Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Another Mile High Signing

The season may have just ended a month ago, but the Seattle Thunderbirds continue to sign prospects in preparation for the 2013-14 season and beyond. The latest addition is Scott Eansor, a 17 year old center/winger from Denver who comes out of the same program (Colorado Thunderbirds) as current T-birds, defenseman Griffin Foulk and goaltender Danny Mumaugh.

Eansor was listed by the Thunderbirds late last spring. While he didn't attend training camp with the club in the fall, he did spend a few days in late March practicing with the team prior to the start of this year's WHL playoffs. Much like Mumaugh and current defenseman Jerett Smith did a year ago, Eansor liked what he saw from those few practices and made the decision to sign with Seattle. Like Eansor, both Mumaugh and Smith were listed players that spent some practice time with the T-birds late in the 2011-12 season and signed with the T-birds shortly there after.

Eansor brings the number of prospects signed by Seattle in the last couple of months to four. The biggest signing, of course, is Mathew Barzal, who inked his agreement earlier this month. Barzal was the first overall draft pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, but the T-birds have also recently inked 2012 fifth round pick Lane Pederson, a forward out of Saskatoon, and 2011 2nd round selection, defenseman Austin Douglas from Winnipeg. Don't forget that shortly after the 2012 draft Seattle signed three other top prospects, winger Keegan Kolesar, defenseman Ethan Bear and goalie Logan Flodell.

Eansor is described by Seattle General Manager Russ Farwell as a tenacious, hard-working player who is strong on the forecheck. He also helps strengthen the 1996 born age group on the T-birds roster. While Seattle is top heavy with '94 and '95 born players (seven each) and has already signed five '97 born players, prior to this recent signing activity, the '96 born age group had only three players in the fold, Mumaugh, winger Michal Holub and defenseman Kevin Wolf. Douglas and Eansor brings the number of 96 born prospects signed to five. Again, the T-birds have other prospects from that age group on their radar but not signed yet, so the Eansor signing is important, especially since Holub was the only '96 born forward already in the fold.

Now the T-birds are presented with one of those "good problems" to have. They have, by my calculation, 16 signed forwards (normally carry 13-14), 10 signed defensemen (normally carry 7-8) and four signed goalies (normally carry two). This doesn't account for any other players who might sign between now and the time camp opens in August or a camp invitee who impresses enough to be considered for a roster spot. While there is always the possibility of an offseason trade to alleviate some of the congestion, the Thunderbirds now have more signed players then they have available roster spots for the 2013-14 season. This should make for one of the most competitive training camps in recent memory.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Future is Now and Then

Early Thursday the Seattle Thunderbirds brain trust joined the brass from the WHL's other 21 teams in Calgary for the annual Bantam Draft. Players selected aren't eligible for full-time play in the league until the 2014-15 season but with each choice made everyone likes to speculate on the future impact these young men will have on their teams.

While the draft was taking place there was still a buzz among T-bird fans over the signing the previous day of their 2012 top draft pick Mathew Barzal. Barzal will be a top six forward in 2013-14. He'll make players around him better. He will have an impact on the team this coming season as a 16 year old but the impact of his signing was apparantly evident in the first round of this year's draft as well, as the T-birds selected Barzal's former Burnaby Winter Club teammate (and apparently very good friend) Dante Fabbro with their first selection, 8th overall.

Depending on what scouting report you read Fabbro was either the best, second best or third best defenseman available in a very deep draft. One report I read put him at the second best talent in the entire draft. While he may not be on the same skill level as Barzal, he may not be that far behind as Seattle GM Russ Farwell called him a game-changer in his own right, someone who can play in all situations. Director of Player Personnel, Colin Alexander, called him a "special player".

Fabbro seems genuinely excited to have been selected by Seattle and reunited with his good friend, Barzal. In this day of social media, Fabbro was quick to tweet out he "couldn't be happier to be selected by the T-birds". At 6'0", 170 lbs Fabbro (who doesn't turn 15 until next month) already has good size and that, along with the description of his game as an offensive-defenseman, conjours up images of a player in the mold of Shea Theodore by the time he hits 17-18 years old, which will be just about the time Theodore's WHL career will be ending.

With the last selection of the first round, pick 22 overall, the T-birds cashed in their last chip from the Marcel Noebels trade and drafted center Kaden Elder. One report listed him as the best prospect from the province of Saskatchewan. Farwell labeled him "..a hard working, high scoring forward with a great shot." Elder averaged nearly two points a game last season with the Notre Dame Hounds. So, in the end the final bounty hauled out of that January 2011 Noebels trade to Portland is Seth Swenson, Keegan Kolesar and Elder.

Seattle's third high pick of the day was their early selection in round two, 27th overall. And with this pick, you might say the circle of life is complete. The T-birds selected Edmonton left winger Nolan Volcan (side note; I can't wait for the first Volcan-ic eruption!). Volcan, who put up more then two points per game in bantam hockey last season (including 40 goals in 32 games), just happens to be the son of Marty Volcan. Who's Marty Volcan you ask? Well, back in the 1984-85 WHL season, the elder Volcan played 28 games for the Seattle Breakers, who a few years later would change their name to the Seattle Thunderbirds. I guess this selection makes the younger Volcan a T-bird legacy. Two points here: 1. when Nolan Volcan scores his first goal for Seattle, he'll double the number of goals his dad scored as a Breaker. In 28 games wth Seattle Marty Volcan, a defenseman, registered 0g, 1a and 83 PIMs! 2. We won't hold it against Marty that in that same season he played 19 games as a Portland Winterhawk (1g, 3a). The senior Volcan finished his WHL career the following season with the Victoria Cougars and finished with 4g, 15a and 144 PIMs in 50 games.

After spectating through the third and fourth rounds of the draft, the Thunderbirds made seven more choices, beginning with defenseman Brandon Schuldhaus in round five and culminating with center Caleb Griffin in round 12. The most intriguing of their choices was their tenth round pick, goaltender Devon Fordyce. that name will ring familiar with die-hard WHL fans. Fordyce, who turned 19 earlier this year, has already played 18 games in the WHL, all with the Prince George Cougars. But to make room on their 50 player protected list for their new draft picks, the Cougars dropped Fordyce just before the start of the 9th round of the draft and that made him available to the T-birds.

With the departure of Brandon Glover, the T-birds have an opening for a #1 goalie. Prior to adding Fordyce, Seattle had no netminder on their roster over the age of 18 and no one with more then 18 games of WHL experience. No one is handing Fordyce a roster spot. He'll have to come in and compete at training camp. But if Fordyce, who's WHL numbers aren't that impressive (3W, 9L 3 OT/SOL, 4.30 GAA, .873 SV%), can channel his play from last season with the Brooks Bandits of the AJHL (10-2-1, 1.61 GAA, .933 SV%), Seattle may have just found a very inexpensive solution to a major roster problem.

We need to look at the last two to three drafts together. Barzal is the hub in the wheel and players like Kolesar, Ethan Bear, Logan Flodell, Lane Pederson, Michal Holub, Carter Foulk, Fabbro, Elder and Volcan, among others, are the spokes and the tire. If Farwell and his staff can convince a few other young prospects, (cough, Gropp, cough) to throw their lot in with the T-birds this organization will have enough firepower to make some noise in the Western Conference beyond just next season.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Barzal Says I Do; Let the Honeymoon Begin!

Mathew Barzal, the first overall pick in last spring's 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, has made his decision and his choice is the Seattle Thunderbirds.
So, what does it mean? Well, first and foremost I think it is the clearest signal yet that, after a few leans years, GM Russ Farwell has the Thunderbirds train back on the tracks. Had this been a few years ago, I could certainly see this decision going the other way but Farwell and Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk have now done a masterful job of creating a culture conducive to winning hockey. Now, it's time to win.

It's a clear indicator that Seattle's drafting and scouting have been much better in recent years. While you can argue that poor play and a lotta luck (winning the draft lottery a year ago and moving up to draft first overall) helped Barzal drop into the T-birds lap, they still had to create a culture and atmosphere that convinced Barzal this was the place to be. To do that, they had to bring in other talented players.

Barzal himself, acknowledged the T-birds solid young corps of defensemen, led by potential NHL first round pick Shea Theodore, as a reason to be a T-bird. He talked about high end offensive talent such as Brandon Troock and Roberts Lipsbergs. These are all players Seattle drafted in recent years.

What does it mean for the immediate future for Seattle? Well, a year ago when he drafted Barzal, Farwell said the Coquitlam, B.C. native was good enough to be a top six forward on the team. I doubt anything has changed since then, even for a T-birds team that will return six of its top eight scoring forwards from last season. Adding Barzal just creates more depth among the team's forward lines.

Even at just 16 years of age, Barzal should drastically improve the T-birds hot and cold power play. Hindsight is 20/20 but could you imagine had the T-birds had Barzal for that seven game playoff series against Kelowna in April what might have been? I doubt Seattle would have gone oh-for-27 on the PP.

Could the Barzal signing affect other possible signings? Possibly. Barzal is considered a once-in-a-generation type talent. He makes others around him better players and thus other players want to play with him. Barzal is going to be heavily scouted by the NHL over the next two years. Do you want to grab the attention of those scouts? What better way to do that than to be playing on Barzal's team. If nothing else, it is going to give a lot of young prospects a reason to keep the Thunderbirds on their radars.

Welcome to T-birds Nation Mathew Barzal!
The 2013 WHL Bantam draft goes off tomorrow. While it's been a over a year since Marcel Noebels last wore a T-birds jersey, it's as if he never left because he continues to have an effect on the team's roster. and that affect will be felt again at the draft Thursday.

You may recall it was at the January 2012 WHL trade deadline that Farwell made a trade with Portland, sending Noebels to the Winterhawks in exchange for Seth Swenson and a pair of 1st round draft picks. The T-birds cashed in one of those picks last may, turning it into Keegan Kolesar.

Tomorrow, the T-birds will spend that second 1st round choice, either with a player selection or as capital in a potential trade. Either way Noebels is the gift that keeps on giving.

I recall talking to Farwell last January after that deal. Two things I remember from that brief conversation. First, it was the perfect time to make such a move. Farwell believed there was going to be good talent through the first round of last year's bantam draft, meaning that even though that Portland pick was going to be low (turned out to be #19 overall) it would still be good value. In the little we've seen of Kolesar, it looks like he'll be a solid WHL player with the ceiling to be elite.

Second, from his scouting trips through the winter of 2011-12 Farwell said he believed the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft was going to be even deeper than the 2012 draft and many others I have spoken to agree with that assessment. Now, because of that trade, Seattle sits on three of the top 30 selections in the draft process.
Let's not forget the third part of that trade. Remember Noebels was a 19 year old import player at the time of the deal. He played just 3 more months in the WHL after that. So far the T-birds have gotten a year and half of service out of Swenson with one year of eligibility left. Swenson was a key component to the T-birds ending their three year playoff drought and will be counted upon to be a leader and top offensive threat next season.

So once again Marcel, vielen dank!

You don't hit on every draft pick, even some high choices don't pan out. But if you are diligent and do your homework you can build a winning team through drafting. Take a look at the T-birds roster and you will see the fruits of good drafting or scouting, minimizing the need for trades.

Danny Mumaugh, Jerret Smith, Kevin Wolf, Mitch Elliot, Justin Hickman, Troock, Connor Honey, Theodore, Daniel Wray, Alexander Delnov, Ethan Bear, Evan Wardley, Keegan Kolesar, Roberts Lipsbergs, Taylor Green, Jared Hauf, Connor Sanvido, Michal Holub, Justin Myles and now, Mathew Barzal all drafted or listed by the T-birds. All those players drafted or listed. Meanwhile a couple of other drafted and listed players are knocking on the door.