By Tim Pigulski
Mitch Elliot announced via Twitter Tuesday morning that he was headed back to Seattle after an extended tryout with the AHL's Utica Comets. A couple weeks ago, the Thunderbirds picked up Erik Benoit off of waivers from the Saskatoon Blades. If you're doing the math, that gives the T-Birds four overage players, one more than the league maximum. In addition to Elliot and Benoit, Seattle also has wing Seth Swenson and defenseman Jesse Forsberg.
Here are a few reasons that each might stay and each might go:
Why he might stay: Swenson has done everything asked of him since being acquired from the Portland Winterhawks a couple of years ago. He provides some offense as he has three points in four games this season, and also is valuable on the penalty kill. He stepped in on the second line through the season's first three games while Justin Hickman was hurt and played well on Mathew Barzal's right wing. Swenson is one of the team's best penalty killers and has the ability to be a very valuable lower-line player or step in on one of the top two lines should another skater suffer injury.
Why he might go: Of the four players listed, I think Swenson is the surest to stay. He's not going to be the flashiest player, but is consistent and plays the game the right way. Unless he can bring a heavy return in trade – which seems unlikely as most teams already have their 20-year-old situation figured out – Swenson ought to stay. Swenson also wears an "A" on his jersey, so he brings something off the ice as well.
Why he might stay: Forsberg is the only defenseman on this list and has experience playing in all situations. He's been a factor on the point on the power play and is also an effective penalty killer. He stepped up big in the playoffs last year, is one of the team's most physical and aggressive players, and was also named an alternate captain. Never one to back down from a challenge, Forsberg seems to be doing a better job keeping his composure when it counts, despite a penalty-laden first game against the Portland Winterhawks last weekend.
Why he might go: It's well known that the Thunderbirds have an abundance of defensemen, mostly in the 18-and-under range. However, most of them have been in the league for a number of seasons now and look to be coming into their own. On any given night, with Forsberg healthy and in the lineup, the Thunderbirds are scratching healthy 17-year-olds Austin Douglas and Kevin Wolf. Whether or not Douglas or Wolf are ready for this stage yet is an entirely different question, but the coaching staff must think they belong if they've hung on the roster for this long. If Forsberg goes, it wouldn't be an indictment against him, but rather a vote of confidence from the coaching staff towards the team's younger d-men.
Why he might stay: The benefits that Elliot brings are obvious. He's huge and one of the most physically imposing players in the league. He's also the longest tenured Thunderbirds player, having been drafted by the team and sticking with it all the way up until (and possibly through) his 20-year-old season. Additionally, he's received the most attention from NHL teams as any of the four overage players, having been invited to Washington Capitals' camp last season and getting pretty far with Utica, the Vancouver Canucks' AHL affiliate, this year. He played well in the preseason and is clearly doing something right to have a legitimate shot at a professional career. Even with his enormous size, Elliot has good straight-line speed and a decent shot, but doesn't appear to have the hands or agility to be a consistent offensive contributor. If he can get to the front of the net, he can give opposing goalies and defensemen nightmares.
Why he might go: Despite all of that, Elliot frankly hasn't been able to produce offensively what one would hope out of a 20-year-old. Even in his fifth year in the league, he would still likely line up on one of the T-Birds' lower two lines. More than a physical presence is expected out of an overage forward and Elliot has yet to prove that he is anything more than that on the ice. So far this season, players such as Evan Wardley, Carter Folk, and a number of others have been able to stand up for teammates and provide a spark with a big hit when necessary.
Why he might stay: Benoit has been solid in his four games in a T-Birds uniform so far. He's played in all situations, including the point on the power play and center when the team is on the penalty kill or at even strength. There were questions coming into this season as to who would center the lower lines and Benoit has helped solidify that situation. He possesses very good speed, a nice shot, deep playoff experience having suited up in two Memorial Cups, and the winning attitude that this team has lacked for a number of seasons. Even with only one point in four games so far, Benoit provides offense on the lower lines and scored 34 points last season, far more than Elliot has been able to accomplish to date.
Why he might go: Having been picked up as insurance for Elliot, Benoit has still only played in four games for the team and been a Thunderbird for just a couple of weeks. There's something to be said for consistency and loyalty to your homegrown players, which Elliot is and Benoit is not. As a lower-line player, Benoit may not be looked to for much offense, despite showing a bit more ability than Elliot in that department. It's unlikely that he will be able to put up 20 goals himself playing on the lower lines, which seems to be a consistent expectation for 20-year-old players.
General manager Russ Farwell and Co. must have known that this was a very real possibility when they snagged Benoit, so it's probably safe to assume that they had a plan worked out to account for any situation. Teams can keep four 20-year-olds on the roster until Oct. 16, so they have a couple of weeks before they have to make any decisions. Whatever decision is made will be a difficult one, as these are four players who all have a place in this league.