By Tim Pigulski
Training camp for the 2013-14 Seattle Thunderbirds season opened Thursday as rookies and prospects faced off in two separate scrimmages.
Team White, highlighted by 1998-born prospects such as Kaden Elder, Nolan Volcan, and Sahvan Khaira, as well as 2012 picks Ethan Bear, Lane Pederson, and goalie Logan Flodell, won game one by a final score of 5-2.
Game two was a different story, as Team Blue won 4-2 behind impressive performances from former first-round picks Mathew Barzal and Dante Fabbro, along with contributions from 1997-born players Nick Holowko and Luke Osterman and a solid performance in net by 1998-born goaltender Ryan Gilchrist.
There were players that stood out on day one and should certainly have eyes on them as camp progresses. Prospect camp finishes tomorrow and main camp begins Saturday, where those hoping to make the team will have a chance to test their mettle against veterans already on the team.
Forwards. Any talk of forwards starts with super-prospect Barzal, who factored into the majority of Team Blue's goals and looked like a man among boys during the scrimmages. Barzal's vision and awareness are elite, as he was able to see plays before they developed and deliver crisp passes to those fortunate enough to play on his line. He won faceoffs, used his body well on offense and defense, and didn't waste any energy on his shifts. He'll be a force in the league as a rookie.
Along with Barzal, standouts up front included Volcan, Pederson, and Elder. Volcan and Elder, both eligible at the beginning of the 2014-15 season, were strong on the puck and played much bigger than their sub-6-feet frames. Pederson, a contender for a forward spot on the team this year, skated at wing after being drafted as a center. He displayed some fancy moves, including a spin-o-rama that left the opposing defenseman clueless, and seemed to adjust to his new position well. Holowko, a former teammate of Barzal's in bantam, looked strong as the two played on a line together and displayed strong chemistry. He was set up beautifully once by his former teammate in game two which led to what became the game-winning goal.
Defense. On defense, Bear was strong for Team White and looked like the best defenseman among the prospects. A defensive defenseman first, Bear has a big shot and isn't afraid to jump in on the offensive rush. Unfortunately for him and fellow 16-year-old Osterman, there is a bit of a logjam at defense. Currently there are ten players fighting for six spots, and as 16-year-olds with minimum game requirements, Bear and Osterman may find themselves as the odd men out unless some significant moves are made.
Osterman was impressive in his own right, scoring a goal in game two on a nice wrist shot from the blue line and delivering some punishing hits that left the T-Birds veterans who were in attendance cheering. An eighth-round choice last year, Seattle looks to have found a late-round steal who could be a contributor in this league.
Fabbro, the team's first-round selection this year, was very impressive in his first WHL training camp. He has the most offensive upside of any defenseman currently in the system and looks like he'll be a future power-play quarterback, but that doesn't mean he neglects his defensive responsibilities either. He held both blue lines well and displayed excellent chemistry with Barzal, who he also played with in bantam for the Burnaby Winter Club and has known since elementary school. The two will form a formidable tandem next season if Fabbro signs and should combine to be a force with the man advantage as well.
Goalies. While there are question marks in net for this season, the T-Birds look to have some strong prospects in the system.
Last year's third-round selection, Flodell, was strong in both scrimmages and looks to be in the lead to grab the starting spot when he's 18 years old. It's rare that goalies under 18 receive significant playing time, so we may not see him suit up in Seattle often before then, but if he continues to develop he could provide an answer in net.
In the second scrimmage, unheralded prospect Gilchrist looked strong playing for Team Blue. He saw through traffic and screens well and was in good position for the most part. He tracked the puck well, and, as a 1998-born player, could be someone to keep an eye on over the next few seasons.
Tomorrow will provide another chance for these players and the others to open some eyes and inject themselves into the fight for a roster spot now or later. Regardless, a number of players look to have serious WHL futures and it appears that the T-Birds' pipeline is getting stronger with each passing year.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.