Thunderbirds’ Sahvan Khaira, Luke Ormsby thrust into new, larger roles with key centers missing

Dec 16, 2015, 2:05 PM | Updated: 5:39 pm

Before this season began, it was expected that December might be a tough month up the middle for the Thunderbirds. No. 1 center Mathew Barzal would surely be missing for Canada’s World Junior festivities and Alexander True would do the same for his Danish team.

Scott Eansor, a native of Engelwood, Col., was a question mark, as some wondered whether he would be noticed enough to be invited to Team USA’s World Junior Selection Camp. The stepping stone to Eansor’s childhood dream came to fruition as he was invited to the camp and is currently vying for a roster spot.

Related: Short-handed T-Birds turn game over to Cougars 6-2

What that’s meant for Seattle is that their top three centers are missing, with the only natural center who remains being 16-year-old Matthew Wedman. Wedman has had an impressive rookie campaign, but asking a first year player to step into the role of No. 1 center will always be difficult.

Also lining up at center for last night’s ugly 6-2 loss to the Prince George Cougars were Donovan Neuls, Sahvan Khaira and Luke Ormsby.

Neuls is listed as a center on the T-Birds roster, but has spent nearly his entire WHL career on the wing. A good two-way player who plays the game with loads of energy and is constantly fighting for pucks, Neuls was a natural choice to fill in for one of the vacant center spots. With him on the ice, Seattle doesn’t miss much of a step.

After Wedman and Neuls, things get a bit trickier. Khaira is a defenseman by trade, though he has taken shifts at forward in each of his first two years in the WHL. However, even when he has lined up at forward, he’s almost never asked to take faceoffs, which have never been a task required of him at any level. On Tuesday night, he was in the faceoff circle for the game’s opening draw.

“(Khaira) has probably taken 20 faceoffs in his life,” said head coach Steve Konowalchuk after the loss to Prince George. “He’s doing what he can. He’s got a grasp of the forecheck.”

The inexperience was evident Tuesday night when not only Khaira, but everyone struggled in the faceoff circle. Those lost faceoffs meant the T-Birds were immediately on the defensive and their puck possession numbers suffered as a result. However, it’s tough to place much of that blame on Khaira, a 17-year-old who was playing almost an entirely new position. To his credit, his experience as a defenseman makes him a more effective defensive zone center, as he’s essentially the team’s third d-man when the puck is at that end of the ice.

Ormsby is another 16-year-old who was playing in his first WHL game. He certainly looked like he belonged in the lineup, despite surely being nervous playing in his first game in front of what was essentially a hometown crowd. The Monroe, Wash. native wasn’t tasked with taking many faceoffs or eating up much ice time, but his presence did show that Seattle was putting together a patchwork lineup in the middle. It would be tough for anyone to come in and make a big contribution just 12 days after signing his WHL Standard Player Agreement.

Wedman’s been an impressive contributor on faceoffs, but it’s tough to dictate the pace of play when three of your four centers are either playing out of position or in their first WHL game. Konowalchuk wasn’t ready to blame Seattle’s inefficiencies in the faceoff circle for the loss, but they certainly didn’t help. Winning approximately one out of every three faceoffs isn’t a recipe for success, but those difficulties are a symptom of key players missing, and something that they’ll need to overcome if they don’t want the month of December to go down the drain.

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Thunderbirds’ Sahvan Khaira, Luke Ormsby thrust into new, larger roles with key centers missing