By Tim Pigulski
Like most teams in the WHL, the Thunderbirds will be forced to make some tough choices in regards to the three 20-year-old players that the team will enter the 2013-14 regular season with. As it stands, there are currently four players on the roster who will be 20 years old when the season begins: left wing Mitch Elliot, right wings Seth Swenson and Connor Sanvido, and defenseman Jesse Forsberg.
Three of those players could stick around, but even that may be tough for general manager Russ Farwell to make happen, as it looks as though the T-Birds will seek to acquire a starting goaltender via trade, much in the same way they targeted Brandon Glover last season. Capable netminders are at a premium in the league and securing one from another club that is capable of starting usually means that they'll need to occupy one of the coveted overage spots. Last year, Glover became expendable to the Calgary Hitmen because they had another very good backstop in Chris Driedger.
Seattle picked up 19-year-old goalie and former Prince George Cougar Devon Fordyce during the offseason, but he has just 18 games of WHL experience. Fordyce excelled in 13 games in the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season, but entrusting him to be the starting goalie in a more competitive league would be risky for a team hoping to build off of a first-round playoff exit.
Of the four returning players, Swenson seems the most likely to return. However, take that with a grain of salt, as many, including myself, also expected defenseman Brad Deagle to stick around last season as he would have been the only 20-year-old blueliner on the roster, but he was let go before the season began.
Since being acquired from Portland at the 2011-12 trade deadline, Swenson has been a dependable two-way forward and has averaged over a half a point per game with the Thunderbirds, making him the highest scorer on this list. The Parker, Colo. native has also been a leader on the ice and in the locker room, a valuable asset considering the team lost captain Luke Lockhart and alternate captain Adam Kambeitz to graduation.
Sanvido enjoyed a breakout season in 2012-13, scoring 15 goals and 29 points while playing in all 72 games. He's had a very up-and-down career in Seattle, which began with him being the 14th overall pick in the 2008 draft and at one point, saw him sent home by the team. Sanvido has good speed and a nice shot but has seemed to have trouble creating the space to utilize those attributes. He did a better job this past season and his potential, even as a 20-year-old, makes him a legitimate contender for one of the 20-year-old spots.
Elliot is a curious case. He has menacing size at 6 feet 6 and may be the most feared fighter in the entire league. With that size, he also has very good speed and can put those two qualities together to lay some vicious hits. I predicted last season that Elliot would have a bit of an offensive breakout of his own, but that never happened. He had just four points, which tied a career low, and was also held scoreless in seven playoff games.
Another factor that may play into Elliot's favor is the signing of touted prospect Mathew Barzal. The 5-foot-11 center is one of the most hyped athletes to come through Seattle in recent memory and it's those type of players that opposing enforcers like to intimidate. Having Elliot on the bench would create a very good deterrent for those who may try to take liberties with the Thunderbirds' skill forwards. It's debatable whether or not a player deserves a roster spot based on his toughness, but the impact of his presence would be undeniable. It shouldn't be ignored that Elliot is also a respected presence in the community and the classroom, winning numerous awards for academic excellence and community service.
Finally, there's Forsberg, a talented defenseman with an unfortunate knack for letting his emotions get the best of him. The Waldheim, Saskatchewan native had 26 points in 66 regular-season games and an impressive five points in the playoffs. More than once, however, he took a penalty in a bad situation, frustrating his coaching staff and turning momentum over to the opposition.
The biggest factor in determining who the Thunderbirds keep may very well be what they can get in return in a trade. None of these players stands out as a Brendan Shinnimin type -- that is, someone who can average nearly two points per game as a 20-year-old, as Shinnimin did for the Americans in 2011-12.
Skilled 20-year-old defensemen aren't easy to come by, which may make Forsberg an attractive option to other clubs. An opposing general manager may think that they can capitalize on the potential that made Sanvido a first-round pick. Elliot could be desirable to a club needing to protect its own prized talent.
At least one of these players is sure to go, but two is a possibility as well, as the need for an experienced goaltender trumps the benefits that each of these players could potentially bring to the roster.
Just about every team in Major Junior hockey faces this same dilemma every offseason, so this is nothing new for the players or front office. Fortunately for the Thunderbirds, they haven't put themselves in the same position as the Saskatoon Blades, who stocked up on 19-year-olds in their run for the Memorial Cup and now have 15 overage players on their roster.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.