By Tim Pigulski
11. Defense: quantity or quality? The Thunderbirds return their top seven defensemen from last season and have a few new additions trying to earn themselves a spot as well. Many, myself included, believed general manager Russ Farwell would have made a couple of moves to free up some space on the blue line, but to date, we've seen nothing. There isn't an easy move to make as each defenseman on the roster brings something unique. Shea Theodore, a first-round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks, is the only player who looks to be an absolute lock, as he has a couple more seasons left in the league and is already one of the WHL's elite offensive defensemen.
10. Inexperience in net. Between Danny Mumaugh, Devon Fordyce, and Justin Myles, the T-Birds have just 44 games of regular season experience in net. It was thought that one or two defensemen might be dealt in an effort to obtain a more experienced goalie, but that didn't happen. None of the goalies have really set themselves apart during training camp, but Justin Myles seems to have had the slight edge. It's possible that the team could keep all three goalies, at least during the early part of the season, in case of injury or under-performance.
9. Mathew Barzal. There is an enormous amount of hype surrounding the 16-year-old former first overall pick, but it looks like he's going to be able to handle it. Barzal has been strong in the preseason, despite being benched for the third period of the team's final regular season game versus Everett. At previous points, head coach Steve Konowalchuk has been impressed with Barzal's leadership and play with the puck. The team's veteran players have also raved about his vision and talent. Inconsistency is something to be expected of a rookie, but when he's on his game, Barzal has a chance to be one of the league's best.
8. Special teams. Both the power play (14) and penalty kill (13) finished in the lower half of the standings after the 2012-13 regular season, but the power play haunted the Thunderbirds during their first round playoff series against the Kelowna Rockets, where they were an ugly 0-for-27. The penalty kill wasn't much better in the postseason, when they finished 12th out of 16 teams, allowing six goals on 29 chances. With Barzal and Branden Troock added to the man advantage, as well as Theodore's continued progress, the power play should eventually become a strong point. On the penalty kill, an extra year of experience for the defensemen and a new assistant coach in Matt O'Dette, who is committed to a defense-first philosophy, should improve the PK significantly.
7. Can Branden Troock stay healthy? Troock's talent has been on display since he arrived at the ShoWare Center for a brief stint as a 15-year-old. Now 19, Troock has only played close to a full season once, when he played in 58 games in 2011-12. After a shoulder injury last year, Troock finally returned to play in the T-Birds' last four preseason games and had one goal and three assists. A dynamic power forward with soft hands, Troock has the ability to beat defenses in multiple ways. He has the potential to be the Thunderbirds' leading scorer and one of the best forwards in the WHL if he can stay on the ice. His presence could very well mean a difference of a few places in the standings.
6. Shea Theodore's progress. After scoring 19 goals and 31 assists last season, "Theo" looks like he's in for a huge year. At just 17, he showed he was one of the league's best offensive defensemen and an elite skater with incredible vision. At times last year, Theodore was able to carry the puck the length of the ice and make plays entirely on his own. With a stronger supporting cast and another year of experience, Theodore could become a point-per-game defenseman, and he also looks to be committed to improved play and physicality in his own end.
5. Who is going to play center? Barzal and Alex Delnov look like locks in the middle, but the other two center spots appear to be undecided. At times during the preseason, Seth Swenson, Michal Holub, Lane Pederson, and Scott Eansor have lined up in the middle. Whoever gets the nod will have the opportunity to play with a solid set of wings, which leads to the next point.
4. Depth on offense. The T-Birds could feature a number of potent scoring lines this season and force opposing head coaches to make some difficult decisions, which isn't a luxury they've had in the past. With players such as Branden Troock, Connor Honey, Riley Sheen, Roberts Lipsbergs, Justin Hickman, and the aforementioned Delnov, Barzal, and Swenson, the team has eight forwards who could put up over 50 points this season and a few who could do much more damage than that. Most teams don't have the defensive depth to handle over two scoring lines, so the Thunderbirds should be able to put up a lot more points this year, barring significant injury.
3. Rookies. The Thunderbirds seem almost guaranteed to have at least four rookies on their opening night roster (Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Pederson, and Eansor) and could have a few more depending on what the team decides to do with Carter Folk, Ethan Bear, and Austin Douglas. While this year may present a learning curve for the team's youth, the future appears to be very bright.
2. Who will be the new captain? As of Sunday, the team still had yet to name a captain. Jesse Forsberg, Honey, Swenson, and Hickman seem like they could all be possibilities, but Konowalchuk hasn't tipped his hand yet. Swenson, Hickman, and Forsberg all have worn an "A" at some point, so it seems likely that one of them has the upper hand.
1. Playoff expectations. We all know the story from last season -- the T-Birds nearly upset the heavily favored Kelowna Rockets after squeaking into the playoffs. This season, expectations will be much higher. The T-Birds should be hoping to have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs and advance at least to the second round, where they haven't been since the 2007-2008 season. After getting a taste of success last season, the veterans know what they need to do to succeed and will work hard to ensure that a meltdown doesn't occur as it did at the end of the Kelowna series.
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