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 McKechnie...as 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!