By Tim Pigulski
With Wednesday's addition of wing Erik Benoit, it appears that Mitch Elliot's time as a Thunderbird has come to an end and the roster for opening night looks pretty close to set. Here's a look at each player that has a shot at making the Thunderbirds' final roster for their opening-night game versus the Portland Winterhawks on Saturday.
Scott Eansor (17). The most recent player to join the T-Birds from the Colorado Thunderbirds midget program, Eansor may not put up big numbers as a rookie but will be counted on to do the little things well -- kill penalties, block shots, win battles in the corners, and be strong in both zones. Eansor has very good speed and works hard on every shift. He'll be a fun player to watch develop in this league.
Justin Hickman (19). Hickman made a big jump last season in averaging nearly a half a point per game on 12 goals and 22 assists. More offense didn't mean less aggressiveness from the big forward, however, as he still registered 115 penalty minutes. Playing on a line with Mathew Barzal and Roberts Lipsbergs during the preseason, Hickman was able to average a point per game and will be the power forward on that line with expectations of freeing up space for his offensively-gifted linemates. Hickman is suspended for the first three games of the regular season for an infraction incurred during the playoff series against Kelowna last season.
Branden Troock (19). Troock is one of the biggest X-factors for the T-Birds and someone who can change how opposing coaches strategize. If he can stay healthy, Troock has the potential to be a point-per-game player and become one of the league's top power forwards. After a shoulder injury last season, Troock didn't appear to miss a beat when he returned to the team this preseason. He crashed the net hard, wasn't afraid to take the body, and showed soft hands to go along with his impressive size.
Lane Pederson (16). Pederson, a rookie, will likely be seen on one of the team's lower lines this season as he adjusts to the speed and size of the WHL. He's a good skater and very adept at handling the puck, but could certainly stand to add some muscle to better handle the physical defensemen in this league. Watch for Pederson to use this as more of a learning year and break out next season.
Mathew Barzal (16). There isn't much more that can be said about Barzal. The hype is there and it appears warranted after a strong preseason, but it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the rigors of a 72-game WHL schedule. He's got all the talent in the world but won't be able to take any shortcuts with Steve Konowalchuk as his coach, as seen by his benching during the third period of the team's final preseason game versus Everett. With his elite vision and stickhandling, the game appears to slow down when Barzal has the puck on his stick. As the most touted player to come through Seattle in recent memory, he'll be an exciting player to watch for the next couple of seasons.
Connor Honey (19). Honey is going to be another player who is ready to take a huge step forward this season as a 19-year-old. He was one of the team's top offensive players last year and tied for the team lead in scoring during the preseason. He'll likely line up on the point opposite Shea Theodore on a power play that should be much improved, which would lead to huge increases in his point totals. Honey has also never been one to shy away from the physical play, but he may be better served to let others handle that aspect of the game, as the team won't want to be without his offensive contributions for any significant period of time.
Riley Sheen (18). Sheen started last season on fire and slowed down a bit, but he's undoubtedly the most talented puckhandler on the roster. He was strong during the playoff series against Kelowna and will be expected to put up good numbers this season with a stronger supporting cast. If he can crack one of the top two lines, Sheen is another player with the potential to put up over 60 points.
Seth Swenson (20). Since being acquired from Portland midway through the 2011-12 season, Swenson has been an important player for the T-Birds, both in the locker room and on the ice. A big power forward from Colorado, Swenson scored 46 points last season while playing in all 72 games and also made important contributions in the defensive zone. He's a player we believe to be in consideration for the captaincy, which shows exactly how important he is to this roster. As a 20-year-old, this will be Swenson's final season in the WHL and likely his most productive.
Alexander Delnov (19). Delnov played well during the preseason and was impressive in last year's playoffs, so we may have only seen glimpses of what he's capable of. He spent time at the Florida Panthers' training camp and suited up in six games for their AHL affiliate last year at the conclusion of Seattle's season, so he's gotten some experience playing against top-notch competition. This will almost certainly be the Russian import's last season in the WHL and he has the potential to be one of the league's top offensive performers.
Keegan Kolesar (16). Kolesar is another rookie who looks to have a spot locked up on one of the team's lower lines this season. A former first-round pick, Kolesar saw time on the power play during the preseason, where he made a habit of camping his big frame in front of the opposing team's net. As a 16-year-old, that may be Kolesar's best bet for racking up some points and making a big offensive contribution. Strong and difficult for opposing defenders to move, Kolesar has the potential to be a big-time power forward, as we've seen at times when he's carried the puck up the ice and bowled through those who stand in his way.
Roberts Lipsbergs (19). After leading the team in scoring last season, Lipsbergs played on a line with Barzal and Hickman during the preseason. With an elite playmaker in Barzal and Hickman playing the role of power forward, things should open up for Lipsbergs to contribute in an even bigger way this season. He has an impressive shot that he's able to get off quickly and seems to always be in the right place at the right time in the offensive zone. Don't be surprised if Lipsbergs leads the Thunderbirds in scoring this season.
Michal Holub (17). Holub may not appear on the scoresheet often, but he's the type of player that coaches love. He dives in front of shots, goes hard into the corners, and isn't afraid to throw his weight around. After playing wing last season, Holub has lined up at center for the most part this preseason and will likely play in the middle of one of the lower two lines. He has the potential to replace some of the grittiness that was lost when Luke Lockhart graduated.
Carter Folk (17). Folk will provide some toughness on the lower lines, but also has shown some offensive touch during training camp and the preseason. As it appears Mitch Elliot won't be returning to the T-Birds for his 20-year-old season, Folk will likely be asked to pick up some of the enforcer slack that Elliot left behind. He looks up to the task, fully willing to drop the gloves and delivering big hit after big hit.
Erik Benoit (20). Benoit's addition seemed to seal the deal that Elliot wouldn't be returning to Seattle after receiving an invite to the Utica Comets' training camp. The two players are polar opposites, as Benoit stands just 5 feet 11 and has fewer penalty minutes over his career than Elliot did last season alone. He looks like he'll provide some offense this season after contributing 34 points in 64 games last year when he split time between the Kootenay Ice and Saskatoon Blades.
Jerret Smith (18). Smith is a steady stay-at-home type defenseman who is able to provide some offense from the blue line as well. Last year he was the T-Birds' third-leading scorer among defensemen with 20 points in 71 games. During the preseason he saw some time on the point with the man advantage when one of either Shea Theodore or Connor Honey were missing, so he'll likely see some time there during the season as well.
Kevin Wolf (17). A native of Minnesota, Wolf saw time in 20 games last season. He's huge at 6-feet-6 and will be fighting for a spot on the team's crowded blue line. He had one assist last season but also maintained an even plus/minus rating in his limited time. He showed improved skating ability and was more aggressive during the preseason, but there are a lot of players fighting for a small number of spots.
Griffin Foulk (18). Foulk came on strong during the playoffs last season after being acquired by the T-Birds from Everett around Thanksgiving. He had four points in 46 games during the regular season and also had an even plus/minus, but he looks like he's ready to make a jump in both zones this season as an 18-year-old. Another product of the Colorado Thunderbirds midget program, Foulk gives the T-Birds three talented defensive lines that should do a much better job this season of keeping pucks out of their own net.
Jesse Forsberg (20). A lot is going to be asked of the 20-year-old Forsberg, who did a much better job last season of picking his battles wisely and avoiding costly penalties. He had 26 points during the 2012-2013 regular season, but came on strong offensively during the playoffs. He'll likely see time in all situations and will be asked to be one of the team's shut-down defenders without sacrificing his offensive potential.
Shea Theodore (18). Theodore enters his 18-year-old season with enormous expectations after being drafted in the first round of the NHL draft by the Anaheim Ducks. Not only will he be expected to improve on his offensive output (19 goals, 31 assists) from last season, but the coaching staff will be looking for much stronger play in his own end as well. Expect to see Theodore use his body more this year and continue to quarterback the power play and lead the rush out of his own zone.
Austin Douglas (17). Like Wolf, Douglas will be fighting for a roster spot in his second year of full-time eligibility. Also like Wolf, the 17-year-old Douglas is a tall, lanky player standing at 6 feet 6 and weighing in around 194 pounds. Douglas had one assist and was a plus-4 during the preseason, although at times he found himself caught out of position, creating odd-man rushes for opposing forwards. He did, however, show some savvy when carrying the puck up the ice and, as a 17-year-old without any minimum for games played, should see some time this year if one of the top six defensemen are traded or injured.
Ethan Bear (16). Bear would likely be a shoo-in for the seventh defense spot if not for his age. As it stands, Bear would require a minimum of 40 games (barring special circumstances, such as injury) to be a full-time member of the T-Birds roster. A second-round pick last year, Bear considers himself a stay-at-home defenseman, but showed that he has two-way capability as well, carrying the puck well and displaying a hard and accurate shot from the blue line.
Evan Wardley (19). Of all of the defensemen, Wardley looks like he'll be the most improved this season. He arrived at camp in great shape and has looked much more confident at both ends of the ice through training camp and the preseason. He'll continue to be an enforcer on the back end and I would venture to guess is one of the physically stronger players in the WHL. I'm expecting a huge increase from the five points Wardley put up last season, as well as continued intimidation from the back end.
Jared Hauf (18). Hauf only played in two preseason games for the T-Birds but was an invite to the Philadelphia Flyers' rookie camp, which should show the potential that the big 6-foot-6 defensemen has. The 18-year-old is more of a traditional defenseman than his fellow draftee Theodore, who he spent a lot of time playing on the same line with last season. Hauf has shown flashes and improved last year, but he still needs to learn use his size and reach to its full potential. New assistant coach Matt O'Dette, a former defenseman who stands 6 feet 5 himself, should be able to help with that.
Danny Mumaugh (17). Mumaugh, who wasn't expected to be seen last year until an injury to Justin Myles forced an emergency call-up, is an extremely hard worker and well-liked by the coaching staff. At times last year he looked a bit shaky and nervous in net and while handling the puck, which is to be expected of a 16-year-old, but looked more comfortable as the season wore on. Now 17, Mumaugh will be competing with players older than him for time in net.
Devon Fordyce (19). Acquired as a 19-year-old in the Bantam Draft, Fordyce played in four games with Prince George last year and 14 games the year before. His numbers haven't been particularly impressive as he's never posted a save percentage over .900, but it's also important to consider that he's played behind some pretty poor teams. The front office has said that many teams were surprise Fordyce was let go by Prince George, so it sounds like the potential is there. He'll likely fight with Myles for the number one spot.
Justin Myles (18). It's been tough to get a real gauge on Myles as he's spent the majority of the last two seasons injured. Myles didn't look bad in eight games last season, but that's too small of a sample size to draw any real conclusions from. I thought that he was the top goaltender for the T-Birds during the preseason and started the team's final game versus Everett, which may be a sign that he'll be in net on opening night. Despite allowing five goals in that game, most were hard to blame on Myles alone.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.