that he will build upon his offensive output from last season. A native of Colorado, he should see playing time in almost all situations — even strength, the power play, and the penalty kill.
W Alexander Delnov. While some may wonder if counting on Delnov to be a top performer is putting too much pressure on him too early, they are the expectations of a player selected near the top of the Import Draft. Granted, he may need some time to adjust to the speed and style of the North American game, but after this grace period it’s important that he is a consistent offensive contributor for the team. When the team selected Noebels 10th overall in the Import Draft a few years ago, he came right in and was able to put up 54 points in 66 games.
Seattle should be hoping for at least similar production from Delnov, whose talent already had him selected by the NHL’s Florida Panthers in the fourth round of the 2012 Entry Draft. Considering that he will likely only be in Seattle for two seasons, it’s important for both Delnov’s career and the Thunderbirds’ success that he scores early and often.
D Jared Hauf. Like Delnov, it will be important for Hauf to have a huge season if he wants to find himself selected by an NHL team in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Selected fourth overall by the T-Birds in the WHL Draft, Hauf has the size and talent necessary for success at these higher levels of competition and showed glimpses of that ability at times last season. However, unlike fellow 2010 draftee Shea Theodore, Hauf wasn’t able to set himself apart as a legitimate professional prospect. As a 16-year-old, he experienced many of the growing pains that are common among first-year players and even more so among young defensemen, but it’s expected that by this point he has learned from some of those experiences and will be able to show why the Thunderbirds spent such a high pick on him.
Before the start of the 2011 season, Hauf drew some comparisons to former Spokane Chiefs defenseman and current Ottawa Senator Jared Cowen, who also possesses great size and is more than capable of moving the puck up the ice. Some of the other players selected after Hauf — Josh Morrissey (Prince Albert, sixth overall), Sam Reinhart (Kootenay, 15th), and Nicolas Petan (Portland, 16th) — have already gone on to become impact players in the WHL and important contributors to their respective teams. For the Thunderbirds to gain relevance again, Hauf will have to step up and be a mainstay on Seattle’s blue line.
It’s tough to select just five players that need to take significant steps this season because not many have stood out lately. I purposely excluded G Brandon Glover because strong play from the goalie is essential for any team to have success. I firmly believe that if these five play to the highest of their potential and the rest of the team develops as expected, Seattle could find itself in the playoffs come 2013.
Think someone else needs to step up more than these five? Let me know in the comments.