By Tim Pigulski
Fifteen-year-old wing Keegan Kolesar is big.
Despite his youth, the Winnipeg, Manitoba native already possesses the impressive size that will allow him to screen goalies in the WHL for years to come. Standing 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds, opposing defenders will have a difficult time pushing Kolesar off of the puck.
But it's not just his size that has the Seattle fan base and front office excited.
After being drafted in the first round, 20th overall, by Seattle in the 2012 Bantam Draft, the pressure is on Kolesar and the team's other draftees to grow up quickly and contribute as soon as they hit the ice.
In fact, Kolesar says the most useful piece of advice he's received from his future teammates is to make his presence felt early.
"Stepping on the ice at first I saw how intense the pace was," Kolesar said of his first game in Portland. "I can't bring the team down. I need to be a strong player and I can't look out of place. Not only do I need to fit in here, but I need to excel."
In what turned out to be his lone WHL game, the right-handed shooting forward made an impact, despite the team being shut out 5-0. Throughout the night Kolesar was able to create a number of scoring chances for his teammates and looks like he's going to be a contributor early in his career.
Although he acknowledges himself as more of a playmaker than a scorer, Kolesar is still able to create chances for himself as well, as he did in one memorable instance versus the Winterhawks.
"Right after warmups when I stepped on the ice, I was shaking," Kolesar remembers about his debut. "I was overwhelmed, but once the game started I felt right at home. One time I was able to split the defense and almost had a goal, but [Portland goaltender] Mac Carruth made a great save on me."
It's not surprising to hear that he was a bit shell-shocked, facing off against one of the top teams in the entire Canadian Hockey League at the Rose Garden in Portland in front of a crowd of 10,358.
"Just getting called up in the first place was amazing," says Kolesar, who says his mother sent him a text message while he was at school letting him know that he'd be heading to Seattle. "Even though I only got in to one game, I got to practice with the team and took a lot out of the experience. I think I made some huge improvements while I was there."
Just a few days after the New Year's Eve game, Kolesar boarded a plane back home to Winnipeg, where he'll resume play with his Midget organization, the Winnipeg Thrashers, who currently sit in first place in the Manitoba Midget Provincial League.
The success his team is experiencing is great, but the T-Birds' second pick in last year's draft knows he has some personal goals to work towards as well.
"I need to work on the little things, especially my foot speed," acknowledges Kolesar. "I'm such a big guy that if I'm not moving my feet constantly, I can get lost behind the play. There are lots of other little things, like my sense of urgency with the puck, that I'm working on that will help me progress as a player."
Mathew Barzal, Seattle's first pick and the first in the entire draft, was likely an obvious choice for the front office, as many project him as a future first line NHL player. As a result, who was going to be available towards the end of the first round was probably a more difficult situation for general manager Russ Farwell and company to assess.
"At the beginning of the season, I did a questionnaire for them, but after that we didn't talk for a while," Kolesar recalls of the Bantam Draft process. "My mom had spoken to Mark Romas, the Manitoba area scout, but other than that I wasn't really expecting to be picked by Seattle.
"In fact, I had gotten a call the night before from [the] Regina [Pats] and they said that they were going to try to make a trade to pick me."
Along with second-round pick Ethan Bear, Kolesar signed with the team very quickly, about one month after being selected. Kolesar's agents and his cousin and current Montreal Canadiens center, Ryan White, recommended that he sign with the team early.
After visiting the city and having a chance to spend time with some of the players, it was an easy decision for Kolesar to give his commitment to the organization.
"I really believe in the team and I think the WHL is the best way to make it to the NHL," he said. "It's a great development program and I was more than thrilled to sign with [Seattle]."
Barzal, unlike Kolesar and Bear, has yet to sign with the team, but the organization is hopeful that a positive decision will be coming in the near future. If he does choose to commit, Kolesar believes that a tandem consisting of him and Barzal would be able to put up points in bunches.
"I haven't chatted with Matt about [the subject of signing]. Back in camp we were just focused on playing," he says of the interaction between the two since being drafted. "If the time comes where he does decide to sign, he'd be a great contributor to the team. Down the road, I think we could bring the T-Birds a lot of wins."