By Tim Pigulski
Of the five teams in the WHL's U.S. Division, each currently maintains a winning record. If the postseason were to begin today, all five clubs would find themselves contending for the Ed Chynoweth Cup. It is undoubtedly the toughest division in the entire league, with teams at the top who appear poised to make deep runs in the playoffs and others who can provide matchup problems for anyone.
Despite having a higher winning percentage than fourth-place Tri-City, the Thunderbirds find themselves in last place with 30 points compared to the Americans' 31, having two games in hand on their divisional opponents. Of the five teams, the Thunderbirds are currently the only one with a negative goal differential – they've scored 89 goals and allowed 100 – but that number would be much closer to even if not for a couple of lopsided losses, including two matchups against Portland where they surrendered 10 scores in each.
In 10 games against divisional opponents this season, Seattle's record sits at 4-5-0-1. Seattle has yet to face the Spokane Chiefs and have only seen Everett once, a 5-0 drubbing in which the T-Birds were unable to generate any offense.
Talent-wise, the Thunderbirds can match up with any team in the league. In fact, there may not be a deeper group of forwards than what the Thunderbirds are able to feature on a nightly basis. When Connor Honey eventually returns from injury, there will be a ripple effect that will be felt throughout the entire lineup and make the unit even more formidable. And it's not as if the blue line is lacking in talent, led by Anaheim Ducks first-round draft pick Shea Theodore, but also featuring a number of other players who can't be overlooked.
To date, the Thunderbirds have been the hallmark of inconsistency, further proven by their games this past weekend. On Friday night, they were beaten handily by the Vancouver Giants, who, despite playing better of late, are still in a state of rebuilding. Just 24 hours later, they came out on fire, beating an elite Portland team in overtime and outplaying their rivals for the majority of the game.
The key for the Thunderbirds, of course, is avoiding the breakdowns like the one they had on Friday. It seems that with such impressive depth, that shouldn't be an issue, as one or two players having off nights should be easily offset by the other 10 or 11 skilled forwards in the lineup.
Helping to create a more stable effort will be the emergence of two rookie forwards, Scott Eansor and Ryan Gropp. When each joined the team – Eansor before the season, Gropp in October – it was unknown what they would bring to the table and exactly how long it would take for them to become comfortable. Over the past couple of weekends, it appears those questions may be being answered.
Eansor has found a place as an energy forward between Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie and become an integral part of the team's penalty kill. One of the best skaters on the team, the Colorado native looks to have found his niche as a member of the line tasked with shutting down the opposing team's top scorers. He did just that against Portland, acting as Winnipeg Jets draftee Nic Petan's blanket. Petan had a power-play goal but was kept relatively quiet the rest of the evening. Eansor has also been strong on the faceoff, an invaluable skill that will earn him more playing time in high-pressure situations.
Gropp came in boasting huge offensive potential and, after 13 games, looks like he's become accustomed to the speed of the WHL. Even though he only has three points, he's done a much better job lately of creating chances and has also found himself on the team's second power-play unit.
Sitting at 13-9-1-3, Seattle's record isn't an accurate reflection of the talent the team possesses. Everett, currently leading the entire WHL in points, has been great through the early season but will surely come back down to earth. By the end of the season, I expect that the Winterhawks will find themselves once again as the class of the division, with the other four teams all having very similar point totals.
Thirty of the Thunderbirds' remaining 46 contests will be against opponents within their division: eight against Spokane, nine against Everett, six against Tri-City, and seven against Portland. Their record versus non-U.S. Division teams is much more impressive at 9-4-1-2, so the T-Birds will quickly need to figure out how to bring their best every night as the midway point of the season approaches and they find themselves facing off against their immediate rivals more frequently.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.