By Tim Pigulski
With nine 19-year-olds currently on the Thunderbirds' roster, it appeared earlier this season that general manager Russ Farwell was prepared to go all-in for a U.S. Division crown and perhaps a WHL championship and Memorial Cup appearance. Three of those nine 1994-born players – defenseman Adam Henry and forwards Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie – joined shortly after the season began, further crowding an age group that already featured a number of veterans.
After the recent addition of power forward Calvin Spencer – who had 10 points in 21 games in the Upper Midwest Elite League – Farwell is letting the rest of the WHL know that the Thunderbirds won't be a one-and-done team, but are focused on sustained success, at least for the next few seasons.
Only the Vancouver Giants feature as many 19-year-olds as Seattle, with no other team in the league having more than seven on its roster. The Thunderbirds will undoubtedly have some decisions to make once the offseason arrives, even after the likely departures of their import players (Alex Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs) and the potential graduation of Branden Troock to the American Hockey League.
Replacing nine veterans, each of whom plays a prominent role on the team, won't be an easy task, which is what makes the addition and development of Spencer and his fellow 17-year-olds a particularly important endeavor for Seattle.
The announcement of Spencer's signing, particularly at this point in time, resulted in more than a few questions, as it seemed to be creating an even bigger logjam at forward, where talented players are finding themselves relegated to the stands on any given game night.
"[The process] has only been going on for about a month now," said the Brooklyn Park, Minn. native. "I just came out last week and practiced with the team and they asked me to sign. We're all going to have to work hard every day to get into that lineup. Every day, every practice we're going to have to bring our best."
If the staff is able to keep those talented young players happy and get them the playing time necessary for their development, the decision to add Spencer midseason will eventually pay off in a big way.
He should play a similar game to that of one of his 17-year-old colleagues, Michal Holub. Both are right wings, shoot right-handed, are approximately 6-feet-1 and 190 pounds, and play a high-energy, physical style. The young forward projects as a punishing power forward who will shine in a checking line role.
"I'm more of a grinder," said Spencer, who is the half-brother of Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien. "I like to go in the corners, chip the puck into the zone, and hit the defensemen."
Also in that 1996-born age group is offensively-gifted left wing Ryan Gropp, whose game has taken a major step forward over the past few weekends as he has gained confidence. After scoring on his very first WHL shift, Gropp went pointless in his next nine games. However, he has six points in his last six contests, including four in three this past weekend. He's been promoted to a line with high-scoring veterans Delnov and Troock and also has worked himself on to the power play, which is gradually working itself out of the league's basement.
Center Scott Eansor's play has also turned heads over the past few weekends as his high motor has earned him favor with head coach Steve Konowalchuk and led to increased ice time. The 5-feet-8 Eansor will surely be an important cog on the penalty kill and checking line for the next few seasons, roles in which he has excelled. Lately he's been tasked with shutting down the opposition's top line, which has included the vaunted Portland first line featuring Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic, and has performed admirably.
His offensive game has shown more potential of late, as he's beginning to pick up assists and has come close to his first goal on multiple occasions. Add to all of this his ability to win faceoffs, which should only improve with time and practice, and the Colorado native's value far exceeds the numbers reflected in the box score.
In addition to a talented group of 17-year-olds, the team also features a number of skilled 16-year-olds in Mathew Barzal, Ethan Bear, and Keegan Kolesar. Next year, the young forward core should be joined by Lane Pederson, who made the team out of training camp but was sent home to Saskatoon to get him more playing time, as well as two new import picks and recent high draftees Kaden Elder and Nolan Volcan.
At this point, the focus certainly remains on this season as the veterans look to enjoy an extended playoff run and the younger players gain valuable postseason experience. Spencer, Holub, Gropp, and Eansor have this season to acclimate themselves to the increased intensity of the WHL game, but will be counted on next year to be big contributors.
As the team lacks a single forward in the 1995-born age group, the quick progression of the 17-year-olds is a more pressing task for the T-Birds than most teams. It's very possible that next year they will be counted on to provide production while also mentoring those forwards who are one or two years younger than them.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.