Predicting how the T-Birds season will play out
By Tim Pigulski and Andrew Eide
The Seattle Thunderbirds will travel to Portland today to open up the 2014-2015 WHL season against the Winterhawks. Every new season brings about new questions about how the T-Birds and the league will shake out.
How far will the T-Birds go? Who will lead the league in scoring? Who’s going to win the whole thing at the end?
For the third straight year, we give you our fearless predictions.
Can Seattle win the US Division?
Tim: The T-Birds should be disappointed with a finish any lower than second in the division considering what Everett, Tri-City, and Spokane lost during the off season. Portland will remain a formidable foe and they’ll surely score a ton of goals, but they may have some trouble keeping them out of their own net. While it may not quite be Seattle’s time to wear the crown just yet, if all of the right pieces fall into place for the T-Birds and Portland takes a step back with a new coaching staff, it’s possible they could squeak by the Winterhawks. More likely, they’ll keep Portland uncomfortable in the standings and look to jump past their I-5 South rivals next year.
Andrew: Can Seattle win the division? Sure, they can but will they win it is an entirely different question. Seattle is going to have one of the youngest rosters in the WHL and a lot will depend on how quickly those young guys gel together. The T-Birds may scuffle a bit out of the gate but should get better as the year moves along. They still have the Portland Winterhawks in their way towards the U.S. Division title. While Portland has lost some high-end players on their back end they still have Nic Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Paul Bittner and Chase De Leo. That’s a lot of fire power and they will once again score their way to the division title. The division as a whole is not as strong as it was last season and the T-Birds should once again finish in second.
Who will lead the T-Birds in scoring?
Andrew: Defenseman Shea Theodore led the club in scoring last year and as good as he will be again this year, a forward will pass him up. Seattle will have one of the better top lines in the league with Justin Hickman, Ryan Gropp and Mathew Barzal. Hickman and Gropp are both great finishers and the two of them will fight it out for the most goals on the team. Barzal is a top-end play maker, as well as a goal scorer. Because of that, this is the season that Barzal will end up leading the club in scoring.
Tim: Theodore led the team by a significant margin last year, but he’s likely to miss some time while at Anaheim’s training camp and when he participates in Canada’s World Junior activities. Therefore, I expect Mathew Barzal to make a big jump in his second year and win the T-Birds’ scoring crown. The 17-year-old was impressive in the preseason and should be a point-per-game player. Theodore may have a better per-game average, but I expect this year to be Barzal’s coming out party.
Most important newcomer?
Tim: This is a three part answer, with each of Alexander True, Florian Baltram, and Lane Pederson playing a pivotal role this season. Each will need to be a contributor almost immediately, especially offensively, to provide the team with some secondary scoring behind the team’s top line. All three may need an adjustment period, but the team will need for that to be brief to avoid a slump at the start of the season.
Andrew: Seattle lost a great deal of scoring when their two import players, Roberts Lipsbergs and Alex Delnov, left. Stepping into those slots are two new European players and one of them will need to step up and provide scoring. Alexander True seems the most likely to do so. True is tall, lanky has the potential to turn in a good rookie season in the WHL. Seattle will need him to chip in and provide some goal scoring.
Which T-Birds will be drafted and where?
Andrew: Barzal will be the first T-Bird player, and first WHL player, drafted this coming June. He should be selected in the top ten of the draft and head an impressive class for Seattle. Ethan Bear’s prospects have been on the rise since the rookie season he turned in last year. He drew rave reviews from scouts who watched the Team Canada Ivan Hlinka camps and his name is showing up higher and higher on draft lists. Bear will have a big year and that big year will land him in the first round of the draft. Ryan Gropp will also have a good year, will score, and is on the fringe of being a late first round, early second round draft pick.
With Keegan Kolesar’s size and soft hands, a good year will end up with him getting selected in later rounds. Alexander True also has a build that NHL scouts will like and a good season will land him on an NHL team’s draft board in the later rounds.
Tim: Barzal, Ryan Gropp, and Ethan Bear are all guaranteed draft picks, with Keegan Kolesar, True, Baltram, and Pederson trying to play their way into a draft position this year.
Barzal will be the first taken and shouldn’t go any later than the top 10, with the potential to work his way into the top five. Gropp should be a late first or early second round pick, while Bear could be picked as high as the second round.
Kolesar, True, and Baltram have all expressed that they’re unsure at this point whether or not they’ll be drafted, but know they have the potential to be with a big season. The same applies for Pederson, who will be forced to make a big jump from the Midget level to Major Junior.
Who will be the T-Birds’ MVP?
Tim: Captain and 20-year-old veteran Justin Hickman will play an absolutely critical role this season, one that he appears perfectly prepared for. He’ll be counted on to perform on the ice in all three zones and in all situations, as well as off the ice where he’ll be one of the few veterans among a very young group of forwards. While he likely won’t lead the team in scoring, he’ll do many of the things that don’t appear in the box score but are essential to a team’s success. Hickman is expected to miss the first couple weeks of the season with an upper body injury and it will be interesting to see if and how the team will rally in the absence of their captain.
Andrew: Shea Theodore’s importance to this team can not be over-stated. The high-scoring defenseman will be one of their top scorers and this year that will be critical. Seattle’s youth up front will lead to some inconsistent offensive performances making secondary scoring and scoring from the blue line that much more vital. When Theodore is on the ice the T-Birds don’t spend much time in their own end and he is basically a fourth forward on the ice. Theodore also plays more minutes than anyone else on the team, can double-shift and often is asked to play against the opponents top lines.
Who wins each conference and the league?
Andrew: There will be a changing of the guard in the East. After three straight titles the Edmonton Oil Kings will not be able to overcome the loss of key players like Griffin Reinhart, Henrik Samuelsson, Mitch Moroz, and most likely Curtis Lazar. Two teams will emerge to fight for their spot — Calgary and Brandon. The Hitmen have a deep team, good scoring from guys like Jake Virtanen and Greg Chase and will be solid on the blue line. Brandon is going to be one of the most fun teams to watch this season. They can score and have a lot of high-end offensive players who will light up the league all season long. The big question with the Wheat Kings is defense. They were not great last year and if they can’t improve they will struggle to keep up with Calgary. Look for Calgary to take the East this season and head to the WHL Finals.
In the West it will be a repeat of last year — a battle between Portland and Kelowna. Both teams have new coaches and scoring depth and should again meet in the conference finals. The Rockets have a better defense and goalie Jackson Whistle will be able to step in and give them as solid play as they got from Jordon Cooke. This is the year that the Rockets will overcome the Winterhawks and get back to the WHL Finals.
In the finals the Hitmen will defeat Kelowna in six games and move on to the Memorial Cup.
Tim: Edmonton is my favorite to win the East, barely beating out Calgary for the conference’s top seed. Last year’s Memorial Cup winners will be losing a lot, including head coach Derek Laxdal, but will likely return some high-end talent, including goaltender Tristan Jarry, who is one of the best in the league, and Curtis Lazar, who is one of the league’s best two-way forwards. Lazar still has the potential to stick with the Ottawa Senators, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be a dominant player in the WHL. Stepping up behind the bench is Steve Hamilton, who was an assistant with the team and therefore knows the roster well.
In the West, Kelowna looks like the clear cut winner, despite also losing their coach, Ryan Huska, who was one of the best in the WHL. The Rockets are loaded with talent, including whichever three of their four 20-year-olds they decide to keep around, future first-round NHL draft pick Nick Merkley, defenseman Madison Bowey, and goaltender Jackson Whistle. Replacing Huska will be difficult for new bench boss Dan Lambert, but the roster is so stacked that his job shouldn’t be too difficult.
Who is a sleeper team in each conference?
Tim: In the East, Edmonton and Calgary seem to be the favorites to finish near the top, but Brandon could surprise both. They cracked the playoffs as the seventh seed last season and advanced to the second round before falling to the Oil Kings four games to one. The Wheat Kings have some impressive offensive talent in John and Peter Quenneville, Jayce Hawryluk, and Tim McGauley. On defense, Eric Roy and Ryan Pilon are studs, import Ivan Provorov will step in and contribute right away, and 16-year-old Kale Clague should make an impact in his rookie season. If Jordan Papirny can step up in net, the Wheat Kings could sneak by either of the conferenceâ€™s favorites.
In the West, the T-Birds stand as my sleeper team. They have the top-end talent to match anyone in the conference, but they lack experience. If the young guys take their expected steps forward and can provide some scoring, the T-Birds could finish as one of the conference’s top three seeds. Questions remain in net and the veteran defensive group will need to gel, but if everything falls in place, watch out for Seattle.
Andrew: In the East I think the Red Deer Rebels could be a team who makes some noise. Brent Sutter has guys like Connor Bleackley who can score and Haydn Fleury will be a force on the back end. The big question for the Rebels will be their goaltending. The two guys on their roster have little to no WHL experience but Taz Burman, a 17-year-old, is an NHL draft prospect and if he can step up in his draft year, look out for the Rebels.
Out West it seems like nobody is talking about the Victoria Royals. The Royals finished third in the conference last year and return a great deal of their better players. Austin Carroll, Brandon Magee and Axel Blomqvist are solid forwards who will consistently score and Coleman Vollrath in net is as good as they get. Victoria is tough and will hit you for 60 minutes, a match up that could cause trouble for both Portland and Kelowna.
Who leads the WHL in scoring?
Andrew: Portland’s Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand are the two best offensive players in the league. Bjorkstrand looks like he is ready for an unbelievable season. However, both of these guys are going to miss a lot of time with the NHL camps and World Junior Championships this year, which may limit both to 55-60 games. Because of that, they won’t lead the league in scoring. I’m going off the board with a truly fearless prediction and picking Greg Chase of the Calgary Hitmen. Chase was 16th in the WHL in scoring last year but is 19-years-old now and will have a big scorer like Virtanen to play with, look for him to be on top of the scoring list.
Tim: This should be a two-way race between Portland’s two biggest studs, Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand. Petan will be 19 and has an astounding 233 points in his past two seasons. Bjorkstrand was a 50-goal scorer last year and could exceed that total this year. The two players’ success depends on each other, as they play together on Portland’s top line, which should be the highest scoring in the league. Petan is more of a play maker while Bjorkstrand is a better finisher, but both guys are capable of setting up goals and potting them themselves. I expect Petan to edge out Bjorkstrand this year, but it’s sure to be a close race all season long.
Which of the league’s new head coaches will have the most success?
Tim: New Kelowna head coach Don Lambert is entering a very good situation. The Rockets should be a lock for one of the top two seeds in the WHL’s Western Conference and after getting beaten four games to one by Portland in last year’s playoffs, will look to unseat the Winterhawks atop the West. Kelowna is a good candidate to represent the WHL in the Memorial Cup and should win over 50 games for the third straight season.
Andrew: Ten coaches will be starting with new teams this weekend. Ten. That’s a pretty big number in a 22-team league and it will be fascinating to watch how they and their team’s react. Kelowna’s Dan Lambert will end up having the most success as he will lead the Rockets into the WHL Final. Lambert has been an assistant in Kelowna during departing coach Ryan Huska’s tenure and there should be little fall off. He knows the players, the system and they know him.
Follow Tim Pigulski and Andrew Eide on Twitter @tpigulski @andreweide.