Monday, May 13, 2013 @ 11:05am
Denver's Scott Eansor is the latest player to join the T-Birds. (Seattle Thunderbirds photo)
By Andrew Eide
The Seattle Thunderbirds continued their recent flurry of signings as they have announced the signing of listed player Scott Eansor to a WHL Standard Player Agreement. Eansor is a 17-year-old forward from Colorado who played for the same Colorado Thunderbirds program as current T-Birds players Seth Swenson, Griffin Foulk and Danny Mumaugh once did.
"He's a hard working guy; he's a guy who has a reputation for going after it," Seattle general manager Russ Farwell said of Eansor. "He's fairly exciting because he's pretty proficient on the forecheck. We had him and he practiced with us for three days there and he's a smart player – he looks around and really goes after it."
Eansor had some injuries that sidelined him for most of last season, but Farwell says he's 100 percent healthy now and skating this offseason. Eansor had been listed by the T-Birds before the season and had options for playing this upcoming season. He was drafted in 2012 by the USHL's Omaha Lancers but now has decided to join the Thunderbirds and the WHL.
"He wants to go after it; he waited out, called and said he wanted to come. We're happy to have him and for that age group he fills a need for us," Farwell said.
Eansor is listed as a forward/center, but Farwell said there is an opportunity for him to play both with Seattle.
This signing is another in a strong list of players the T-Birds have been able to get in the fold. That list is highlighted by last year's No. 1 draft pick, Matthew Barzal, and includes Austin Douglas, Keegan Kolezar, Ethan Bear, Lane Pederson and Logan Flodell.
Having these players competing for time is a positive for a club that many feel may be on the rise.
"I think it's going to be a real interesting training camp. It's good to see," Farwell said about the fall. "We have enough returning guys with adding these top players. It's going to be very competitive camp."
With these signings, and the Barzal signing, the going theory is that Seattle is becoming a place top players want to play. Does that include 2011 top pick Ryan Gropp? Farwell said they are still talking with the young forward.
"Gropp would be ideal because the two (Gropp and Barzal) would complement each other so well," Farwell said. "We're talking and we'd sure love to have him, it's just a matter of working through it now."
It goes without saying that with or without Gropp, the Thunderbirds have put themselves in a good position in the coming seasons.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.
Friday, May 3, 2013 @ 6:15am
A day after signing the 2012 top pick in Matt Barzal, the Seattle Thunderbirds selected 10 new players Thursday in the WHL Bantam Draft. Overall they picked up three defensemen, six forwards and one goalie.
The Bantam Draft is a bit of a crapshoot since these players are still very young and you never know exactly how they will develop, but the Thunderbirds should feel like they've added some good players for the future. Seattle had three picks in the top 30 selections of what was considered by most observers to be one of the deeper drafts in recent memory.
Seattle started off by selecting defenseman Dante Fabbro with the eighth pick. Fabbro played his hockey last year with the Burnaby Winter Club in B.C. If that club sounds familiar it's because it's the same club that Barzal played for when Seattle selected him. Fabbro and Barzal appear to be great friends and the two took to Twitter to exclaim their excitement about being reunited.
There had been whispers in the days leading up to the draft that the Thunderbirds might be looking to trade up to take Fabbro as they weren't sure he would still be there when their pick came up. Luckily they did not have to give up any picks to get their guy. Fabro is described as an offensive defensemen and was considered one of the top defensive prospects in the draft.
Seattle had another first-round pick at the end of the round (No. 22) and they used that selection to pick up center Kaden Elder, who played for the Notre Dame Hounds bantam club. Elder can score but scouts also praised his two-way game, something that head coach Steve Konowalchuk demands of all his players. Last year Elder put up 64 points in only 33 games.
In the second round the team selected another forward in Nolan Volcan from Edmonton, Alberta. Volcan can score as well as he potted 40 goals and 76 points in only 32 games for the Edmonton MLAC Bantam AAA team last year.
The Thunderbirds did not have another pick until the fifth round due to trades they had made last year. Seattle began picking again in that round and kept going all the way through the 12th round. In those rounds they selected defenseman Brandon Schuldhaus from Alberta, forward Jagger Williamson from B.C., winger Spencer Hunter from Vancouver, forward Colton Thomas from B.C., defenseman Shavan Khaira from Okanagan, goalie Devon Fordyce and center Caleb Griffin from Saskatchewan.
Fordyce is an interesting player as he has already appeared in the WHL. He was a listed player with the Prince George Cougars and appeared in four games with them last year. The Cougars had dropped them from their list, which made him eligible to be drafted again in the round after he had originally been selected.
The Bantam Draft is unlike the NFL or NBA draft in that it is hard to judge how well the team did with its selections. Their first three picks were all highly ranked by the scouts who watch these kids as they come up the ranks and now we'll have to wait and see how they develop. Based on the reports the T-Birds should feel good with the guys they picked up and with the later-round picks have added a lot of depth to their list.
You will get your first glimpse of them as training camp opens on August 22 and the ones that stand out could be with the club the following year.
Follow Andrew on twitter at @andyeide
Wednesday, May 1, 2013 @ 2:30pm
By Tim Pigulski
After signing just hours ago, the Mathew Barzal story is ready to be written.
In a move that has the potential to change the face of Seattle hockey, the Burnaby Winter Club and Vancouver NE Chiefs product sat at a table with his agent and Thunderbirds staff, waiting for WHL commissioner Ron Robison to make what was described as a "special announcement" – and special it was for everyone involved.
"I had a bit of an idea that was going to happen," said the well-spoken 15-year-old, who already appears prepared for life as a celebrity. "But being followed by Seth Jones, Nic Petan, and Brendan Leipsic was an honor. It's cool to be here and hopefully next year I'll be here again."
While it's a huge step for Barzal in his path to professional stardom, it's no secret that the Thunderbirds were in also in hot pursuit of the highly coveted prospect.
"It's definitely nerve-wracking," said Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farwell. "Matt and his dad told us they wanted to go slow and wait things out, but they never said they didn't want to play here. But that's part of the process – it's why we have a 15-year-old draft and give the family a chance to assess the organization and it's up to us to convince them that we have a good place developmentally that they would want to go."
Following the fanfare, the soon-to-be rookie is excited to be able to focus his attention once again on hockey and not on the off-the-ice drama that comes with being such a highly touted prospect. It wasn't until about last weekend that the high-scoring center made the final decision that he wanted to play for the Thunderbirds and in the WHL, but wanted to make sure he gave every potential route a fair shake.
"I got asked a lot what I was going to do, so I'm glad that question is over," Barzal said with a laugh. "I'm really looking forward to next season. It wasn't too long after my [Midget] season that me and my parents really started sitting down and looking at which route was best for me. I'm very confident that's the WHL. We probably didn't decide until last weekend, but my parents are fully on board now and I can't wait to join the 'Birds and contribute to a winning season."
As has been proven many times in the past, it's never a sure bet that a player will sign until his name is actually on the contract.
Farwell, despite feeling that things were headed in a positive direction, wasn't able to breathe easy until Wednesday morning when Barzal arrived in Calgary with his agent, J.P. Barry, to give his official confirmation. While grumblings began to surface over the last few days that Barzal was preparing to sign, it wasn't a sure thing until midday Wednesday.
"To be honest, you're never comfortable until you have it completed," said Farwell, who will be guiding the Thunderbirds through Thursday's 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, where the team holds three of the top 30 overall picks. "But on our last trip to Vancouver, I met with Mike (Barzal, Matt's dad) and he said they were going to look at it at the end of the season, but that they were leaning in our direction. Since February we've been getting positive feedback and Matt came down for the playoff game against Kelowna and was real excited there. We've known he was looking our way, but it's not done until it's done."
The game that Farwell describes may have been the most exciting of the Thunderbirds' season. In that contest, a Game 3 overtime victory over the heavily favored Kelowna Rockets that saw the T-Birds take a 3-0 lead in the series on an Evan Wardley game-winning goal, the ShoWare Center radiated the energy and excitement that Barzal knew he wanted to be a part of.
But it wasn't just the game itself that made playing in Seattle an even bigger attraction.
"It was an awesome game. The fans were wild and they pulled out a win." Barzal continued, "I also got to see a lot of the guys there and they're a great group of people. They made me feel welcome right from training camp and never held anything against me even though I hadn't signed. I'm looking forward to training camp again and meeting a lot of new guys and making some new friends."
When he does join the T-Birds full-time, Barzal should be surrounded by a roster featuring a number of NHL draft choices. As many as seven players could be drafted by professional clubs this offseason, in addition to those who have already been chosen.
"They have a great young defense core that I'm looking forward to playing with and some high-end forwards up front with Delnov, Lipsbergs, Troock, and some other guys," he said. "I think I'll fit in well next year and with Steve [Konowalchuk] being the coach I should learn a lot."
While he remains modest, Barzal has high aspirations for himself as well, made obvious by the comparisons he makes between himself and a certain very talented WHL player and Seattle rival.
"I see myself as sort of like Nic Petan, a guy who isn't the biggest out there but uses his speed and his skill and makes the plays that the normal player can't see," he said. "He's a great player and if I can have as good of a season as he did this year and in my 17-year-old year that would be awesome."
Petan, of course, tied for the league lead in points with teammate Brendan Leipsic. Both Petan and Leipsic had 120 points over the course of the regular season, a total that hasn't been met by a Thunderbirds player since Patrick Marleau did so during the 1996-97 campaign.
Even for top-tier prospects such as Barzal, the transition to Major Junior hockey isn't an easy one. Playing against players four years older than him, and often quite a bit taller and heavier, over a much longer season provides a challenge that requires more than a small amount of preparation.
"I've got good vision and I'm a good skater, but I know that I need to work on my defensive zone coverage," Barzal said. "Playing for Steve, I know that I'll have to be responsible in my own end if I want ice time."
With his offensive skills already well-established, hearing the playmaking center's desire to round out his game demonstrates a deeper understanding of his responsibilities than most have at his age. Farwell agrees, knowing that Barzal has the work ethic to ensure he becomes a complete player.
"He's so unselfish and plays at such a level that he's going to make everyone on the team better," Farwell said. "This kind of guy permeates the roster and gets other guys thinking about what they can do themselves. I'm not worried about Matt at all. If you watch the successful teams, everyone back checks. Last season he was playing every second shift and you just can't play that way when you're playing so much. I know Steve has expectations for everyone on the team and Matt wants to be successful, so I think they'll get it together pretty quick. It's great to hear him talk that way and he's a smart player, so I know he'll pick it up quickly."
The idea that Barzal can be a sort of once-in-a-generation player doesn't seem to be much of a stretch, as he set the single-season record for assists in his lone Midget season, playing for the Vancouver NE Chiefs of the British Columbia Major Midget League.
"My parents keep me well-grounded," said Barzal, speaking about the high expectations that have been placed on him despite never having suited up for a regular season game in the WHL. "I don't take it for granted and I come to work every day. It's an honor to receive that praise and I'm very thankful for it, but after that, I have to work.
Looking forward, Barzal's impact will likely reach much farther than himself. He's hoping that his commitment will entice other players who are on the fence to give their pledge to Seattle, and Farwell is hoping for the same.
"I hope so," Barzal said when asked about how his signing might impact other prospects who are undecided. "It's ultimately their decision how they want to pursue their hockey careers, but I hope that they realize that the Thunderbirds are going to be a good team the next few years and I'm very excited to be a part of it."
While Farwell agrees, he knows there is still work to be done before Seattle can be listed among the league's prestigious playing destinations.
"I think it helps, but we have to produce. We have to raise our overall performance and our expectations as a team. We need to take that next step as an organization and that's what our plans are. If we do that, then we can make it a great spot to play, but it goes one step at a time and we have to prove it. Matt knows that, and he's excited about coming in and playing a part in that transformation. He's got real plans for his career as a player and it's going to go hand-in-hand with what we want to do as an organization. In that way, it will be a great fit."
While Barzal's signing is only the first significant move of the offseason, it's certainly a great start for a team that has been craving someone with his otherworldly potential. Pay close attention, as the ripple effect that he has could make for an exciting summer. Thursday is the draft, when we may see the first of Barzal's effect on the rest of the roster.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.
Wednesday, May 1, 2013 @ 10:28am
The best news Seattle hockey has received in recent memory came Wednesday morning at the Western Hockey League awards ceremony when super-prospect Mathew Barzal signed a contract to join the T-Birds for what is expected to be a remarkable Major Junior career.
Ranked as the consensus No. 1 prospect in the WHL Bantam Draft last year, Barzal took his time before committing to Seattle. While it may have made many T-Birds fans anxious, it displays maturity beyond the Coquitlam, British Columbia native's years that he would choose to weigh all of his options so heavily.
The young sensation found himself in the spotlight before his career even began, as WHL commissioner Ron Robison made the announcement during the award ceremony's opening remarks.
The 6-foot, 170-pound Barzal attended the Thunderbirds' training camp prior to the 2012-13 season, where some scouts considered him the best player in attendance despite facing competition five years older. One agent in attendance, Carlos Sosa of Turning Point Sports Management, said Barzal is the most talented player to come through Seattle since Patrick Marleau in the mid-1990s. Marleau, of course, is now playing for the NHL's San Jose Sharks and is the team's career leader in points, goals, power-play goals, and an impressive number of other offensive categories.
Mathew Barzal is considered one of the top 1997-born players in the world. (Seattle Thunderbirds photo)
McDavid was granted exceptional status by the OHL, allowing him to play in the league at the ripe young age of 15. Facing opponents who were as much as five years older, McDavid averaged over a point per game, tallying 66 points in 63 games. Just last week he was named the Most Valuable Player of the IIHF World U18 Championships, outshining players two years older than himself that are considered some of the best in the world in their age group.
McDavid's drawn comparisons to and praises from Sidney Crosby. Reebok signed him to an endorsement contract when he was still just 15 years old.
And last year, Barzal outplayed him in the All-Canadian Mentorship Cup. At least, according to Yahoo! Sports Canada's Cam Charron, who said that both players were quite impressive.
Unlike the OHL where McDavid plays, the WHL has no history of granting 15-year-olds exceptional status, meaning the Thunderbirds' top pick found himself in much less of a hurry to make a commitment.
However, it's been said that if the WHL did allow underage players to suit up for a full season, Barzal would have been a shoe-in for the honor. His coach during his Bantam years, who also coached former first overall WHL and NHL draft choice Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, has said that Barzal is a better player and further along in his development than Nugent-Hopkins was at the same age.
This shows the type of impact that Barzal could potentially have in Seattle, likely only for two seasons, as he's already projected as a very high choice in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
The domino effect of the Barzal signing has the potential to be enormous, as he's exactly the type of player that an entire roster can be built around. General manager Russ Farwell now has his No. 1 high-scoring center, something the team has been lacking for years. He'll make everyone around him better, as his playmaking skills, skating ability, and vision are elite.
Additionally, his presence could very well make Seattle an attractive place to play for other top prospects. The chance to play with a talent such as Barzal, who significantly improves the game of those around him, should be an enticing possibility for any player with NHL aspirations.
Last year, playing in the British Columbia Major Midget League for the Vancouver NE Chiefs, the phenom scored an astonishing 103 points in just 34 games, including a league record 74 assists.
Seattle's thrilling first-round playoff series with Kelowna undoubtedly impacted Barzal's decision, as he was present for the T-Birds' game three-overtime victory in front of a raucous crowd.
Pairing Barzal with the Thunderbirds' other 2012 first-round draft choice, power forward Keegan Kolesar, should create a sort of thunder-and-lightning combination that has the ability to terrorize WHL defenses over the next few seasons.
Check back soon, as we'll be speaking with Barzal and Farwell about the big commitment and what it means for the T-Birds going forward.
Seattle hockey just became a whole lot more interesting.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.
Sunday, April 28, 2013 @ 7:49pm
The WHL Bantam Draft does not bring the juice the way the recently completed NFL Draft does, but it is the way teams in the league build their rosters. Each year, the 22 clubs gather in Calgary to select the best young hockey players in Western Canada and the United States. This year's draft is scheduled for this week, May 2, and Seattle is in a good spot to pick up some quality talent.
Seattle has three picks in the top 30 selections (eighth, 22nd, and 27th) for the second straight year. Now, most of us have not been scouting these players so in some sense the Bantam Draft can be a bit of a mystery. One man who has been scouting these players is Tyler Neisz, who runs Western Elite Hockey Prospects. For him, Thursday's draft is not a mystery. Neisz was kind enough to shed some light on the draft for us.
"This years draft is as deep as it has been in the past number of years," Neisz said. "A draft that is very comparable to that of the 2008 WHL Bantam draft where Ryan Nugent-Hopkins went first overall and then Ty Rattie, Duncan Siemens, Michael St. Croix and Mark McNeill."
Last year Seattle had the top pick in the draft and used it to take the consensus No. 1 player, Matt Barzal. While Seattle is still waiting to hear if Barzal will don a Seattle sweater, they also picked up other good-looking prospects in Keegan Kolezar (later in the first round) and Ethan Bear (25th overall). While all three players seem to be top prospects, Barzal was the top prize. The Vancouver Giants are sitting where the T-Birds were last season – is there another Barzal this year?
"Although the Vancouver Giants are not going to publicly reveal this information, they are in fact going to take Tyler Benson first overall," Neisz said. "Not only is he the most dominating player in the draft, but he plays a good responsible two-way game, can play a pass first or be a goal scorer, has uncanny vision on the ice, has good hands and isn't afraid to go to the tough areas and play a gritty game, if need be."
Neisz stops short of saying that Benson, while a top-line prospect, is at the elite level that Barzal or former No. 1 pick Ryan Nuget-Hopkins were when they were selected. Benson played in his hometown of Edmonton last year and put up staggering numbers (57 goals, 89 assists, 146 points in 33 games) and should be a player to watch in two years when he is eligible to join the Giants full-time.
What about Seattle's picks?
Neisz has produced some mock drafts and thinks that Seattle would take defenseman David Quenneville with the eighth pick. Quenneville is another Edmonton product who put up an astonishing 34 goals and 72 points from the blue line – in only 32 games. Neisz has good things to say about him.
"I think if David Quenneville is there at No. 8 overall that the Birds would take him," he said. "He is a future quarterback-power play anchor and has perhaps the hardest shot of anyone in the draft. He plays a mean game, makes the big hit and could be a future captain."
If Quenneville is nabbed before the eighth pick Seattle may also look at guys like Tyson Jost (56 games, 53 assists, 109 points in 33 games) or Beck Malenstyn (57 games, 50 assists, 107 points in 53 games) – both of whom Neisz has ranked in the top 10 of the draft.
With Seattle's second first-round pick, the 22nd overall, that they got from Portland in the Marcel Noebels trade, Neisz likes Seattle to take more size. Two guys he identifies are Andy Stevens or Cody Paivarinta. Stevens is a 6-foot-2 defenseman who already weighs in at 185 pounds before he turns 16. Paivarinta is from Abbotsford, also a defenseman, who is 6-foot-5 and would fit right in with Seattle's already-large defensive corps.
The Bantam Draft is unlike drafts in pro sports in that these players aren't eligible to play until they are 16 years old, so most teams draft the best player they see available rather than for a particular position need. The good news for Seattle is that it has a lot of early picks in a deep draft.
Neisz feels that the draft has two rounds of good players, something he thinks is rare and that the group of forwards available might be the draft's strongest position.
"I think the forward group is very strong at the top of the draft with the likes of Tyler Benson, Sam Steel, Nolan Patrick, Brett Howden, Jost and Malenstyn and the list goes on," he said. "Defensemen are at a high premium after Clague, Fabbro, Quenneville and perhaps big Josh Anderson from Cowichan Valley. Saskatchewan and Manitoba are very weak, and it is possible that Saskatchewan won't have a single player picked in the first round. B.C. has the strength in the first round while Northern Alberta is also very strong."
The draft is the most important offseason event for teams in the WHL, and the good news for Seattle is that they have a number of high picks. Pick right and they could set themselves up to be a contending team for years to come.
Stay tuned to the blog as we will have coverage and information concerning all of Seattle's picks on Thursday.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide
Sunday, April 21, 2013 @ 8:12pm
The T-Birds head into the off season with some momentum after an exciting playoff run (Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
With the dust having been cleared from the 2012-13 Thunderbirds season, it is time to start thinking about next year. After ending their playoff drought, the T-Birds are in position to take some big strides next year. They return seven of their top nine scorers along with a now experienced defense as they try to make a run next season.
General manager Russ Farwell will have to plug a few holes, as does every junior hockey head man, to get the T-Birds to the upper echelon of the Western Conference. But for the first time in a while, they have a great foundation to start with.
Seattle was young this past year, but Farwell felt in the end they took some much needed strides.
"Well, I think it was a success in that we really took a step," he said of the completed season. "I thought going into the past three weeks of the regular season we really started to learn to play real hard every night. I thought the guys got into that. We didn't win every game, but we really went after that playoff spot after we came out of that dip we had. I thought we were playing properly, we were hungry and really forced the play."
As head coach Steve Konowalchuk said after the season Farwell believed that maybe the T-Birds were better than their 24-38-7-3 record showed.
"We had such a funny year with some of the stuff that happened and that long, long stretch where we didn't win after Christmas," Farwell said. "We really thought we would be running with those teams for fourth, fifth and sixth place, but we had to fight just to get in. So yeah, we thought we were better, but you have to prove that. I think we did play at the end; I thought the guys really stepped up. I thought at the end we really did take a step."
Farwell said he felt most of the guys on the roster performed as expected. He was especially happy with the progress of defenseman Jerret Smith, whom he felt showed signs last season. He also mentioned a couple of other players he thought showed a great deal of promise for the club.
"The guy that really pushed through, when (Evan) Wardley and (Jesse) Forsberg were out, was (Griffin) Foulk," he said. "He really stepped up and gave us a real solid D in the playoffs. That was nice to see. (Alex) Delnov became very important to us, he was one of our most skilled guys up front and how competitive we were, often depended on him to get the game going."
Junior hockey is unique in that every year you have to say goodbye to players that really pulled the team along. For Seattle, that player was 20-year-old captain Luke Lockhart. Lockhart ended his career in Seattle second on the all-time games played list, and he put the team on his back the last month of the season. While Farwell felt he was a great player for Seattle, he also knows that every year you have to move on.
"He didn't say a lot," Farwell said of the captain. "When you really knew him and saw him play, he just played so hard. I saw him play over the years with some significant injuries and it never even crossed his mind not to play. He blocked shots, he played three weeks to a month with a separated shoulder and he just powered through that. He meant a lot, but it's junior hockey and guys are moving through, so that's just the way it is, but Lock's carved out a great career for himself."
By coming close to pulling off what would have been a historic upset in the playoffs, the T-Birds feel like they have built up some good momentum for next year. They were playing hard and with confidence, showing that they can compete with the WHL's top clubs. All that seems like it bodes well for this fall's season.
"I hope so," Farwell says. "I think the guys were close enough that they got a taste of what's going on. I think to a man, we're all very disappointed, and that's a good sign. You need to get close to understand what it's like in order to go further. I think together they grew as a team a little bit. We've been going with such an inexperienced group on the back line, but those guys now, at 18, they're not giving anything away anymore. They can compete with anyone in the league. We're excited about next year."
Last season the T-Birds had to find a replacement for do-everything goalie Calvin Pickard. They brought in over-ager Brandon Glover in an off-season trade that paid off for them. Glover gave them some stability in goal, and he turned in an amazing performance in the playoffs to give the T-Birds a chance in each game. As he now moves on, the T-Birds once again find themselves looking to shore up their crease.
Last season Justin Myles won the back-up spot in camp, but an injury, his second in two years, sidelined him for most of the season. Danny Mumaugh came in to back up Glover and showed some signs later in the season that he might have a bright future. Myles and Mumaugh have promise but are pretty young, something that usually is tough to win with in this league. Seattle may have to look for another goalie this summer.
"We'll have to sort that out," Farwell says of his goalie situation. "Myles was just cleared the last week; he could have come back. That injury really cost him another year, developmentally, so we don't know where he'll be at and we can't really expect him to step in and be our goalie, but he's going to be in the mix. He pushed his way in this year. Mumaugh really improved, but he'll only be 17 so we may look to bring in more experience there."
With Lockhart moving on, and with over-ager Adam Kambeitz also gone, the T-Birds also have a need at center. Alex Delnov and Andrew Johnson are the only two returning players who have a lot of experience at center. It's another position Seattle will have to take a look at this summer. Of course, if they can get last year's first-round pick Mathew Barzal signed, the position will look a lot better.
"Well the first thing we want to do is keep moving ahead with Barzal," Farwell says. "If we can cement that, get it done, he's a guy that can change that (the center position) a bit. We have some guys that can play center off and on depending on where we're at. We might need some experience at that position, we'll see."
Barzal of course is the big story for the T-Birds. He was the top pick in last year's draft and is a player that is good enough to come in and contribute at 16 years old next season. There has been a great deal of speculation and discussion about what Barzal wants to do this season, and it seems like the end may soon come. Barzal, and the club, have both said that he will make a final decision before May's Bantam draft. Farwell seems cautiously optimistic about the chances of Barzal coming to play.
"We've been talking quite a bit and I think he was coached so much to take his time that he felt he had to do that," Farwell said of the young star. "But I think things have gone fairly well. I was up (in B.C.) to see a midget team recently and Matt and his Dad were both there and we talked. We want to get it resolved as early as we can; we're thinking some time early in the summer. He watched all the (playoff) games online, (and) he told me they watched them all. They watched them as a family - a number of our lists players told me that."
It would be hard to imagine the T-Birds not making any moves this summer. If they do want to make any trades this summer, it seems likely they would move a defenseman to make it happen. They find themselves in a situation where they have a great deal of depth on the back end. Will they move one of them?
"We have a number of guys signed on defense. We're going to have to juggle things there," Farwell said of his blue liners. "I think (Ethan) Bear's knocking on the door to play and so there's a good chance we might look at it. I don't know when that will happen. Sometimes it's in the off season, but I don't know that there's good value there. We might get to camp and then look to see what's available."
The next big date on the off-season schedule for Farwell and the T-Birds is the Bantam Draft, held on May 2,in Calgary. Seattle will have the eighth, 22nd (from Portland) and 27th picks and are in a good position to load up on some good prospects for the second straight season. Farwell said they look to pick up the best player available instead of focusing on any player in particular.
With the young players they already have drafted and having three picks in the top 30 again, Seattle has a chance to build a solid club for the next few seasons to come.
"We're happy with the steps our young guys took this year," Farwell said. "We're still optimistic that we can talk to (2011 first rounder Ryan) Gropp and get him thinking our way, too. If we can do that then we're in a position to really take a step forward as a team - that's our hope. We want to be fairly active in the summer and just work on convincing some of the guys to come play. That's the next step for us."
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide
Monday, April 15, 2013 @ 9:46am
By Tim Pigulski
Most Valuable Player: Connor Honey
Honey finished second on the team in total scoring with 54 points in 57 games, which gave him the highest per-game average on the team with 0.95 points per game. Honey's importance became even more evident in the playoffs when he was given a questionable three-game suspension for checking from behind. Without Honey at the point, the power play was completely dead, and it ultimately was the reason the Thunderbirds lost the series.
Off the ice, Honey is a very mature player, and he assumed a leadership role in the locker room as the season progressed. It was tough to pick against do-it-all center Luke Lockhart for this award, who certainly deserves recognition for his contributions, but Honey was a bigger offensive contributor, and his line carried the offense at times during the season.
As a 19-year-old next season, Honey should find himself in the running to don the coveted "C" on his jersey now that Lockhart will be moving on.
Top Newcomer: Roberts Lipsbergs
Lipsbergs didn't score a goal in his first 10 games for the Thunderbirds, but he ended up leading the team in scoring after big months of November and December. The young Latvian is a tenacious competitor and, despite his smaller stature, doesn't seem to have any problems going into the corners with much bigger defenders.
As a 19-year-old next season, Lipsbergs should be a player who averages a point per game and is a force on the Thunderbirds' top line. This offseason, he will likely find himself drafted by an NHL club in one of the middle rounds after being passed over last year, the first year he was eligible to be picked.
Alex Delnov, Riley Sheen and Brandon Glover all deserve credit as well, as the team wouldn't have gotten as far as it did without them, but Lipsbergs' production earned him this award.
Top Rookie: Roberts Lipsbergs
The only competition Lipsbergs really had for this award was Delnov, who looked like the obvious choice through the season's first couple of months. However, Lipsbergs caught fire and Delnov slowed down to the point that he was even benched for a period by Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk when the team was struggling.
After an early adjustment period, Lipsbergs established himself not only as the top rookie on his own team, but also as one of the best in the entire league. He finished second only to Portland's Oliver Bjorkstrand in rookie scoring despite being surrounded by a less productive supporting cast.
Player Who Will Be Most Missed: Brandon Glover
It was also tough to choose against Lockhart here, as his impact on the team over the past four years is indescribable. However, with the departure of Glover, the team is left without a reliable option in net. Danny Mumaugh looked decent in limited action, but counting on him as a 17-year-old next season to carry the workload of a starting goaltender could be a recipe for disaster.
Glover was great in the playoffs, and he is the main reason the Thunderbirds were able to keep pace with Kelowna through seven games. Finding a goaltender to replace him this offseason seems as though it would be one of General Manager Russ Farwell's top priorities.
Top Forward: Connor Honey
Honey was the team's best offensive player while also being no slouch in the defensive zone, either. He and the team's top defenseman, Shea Theodore, formed a formidable blue-line tandem on the power play.
If Honey can improve this offseason in the same way he did last year, he has the chance to become a very good player in the WHL. Honey, who was also passed over in his first draft-eligible season, should draw interest from the some NHL teams in the 2013 draft.
Top Defenseman: Shea Theodore
Theodore was by far the team's best offensive defenseman, and he started to show vast improvement in his own end toward the end of the season. With 51 points in 70 games, Theodore was a more efficient scorer than most of the team's forwards. Although he didn't score as much during the playoffs, he no longer looked like a liability in his own end which was sometimes the case earlier in the season.
Like Delnov, a benching during the regular season seemed to serve as a wake-up call for the young defenseman. His 19 goals were 15 more than he scored last season, and he looks like he could be a similar player to former-Thunderbird Thomas Hickey.
He is an incredibly smooth skater who is able to take over games at times, gaining control of the puck in his own end and taking it all the way up the ice to score. He displays outstanding vision and hands, and he should be one of, if not the best offensive defenseman in the league next season.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski
Thursday, April 11, 2013 @ 9:11pm
By Andrew Eide
It's been a week since the Seattle Thunderbirds were knocked out of the WHL playoffs in that exciting Game 7 in Kelowna. That game ended a season that at times seemed bleak, and at other times was spectacular.
Seattle had a young team, which very well may explain some of the up-and-down play they experienced. In the end they managed to right the ship, end their playoff drought and play an opening round series for the ages. While Kelowna may have won, the T-Birds took their pound of flesh as the Rockets went on to get swept in the second round by Kamloops.
For second-year head coach Steve Konowalchuk, he managed to overcome the low points of the season and get his guys fired up to play down the stretch. The coach took some time to reflect back on the season that we just saw.
"If you think about the whole year, it was definitely a roller-coaster, that's for sure," he said. "I really liked our first half -- sure looked like there were some good signs of taking the next step. Then we hit a wall there at Christmas, and some games we played good and couldn't win and some games we played bad and didn't win. We kind of got back to a little of a loser's mentality where you're used to losing and started accepting (it) a little bit."
Despite the second half rough patches, Konowalchuk felt that overall things turned out pretty well.
"We had to get out of that culture and change it back to the culture we had the first part of the year" he said. "Guys picked it up the last month and a half of the season, played good hockey and carried it on to the playoffs there. It was an exciting playoffs. It was disappointing not to win that series, but it was a real good hockey team we faced. We gave them everything they could handle."
At the beginning of the season, Konowalchuk said that making the playoffs was of course a goal, but he wanted more. He wanted to have a winning record and to compete with the top dogs in the WHL. The team fell short of getting the winning record but did manage some big wins along the way. Did Konowalchuk feel the season was a success?
"I do now," the coach said. "The way the playoffs went, when we really competed with a team that's one of the top teams in the league. We competed at a pretty high level. (But not finishing with a) winning record was disappointing to me and it was frustrating a lot of the year because I felt that we were a better team than what our record showed."
Those that followed the team agreed that they seemed to have more talent than their play on the ice reflected, something that their performance against Kelowna may have proven to be true. Konowalchuk talked about why he felt they were better than the record.
"There were a lot of losses where we needed a timely goal and didn't connect," he said. "Or we had one defensive breakdown and would lose by one goal. It seemed like there was one small reason in a lot of hockey games that put us on the losing end. It wasn't the case like two years ago where we weren't in a whole lot of hockey games. This year we felt like no matter who we played we had a chance to win. That was a big change, and I think that showed in the playoffs."
Seattle was optimistic coming out of training camp. They felt they had four solid lines up front that could help turn the corner. It didn't take long for that to fall apart after a couple of tough injuries, though. The first was the loss of Tyler Alos, a gritty player who could play up and down the ice and was off to a great start. Alos had to retire from hockey due to the risk of further concussions.
"Huge loss," Konowalchuk said about losing the Spokane native. "Alos was a guy that could play in any situation. He was starting to really take off offensively. He was going to play a lot of minutes. He's a hard player to play against but he was really starting to show he could contribute in other areas. It would have been fun to see where he ended up."
Seattle also played the majority of the season without one of their top offensive players in Branden Troock, who battled a shoulder injury that limited him to playing just 19 games.
"Troock is a talent," the coach said. "You can see what he can do by himself, the frustrating thing is that we haven't been able to get him in the lineup enough to build chemistry. Any line he's on he's a threat to score at any time. Team's have to respect that. Physically he is the most talented player on the team."
Those two losses caused Seattle to scramble their lines early and often. Konowalchuk said that "health is a big part of it, especially key guys, they're harder to replace."
Seattle hit the skids just before the holiday break, when their long losing streak began. One of the key games in the losing streak was a Dec. 14 loss to the Spokane Chiefs, in which Seattle built a 6-2 third period lead only to have Spokane roar back to win 7-6 in a shootout. As tough as that loss was, Konowalchuk pointed to a pair of games a week later as being a bigger turning point.
"Spokane was a big loss," Konowalchuk said. "I think the bigger game for me was the losses when we got back after Christmas. We played Everett two games -- we played them well but we lost the games. We outplayed them,(Austin) Lotz played really well, and we lost both of those games. That to me is when our mentality started to fall back to last year. The losing streak started to wear on us."
Ah the losing streak.
15 long games that were tough on the players, coaches and fans. There were many nights when it seemed like they were going to snap it, only to lose at the end. How tough was that stretch on the players?
"It was tough on the guys, some guys more than others," Konowalchuk says.
Despite it being tough, the coach felt that in the end it may have brought the team together.
"I think the losing streak, coming out of it and having success at the end made us a better team," he said. "Because during that losing streak you find out a lot about character and the price to pay to win consistently. Our team really experienced two extremes this season. The losing was miserable and no fun, and then the high of the playoffs, big games and the high of that. They started to play because they wanted to win. They started to play for each other."
That doesn't mean that it was hard on the head coach though.
"It was very frustrating because I knew we were a better team than that," Konowalchuk said. "For me I just had to make sure that I stuck with what I believed in. During those streaks some guys go in different directions. I had to make sure I stuck with it, hold guys accountable, give guys the ice time who were still committed to doing it and guys who weren't as committed I started taking their ice time away."
Just as the games against Everett after the holiday break set the tone for the losing streak, it may have been another game with the Silvertips that helped propel the team. Seattle lost a frustrating late season game to their I-5 rivals on March 9th by one goal. It was game that saw Seattle take out its frustrations late by taking some penalties -- including a now-infamous goalie fight between Brandon Glover and Austin Lotz.
"That Everett game we showed some emotion from everybody," Konowalchuk said. "It wasn't something you wanted to happen. You don't want guys to take penalties. It's not a good thing at the time, but it showed the emotion we were playing with and that carried forward to Tri-City, where we played the best game of the regular season, and that carried forward into the playoffs."
Seattle entered the season with a pretty green defensive group. They took their lumps early but by the end they were playing well and a huge reason the team had success against Kelowna.
"I'm very happy," Konowalchuk said about the defenses progression. "You look at their plus/minus during three quarters of the season, the guys were minus players and then all of a sudden they became close to equal. Haufy (Jared Hauf) was plus the last twenty games, Theo (Shae Theodore) played better the second half on defense. If you look at the playoffs during five-on-five against a very good offensive team, I think our guys were all plus players. That shows signs of them growing up."
Now that the dust has settled on the season it's time to look forward to next year. Seattle returns several of its top players, and Konowalchuk says that he is excited about what is coming back. With that comes higher expectations, as Seattle should score and will have no more reason to worry about their back-end with its defensemen are now in their prime.
It's been a while since Seattle has had this much talent returning, and in many ways is a reward for the lumps they took this year learning how to improve -- something they did as the year drug on. That growth was evident the most as they nearly pulled off the biggest upset in league history.
Follow Andrew on twitter @andyeide