By Tim Pigulski
The Thunderbirds received some tough news Thursday, when former first-round draft pick Ryan Gropp decided to commit to the University of North Dakota. While it certainly doesn't eliminate the possibility of Gropp someday suiting up for the T-Birds, the chance that it happens is now greatly diminished.
After Seattle inked center Mathew Barzal to a contract, rumors swirled that Gropp might be wavering on his original plan to play in the NCAA. However, he visited UND earlier this week and decided that it's the place he wanted to be. Negotiations between the Thunderbirds and the Kamloops, British Columbia, native have been ongoing for the past two seasons, but it became evident early on that Seattle was going to have a difficult time attracting the big left wing.
As one of just three non-CHL players invited to Canada's U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament tryout camp, Gropp's talent is undeniable. In his rookie season in the very competitive British Columbia Hockey League last year, he registered 12 goals and 19 assists in 50 regular season games, and four goals and five assists in 15 playoff contests.
With his late birthday, Gropp still has one more season before he'll be able to suit up for the Fighting Sioux in North Dakota, meaning the Thunderbirds have an opportunity to continue pursuing him if they so choose. However, at this point, it seems that it would be best for Seattle to save their resources and move on with the expectation that Gropp won't be joining the team.
Even with Gropp seemingly out of the picture, the Thunderbirds still have a crowded roster that will force them to make some tough decisions this offseason. With the additions of Barzal, center Scott Eansor, defensemen Ethan Bear and Austin Douglas, and another former first-round pick in right wing Keegan Kolesar, the Thunderbirds have a good problem in that they have a number of young players with high ceilings who can be good players in the WHL.
After the addition of Barzal, who is reportedly a good friend of Gropp's, I expected a decision to come at the end of summer after Gropp had taken his college visits that would ultimately end in the Thunderbirds' favor. Even a couple months ago I would have felt very differently about the outcome in the Gropp situation, but the big moves that the Thunderbirds made at the beginning of this offseason seemed to be the type that would positively influence his eventual decision. However, he stuck with his original plan to attend college and follow in his father's footsteps.
It's tough to find anyone at fault in this situation, as Gropp told the Thunderbirds prior to being drafted that he may eventually decide to go to the WHL. Even with some uncertainty in his situation, Seattle felt his potential was too much to pass up on and they stayed in the hunt for his services quite a bit longer than I think most expected. Gropp, on the other hand, is still just 16 years old and never gave any official commitment to the T-Birds. He and his parents made what they felt was the best decision for his academic and athletic success by choosing to attend one of the top hockey programs in the United States, and you have to hope that he eventually finds success with his choice. As talented as this young man is, you have to believe that we'll be hearing much more from him in the future.
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