T-Birds still searching for identity after Eastern Conference road trip

Nov 18, 2014, 6:18 PM | Updated: 6:22 pm
Mathew Barzal is expected to be miss a significant amount of time with a lower-body injury. (T-Bird...
Mathew Barzal is expected to be miss a significant amount of time with a lower-body injury. (T-Birds photo)
(T-Birds photo)

It’s rare that a team in the Western Hockey League is able to put its entire roster on the ice night in and night out as a regular starter or two is usually always missing due to injury, international tournaments, tryout camps, or something else that will prevent them from suiting up.

Such has been the case this year for the Thunderbirds, who, in addition to missing key pieces for significant periods of time for all of the aforementioned reasons as well as suspension, have yet to play a regular-season game with the roster that was projected before the season began.

In particular, they have yet to play a game that featured their two best players, center Mathew Barzal and defenseman Shea Theodore. Theodore missed the first month and a half of the season after injuring his elbow while at the Anaheim Ducks’ training camp, and just two games before his long-anticipated return prior to last Wednesday’s game against Moose Jaw, it was announced that Barzal would be out for at least a “couple of weeks” with an undisclosed lower body injury.

It now appears the Thunderbirds will need to wait at least another month and a half – and possibly longer as Barzal gets back to full speed – before they will have another chance at seeing their two stars play together at the highest level. With what is now being described as a cracked knee cap, it looks like the 17-year-old center and top WHL prospect for the 2015 NHL draft may not play again until 2015.

Even more troubling for the Thunderbirds is that they’re having trouble scoring goals. Last year Theodore led the team in scoring while the rookie Barzal finished fourth. Prior to his injury, Barzal was leading the team with 18 points in 16 games. Missing one or both of Theodore and Barzal has prevented head coach Steve Konowalchuk from icing his top two scorers at the same time. The effects of this are easy to see, as Seattle currently ranks 17th of 22 teams in the league on the power play and sits second-to-last in goals scored in the Western Conference despite tying for the second-most games played.

This also makes it difficult for general manager Russ Farwell to get an accurate idea of exactly how this team stacks up against the rest of the U.S. Division, which looks weaker than expected with the exception of the first-place Everett Silvertips.

On a team with eight rookie forwards, questions about secondary scoring have been asked since training camp. It was known that guys like Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Justin Hickman would be able to put up points, but a team can’t go far with the threat of just one scoring line. Different players have stepped up and shown they can have an impact, as Keegan Kolesar did in his three-point night against Brandon last Friday, but inconsistency is still plaguing the team. The Thunderbirds followed up their six-goal effort against the powerhouse Wheat Kings with just one goal in each of their games against Regina and Swift Current.

Missing key pieces for what will end up being the first half of the season means that no one knows exactly what this team is capable of. With Theodore and Barzal out, there has been a domino effect that has forced different individuals to fulfill roles they’re not as well suited for with linemates they’re unfamiliar with.

What makes this situation even more difficult for the Thunderbirds is that Barzal’s return projects to come right around the time the WHL trade deadline passes. The Thunderbirds may be forced to determine whether they’re buyers or sellers at the deadline having yet to see their two best players on the ice at the same time.

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