THUNDERBIRDS

T-Birds vs. Americans: Sleepers who could be difference makers

Mar 22, 2017, 12:05 PM
Austin Strand (2) and Aaron Hyman (6) will be tasked with shutting down Tri-City's second line. (T-...
Austin Strand (2) and Aaron Hyman (6) will be tasked with shutting down Tri-City's second line. (T-Birds photo)
(T-Birds photo)

In the first-round playoff matchup between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Tri-City Americans, there are a few names that immediately come to mind for each team that will need to come up big for their team to win.

These are the players we’ve been talking about all season — the Barzals and Wotherspoons of the world. If a team is going to be successful and have a long playoff run, your best players need to show up to play every night.

But how about those less heralded players who will likely play a huge role in this series? Here’s a look at a few different players for each team that could end up being difference-makers.

Seattle

Scott Eansor. It seems odd to list Eansor as a sleeper, considering he averaged nearly a point per game when he did play this season and has been one of Seattle’s most consistent two-way players over the past four seasons. But the 20-year-old center essentially missed the entire second half of the year, returning only for the T-Birds’ final two regular season games. Head coach Steve Konowalchuk was impressed with Eansor’s progress, noting that late in Seattle’s final game against Vancouver he started to see some of Eansor’s signature confidence and quickness start to return.

At some point, it should be expected that Eansor will center Seattle’s second line once again. You know that the T-Birds’ top line will produce points, but so much of their success has been due to quality depth. They’ll need Eansor, who has played two games in the past two months, to get back up to full speed quickly and be a contributor at both ends of the ice.

Alexander True. True has been instrumental to Seattle’s success this year with the long absences of both Mathew Barzal and Eansor. Those two get most of the credit, but True’s consistency has been crucial to the T-Birds continuing to win games when one or both of those players were missing. The Danish center missed just six games all year and has been bounced around the lineup, playing everywhere from the first to the fourth line.

Like Eansor, True will need to play big in this series to ensure Seattle continues to have the edge in overall depth. He’s become important on special teams, notching 13 points on the power play and using his long reach to kill penalties and score four shorthanded goals, which tied for fourth most in the WHL. True appeared to really turn a corner during last season’s run to the WHL Championship. If he can keep up the play we saw during the regular season, it’ll go a long way in making life difficult for the opposition. If True makes a similar jump to what we saw last year in the postseason, look out.

Aaron Hyman and Austin Strand. A pair of trade deadline pickups, Hyman and Strand have played with a variety of different defensive partners due to injuries Seattle has suffered on the blue line. Heading into the postseason, it looks like the two will be paired together, though that could change at any time.

The Americans are one of the top scoring teams in the Western Conference after they scored 272 goals during the regular season. Even without Michael Rasmussen, the Ams have plenty of players who can put the puck in the net. Seattle’s top defensive pairing of Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit should match up against Tri-City’s top line of Morgan Geekie, Jordan Topping and Vladislav Lukin, all of whom have been held under their season scoring averages while playing against the T-Birds.

That means Hyman and Strand likely get the second line of Kyle Olson, Tyler Sandhu and Parker AuCoin, a line that combined for 183 points during the regular season. For Seattle to be successful, it will be essential that they keep Tri-City’s second line in check. Both Hyman and Strand also like to carry the puck and push play back the other way, something they’ll need to continue to do against a talented group of forwards that like to forecheck.

Tri-City

Nolan Yaremko. According to Craig West, Yaremko attended Tri-City’s final regular season game on crutches and has missed their last four games. The 6 foot 1 center was not listed on March 13’s injury report, but hasn’t been playing for a couple of weeks. It remains to be seen what his status will be for the first-round series.

Yaremko has centered Tri-City’s best defensive line, which is usually matched up against the Seattle line made up of Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar. On his wings were Maxwell James and Austin Playfair, but those two have instead been playing with a variety of different forwards, including AuCoin, Keltie Jeri-Leon, Carson Focht or Brett Leason. Yaremko’s absence has meant some major shuffling for the rest of the Tri-City lineup, and we all know how important chemistry with your linemates is in the playoffs.

If Yaremko isn’t ready for the playoffs, Tri-City has a big hole to fill on their checking line, something you don’t want to be adjusting on the fly when facing three NHL prospects.

Parker AuCoin. One of Tri-City’s second-line wings, AuCoin has struggled against the T-Birds this season with just one assist in eight games played. For the rest of the season, he had a healthy 42 points in 64 games, production that has far outpaced what he’s been able to do against Seattle.

Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit make up Seattle’s top defensive pairing are a combined plus-six against the Americans this year and a plus-79 overall, so the T-Birds probably feel pretty good about matching them up with anyone, including Tri-City’s top line. That puts more pressure on Tri-City’s second line, where AuCoin plays with Olson and Sandhu. During five-on-five play they’ll probably see Hyman and Strand on Seattle’s blue line more often than not, as well as Seattle’s second forward line that has also functioned as probably their best defensive line. For AuCoin and company to be successful, which will be critical for the Americans in this series, they’ll also need help from those on the blue line behind them, bringing us to our final player to keep an eye on.

Juuso Valimaki. Valimaki is a top prospect for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft and someone who has had a very good season this year with 61 points in 60 games from the blue line to go along with a plus-two rating. It’s believed he could be a top-10 pick and one of the first few defensemen taken in the draft.

However, he’s struggled greatly against Seattle with a minus-eight in six games played this year. Dylan Coghlan and Parker Wotherspoon will likely be matched up against Barzal’s line, meaning Valimaki and his partner, Dalton Yorke, will get Sami Moilanen, Nolan Volcan and either Eansor or True. Much like Hyman and Strand, there’s going to be pressure on Tri-City’s second defensive pairing to keep a very good Seattle second line in check.

Valimaki easily fits within the category of Tri-City’s best players and he’ll need to be just that if the Americans are going to be successful in this series. They count on him for both offense and defense, but if he can just keep pucks out of his own net while he’s on the ice, his series will have been a success.

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T-Birds vs. Americans: Sleepers who could be difference makers