Ryan Gropp is working towards the 2015 NHL Draft

Feb 25, 2015, 9:34 PM | Updated: Feb 26, 2015, 12:46 pm
Seattle’s Ryan Gropp is working on all aspects of his game in preparation for the NHL Draft. ...
Seattle's Ryan Gropp is working on all aspects of his game in preparation for the NHL Draft. (T-Birds)
(T-Birds)

In an early February game, the Thunderbirds found themselves down to the Kelowna Rockets late. The top-ranked WHL team held Seattle at bay all night long and with just over five minutes to go, had a 1-0 lead.

Ryan Gropp would change that.

Kelowna attempted to clear the puck out of its zone but Gropp was there to intercept it. With the puck on his stick he dug his blades in, pivoted and quickly turned back towards the Rockets’ goal. Two Kelowna defenders – acutely aware of Gropp’s elite shooting and goal-scoring ability – converged on him to take away the shot. Rather than force a shot, Gropp calmly saucered a pass off his back hand and past the drawn in defenders to Mathew Barzal for an easy tip-in.

That goal tied the game and energized the team and crowd at the ShoWare Center. Seattle took the lead a couple minutes later to earn a big two points against the league’s best.

For Gropp, it showed off the skill set that has made him a top prospect for the 2015 NHL Draft.

“It was a tight game and they turned it over in their zone,” Gropp said of the play. “(Barzal) made a nice tip and obviously it was a big play and an emotional win for us.”

It’s been a big season for the Kamloops, British Columbia native as well. He leads Seattle in goals with 23 and points with 47. While his speed, shot, release and hockey sense have never been in doubt, he came into this season looking to improve on other aspects of his game.

“For me the biggest thing was improving my overall game,” he said. “Being a 200-foot player, being a guy that can be relied on for the penalty kill late in games when we’re up a goal or whatever it may be. My physical play is another thing I’m working on along with my consistency, so there’s a handful of things I’m working on.”

His physical play was on display that same February night against Kelowna. Early in the game Gropp was deep in the Kelowna zone, on the forecheck, when he caught a Rockets defenseman with his head down.

Gropp threw his shoulder into the defenseman’s chest, which sent him reeling back, separating the player from the puck. It was a dramatic hit and caused quite a stir among some of the other Rockets players, two of which jumped him in retaliation.

“Biggest hit I’ve ever thrown,” Gropp said with a smile. “I don’t have too many of those but I thought it was a pretty big game and I might as well. I had to pay the price afterwards.”

Gropp is one of several T-Birds who are being watched closely for the upcoming NHL Draft. Depending on which ranking or scouting service you want to believe, he’s projected to be selected anywhere from mid-second round to late-first round.

For a young player who has dreamed of playing in the NHL, being this close can be a distraction. Gropp tries to ignore the rankings as best he can.

“For me I try to avoid them,” he said of the draft rankings. “I don’t look at them too much. Of course, you stumble upon them every now and then but you try not to look at them. I’m not the biggest guy with that. I think it can get you off focus.”

Gropp said that it helps having a number of teammates in the same boat; Barzal, Ethan Bear and Keegan Kolesar all locks for the draft as well. They are aware of the scouts in the stands each night – there were 42 in attendance for the Kelowna game – and Gropp said that the four teammates lean on each other.

“We’ve got a handful of guys going through this draft and it’s huge that we all go through it together,” Gropp said. “You’ve just got to try and have fun with it. I try not to think about it too much … I think when you worry about that kind of stuff it can throw you off your game.”

When Barzal went out with an injury earlier in the year, the general feeling was that the T-Birds’ fortunes would suffer. Gropp looked at is a challenge and stepped up to play some of his best hockey when his team needed it the most. In the 24 games that Gropp played without Barzal, he potted nine goals and added 12 assists for 21 points. Not only did Seattle stay afloat but Gropp sparked the T-Birds to a seven-game win streak in December.

Barzal is a top talent for sure, but those 24 games proved the Gropp has the talent to produce no matter who is on the ice with him.

“Obviously, Barzal is a big part of the offense so when he went out it was a huge blow,” he said. “I gave myself a challenge to try and step up and lead the way offensively and I thought I did well when he was gone. So that was a big positive and important for the team.”

Growing up in Kamloops, Gropp was a big Blazers fan and his family had season tickets, giving him a taste of WHL hockey early on. He also liked the Calgary Flames and rooting for former Blazer Jarome Iginla. While he enjoyed watching Iginla play, he said that he models his game after a different NHL player.

“For me right now it’s Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars,” he said. “I think he’s a big body who can shoot the puck and is kind of a deceptive skater. I try to model my game after him and take little bits of his game. I’m still working to become a physical force like he is.”

Benn is a good comparison for Gropp.

Both stand at 6 feet 2 and right now Benn has about 17 pounds on Gropp, but that’s something that could change with age and conditioning. Benn was a star with the Kelowna Rockets when he was younger before being selected with the 129th pick of the NHL Draft in 2007.

Like Benn and most prospects, Gropp has had a taste of playing for his country as he’s come up the hockey ranks, most recently in the U18 World Championships. He said the dream of playing for Canada in the World Junior Championships is a big one but he doesn’t want to get too far ahead of himself.

“That’s obviously the goal you work towards,” Gropp said. “If it happens that would be cool but I’m just focused on the boys right here and trying to win hockey games.”

The World Juniors can wait as right now Gropp and the T-Birds are racing towards the playoffs. How the T-Birds fare in the postseason is yet to be seen but if they do manage the success they’re after, you can bet Gropp will be in the middle of it.

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Ryan Gropp is working towards the 2015 NHL Draft