By Tim Pigulski
The first month of the WHL season has created a new sense of hope in Seattle. The team has won eight of its first 10 games, and with the addition of Ryan Gropp – one of the top-rated prospects for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft – the now seemingly rich Thunderbirds have just gotten a whole lot richer.
"We started talking in the middle of last week," general manager Russ Farwell said, "but it wasn't until the weekend that Ryan confirmed and said he was ready to join the team. Since he said he wanted to play in the NCAA during the summer, we've had very little discussion. This was actually initiated by Ryan."
Gropp went on to add that it's something he's been thinking about for a while, from the time the team drafted him through his original commitment to the University of North Dakota and his eventual decision over the past few days to come to Seattle.
"It's just something that I've always wanted to do. It was tough [for my parents] at the start, but they're supporting me fully now, and that's all I can ask for," said Gropp, whose father played at Colorado College. "It took a little bit of time, but I finally built up the courage to tell my parents that it's what I really wanted to do and they're behind me."
Seattle getting off to its best start in recent memory certainly influenced Gropp, who hopes that he'll be a contributor to a team that is showing that it is capable of sustained success.
"[The early-season success] also contributed to my decision quite a bit," he said. "It's good to see they were off to a really good start and really exciting for me joining something like that. When I get there I'm looking to contribute as much as I can and help them keep winning games."
Gropp joins Mathew Barzal as two players who are likely to be very high NHL draft choices when the 2015 selection occurs. The two, who are close friends, will likely form a formidable scoring punch as soon as Gropp puts on a Thunderbirds uniform for the first time. It's no secret that Barzal's commitment to the Thunderbirds likely was at least a small factor in Gropp's change of heart.
"There's a lot of excitement around Barzal," said Farwell of the former first-overall pick. "They're good friends and I know that the two of them chatted on the day that Mathew signed."
The young forward echoed his new general manager's thoughts, expressing a great deal of excitement at playing with Barzal, who currently has 14 points in 10 games.
"[Barzal's commitment] was a big deal to me. Mathew is a great player and we've been talking quite a bit," he said. "Ultimately it was my decision and something I've wanted to do, but that didn't hurt."
Formerly with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League, the biggest factor contributing to Gropp's decision may have come from him looking at his draft prospects and realizing that Seattle and the WHL were the best route for his professional development, according to Farwell.
"It's just the reality of the situation," Farwell said. "Next year, in his draft year, he was going to be entering [the NCAA] where he'd be stepping into a new situation against guys who were years older than him. The best place to advance his career as he enters his draft year and looks at playing professionally was in the WHL."
Due to the Canadian holiday on Monday, Gropp was unable to withdraw from his school in Penticton, but will be doing so Tuesday, according to Farwell. Conveniently, the Thunderbirds are playing against the Blazers Wednesday night at the Interior Savings Centre in Kamloops, Gropp's hometown, which is when the 17-year-old will join the team. Although he won't play in that game, he hopes to suit up soon.
In a game last weekend, Gropp suffered a minor groin pull that the team plans to evaluate as soon as possible. He played through the injury for two games and the pain increased, but he's rested it for a week and says he's close to 100 percent now. Farwell expects him to join the team for practice as soon as Thursday, and depending on his recovery, be ready to play in game situations in the near future.
Both Gropp and Farwell agree that his biggest contribution will be on offense, where Gropp's speed and vision are already rated as elite.
"He plays the game at a very fast pace," Farwell said.
"He's fast with great vision and he's a real playmaker. He plays exceptionally well in traffic and passes extremely well. Some guys make the pass to the right area; he makes it to the exact right spot."
After he was drafted, Gropp attended training camp and was impressive, but wasn't present this past August in what would have been his second audition with the team.
"Looking back on the experience, it was great. I had a great time and thought I played pretty well when I was there," he said. "This year, it was just something we decided as a family. I was playing in Penticton and obviously I had a change of heart, but I really enjoyed my time there."
Adding Gropp to a young core that already includes Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear, Michal Holub, and Scott Eansor, and in the future should see other talented players such as Lane Pederson, Nolan Volcan, Kaden Elder, and Dante Fabbro join the roster is an exciting prospect for Farwell.
"Barzal and Gropp are both exciting, but Bear is looking like he's going to be a very, very good player as well and has a great shot from the point as a rookie, and Kolesar is already way ahead of where we expected him to be developmentally," Farwell said of the team's current 16-year-olds. "We're also excited for Pederson, Volcan, and Elder and we're talking to Dante, but our focus remains on this season."
A season that was expected to be somewhat of a transition period continues to exceed expectations for a team that will be loaded for years to come.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.