What if Mathew Barzal doesn’t come back to the Thunderbirds?
On Wednesday, the CHL released its first top-10 poll of the season and the Seattle Thunderbirds ranked fourth, which speaks to the expectations ahead for the defending Western Conference Champions.
Seeing a ranking that high means that the NHL scouts who vote on that poll are probably assuming that Mathew Barzal will be in Seattle at some point. But what if he’s not? How will the team make up for his lost production?
Barzal scored 27 goals last year and if he were to stick with the New York Islanders, he would be sorely missed. It’s not just those goals that the T-Birds would have to replace as they would also have to find a way to make up for Ryan Gropp’s 34 tallies.
Sixty-one goals are a lot to make up, but the T-Birds will have to do that if they wish to survive the loss of their two most prolific scorers from last season.
You’re not going to replace Barzal or Gropp with just one guy. To borrow a notion from the movie “Moneyball,” you’re going to have to make it up in the aggregate. So the question then becomes, does Seattle have the players to do that?
We know that Keegan Kolesar will be back. The big winger potted 30 goals last season and is now a year older. That’s a pretty good number and getting 30 again this year would be huge for Kolesar and the T-Birds, but it doesn’t cut into their 61-goal deficit.
Likewise, Ethan Bear will back on Seattle’s blue line and manning the power play. He is coming off a career year that saw him light the lamp 19 times. He’s also a year older, but it’s hard to expect too many more goals from a defenseman. Bear has it in him to potentially cross the 20-goal mark, but still, that won’t make a big dent in getting 61 more.
So it’s going to have to come from elsewhere.
Seattle’s second line last year of Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Donovan Neuls all three scored in the teens. That is a line that has the potential to score more this year. They are a terror on the forecheck, they turn the puck over and being a year older now, may start to finish more. There is a real possibility that Seattle could see each member of its second line top the 20-goal mark.
New import player Sami Moilanen is a wild card here as well. We have no WHL track record on him, yet but he showed that he has offensive skill during training camp and in the preseason. He finished the preseason by scoring three goals in the last two games. Can he score 15 this year? Or 20?
Alexander True scored 14 goals last year, but it always feels like he has the potential to score more. He’s also had a strong camp with two goals and three assists in five games during the preseason. Is this the year we see his goal totals jump to the 20-25 range?
True ended the season and playoffs on a line with 20-year-old Cavin Leth. Those two had a lot of chemistry and you would think that head coach Steve Konowalchuk will want to pair them together for stretches this year. We often see over-agers set career highs in goals scoring and Leth has the skill to be one of those guys. He scored 12 times between Swift Current and Seattle last year and if he can push that number up, he’ll help cut into the 61-goal deficit.
After that, you’re looking for progression from a couple of second-year players. Defenseman Jarret Tyszka has great speed and an offensive touch. He’s looked pretty strong in the preseason and don’t be surprised if he scores 10 or more goals this year. The same is true for center Matthew Wedman, who scored perhaps one of the most memorable goals in double-overtime last season to win the Western Conference for Seattle. He’s been hobbled with a lower-body injury so far in the preseason, but he has the size and skill to improve on his six-goal 16-year-old season.
This is nothing new to the T-Birds and the regular junior-hockey cycle. Star players move on and you rely on the natural progression of your returning players to pick up the slack. That’s the position that the T-Birds will be in should Barzal stay in New York this year.
It won’t be one guy who fills in. It will take the rest of the roster and it will be a team effort. There is reason to believe Seattle has the depth to do that. Last year the T-Birds had everyone contribute as they advanced through the playoffs, and it wasn’t just Barzal and Gropp.
The same will have to hold true this year if the T-Birds want to repeat last year’s success.