Barzal, Kolesar expected to impress at training camp

Aug 9, 2012, 7:35 PM | Updated: 7:42 pm

By Tim Pigulski

A small consolation for missing the playoffs three consecutive seasons is that the Thunderbirds have been able to stockpile some high draft picks and create some hope for the future.

While no prospect is ever a sure thing, as scouts really can’t guarantee how a 14-year-old will develop, there are some to be extremely excited for. With training camp at the end of the month, some other unknowns are sure to add themselves to the list of players to keep an eye on. We’ve seen this in the past with some of the T-Birds’ more touted recent NHL Draft prospects, Shea Theodore and Colin Jacobs, who were selected in the third and fourth rounds of their respective WHL drafts.

Following the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season, another in which Seattle missed the playoffs, the team was fortunate to win the draft lottery and select center Mathew Barzal from Coquitlam, British Columbia first overall. Finishing with the WHL’s third worst regular season record, the T-Birds jumped two spots, ahead of Prince George and Prince Albert, for the chance to take Barzal.

Mathew Barzal

We’ve recently seen a number of WHL Bantam Draft first overall picks go on to have successful major junior careers — successful enough that they’ve been recognized with first-round NHL draft selections. Some of those picks include Derrick Pouliot to Portland in 2009 (eighth overall to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2012 NHL draft); Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to Red Deer in 2008 (first to the Edmonton Oilers 2011); Quinton Howden to Moose Jaw in 2007 (25th to the Florida Panthers in 2010); and Jared Cowen to Spokane in 2007 (ninth to the Ottawa Senators in 2009).

In a draft that many defined as “Barzal and everyone else”, it is hoped that he will come to Seattle and provide a Nugent-Hopkins-esque spark to the team when he is eligible in 2013. While only players from western Canada and the western United States are eligible for the WHL Bantam Draft, many consider Barzal to be the top prospect born in 1997, regardless of location. Some would assert that Connor McDavid, the OHL’s top draft pick, is ahead of Barzal, but Barzal earned top player recognitions (McDavid was No. 2) at the Allstate All-Canadian Mentorship Cup in July due to his consistency and chemistry with those around him.

Barzal is exactly the type of player who can come to the T-Birds and make an immediate impact. While playing for the Burnaby Winter Club Bantam A team last season, he tallied 39 goals and added 68 assists for an impressive 107 points in only 35 games played. Western Elite Hockey Prospects, one of the leading talent assessors in North America, describes Barzal as a “first-line centre and future leading scorer in the WHL.” His Bantam coach, who also coached Nugent-Hopkins, has said that Barzal is a better player at the same age.

A phenomenal skater with very good hockey sense, getting the young gun to sign in Seattle will be essential to turning things around. My gut feeling tells me that we’ll see Barzal at the ShoWare Center next season, as he’s got a clear-cut path through the WHL towards future NHL stardom.

Here you can see
highlights from a game last season between Barzal’s Burnaby Winter Club and the Sno Kings Bantam A1 team.

Aside from the phenom hailing from Burnaby, British Columbia, there are a number of other players providing hope to a suffering organization. Here are some of the top prospects for people to keep an eye out as we approach training camp at the end of the month.

W Ryan Gropp. The T-Birds’ first selection in the 2011 Draft, sixth overall, Gropp has yet to sign with the team and won’t be in training camp in a few weeks, which is a huge disappointment. Last week Seattle general manager Russ Farwell confirmed reports that Gropp would be playing for the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League this year, the first full season in which he’d be eligible to suit up for the T-Birds. However, Farwell also mentioned that there is hope that Gropp may pursue the Western Hockey League route in the future. With a late birthday affecting his NHL Draft prospects, the forward from Kamloops, British Columbia isn’t necessarily in a huge rush to make a commitment, but seems to still maintain the same goal of playing in the NHL, an ambition best reached by playing in the CHL, the WHL’s umbrella league.

His father, who played for Colorado College in the NCAA, has been encouraging Ryan to take the college route. When he was 15, Gropp measured 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds — great measurements for a future power forward. Before he was drafted, he expressed a great deal of interest in playing in the WHL, so we have to hope that his hockey career will at least make a stop in Seattle.

W Keegan Kolesar. If Gropp had good size at 15, then Kolesar is a beast. Measuring about 6 feet tall, Kolesar is reported to already weigh a solid 209 pounds — nearly 50 more than Gropp at the same age. By the time he is 18, I could see Kolesar being a sturdy 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. Often kids with such impressive size are lacking in other hockey areas, but scouts say that Kolesar displays impressive speed and hands around the net, where he’ll be expected to play when he reaches Seattle. And yes, the question is “when”, not “if” Kolesar will play in Seattle, as he has already signed an entry-level contract with the team.

As he was only drafted this offseason, we’ll have to wait until 2013 until Kolesar can suit up full time, but he’ll be at training camp in a couple of weeks and is very excited at the prospect of playing for the T-Birds. This is exactly the kind of talent and attitude that Seattle needs to turn things around. The pick used to select Kolesar (20th overall) was acquired from Portland in the Marcel Noebels trade.

D Austin Douglas. A 6-foot-5 defenseman from Manitoba, Douglas has impressive skating skill for a player of his size. Drafted in 2011, he, like Gropp, also has yet to sign. However, his social media profiles indicate that he is still excited to play for the T-Birds and attend prospect camp. Having Douglas, Jared Hauf (6-foot-4), and possibly Taylor Green (6-foot-6) on the blue line for the next couple of seasons could be quite the intimidating sight for opponents.

D Ethan Bear. Bear comes in as the sort of antithesis to Douglas and Hauf — a small, puck-moving offensive defenseman. The 5-foot-11, 189-pound defenseman, drafted near the top of the second round in 2012, has already signed with the team and, like Kolesar, is thrilled at the opportunity to play in the WHL. Last year Bear averaged over a point per game for his Bantam Tier 1 team and may do well to eventually pair up with one of the bigger bodies the T-Birds will have on defense in the coming years. Even with his current lack of size, Bear is no slouch physically and will still be doing plenty of growing before his time in the WHL is finished.

I’m sure training camp will reveal a lot more about these prospects and many others who have flown under the radar to this point. Be sure to come back and discuss some of the players that you felt were surprises/disappointments in the comments section.


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Barzal, Kolesar expected to impress at training camp