Can the Thunderbirds be even better next season?

Jun 15, 2016, 10:54 AM

T-Birds, Thunderbirds...

Ethan Bear had two goals and three assists in Wednesday night’s Game 3 win. (Thunderbirds photo)

(Thunderbirds photo)

Following perhaps the best season in team history in which the Thunderbirds advanced to the WHL Championship before falling to the Brandon Wheat Kings 4-1 in a best-of-seven series, the question remains whether this team is prepared to build on that success next season or if 2015-16 was their best shot at a title.

Without a doubt, improvement will be tough, starting with the loss of four important contributors. That’s a huge chunk of offense lost with the subtractions of Ryan Gropp and Jerret Smith, as well as a big portion of their defense with Smith, Jared Hauf and Landon Bow all departing.

Seattle’s forward ranks remain deep, and the T-Birds will continue to add young talent, but it’s highly unlikely that any of them will come in and single-handedly replace the talented Gropp’s production immediately. Gropp’s departure leaves one forward spot open, and that will likely be filled by some combination of Elijah Brown, Wyatt Bear, Dillon Hamaliuk, or Luke Ormsby. It’s likely that other forwards will be dealt during the offseason and more than one of these players will step into a full-time role, but Seattle will most likely need to look outside of the organization if it’s going to find a wing prepared to put up a point per game this year.

There are also a few forwards who are ready to step up and be bigger offensive contributors, which will help offset the offense lost with Gropp, assuming they’re on the roster in three months. Scott Eansor, Cavin Leth, Alexander True, Matthew Wedman, Donovan Neuls, Nolan Volcan and Nick Holowko should all up their point totals in 2016-17.

Defensively it looks like Seattle could have a harder time replacing its two 20-year-olds from last year in Smith and Hauf. Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit look like locks to make up Seattle’s top defensive pairing, assuming they aren’t broken up. Jarret Tyszka and Brandon Schuldhaus gained the trust of the coaching staff as the season wore on, seeing good minutes in the playoffs and may be ready to act as the team’s second pairing.

The third pairing is the biggest question. Last year, Seattle had a strong top four that could play most of the game’s minutes, especially early in the season, allowing Tyszka and Schuldhaus time to come along. Bryan Allbee and Reece Harsch are candidates to fill out the defense, and there’s still a glimmer of hope that Dante Fabbro could get drafted early, sign a professional contract, and play for the T-Birds, though that’s certainly not anything that can be counted on.

Without Fabbro, it looks like Seattle is going to have a hard time replicating its defensive performance last year when it finished third in the Western Conference with 186 goals against. You can’t lose over 600 games of regular season experience and not expect to take at least a small step backwards. If Tyszka and Schuldhaus do jump into the second pairing, they’ll be facing much more difficult sets of opposing forwards than they did as rookies.

In net, we ask the same question we asked at this time last year – is Logan Flodell, now 19, ready to step up and take the reins in net? Flodell wasn’t bad last year, but general manager Russ Farwell felt like the team needed an improvement to hang with the best, and that’s exactly what happened after the acquisition of Landon Bow. When Bow was out with injury or being rested, Flodell performed well above his averages from earlier in the season. If he can carry that performance into next season, Seattle will be set in net, but that’s a big if.

If Mathew Barzal returns for what would be his final WHL season, Seattle will have no choice but to make a big investment in the upcoming season. Unfortunately, it won’t know for certain if he’ll return until a few weeks into the regular season, but it should get a good idea beforehand. Assuming he does come back, the Thunderbirds will surely look to surround him with talent, as a generational player like Barzal doesn’t come along very often.

Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear and Eansor all look to be major forces in the league next year, and that’s a deep group of top-level talent. I would expect Seattle to invest in a goal-scoring veteran forward and potentially a top-four defenseman this offseason. With the recently-announced departure of Andreas Schumacher, who will be playing next year in Sweden, Seattle will have an import spot open that they can use to fill an immediate need.

When Brandon lost the WHL Championship two years ago, we knew that the Wheat Kings were built for even better things to come. Seattle’s situation isn’t as promising as Brandon’s was, but the T-Birds do have much of the foundation needed to excel again this year, though there will be some big skates to fill during the offseason.


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Can the Thunderbirds be even better next season?