By Tim Pigulski
The Thunderbirds will play their first competitive hockey since April this weekend as they participate in the annual preseason tournament at the Comcast Arena in Everett. With the regular season quickly approaching, Seattle still has a number of competitions and question marks that have yet to be resolved.
Goalies. It now appears that the Thunderbirds are comfortable entering the season with one of 19-year-old Devon Fordyce, 18-year-old Justin Myles, or 17-year-old Danny Mumaugh as the full-time starter in net.
Mumaugh, who didn't see much action in training camp due to an upper-body injury, played in 18 games last season and showed improvement as he received more playing time, but may have trouble earning a spot simply due to his age.
Myles entered last season as the backup but was sidelined with injury for the majority of the season. He'll be hoping for a strong comeback this year.
Fordyce is a bit of an enigma, as he hasn't put up noteworthy numbers during his brief WHL appearances, but was impressive playing at lower levels. Reports are that many front offices were surprised that Prince George let him go, so he may have some untapped potential that the T-Birds are hoping to unleash this season.
None of the three goalies stood head and shoulders above the rest during camp, meaning the competition is still wide open as the seven-game preseason begins.
Defense. The Thunderbirds return their top six defensemen from the playoffs last season, but a number of rookies, including Austin Douglas and Ethan Bear, will be pushing hard for roster spots.
Douglas, 17, has impressive size at 6 feet 6 and looked confident rushing the puck up the ice during camp, but those pinches meant he sometimes found himself caught out of position as the puck moved the other direction.
Bear, entering his first year of full-time eligibility in the WHL, has been impressive playing both ways during training camp. Although he sees himself as more of a defensive defenseman, Bear showed some flair on the offensive end as well, including a big and accurate shot from the point. With everyone from last season returning, as well as Kevin Wolf, who saw time before being injured, we could see the team make a trade or two to clear up the logjam at the blue line.
A few other defensemen were strong during camp as well, but will have an even more difficult time cracking the roster as they will likely have to jump ahead of these two as well to do so.
Line combinations. Seattle returns six of its top eight scoring forwards from last season and also hopes to see the return of a healthy Branden Troock, who is one of the team's most gifted offensive weapons when healthy. With the likely additions of rookies Mathew Barzal, Lane Pederson, Scott Eansor, and Keegan Kolesar, the Thunderbirds could feature three lines capable of scoring goals, a luxury they haven't been afforded in years past.
During camp, the line centered by Barzal with Roberts Lipsbergs on his left wing and one of either Justin Hickman or Seth Swenson on his right was impressive. However, it's a lot of responsibility to ask a 16-year-old rookie to handle number one center responsibilities, so it may instead be Alex Delnov's line, which featured Connor Honey as his right wing during camp and a rotating group of players on his left.
It's highly likely that head coach Steve Konowalchuk will try a number of various line combinations during the preseason to find the chemistry that works best. It will certainly be an interesting story to watch, as there will be over 10 players fighting for spots on one of the top two lines.
The tournament begins tomorrow morning at 11:30 a.m. against the Tri-City Americans, and is followed by games at 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday against the Victoria Royals and Spokane Chiefs, respectively. All three opposing clubs were strong last year and this weekend should provide some insight into their new and returning talent.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.