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T-Birds season preview: young forwards will have plenty of opportunity to prove themselves

Noah Philp was acquired from Kootenay to give the T-Birds some more punch up front (T-Birds photo)

It’s no secret: the Thunderbirds lost tons of firepower up front.

Gone are Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Scott Eansor and Alexander True, who combined for 301 points last season. Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar and Eansor were four of the T-Birds’ five leading scorers from a points per game perspective and all are now playing professionally.

But the WHL is cyclical, and now is the perfect opportunity for Seattle’s next generation of players to learn the ropes and prove that they belong in this league.

Elijah Brown. Last year was a learning experience for the former first-round draft choice as Brown was able to learn from Seattle’s veteran centers. Brown didn’t really have a consistent role last year as he moved in and out of the lineup and back and forth between center and wing. Now 17, Brown is a fantastic skater and has shown glimpses of potential. He spent some of the preseason playing second-line center, but with the return of Matthew Wedman from injury and the acquisition of Noah Philp, it remains to be seen if Brown will play his natural center position on a lower line or see some time at wing on one of the top three lines.

Holden Katzalay. Katzalay, 17, is the first of many rookies on this list who the team hopes will be able to make an impression this year. Listed as a center, we’ve gotten a good look at the 6-foot-3 Katzalay in six preseason games, where he was unable to register a point and finished with a minus-five rating.

Blake Bargar. Bargar comes to Seattle after an offseason trade that sent Anthony Bishop to the Victoria Royals. The California native hasn’t been a prolific scorer in his WHL career, setting a career high in points last season with 10, but will be counted on to take a step this year with the T-Birds as a 19-year-old. Despite standing just 5-foot-11, Bargar isn’t afraid to mix it up in the corners and brings 180 games of WHL experience to the young Seattle lineup.

Tyler Carpendale. Carpendale was able to get into two contests with Seattle last season as a 16-year-old, but gained valuable experience as he practiced with the team through their WHL playoff and Memorial Cup runs. Like Katzalay, Carpendale has good size at 6-foot-4 and nearly 200 pounds and looks like one rookie the team favors keeping around, but he’ll be out for at least a month to start the season after suffering a lower body injury.

Nikita Malukhin. Seattle’s import pick this season after the departure of Alexander True, the 17-year-old Malukhin projects as a power forward and showed lots of potential during training camp. Unfortunately for the T-Birds and Malukhin, he too will miss the start of the season after sustaining a lower body injury in the first game of the preseason. He is expected out for two to four weeks. When he returns, he figures to be another player the T-Birds can build around for the next couple of seasons.

Noah Philp. The newest T-Bird after being acquired from the Kootenay Ice, Philp is similar to Bargar as a 19-year-old the team brought in to provide veteran leadership as well as provide some extra offensive punch. Philp has 41 points across two WHL seasons but is showing promise that he can build on those numbers after scoring four points in four preseason games. His older brother, Luke, was a star for the Ice across a little over two seasons before he was dealt to the Red Deer Rebels as part of their Memorial Cup run two years ago.

Tyler Adams. Adams was an under-the-radar acquisition last season that ended up paying huge dividends. Originally acquired to provide the T-Birds with some depth on their fourth line, injuries forced Adams into a more pivotal role and he didn’t shy away, showing that he was capable of playing different styles with different linemates. Unfortunately for Adams and the T-Birds, he is one of four overage players on the roster, so his status over the next few weeks remains in question. Seattle would surely love to keep a veteran with a positive locker room presence on the roster, but it may be tough to do that.

Sami Moilanen. Moilanen continued the trend of undersized Seattle forwards who play much bigger than what is listed on the roster, joining similar players like Scott Eansor, Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan. Moilanen seemed to spend the entire season playing through one injury or another but somehow managed to miss only two regular season games. As a 17-year-old rookie, he put up 43 points on 21 goals and 22 assists and is one player who still appears to have some major untapped offensive potential. He’ll surely fit on Seattle’s top line this season and has the ability to be a point-per-game player.

Donovan Neuls. A strong candidate for the captaincy this season, Neuls is the definition of a heart-and-soul player. The only player on the T-Birds roster who played all 72 of Seattle’s regular season games last year, Neuls continued to improve at both ends of the ice, registering 41 points while still being one of the team’s better defensive forwards. He spent time on the power play and penalty kill and will be someone that new head coach Matt O’Dette will count on to be a leader both on and off the ice.

Zack Andrusiak. A healthy scratch for stretches last season, Andrusiak looks to have put some time into his game during the offseason. He led the T-Birds in scoring during the preseason with eight points in seven contests and has likely transitioned himself from healthy scratch to someone the team will count on to make up for some of the offense lost during the offseason. Like Bargar and Philp, Andrusiak is a 19-year-old who has yet to make much of an impact in the league but will have every opportunity to do so this season.

Matthew Wedman. Wedman is one of the biggest question marks on the team as he’s shown talent to go with his great size, but has had trouble putting it all together, in large part due to a number of injuries suffered during his first two years in the league. He could very well enter this season as Seattle’s number two center, and if his preseason play is any indication, could be ready to take the next step. Russ Farwell specifically named Wedman as someone who could be a big-time player if the right pieces fall into place. He has a great shot and, if he’s able to start getting it off consistently, will develop the confidence that will make him a more focal point of the offense.

Dillon Hamaliuk. Hamaliuk played in 17 games as a rookie and nearly stuck with the team for his 16-year-old year. Instead, he was sent back to the Leduc Oil Kings Midget AAA team where he was hurt for much of the regular season, but came back strong in the playoffs with 12 points in 13 postseason contests. Another big wing with a future as a power forward, Hamaliuk should make the team, but it remains to be seen if he’ll spend the season on the fourth line or show enough to get a greater opportunity.

Luke Ormsby. The local product showed tons of progress from the beginning of last season to the end and was one of few T-Birds who were able to stay relatively healthy throughout the entire season, playing in 65 games. Ormsby, now 18, seems like the perfect fit for a third line checking role, where his high-motor, grind-it-out style will be able to flourish. He may not be a player who scores a ton of points, but if he can bump up his offensive output just a bit, he’ll make a fantastic checking line player.

Nolan Volcan. Volcan is starting to get some deserved recognition around the league as he was invited to Pittsburgh Penguins camp this offseason. The Edmonton, Alta. native’s offensive production has improved each year and, as a top-line wing, should continue to grow during this, his 19-year-old season. Volcan is one of just a few holdovers from last season’s WHL Championship squad who played a pivotal role in helping the team accomplish everything they did, and he’ll bring that experience into this season where he’ll be counted on to lead at both ends of the ice.

Cody Savey. An undrafted 16-year-old, Savey had a cup of coffee with the Thunderbirds last year as a 15-year-old, getting into two regular season games. We saw him in three preseason games this year, where he didn’t register a point but showed all the makings of a future power forward who can make opposing defensemen afraid to hold on to the puck for very long.

Samuel Huo. Another 16-year-old with a chance to make an impression this season, Huo also has good size and the ability to play center. He made a nice contribution during the preseason, too, registering three points in six games. A product of the same Burnaby Winter Club that produced Mathew Barzal among many other elite WHL players, Huo had 32 points in 28 games with the Elite 15s squad.

Graeme Bryks. Bryks is one of the most interesting prospects on the T-Birds roster as he fell all the way to the eighth round of the 2016 bantam draft but stands as one of their most promising prospects. Thunderbirds scouts are very high on the potential of the 16-year-old Bryks, who also has the ability to play center. He also possesses the size at 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds that should make him physically ready for the rigorous WHL season in his first year of eligibility.