Is this year the T-Birds’ best shot to make a deep playoff run?
With just 13 games left in the regular season for the Thunderbirds, the playoffs are all but assured and the season’s final few weeks will serve to determine seeding.
Seattle currently sits fourth in the Western Conference, one point ahead of the Prince George Cougars with a game in hand and five points behind division rival Everett, who they T-Birds play three more times during the regular season.
While fourth place isn’t exceptional, the T-Birds have won five of their past six and were 16 seconds away from taking the only loss during that stretch to overtime. A team predicted by many to compete for the No. 1 seed in the West, Seattle appears to be finding its groove at the right time, which can make all the difference when the postseason arrives.
Seattle has an impressive balance of talent across the roster, but it’s very possible that much of that talent won’t be around next season to once again put the Thunderbirds in a position to compete for a WHL title.
First and foremost, Seattle’s three 20 year olds – defensemen Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf and goaltender Landon Bow – will all be gone. That’s a ton of experience and the top defensive pairing that will need to be replaced, as well as a goalie who has been impressive in his brief stint in the Pacific Northwest. It’s impossible to quantify the number of goals that have been kept out of the net by this trio, but it’s certainly a high number.
Next, there’s Ryan Gropp, who is perhaps Seattle’s best natural goal scorer and its No. 1 left wing. Gropp, who will turn 20 in September, recently signed his Entry Level Contract with the New York Rangers, which means he’s eligible to join their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, next season.
Aside from Gropp, Seattle has four 19 year olds: Scott Eansor, Cavin Leth, Andreas Schumacher, and Josh Uhrich. Schumacher, as both an import and an overage player next year, likely won’t return. A bigger question surrounds Eansor, who played for the United States in the World Junior Championship and received an invite to the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie development camp. The pesky, high-motor center has shown he can make an impact at both ends of the ice and may be an outside candidate to earn a professional contract.
The biggest question mark when looking ahead to next season, of course, is 18-year-old center Mathew Barzal. With 71 points in 47 games, the Coquitlam, British Columbia native is undeniably Seattle’s most talented offensive player. Opponents gameplan around him, but that rarely prevents him from controlling play in the neutral and offensive zones.
Barzal isn’t the biggest player at 6-feet tall and 180 pounds, which may be the largest uncertainty surrounding his preparedness for the NHL. He was a long shot to make the Islanders, who drafted him No. 16 overall last June, as an 18 year old, but he was reportedly very impressive in training camp and even stuck around for part of the preseason.
There’s no question that Barzal, who has also signed his Entry Level Contract, possesses the skillset and maturity of an NHL player, but whether the Islanders think his long-term development would be better served dominating the Western Hockey League or receiving limited minutes in the NHL remains to be seen.
It’s a very real possibility that next season’s Seattle Thunderbirds will look very different than the team that’s taken the ice this year. Talent comes and goes – it seems counter-intuitive that Seattle would be better built for a deep run after losing the WHL’s best defenseman in Shea Theodore this year – but it will be tough to replace many of the players who could be moving on.
There are a number of names that are more than likely to return. Forwards Keegan Kolesar, Nolan Volcan, Donovan Neuls, Alexander True and Nick Holowko should all be back. On the blue line, Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit will be the veterans, accompanied by up-and-comers Jarret Tyszka and Brandon Schuldhaus. And in net, Logan Flodell, who began the season sharing No. 1 goaltender duties, will be 19 and first in line to return to starting upon Bow’s graduation.
However, even with a healthy level of talent and experience returning, it’s very likely the T-Birds won’t see the same level of depth and top-end talent that they are able to boast this season, which means all signs point to this year being Seattle’s greatest opportunity to advance deep in the postseason.