Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear turned in great rookies seasons for Seattle this year. (Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
As the calendar advances and the weather slowly starts to warm, it's time to look ahead for the Seattle Thunderbirds. While to a man they'd rather be on the ice fighting it out for the conference championship, the season is over and they are officially in offseason mode.
This coming summer shapes up to be an interesting one for the T-Birds as they hope to continue the steady improvement that they've experienced in the last three seasons. General Manager Russ Farwell acknowledges that his club took a step this past year but also talks about how streaky the team was, something that showed in the playoffs as Seattle was swept by Kelowna in the second round.
"That's how our year went," Farwell said. "When we were good we were real good and would challenge the better teams and when we weren't playing well we really couldn't lick our lips."
Perhaps the biggest offseason question for the T-Birds is the tough decisions they have to make with their over-aged spots. They are only allowed to bring back three of the 10 19-year-olds who all played big roles for them in 2013-2014. Some have speculated that having to replace that many players will spell doom for the T-Birds. What people fail to remember is that Seattle relied on five rookies to play big roles this past season. Four rookies will all be back next year.
Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear and Scott Eansor all played important and tough minutes for the T-Birds this season. Those guys all have big upsides and should be even better next season, along with some guys coming through the system that will be ready to step in.
"I think we have some kids ready, like (Lane) Pedersen, to step in," Farwell said of the youth movement. "We've had (Kaden) Elder and (Nolan) Vulcan in and they've played well for us on the trip and I'm sure they could step in and play ... We're going to be younger up front and then we have to wait to see how everything sorts out with our 20-year-olds."
There are a lot of scenarios that can still play out with the 20-year-olds next year, but if the T-Birds decide to bring back three forwards they would add some experience to the club's forward group.
"There certainly is some unknowns," Farwell said. "We're going to have two new imports, every year that's a bit of an unknown and we have to wait and see what the quality is there. Then we wait and see who we get back as over-agers, no sense in worrying about it because some of it isn't our decision."
Seattle will be a player in the CHL Import Draft this year, after taking the year off last summer. With Roberts Lipsbergs and Alex Delnov leaving, the T-Birds will be adding two new import players. With the returning depth the T-Birds have on their back end it would make sense to assume that they will look at bringing in two more forwards. Farwell said that's not a complete lock.
"I would say that's a preference, but I guess it will depend on the draft and who's available," Farwell said of the Import Daft. "I can't see us picking two defensemen but I can't say it's impossible for us to take a defenseman, depending on if we had the latitude to adjust our roster. If we have choices and they were sitting there for us I think forward is a priority."
The T-Birds don't have a timeline in place for making the over-age decision yet, there are too many unknowns. Branden Troock signed an entry contract with the Dallas Stars last week and most likely will end up in the AHL next season. Then there's Justin Hickman. Hickman got a look at the AHL level after Seattle's season had ended and his status is uncertain for next season. If he impressed NHL scouts there's a chance he will be drafted this June, signed and sent to the AHL as well.
All of this will slowly start to unfold as the summer progresses. Farwell hopes to have some of these decisions narrowed down as training camp approaches. He said he would like to avoid bringing a bunch of guys that won't be able to stick around.
"We'll get closer to training camp," he said. "I don't like to bring a number of guys in if you don't have a job for them. So we may come to camp with four 20-year-olds but I can't see us coming with five or six because there's only three jobs to be had."
All of the guys that Seattle might have to move should garner some interest, as all were contributors and can play in the WHL. Farwell isn't worried about the process and says it's all just part of the junior hockey game each year.
"It's kind of the normal process but we have to let it unfold as it does and then make our decision from the guys we have available," he said. "We aren't going to trade someone away until we know who else might get signed and who else might not be available to us."
Another interesting piece to all of this is the decision to be made in net. Last offseason the T-Birds had two inexperienced guys in Danny Mumaugh and Justin Myles that started the season in goal. They picked up 19-year-old Taran Kozun at the deadline and Kozun played really well, helping them secure home-ice advantage in the first round. Kozun could be a guy that they want to use one of their over-age spots for.
The wrinkle is that Seattle has an impressive looking goalie prospect, 17-year-old Logan Flodell, that they need to get on the ice. So, do they bring Kozun back or go into the season with Mumaugh and Flodell?
"There's no doubt that is a puzzle that we have to sort through," Farwell said. "It is getting to the point where we need to make some decisions there. I don't think Danny can be a back up again, exclusively, so we've got to sort that out. Kozun's no different than any of the other 19-year-olds. We have to wait to see if there's interest in him."
The T-Birds will also get a chance to pick up some new prospects with the WHL Bantam Draft on May 1. The T-Birds have the 16th pick in the draft and Farwell said that they don't have a particular position in mind. With those players not being eligible to play for a year, most teams will take the best player that's available -- which is what Seattle will do.
The T-Birds will certainly be active this summer as they try to put the right pieces together to make another run next year. They are in a position to build on their success last season and they expect to be just as competitive again.
"I think we're going to have some real good, quality experience on defense and depending on what we do in goal," Farwell said of next season's outlook. "I think the year's experience for Gropp, Barzal and Kolesar will be huge coming back. I think we'll be able to generate some points and score, we'll just have to sort it out. I think that will be our goal, to compete in our division. Everyone's going to lose some guys and we're not looking at it as a starting-over point."
Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.