By Tim Pigulski
For the first time in years, it's clear that the Thunderbirds won't be sellers at the WHL's Jan. 10 trade deadline. But with a 22-10-2-3 record that has them just one point out of fourth place in the conference, will they be buyers?
Last season the team acquired overage forward Adam Kambeitz and 17-year-old center Andrew Johnson in an effort to squeeze into the playoffs, a push the eventually proved successful. However, it was clear that even if the T-Birds did make the playoffs, they weren't in any position to make an extended run, so mortgaging the future in an effort to grab one or two higher-end players would have been a waste.
Johnson, now 19, was traded along with Connor Sanvido before the season to the Swift Current Broncos in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft.
In 2012, general manager Russ Farwell made the move to trade Marcel Noebels, one of Seattle's top players, to the rival Portland Winterhawks to better prepare the team for the future. Seth Swenson, 18 years old at the time Seattle acquired him in the Noebels deal, has become an essential part of the roster in his final WHL campaign. The T-Birds also acquired two first-round draft choices that eventually turned into Keegan Kolesar and Kaden Elder, two young forwards with bright futures ahead of them.
While trading Noebels may have been a difficult thing to do as he was one of only a few bright spots on the team at the time, it ultimately appears that it will pay off handsomely in the long run. Many wondered why the team didn't also trade goalie Calvin Pickard, who also could have brought back a huge return and may have left the team in an even better spot than it is now. Pickard, however, gave the team a shot at cracking the playoffs, an experience that would have been helpful for a club that, at the time, sometimes seemed devoid of hope.
In 2011, the T-Birds added a good two-way defenseman in Ryan Button and 18-year-old Mitch Spooner, but traded one of their top scorers in Charles Wells (for Button) and big blueliner Scott Ramsay (to Medicine Hat for a conditional fourth-round Bantam pick). They also sent a first-round Import Draft choice in 2011 to the Prince Albert Raiders in the Button deal, which Seattle wouldn't have used as it had already reached its maximum of two import players with Noebels and defenseman Dave Sutter.
With the T-Birds in a prime position this year to not only make the playoffs but potentially make a deep run, the question for Farwell becomes whether you want to add even more firepower to a potent roster, or if you follow the "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" mantra.
The most curious thing that one might notice when reviewing Seattle's roster is that there are currently only two 20-year-olds – Swenson and hulking forward Mitch Elliot.
In the offseason Seattle dealt Sanvido to get down to the overage maximum of three and claimed Erik Benoit off of waivers when it appeared Elliot might earn himself an AHL roster spot. When Elliot returned, the T-Birds sent Jesse Forsberg to Moose Jaw, again thinking they'd solved their overage problem. Erik Benoit left the team unexpectedly a short while later, leaving Seattle with just two 20-year-old veterans.
It's a valuable roster spot that is currently unfilled, but one that Farwell may be keeping an eye on as the trade moratorium nears. The offense is producing at an impressive rate, but the defense is still near the bottom in goals allowed when compared to other playoff teams.
Of the teams that currently look like longshots to make the playoffs, there aren't many 20-year-old shutdown defensemen that jump out who might be available. Most teams would be unwilling to trade a good 18-year-old who still has two seasons left after this one, and the T-Birds would seem unlikely to pursue yet another 19-year-old, of which they currently have nine on the roster.
Sam Grist, currently in Kamloops, is a grisly defensive defenseman who may be on the trading block as his Blazers are currently 9-25-2-2 and in last place in the Western Conference, trailing ninth-place Prince George by a wide 11-point margin in the standings. Grist is familiar with the U.S. Division, having spent parts of three seasons in Tri-City, where he was plus-27 in 2011-12. Last year, playing for a Kamloops team that advanced to the Western Conference Finals, he was a plus-35 and had 21 points and 122 penalty minutes in 61 games.
Even while putting up less impressive numbers for an uninspiring Kamloops team this season, Grist might be a good addition to the Seattle blue line, but finding space for him would prove difficult.
The defense has been playing better hockey of late, and trading any of the current top-six would be a tough choice to make. It's a certainty that Shea Theodore won't be dealt, and Adam Henry and Ethan Bear would seem to be longshots as well. That leaves Jerret Smith, Evan Wardley and Jared Hauf as the other three everyday players on the blue line, all of whom add something important to the roster but also may be attractive options to other teams for different reasons. Any trade for a defenseman would likely involve one of these three and would have to be a very enticing offer for Farwell to even consider it.
It's also possible that Farwell could seek a forward, especially considering how the depth there has been decimated of late with injuries to a number of players that have prevented the Thunderbirds from suiting up a full roster for a couple of weeks. However, when those players return, it's unlikely that any would be in a position to lose a roster spot.
Rumors swirled that Benoit's departure may have been in part due to a lack of playing time. Elliot also often finds himself playing on the fourth line in an enforcer role, and Swenson usually plays on a lower line, sometimes moving up when the appropriate situation presents itself. As a result, finding significant ice time for any 20-year-old forward that might be acquired could prove difficult and unwise as it might eat into the development of one of the younger players who still have years left in the WHL.
At this point, it seems that the T-Birds would be best set moving forward with most of the group they currently have. Acquiring an overage player would require some sort of sacrifice of the future, a steep price to pay for a player who likely wouldn't have the opportunity to contribute a great deal anyway. Crazy things happen every year around this time, however, and seeing what Seattle thinks of its roster and playoff prospects will become very clear in just a couple of weeks.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.