This year’s T-Birds better suited to handle absences from World Juniors
The holidays were a trying time for the Thunderbirds last season.
With Mathew Barzal, Scott Eansor and Alexander True absent for the World Junior Championships last year, the T-Birds were in tons of trouble down the middle.
Those three represented Seattle’s top three centers, with their fourth being 16-year-old Matthew Wedman who was approximately 30 games into his first WHL season. He was thrust into playing top-six minutes, often against the opposition’s best forward lines. Wing Donovan Neuls — a center by trade who was moved to the wing early in his WHL career — also took faceoffs for the T-Birds.
That made Seattle’s top two centers an inexperienced rookie and a wing. After that, it was a mashup of more inexperienced out-of-position players.
This year, the T-Birds will once again be losing a chunk of offense in Barzal and True, who are locks to represent Canada and Denmark, respectively.
Eansor, as a 20-year-old, isn’t eligible to play for Team USA this year and will become Seattle’s clear-cut top line center, a role he’s essentially shared with Barzal since Barzal returned from the Islanders exactly one month ago. His presence alone makes Seattle much stronger down the middle than they were last year.
Last year’s baptism by fire will also prove extremely beneficial for Wedman, who has already equaled his scoring total from last season in 41 fewer games. It’s likely he slides into the number two center spot, meaning less will be asked of him when he has an additional year of experience under his belt.
The third and fourth line still leave some questions, but the Thunderbirds have players who should be more than up to handling those responsibilities.
It’s possible that Neuls could once again fill in at center, but if the team wants him to play wing, they have 16-year-old Elijah Brown and 17-year-old Ian Briscoe waiting. Brown figures to play center later in his WHL career, but has played wing primarily this season since Seattle is so deep down the middle. Briscoe has been in and out of the lineup but will be able to use the next month as an opportunity to earn himself more playing time.
Seattle will also have plenty of offense on the wing, and they’ve become used to missing valuable pieces after their early-season rollercoaster. Sami Moilanen, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Eansor, Nolan Volcan, Neuls, and Wedman are forwards who have proven they can score, which gives the T-Birds a potent top-six and then some. It was probably a more dire situation at the beginning of the season when Barzal and Gropp were still off with their NHL teams and Kolesar was recovering from injury.
Last season, Seattle struggled to stay afloat during the World Junior Championships and were forced to go on an unprecedented late-season run to secure the top spot in the U.S. Division. This year, they should be much better positioned to continue to move up in the Western Conference standings.