Saturday, September 27, 2014

Capable and Culpable

There is no hiding when you make a mistake on the ice and Friday night in Kennewick the Thunderbirds made a couple of egregious errors and those ended up in the back of their net in a 3-1 loss to the Tri-City Americans. It just turns out that a couple of mistakes by Seattle was all it took to provide the Americans with the margin of victory. We talk about how young this Seattle team is but in the loss, it wasn't the youth, but the older players who committed the gaffes.

I don't think veteran players make excuses when they make a mistake, in fact, most will own up to it. But being an older player at this level doesn't mean you still don't have things to learn. This is a developmental league and as a player you are always learning so that you can be prepared for the next level. Sometimes you learn the same lesson more then once. The key now is for those players to learn from the mistakes so that they can be eliminated going forward.

In years past if the T-birds were missing players the caliber of Justin Hickman, Shea Theodore and Evan Wardley from the lineup, you might start playing the "what if" game or using their absence as an excuse for a loss. The reality is the T-birds have had enough talent on hand to win each game they've played so far this season. Through three games they've outshot their opponents by a combined 86-64 and without reviewing the video of each game, I'd still feel comfortable saying the T-birds have comfortably outchanced the opposition as well.

If you've watched all three games you'd probably be as excited as I am then, about the level of skill and talent on this roster, in particular among the large contingent of young players who will form the nucleus of this team for the next two to three seasons. This is my fourteenth season calling T-birds games and there has never been a young group of skilled players all coming into the system at the same time like there is this year. It started with last year's rookie class and when you add in this season's newcomers you can see reason for optimism.

But talent is just one part of the equation. The next step is to get all that talent on the same page. And once you have that chemistry, you have to maintain it and get that talent and skill working together each game, each period, each shift. Hockey is a team sport and you can't play it as an individual. With this team I think they'll get all those parts meshing together into a cohesive unit sooner then later. It might be a little slow out of the gate, but I believe at some point they'll shift gears and get humming. Maybe it does take getting A Hickman, Theodore or Wardley back in the lineup but not once so far this young season have I thought they needed those players in the lineup to win. They can win without them, having them in the lineup will just make them that much better.

He hasn't scored a goal yet this season but no question in my mind Mathew Barzal has been the best player on the ice every night so far. He should end up this season with a ton of assists and when they start coming I predict they'll come in bunches. Second best player? I'd say 16 year old Nolan Volcan. He's the Energizer Bunny out there. In most cases if you say your two best players are a 17 year old and a 16 year old, you'd probably say that's a problem. Not with this least not yet.

I'm not dismissing the sluggish start of the offense. Obviously you can't win if you don't score. I think though, it is a matter of tweaking a few things such as getting better shots and more traffic in front of goal. The chances have been there in the early going for guys like Barzal, Gropp, Eansor and Kolesar. It's just a matter of finishing them.

One of the thoughts I heard from diehard fans through training camp and preseason was whether the T-birds will need to make a trade for a proven, veteran WHL goal scorer. GM Russ Farwell didn't necessarily dismiss the idea when I spoke to him prior to the season opener down in Portland. He's always going to look for ways to improve his team. If they do decide to make such a deal I personally would prefer it be done using just draft picks rather then surrendering any of the young talent currently on the roster.

Can it be done? Well, Everett just acquired Nikita Sherbak, a high end offensive player from Saskatoon for a first and second round pick and a third string, seldom used goalie. So it can be done. Of course that may be impractical. If you trade for someone, a young player currently on the team is going to lose ice time which is not good for that players development. But I can see a role for every current young player on this roster going forward and I don't mind suffering short term knowing the long term gain is high end if you can keep this group together.

With his WHL debut last night, Luke Osterman becomes the latest member of the 2012 draft to see ice time. Seattle's top seven picks from that bantam draft have now all played for the Thunderbirds just three years after being drafted as 14 year old. Osterman didn't see a lot of ice time but the few shifts he did have were productive. Remember, he's still transitioning not just to the WHL level of play but from his natural position as a defenseman to playing right wing.

How much stock should be put into the early going this season? Seattle, along with Portland and Victoria, have been picked by most prognosticators to be three of the top four teams in the Western Conference. Combined though, they are off to a 1-8-0-0 start with Seattle recording the only win and the three teams have been outscored 37-18 in the process.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An "If Only" Game

Saturday night's home opener was another one of those frustrating games where you think the better team probably didn't win. It wasn't a "we're head and shoulder better" type effort because it was a very tightly contested, close to the vest, sixty minutes of hockey. But in the end Seattle probably outchanced the Silvertips. I know the coaches track quality scoring chances and they look at that statistic more so then shots on goal and I'd conservatively say the T-birds outchanced Everett, especially in the third period where I was hard pressed to remember even one scoring opportunity for the opposition as the 'Tips mustered just two shots on goal.

In the end Seattle missed too many of those opportunities and there were three basic reasons why. One, was Everett goalie Carter Hart. He made the key saves when the T-birds threatened. One of the reasons for that though is two, the T-birds didn't get a lot of traffic in front of the Everett net. A lot of the T-birds shots on goal were right into the center of his jersey, a pretty routine save for any goalie. But put a body in front of the goal and you get a chance to redirect those type of shots and generate a better scoring opportunity. A prime example of that is the only goal in the game scored by Everett early in the first period, a shot redirected by traffic in front of Seattle's goal. Reason number three? Far too many shots Seattle unleashed didn't hit the target. They were wide, high or blocked.

How many times in the third period did a Seattle forward, usually Matt Barzal, skate the puck up ice, gain the zone then hit the trailing defenseman, only to see the resulting one-timer end up somewhere in Auburn? You can think to yourself, "Boy if we had Shea Theodore in the lineup,that wouldn't happen." But the reality is that Seattle didn't need Theo last night. They have other defensemen very capable of putting that shot on net in Bear, Henry and Smith. Last night it didn't happen. A good week of practice can help that, heading into Friday's road game in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans.

Friday night down in Portland the T-birds started a little jittery out of the gate but recovered quickly to the point it didn't hurt them. Last night against Everett they had a very slow start and that was the difference in the game. The 'Tips got the games only goal two minutes in, and Seattle spent almost the entire first half of the first period hemmed in their own end. Seattle needs better starts.

I was not surprised to see the T-birds carrying the puck up ice and into the offensive zone as opposed to dump and chase hockey, especially in that third period. Unlike the recent past Seattle now has forwards, such as Barzal and Ryan Gropp, who are capable of beating the neutral zone trap. It doesn't mean we won't see dump and chase. It will depend on the opponent but I fully expect to see more of what we witnessed in the third period Saturday night.

It was encouraging to see Scott Eansor score four goals in last spring's playoffs and hopefully it carries over to this season. He's had chances already in the first two games of the new season. Last night he kissed the crossbar on a shorthanded breakaway late in the second period. It is a game of inches, isn't it?

Like most fans I get frustrated when I see a missed opportunity like last night's game. It was certainly winnable from a Seattle standpoint. But in the end, despite the loss, I would still grade out that game as a positive. Effort was not an issue, maybe execution, but certainly not effort. When I talk about Seattle's youth and the fact they are going to probably be the youngest team in the WHL this season, I'm not throwing it up as an excuse or alibi for losing games like last night. Rather, I'm encouraged that in a close game like last night against Everett, the T-birds young inexperienced players didn't play like young inexperienced players. It tells me this team, with so many 16 and 17 year olds and so many first or second year players, can still compete night in and night out. There just seems to be a lot of hockey smarts among that youth.

I loved the grit from rookie Nick Holowko on his shifts in the third period. He was bangin' bodies, battling along the boards and scrapping for pucks. And I know rookie Donovan Neuls got penalized for that fraction-of-a-second after the whistle hit in the second period, but no way would I discourage him from that type of play-to-the-whistle (or slightly beyond) effort. To think Holowko went undrafted and Neuls was an 8th round pick. Could turn out to be a couple of steals. Just a few examples that Seattle's changes in their scouting staff a few years back is paying dividends.

Can we check the birth certificate of Nolan Volcan? Is he really just 16? The young man plays with his hair on fire. There may not be another T-birds with better straight line speed and like Holowko and Neuls, he doesn't shy away from physical contact. In fact, he's often the aggressor. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk wouldn't throw his three 16 year olds out their in close games if he wasn't confident in their abilities and Volcan, fellow forward Kaden Elder and defenseman Sahvan Khaira were all seeing the ice in the third period. They're going to make their mistakes along the way but I love how all of these young guys play with confidence in their abilitiy to execute the game plan. It can only benefit them down the road and my that I mean later this season, not two or three years from now.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Young and the Restless

Opening night games are a funny thing. Win and you start dreaming you'll never drop another game, lose and you think, "oh well, it's just one game in a long season."

The Thunderbirds opened the new season Friday night in Portland with a solid 4-1 win over their longtime rivals. Now, I'm not trying to be Dougie Downer here, but let's remember that Seattle started each of the past two seasons with an opening night win over the Winterhawks as well, and when the season ended five months later the T-birds were firmly in Portland's rearview mirror in the U.S. Division standings. Let's also realize that Portland was missing some pretty key components to their roster with 7 to 8 top end players away at NHL camps and a few others sideline with injury.

That being said, there is no need to put an asterisk by this win. As one coach I used to work with would say, control the controllables. The Thunderbirds have no say in who their opponent puts on the ice but they do control the effort they themselves bring to each contest. Much is being made of Portland having nine rookies in the lineup last night. Well, the T-birds had eight and a ninth rookie was a healthy scratch. Don't forget, the T-birds are absent a couple of key players too and even if they had those missing players in the lineup, they still field one of the youngest, if not the youngest rosters in the WHL. Friday night, in addition to the eight rookies taking to the ice, the T-birds had four second year players in the lineup as well.

It was their young players doing most of the damage. Second year player and 2011 first round draft pick Ryan Gropp paced the attack with two goals. The T-birds two first round selections from the 2012 draft, Matt Barzal and Keegan Kolesar, began their second year in the league by contributing four points (1g, 3a). 2013 second round selection Nolan Volcan probably had the assist of the night, setting up 2014 first round Import Draft selection Alexander True's first WHL goal.

If you wanted to bill this opening night game as a battle between Seattle's future and Portland's future, the T-birds not only won the battle, they dominated. The final score was actually flattering to the Winterhawks. If not for the stellar play in goal by Portland goalie Adin Hill, the final numbers on the scoreboard would have been more lopsided in Seattle's favor. Again, its just one game but it might have been a good glimpse into the future.

Sometimes the scoresheet doesn't tell the whole story. If you look beside the name of Seattle's Austrian import Florian Baltram, you'll see nothing but zeros but I thought he was one of the best players on the ice for the Thunderbirds. If not for a couple of acrobatic saves by Hill, Baltram would have easily had a multiple goal WHL debut.

The last thing to come around for a young team such as the T-birds are, is consistency or the ability to bring that type of effort to the ice each game. The good news is Seattle gets a chance to show they can be consistent when they hit the ice again tonight in their home opener against Everett. So this becomes a very good early season test of that ability to bring a consistent effort from game to game, not to mention that a good opening weekend could go along way in setting the tone for the rest of the season.

There is some thought that the injury to defenseman Shea Theodore's elbow would affect which three 20 year old players the T-birds will eventually keep once we reach the 20 year old cut down date in Mid-October. Theodore will be sidelined 4-to-6 weeks after suffering the injury while at camp last weekend with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks. The T-birds are currently carrying two 20 year old defensemen on their roster in Adam Henry and Evan Wardley. Henry had a key assist in the win over Portland while Wardley is currently in camp with the NHL's Montreal Canadians.

I posed that question to Seattle G.M. Russ Farwell last night in Portland and essentially he said since Theodore will eventually return from the injury, it should have no bearing on their 20 year old decision but he does want to resolve the issue as soon as possible so that which ever players end up on the outside, get a chance to hook on with another team.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thinning the Herd

The Thunderbirds announced Wednesday that they have dealt left winger Jaimen Yakubowski, along with a conditional 2016 7th round draft pick, to Moose Jaw in exchange for a third round selection in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. My first reaction to this is that GM Russ Farwell got a very good return in the swap. You might recall a few years back when the T-birds traded Jeremy Boyer to Saskatoon they received a 3rd round pick in return. That pick was turned into Shea Theodore. And last season's trade of Jesse Forsberg also netted them a third round pick which they used to help acquire some important pieces for the second half last season.

The Thunderbirds can do two things with that draft pick. Hold on to it and use to restock the team. When the current group of young players are graduating out of the program in 3-4 years, the player selected with that pick will just be entering the prime of his WHL career. Or, they can use that draft pick as part of a trade package to bolster the team either this winter at the trade deadline, or in January of 2016.

In any trade the hope is that the deal works out for both sides. In acquiring Yakubowski, Moose Jaw gets a gritty two-way player who has also shown the ability to score goals at the WHL level. While he potted just nine goals in 47 games with Seattle, that is partly due to the fact he was willing to accept a role on a checking line. He is just two year removed from a 30+ goal campaign. I think he can also provide them with some toughness as well as leadership. He should be a tremendous locker room guy for them as well. The one thing I learned about Yak in the short time he was with Seattle is that he is a team player and very positive guy. That should fit well with a relatively young team in Moose Jaw.

The deal is also classic Farwell in that he puts the player's best interest into the equation. By dealing him to Moose Jaw, Yakubowski gets to play his final WHL season near his Saskatchewan home.

By making the move a week before training camp opens Farwell also reduces the number of 20 year olds still left to fight it out over three roster spots. There is certainly still opportunity for another trade before camp begins but as of now the remaining candidates for those three spots are goalie Taran Kozun, defensemen Adam Henry and Evan Wardley and forwards Justin Hickman, Sam McKechnie and Connor Honey. It is still possible that a couple of those players could make the final decisions easier by signing pro contracts, such as Hickman and Wardley. Until that unknown becomes a known, I would expect all six of those players to be at camp for the duration, that is, of course, unless some WHL team makes an offer for one of those players the T-birds simply can't refuse.

Additionally, with Shea Theodore most likely getting a longer look at camp with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks then he got last season, it makes sense to hold on to one, if not both, of Henry and Wardley until Theodore is returned to the T-birds in October.

In summary, this is a good deal for Seattle. It reduces the number of players fighting for those three spots but not to the point there isn't any competition. No one has been handed a roster position. They still have to go out and earn it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

An Import-ant Draft

The last scheduled major event of the WHL offseason took place Wednesday with the annual CHL Import Draft. Seattle was looking to replace both import players on their 2013-14 roster, Alexander Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs, so it was no surprise that when it was time to make their two selections they chose a pair of forwards.

Now, I can't verify this, it is only my opinion, but it appears the T-birds went into the Import Draft with a game plan of picking not just two forwards, but to get two '97 born players. In the end they get the tall and the short of it with 6'3" Danish center Alexander True and 5'10" forward Florian Baltram out of Austria. These two will now join a fairly impressive group of '97 born players who should be part of the Thunderbirds roster this coming season, as well as a few more seasons after that.

So add these two to the list of 1997 born players that includes Mathew Barzal, Ethan Bear, Keegan Kolesar, Logan Flodell, Lane Pederson and the recently signed Donovan Neuls. Am I missing anyone? All will be eligible for the first time for the NHL Entry draft next spring. And that list doesn't include Ryan Gropp, who has a late '96 birthdate and thus is also eligible for the NHL Draft next spring for the first time. How did the T-birds go from 24 wins in 2012-13 to 41 wins this past season? With a roster comprised of 10 players from the same birth year (1994). This puts them on a similar path.

We are looking at the potential of all of the above mentioned players being together through the 2015-16 season. Let's not forget a pretty good crop of 1998 born players that will join them such as Kaden Elder, Nolan Volcan, Sahvan Khaira and quite possibly, the unsigned Dante Fabbro.

As for the two Import picks? Well, not to sound like Yogi Berra, but you never know what you have until you have them. At a minimum you hope recent history repeats itself because the last time Seattle made two import selections in the same draft, they ended up with a couple of good ones in Delnov and Lipsbergs. All they did was combine for 112g, 102a and 214 points over the past two seasons. If True and Baltram can get remotely close to those numbers this import draft will be an unmitigated success.

Both True and Baltram have shown they can score in their respective European leagues. Now we'll wait to see if that translates into the WHL. True comes from a Danish hockey system that has produced a couple of recent top NHL draft picks in Oliver Bjorkstrand and Nikolaj Ehlers. I'm not comparing his talent to either of those players (although Ehlers is apparently his cousin; good bloodlines) but True has already played for Denmark's World Junior team at age 16, even scoring a goal. True has length, at 6'3". He is listed at 179 lbs. so his frame has room to add weight and muscle.

The T-birds lost some scoring from last year so True will be looked on to produce some offense. Maybe they got a two-for-one deal, and have just drafted Alexander(Delnov Brandon)True(ook)?

Like True, Baltram played for his National World Junior team. Representing Austria this past winter at age 16 in Group B where he registered two points. There have been other Austrians in the WHL recently who have fared well, especially Michael Grabner and Dominic Zwerger with the Spokane Chiefs.

Because both True and Baltram played with their National World Junior teams this past winter I would expect that to be the case this winter, and for that matter, the following season as well. So there are going to be a couple of Decembers and Januarys where Seattle will be a bit shorthanded because you have to believe that among the current roster, Barzal, Gropp and possibly Ethan Bear are strong candidates for Team Canada's World Junior team and that Elder and Volcan (and if he eventually signs with Seattle, Fabbro) will get their chance in the future too.

The next step is to get both players over here to play. That doesn't seem to be an issue. True was reached at his home in Hoersholm, Denmark, after the Import Draft and made it sound as though he is eager to be a T-bird. “I am very excited to be selected by the Thunderbirds. It always has been a dream to come to North America to play hockey. I feel I am good in both ends of the ice and take responsibility in the defensive zone.”

As for Baltram, Seattle's GM Russ Farwell had high praise, “Florian played for a U-20 team in Austria and was the best player in his age group in the league,” said Farwell. “He was the leading scorer among his age group and he has a great reputation character wise and is a proven scorer”.

With the Import Draft behind us, the next scheduled event is training camp. There is the possibility of a trade or two between now and then, especially with Seattle's surplus of 20 year olds but I have a feeling this time around Farwell may wait until camp to sort that situation out.

Lastly, I want to personally thank both Alexander Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs for their two years of service with the Thunderbirds. As mentioned, both produced solid numbers on the ice. For two years running Lipsbergs led the team in goal scoring. And unlike some import players from the past who didn't have the best grasp of the English language, both were well spoken and eager to converse with me. Delnov would talk to me on occassion about his family back home and Lipsbergs in particular had a peculiar but infectious sense of humor. I might even miss the Russian music that emanated from their seats behind me on the bus two years ago.

Now enjoy the summer and see you in late August at training camp!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

We Interrupt this Offseason...

All was fairly quiet around T-bird Nation. Since the Bantam Draft back in early May, there was not much to report on. That changed this week with a couple of news items.

First the Thunderbirds GM, Russ Farwell, announced the signing of defenseman Savhan Khaira to a standard WHL Player Agreement. Khaira was a 2013 ninth round draft selection by Seattle. Now, you might say what is the big deal about a ninth rounder signing? So few ninth round picks ever make it past a training camp or two. Khaira, though, is not your ordinary ninth round selection. He is one of those players who, had he been committed to the WHL at the time of that draft probably is taken in the first or second round.

But at the time of the 2013 draft,it appeared Khaira would follow his older brother's path. Jujhar Khaira, who is three years older then Sahvan, had gone the NCAA route and attended Michigan Tech. Then he was drafted a few years back by the Edmonton Oilers, in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft. He chose to sign his entry level NHL contract with the Oilers which ended his NCAA eligibility. That meant he would play the 2013-14 season with Everett, which held his WHL rights. I believe Jujhar's positive experience with Everett and Sahvan's good showing at his first Thunderbirds training camp last August, helped convince his parents that the WHL and Seattle was the right path for Sahvan to take for his future in hockey.

So this is a case of Farwell taking a low risk gamble by using a 9th round draft pick on an undecided high end talent in Khaira and having it pay off in potentially a big way. Khaira, a defenseman, is already 6'2" and 210 lbs. Even last August as a 15 year old at training camp, he looked bigger then his listed vital statistics. He looked like an athlete. And to me, on the ice, he stood out just as much as Seattle's 2013 1st round bantam selection, Dante Fabbro.

That's not to say they are similar players. The unsigned Fabbro is more of an offensive defenseman; more dynamic and probably a greater upside. Khaira is more of a stay-at-home type and while on the ice at camp last year he played a smart, simple game where he could use his size and length, a skill that big, 15 year old defenseman usually take a few years to develop. He skated well for a big kid too. It would not shock me if he ended up as one of Seattle's top six defensemen next season, say on a third pairing if the T-birds keep a 20 year old d-man to pair him with, similar to what they did last year with Ethan Bear when they paired him up with 19 year old Adam Henry. At a minimum he'll get into enough games to begin his development into being a top two d-man in coming years.

The even better news is that he'll have a veteran group of defensemen around him, so there is no pressure on him early on with the likes of Shea Theordore, Jerret Smith, Jared Hauf, Bear and possibly Henry or Evan Wardley to learn from.

Then, just today the Thunderbirds announced a three year contract extension for head coach Steve Konowalchuk. This is validation that Konowalchuk has this franchise going in the right direction. In a year of a lot of coaching fluctuation in the Western Conference, it is nice to have continuity and stability behind the bench that this extension brings.

In my estimation Konowalchuk has not fully implemented his systems in Kent yet. I think his first three years with the club he coached to the talent he had and brought out the best in those players, getting players like Branden Troock to buy in. As the talent has gotten better he's put in more of his game plan. Slowly, over the past few years, Seattle has drafted the type of players that fit Konowalchuk's style and that has allowed him to integrate more of what he wants his players to do on the ice. He's a firm but fair operator, not afraid to bench a top player if it is warranted. He said when he was first hired that he liked the idea of working with and developing young players and by signing the extension he reaffirmed that commitment.

It also tells me he is happy with the direction the organization is going. As a former NHL assistant coach I'm sure he has connections that could get him hired back at the NHL or AHL level. By re-upping with the T-birds it tells me he believes in his current players and the players coming in to the system.

Monday, April 14, 2014

No Easy Come, Easy Go

The biggest decisions the Seattle Thunderbirds will make between now and opening night of he 2014-15 season next September is which three players will occupy the three 20 year old spots on their roster. There are plenty of current in house options and there is always the possibility the team trades to bring in more candidates.

For the purpose of this article, we are going to concentrate on the 1994 born players who were on the team's roster at the end of this past season, minus Russell Maxwell, who has indicated he will not be returning next year in order to fulfill his church mission obligation. We say "Ciao Russell, and good luck in Italy!"

First, in alphabetical order, will be the pro argument for each candidate; the reason why they should be retained. Then I'll follow that up with the argument, if any, for not retaining that player for next season.

The Arguments For:

Alexander Delnov, LW/C. The argument for retaining Delnov is one simply of statistics. He was the team's second leading scorer this past season accumulating 63 points in 71 games (29g, 34a). The 29 goals were second on the club and then he added four more in the playoffs, which tied him for the lead there. Ten of his regular season goals were on the power play and on a team that struggled to score with the man advantage, that too was second best on the club.

Adam Henry, D. Henry was acquired via trade early last season and almost immediately was wearing an "A" on his jersey as one of the team's alternate captains. That makes it apparent the coaching staff valued his leadership. Paired with 16 year old Ethan Bear all season, he helped develop Bear's game. He was second to Shea Theodore in points by a T-birds defenseman with 38 (7g,31a). He was a decent two way defenseman, solid in moving the puck up ice and he contributed on the power play (4gs).

Justin Hickman, C,LW. Hickman was the team captain and the unquestionable leader on the team. More importantly, statistically he also took a big step and that should only continue as a 20 year old. His 46 points were a career best and a good portion of his 22 goals and 24 assists came in the second half of the season, meaning he was trending upward. He also finished at +7, which was third best on the team. More importantly retaining Hickman also keeps Seattle's top line combination together (Hickman-Barzal-Gropp)for another year. Hickman is also one of the team's more physical players and depending on who is not returning next season that becomes another important part of his game.

Connor Honey,RW. Before the upper body injury that cost him 65 games this past season, Honey was on track to finish as a point a game player (2g, 4a in 7 games). He wore an "A" on his sweater indicating he was a team leader. The previous season he finished second on the team in scoring. When healthy he plays in all situations, 5-on-5, PP and PK. He posesses a deadly accurate shot and will battle for pucks. Not hard to envision him as a 30+ goal scorer. Without the injury, I would say his returning as a 20 year old would have been a no-brainer.

Taran Kozun, G. Kozun was acquired at the January trade deadline from Kamloops where he was sharing goaltending duties. The previous two seasons with the Blazers he was a back up. Kozun shined in his first chance to be the #1 guy in net, compiling a 14-9-0-1 record with four shutouts along with a 2.40 GAA and a save percentage of .928. While a playoff team without him, Seattle probably doesn't earn the 4th seed and home ice in Round 1 without Kozun in goal and probably don't make it out of the first round.

Roberts Lipsbergs, LW. As is the case with Alexander Delnov you only need to look at statistics to see why Lipsbergs could be retained. He led the team in goals this past season with 33. In fact, in two seasons with the T-birds the Latvian Lazer has twice led the team in goal scoring, having posted 30 in 2012-13. He followed up his 33 goal season this year by leading the team in scoring in the playoffs with eight points (2g, 6a). He was also a top point producer for the team in the 2013 postseason when he registered seven points (3g, 4a). It is not a stretch then to pencil him in for another 30+ goal season next year if he comes back, with the potential for a 40 goal season. Also, with the changes in the CHL Import Draft, what are the chances Seattle can secure a 30 goal scorer in Round Two this June? maybe Round One but Round Two? Seattle had to trade back up into the first round two years ago to obtain Lipsbergs and I don't believe that is allowed any longer.

Sam McKechnie, RW. McKechnie proved to be a solid two-way player and a very valuable penalty killer. Along with Scott Eansor and Jaimen Yaubowski, he also was one-third of Seattle's dynamic shutdown, checking line. He ended up with just seven goals this season but scoring was not his primary role. The previous season with Lethbridge he registered 26 goals while he potted 13 the year before that, his rookie season. So, he has the ability to put the puck in the back of the net and you have to believe as a 20 year old he could be a 20 goal scorer again. Like with Hickman, the retention of McKechnie could give the T-birds the opportunity to keep that shutdown line in tact. For a player who was tasked with shutting down the opponents top lines, he proved to be durable. he didn't miss a game once Seattle acquired him.

Branden Troock, RW. Despite missing a month of the season with injury, Troock still finished third on the team in scoring with 58 points and third on the team in goals scored with 24. From late November to early January, when he got injured, he was probably the best player on the ice most nights for Seattle and started to heat up again late in the year. He also finished second in playoff scoring with seven points and his four playoff goals were tied for the team lead. He can be dominating at times and take over a game with his size, skating and puck handling. In the playoffs, his line. which included Lipsbergs and Maxwell, did most of the team's damage at the offensive end. If you don't retain either of your two import players and their 62 goals, is it wise to dump your third leading goal scorer and three of your top five point producers? UPDATE: As of 4/16 Troock has signed with Dallas so his T-birds career is most likely done.

Evan Wardley, D. Wardley just completed his best season with Seattle. He won't produce a lot of offense but his role is of a defensive defenseman anyway. He still piled up penalty minutes with fighting majors and misconducts but he cut down on some of the unnecessary minor penalties he had been committing. He's a big physical presence on the ice and delivers punishing hits. He's unpredictable in that way too, which I think instills a bit of fear in opponents. With Mitch Elliot now out of the picture it would seem a natural transition for Wardley to move into Elliot's role as the team enforcer.

Jaimen Yakubowksi, LW. Yakubowski came over in the same trade early last season that brought them McKechnie. Together they teamed up with Eansor to form the Thunderbirds top checking line. That line was tasked with shutting down the opponents top line and most nights, they did it very well. Like McKechnie, Yakubowski plays a good 200-foot game but he also comes with more of an edge to his game and is willing to drop the gloves and stand up for his teammates. The most telling stat though? With Yakubowksi in the lineup Seattle was 4-0 in the postseason, without him they were 0-5 (he was hurt early in Game One of Round Two). While he only tallied nine goals with the T-birds, two seasons ago he piled up 32 goals and 50 points with Lethbridge. In his rookie campaign in 2011-12, he was a 16 goal scorer. As a 20 year old in the WHL I can see him hitting the 30 goal plateau once more. Again, if Seattle retains him they have a chance to keep that shutdown line together for another season.

Now I play Devil's Advocate. Not that I agree with these arguements, but here is the case against:

Delnov. The easiest argument against retaining Delnov is his status as an import player. As such, he would be a two-spotter. In other words he would essentially be taking up two valuable rosters spots, one of an import player and one of a 20 year old. The second argument against Delnov is his inconsistent play, specifically his backchecking and defensive zone coverage. He just wasn't as strong a player without the puck. Just check his career plus/minus with the T-birds; it is -40. Furthermore, Delnov will have the opportunity to play professionally over in his native Europe if he doesn't sign with the NHL's Florida Panthers who drafted him in the 4th round a few years back.

Henry. For Henry, it could be a numbers game. The T-birds are definitely returning four of their top six defensemen next season (Bear, Hauf, Smith and Theodore). With the possibility of the team carrying from one to three rookie defensemen next season, ice time will have to be found somewhere. Barring a trade of one of those four metioned above, Henry could be the odd man out. But the biggest argument against Henry returning to Seattle could be his trade value. If there's a team out there looking for an older, two-way, puck moving defenseman who can quarterback the power play and is a proven leader at the WHL level, Henry would be a very enticing option.

Hickman. Okay, there really is no argument for not bringing Hickman back. The only thing that would keep him from returning for a fifth season with the club would be a pro contract but there is a decent chance that could happen. He is currently playing with Bridgeport of the AHL on an ATO.

Honey. For Honey the injury situation is the biggest risk. He missed nearly the entire season with the upper body injury and never could get healthy enough to get back in the lineup. Even if given a clean bill of health to start next season are the T-birds, or any WHL team for that matter, willing to risk a 20 year old spot on his health and injury history? Injuries are part of the game and it could happen to any other player but if you retain Honey and trade away another capable 20 year old player as a result and then Honey gets hurt again, the team could be taking a step backwards. A tough decision on a player who plays the game the right way.

Kozun. I guess the argument against him is which Kozun would the T-birds be getting if they brought him back? The one who reeled off eight wins in his first nine T-birds starts or the one who went 6-9-0-1 after that? Will they get the goalie who surrendered just six goals in his first three playoff starts or the one who allowed 27 goals over his last six playoff games? The one who posted a 4-1 record to begin the postseason or the one who finished the playoffs with a 1-5 mark in his last six starts that saw his GAA balloon up to 3.55 and his save percentage fall to .894? Look, goalies get too much credit for wins and way too much blame for losses but are the T-birds willing to use a 20 year old spot on a goalie when they have so many forwards who could return and they have 17 year old Logan Flodell ready in the wings? Don't forget Danny Mumaugh, who will be just 18, put up a similar win-loss record (15-10-2-3) the first half of the season to Kozun's 14-9-0-1 mark the second half. I think this will be the biggest decision in the 20 year old roster battle.

Lipsbergs. Again, as with Delnov, conventional thinking is against Lipsbergs. If brought back for a third season he would occupy both an overage and an import spot. Also, while he led the team in goals scored, his production tailed off markedly the second half of the season and practically dried up in February, although nagging injuries might have been the culprit. Like with Delnov, Lipsbergs should also have plenty of opportunity to play pro hockey in his native Europe. The CHL Import Draft is in June. If the T-birds make two selections then both Lipsbergs and Delnov are as good as gone. If they make only one selection then the odds are one of them, most likely Lipsbergs, is coming back.

McKechnie. Like with Henry, this could be a numbers game with in number of goals scored. While he was put in a checking role once he came to Seattle, the T-birds have other potential 20 year olds to choose from who potted more goals. Would you drop a 20 or 30 goal scorer to retain a player who tallied just seven? Also, can McKechnie finish more of his scoring chances? Twice in the playoffs he was stopped on a breakaway. In both instances, it could have turned the tide of the game in the T-birds favor. It's a weak argument against because I like McKechnie's game.

Troock. It was announced on 4/16 that Troock has signed with the NHL's Dallas Stars, the team that drafted him in the 5th round two years ago. This more then likely means he will not be back with Seattle for his 20 year old season.

Wardley. I should just refer you to the paragraph about Adam Henry above. It could be a numbers game for Wardley with younger defensemen needing ice time set to join the club next season. Also, with Jared Hauf and potentially Hickman and Yakubowksi returning, will the T-birds need Wardley as their enforcer? And while he cleaned up some of the unnecessary penalties from his early career he has a reputation in the league so is he one borderline hit away from a lengthy suspension?

Yakubowski. If you talk about the injuries with Troock and Honey, or the suspension history of Wardley, you have to do the same with Yakubowski don't you? And just because he scored 32 goals two seasons ago, it doesn't guarantee he doen't have another nine goal season in him like this past season. And, like Henry, he would probably have good trade value. Still a fairly weak argument against a player who seems the perfect fit on any team as an overage player.

So who should be kept. What is each player's trade value? Which player is more valuable to Seattle then to another WHL team? Which players would prefer not to return and who might be dealt before training camp even begins? Another interesting offseason for Thunderbird Nation!