T-Birds playing their best hockey on the cusp of Barzal’s return
When it was first reported that Mathew Barzal would be missing significant time with a knee injury, a great deal of hope was lost in Thunderbirds nation. The initial diagnosis of approximately two weeks quickly turned to a month, but when he was seen roaming the concourse at Saskatoon’s SaskTel Centre on Nov. 8 on crutches, it became clear that the injury was much more serious than initially thought, and Seattle would be without their star center for the foreseeable future.
It was a tough blow for the Thunderbirds, who were expecting Shea Theodore to return from an injury of his own at about the same time. The combined skills of the two would theoretically jump start Seattle’s offense and power play, which had been struggling a bit with Theodore missing.
“It was just a freak accident,” remembers Barzal. “It was just a little horseplay in the (locker) room, an everyday thing and we were having a little bit of fun. Unfortunately it ended up in a broken knee. I won’t be doing any more of that anytime soon.”
When Barzal went down, Seattle got off to a slow start, finishing the month of November after his injury with a disappointing 4-6-0-1 record. There were calls for general manager Russ Farwell to go out and trade for a veteran forward – someone like Calgary’s Greg Chase, who eventually went to Victoria – to fill some of the void left by Barzal.
December was a different story as Seattle learned to play without a number of their best players, including Barzal, Theodore, and Alexander True, the latter two who had gone on to play for their native countries in the World Junior Championships. Despite the depleted roster, Seattle went 7-3-0-0 in December and have kicked off January in good shape, winning three of five and picking up seven of a possible ten points so far during the month.
“When we were on that six-game streak, we were playing some great hockey and everyone was gelling,” says Barzal. “If we can keep this attitude in the second half it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The WHL Weekly Report’s Jan. 13 edition reported that Barzal was a week away from returning to the Seattle lineup, an estimation that the 17-year-old center confirmed. If the most recent diagnosis does hold true, he’ll be back for the Jan. 23 contest against division rival Tri-City at the Toyota Center in Kennewick.
“I’d say (one week) is a pretty fair assessment,” said a hopeful Barzal. “Everything is going well with my rehab, so I should be good in another week. Next Friday is the goal.”
For Barzal, things will look much different than when he initially went down with what was confirmed as a broken knee. Captain and linemate Justin Hickman’s WHL career was cut unceremoniously short as he underwent surgery on a bothersome shoulder. To replace him, the team brought back Latvian wing Roberts Lipsbergs, who spent some time with Barzal last season. Nineteen-year-old forward Cory Millette has also joined the team from Prince Albert, and Florian Baltram and Scott Allan were released and traded, respectively.
Although he’ll certainly miss Hickman, who had become a close friend over the past two seasons, Barzal believes that he already has great chemistry with Lipsbergs and the two will be able to provide a boost to the Thunderbirds’ offense.
“We have a good team and we’ve shown over the course of the season that we can play with each other,” said Barzal about the new-look Thunderbirds roster. “Hickman was like an older brother to me and I love playing with him. Having him around the locker room was great, but I had some chemistry last year with Lippy. Who knows what Steve will do (for lines), but I’m looking forward to getting back.”
While he’s ready to begin practicing at full speed, games are always a different story. Barzal acknowledges that the most important thing he needs to do when he returns to action is be aggressive.
“I’ve been on the ice quite a bit lately, but I’ve taken it kind of lightly just to get my legs back and my hands and shot where they need to be,” says Barzal. “I think I just can’t come back timid. You have to know you’re strong and you rehabbed well. Watching games actually helps – you get to see where there’s more space and where you can spend more time with the puck. I think that helps a lot and I think I’m going to come back strong and make an impact.”
Unfortunately for Barzal, the injury came at about the worst time possible when considering his draft stock. Prior to the season, he was considered a surefire top-10 pick in this summer’s NHL Entry Draft, but some reports have him dropping as a result of the injury.
“It sucks,” acknowledges Barzal. “Watching guys excel, it’s great to see Groppy, Keegs, Bearsy, and Truesy doing well, I can’t wait to rejoin them and we all hope we get drafted, but it sucks. It sucks not playing.”
Despite the disappointing timing, Barzal knows he’ll still have 25 to 30 regular season games and, if he and the team perform well, a playoff series or two, to prove to scouts that he hasn’t lost a step.
“I think when I come back I just have to prove myself again,” says Barzal, who has so far missed a total of 26 games due to the injury. “I won’t be able to take any nights off.”
The final statement rings true for both Barzal and the Thunderbirds. Seattle currently sits in fourth place in the U.S. Division. If the playoffs were to begin today, they’d hold the seventh seed in the Western Conference, but they’re currently just two points behind Portland for third in the division, three behind Spokane, and nine behind Everett.
Seattle’s defense and goaltending has been some of the best in the league all season, and with a full complement of healthy forwards and Theodore’s impressive performance since returning, the offense should continue to improve. Barring any major injuries or other setbacks, Seattle has an opportunity to make a huge jump in the standings over the regular season’s final 30 games.