The T-Birds head into the off season with some momentum after an exciting playoff run (Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
With the dust having been cleared from the 2012-13 Thunderbirds season, it is time to start thinking about next year. After ending their playoff drought, the T-Birds are in position to take some big strides next year. They return seven of their top nine scorers along with a now experienced defense as they try to make a run next season.
General manager Russ Farwell will have to plug a few holes, as does every junior hockey head man, to get the T-Birds to the upper echelon of the Western Conference. But for the first time in a while, they have a great foundation to start with.
Seattle was young this past year, but Farwell felt in the end they took some much needed strides.
"Well, I think it was a success in that we really took a step," he said of the completed season. "I thought going into the past three weeks of the regular season we really started to learn to play real hard every night. I thought the guys got into that. We didn't win every game, but we really went after that playoff spot after we came out of that dip we had. I thought we were playing properly, we were hungry and really forced the play."
As head coach Steve Konowalchuk said after the season Farwell believed that maybe the T-Birds were better than their 24-38-7-3 record showed.
"We had such a funny year with some of the stuff that happened and that long, long stretch where we didn't win after Christmas," Farwell said. "We really thought we would be running with those teams for fourth, fifth and sixth place, but we had to fight just to get in. So yeah, we thought we were better, but you have to prove that. I think we did play at the end; I thought the guys really stepped up. I thought at the end we really did take a step."
Farwell said he felt most of the guys on the roster performed as expected. He was especially happy with the progress of defenseman Jerret Smith, whom he felt showed signs last season. He also mentioned a couple of other players he thought showed a great deal of promise for the club.
"The guy that really pushed through, when (Evan) Wardley and (Jesse) Forsberg were out, was (Griffin) Foulk," he said. "He really stepped up and gave us a real solid D in the playoffs. That was nice to see. (Alex) Delnov became very important to us, he was one of our most skilled guys up front and how competitive we were, often depended on him to get the game going."
Junior hockey is unique in that every year you have to say goodbye to players that really pulled the team along. For Seattle, that player was 20-year-old captain Luke Lockhart. Lockhart ended his career in Seattle second on the all-time games played list, and he put the team on his back the last month of the season. While Farwell felt he was a great player for Seattle, he also knows that every year you have to move on.
"He didn't say a lot," Farwell said of the captain. "When you really knew him and saw him play, he just played so hard. I saw him play over the years with some significant injuries and it never even crossed his mind not to play. He blocked shots, he played three weeks to a month with a separated shoulder and he just powered through that. He meant a lot, but it's junior hockey and guys are moving through, so that's just the way it is, but Lock's carved out a great career for himself."
By coming close to pulling off what would have been a historic upset in the playoffs, the T-Birds feel like they have built up some good momentum for next year. They were playing hard and with confidence, showing that they can compete with the WHL's top clubs. All that seems like it bodes well for this fall's season.
"I hope so," Farwell says. "I think the guys were close enough that they got a taste of what's going on. I think to a man, we're all very disappointed, and that's a good sign. You need to get close to understand what it's like in order to go further. I think together they grew as a team a little bit. We've been going with such an inexperienced group on the back line, but those guys now, at 18, they're not giving anything away anymore. They can compete with anyone in the league. We're excited about next year."
Last season the T-Birds had to find a replacement for do-everything goalie Calvin Pickard. They brought in over-ager Brandon Glover in an off-season trade that paid off for them. Glover gave them some stability in goal, and he turned in an amazing performance in the playoffs to give the T-Birds a chance in each game. As he now moves on, the T-Birds once again find themselves looking to shore up their crease.
Last season Justin Myles won the back-up spot in camp, but an injury, his second in two years, sidelined him for most of the season. Danny Mumaugh came in to back up Glover and showed some signs later in the season that he might have a bright future. Myles and Mumaugh have promise but are pretty young, something that usually is tough to win with in this league. Seattle may have to look for another goalie this summer.
"We'll have to sort that out," Farwell says of his goalie situation. "Myles was just cleared the last week; he could have come back. That injury really cost him another year, developmentally, so we don't know where he'll be at and we can't really expect him to step in and be our goalie, but he's going to be in the mix. He pushed his way in this year. Mumaugh really improved, but he'll only be 17 so we may look to bring in more experience there."
With Lockhart moving on, and with over-ager Adam Kambeitz also gone, the T-Birds also have a need at center. Alex Delnov and Andrew Johnson are the only two returning players who have a lot of experience at center. It's another position Seattle will have to take a look at this summer. Of course, if they can get last year's first-round pick Mathew Barzal signed, the position will look a lot better.
"Well the first thing we want to do is keep moving ahead with Barzal," Farwell says. "If we can cement that, get it done, he's a guy that can change that (the center position) a bit. We have some guys that can play center off and on depending on where we're at. We might need some experience at that position, we'll see."
Barzal of course is the big story for the T-Birds. He was the top pick in last year's draft and is a player that is good enough to come in and contribute at 16 years old next season. There has been a great deal of speculation and discussion about what Barzal wants to do this season, and it seems like the end may soon come. Barzal, and the club, have both said that he will make a final decision before May's Bantam draft. Farwell seems cautiously optimistic about the chances of Barzal coming to play.
"We've been talking quite a bit and I think he was coached so much to take his time that he felt he had to do that," Farwell said of the young star. "But I think things have gone fairly well. I was up (in B.C.) to see a midget team recently and Matt and his Dad were both there and we talked. We want to get it resolved as early as we can; we're thinking some time early in the summer. He watched all the (playoff) games online, (and) he told me they watched them all. They watched them as a family - a number of our lists players told me that."
It would be hard to imagine the T-Birds not making any moves this summer. If they do want to make any trades this summer, it seems likely they would move a defenseman to make it happen. They find themselves in a situation where they have a great deal of depth on the back end. Will they move one of them?
"We have a number of guys signed on defense. We're going to have to juggle things there," Farwell said of his blue liners. "I think (Ethan) Bear's knocking on the door to play and so there's a good chance we might look at it. I don't know when that will happen. Sometimes it's in the off season, but I don't know that there's good value there. We might get to camp and then look to see what's available."
The next big date on the off-season schedule for Farwell and the T-Birds is the Bantam Draft, held on May 2,in Calgary. Seattle will have the eighth, 22nd (from Portland) and 27th picks and are in a good position to load up on some good prospects for the second straight season. Farwell said they look to pick up the best player available instead of focusing on any player in particular.
With the young players they already have drafted and having three picks in the top 30 again, Seattle has a chance to build a solid club for the next few seasons to come.
"We're happy with the steps our young guys took this year," Farwell said. "We're still optimistic that we can talk to (2011 first rounder Ryan) Gropp and get him thinking our way, too. If we can do that then we're in a position to really take a step forward as a team - that's our hope. We want to be fairly active in the summer and just work on convincing some of the guys to come play. That's the next step for us."
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