A lot has been made, maybe too much, about the number of 19 year olds (or 1994 born) players the Thunderbirds had on their roster this past season. At the end of the regular season 11 '94 born players were on the team's roster. Of course, you have to put an asterisk next to that number because while on the roster, Connor Honey last played a game for the team back in early October and was left off the team's playoff roster because he was not healthy enough to play.
So, in reality there were ten 19 year olds and two of them didn't join the team until mid-January when Seattle acquired Russell Maxwell and Taran Kozun at the trade deadline. If you want to go back further, the team began the season with just seven 19 years olds as in-season trades also brought the T-birds Adam Henry, Sam McKechnie and Jaimen Yakubowski.
As I've said before, while these acquisitions did add some age to the team's roster it really didn't make them much older then any of the other contenders in the Western Conference. You have to remember that for most of the first half of the season Seattle carried just two 20 year olds, and after the trade deadline, just one. In both cases that's under the league maximum of three. So, the average age of their roster this season was probably pretty much in line with the other teams in the conference because Seattle was also carrying six rookies.
Had the Thunderbirds carried three 20 year olds and ten 19 year olds at season's end, then it might be an issue going into next season because then they'd be losing a maximum of 11 players, or half the roster. But that is not the case. So the issue isn't that they are losing half their roster, they're not. The issue is they have tough choices going forward because they can only retain three of those '94 born players and the reality is you can make a pretty solid argument for each player being with the club next season.
We know that Russell Maxwell, even with one year of eligibility left in the WHL, will not return. Maxwell has already made the decision to forego his final season in the WHL in order to go on his church mission. That makes the decision process a little easier because had he opted to come back for one more season, he would definitely be in the mix. The Magrath, Alberta native was one of Seattle's best playoff performers finishing with seven points (2g, 5a).
So that leaves just nine 19 year olds to choose from, or does it? Traditional thinking in the WHL is that you rarely use a 20 year old roster spot on an Import player because they essentially take two roster spots, an overage position and an Import position. Since you can only carry three 20 year olds and two import players, it doesn't make sense to fill up one of each of those positions with one player. It's not unheard of though. In fact the T-birds did it back in the 2002-03 season with defenseman Tomas Mojzis.
But, with so many other '94 players to choose from would Seattle bring back either Alexander Delnov or Roberts Lipsbergs? After all, they were the clubs top two goal scorers during the regular season, combining for 62. Delnov was the team's second leading point producer during the regular season as well with 63 points (29g, 34a)and Lipsbergs led the team in scoring in the postseason with eight points (2g, 6a) after posting a team high 33 goals in the regular season. While bringing back both would seem a million to one proposition would having one return for one more season be so irrational?
For the sake of argument let's say the T-birds go the traditional route, parting ways with both Delnov and Lipsbergs and restocking their import quota through the CHL Import Draft this June. That then leaves them with just seven '94 born players to choose from for those three 20 year old spots. This is a fairly typical situation then as most of the other top contenders from the Western Conference this season are in a similar situation.
One clarification. For the sake of this argument I'm not counting Connor Honey in this mix. He hasn't played a game since October 6th. It has been six months since he suffered his upper body injury and despite many, many efforts he's not been medically cleared to play. Between now and training camp that situation could change and if he's given a clean bill of health, he is most definitely in the mix. Is that a risk any team, including the T-birds are willing to take though? I haven't a clue.
Now there are seven, maybe eight 1994 born players who ended the season with the Thunderbirds who will look to grab one of those three 20 year old roster spots. They are, in alphabetical order: Adam Henry, Justin Hickman, Taran Kozun, Sam McKechnie, Branden Troock, Evan Wardley and Jaimen Yakubowski. That group could easily be thinned out before training camp rolls around. Troock is a draft pick of the Dallas Stars. They have a short window left to sign him. If that happens I would expect him to play at a pro level next season. Meanwhile Hickman is currently with Bridgeport of the AHL on an ATO (amateur tryout offer) but if they, or their parent club the New York Islanders, like what they see, he too could be signed and be playing professionally next season.
Because of what the T-birds have returning on the blue line next season (Bear, Hauf, Smith, Theodore and Wolf) and what they are expecting in regards to rookie d-men making the team next season (potentially as many as three), the odds are they would only retain one 20 year old defenseman, if any at all. So, when it comes to Henry and Wardley it is probably an either/or situation and not both. But it could also be neither.
If you part with Delnov and Lipsbergs then you will have to retain offense somewhere else and that bodes well for the likes of Hickman, McKechnie, Troock and Yakubowski, all of whom have been a 20+ goal scorer at some time in their WHL career.
Then their is Kozun who backstopped Seattle to fourth place in the conference and past Everett in the first round of the playoffs. Make no mistake Seattle wouldn't have gotten that far without him. The caveat is that Seattle has two younger goalies in the system they are high on.
Of course, there is always that curveball; on offseason trade that thins out that group or even adds to it. So, how does it play out? Who does the team keep for those coveted three 20 year old positions? In my next blog I'll making an argument for each player and why they should be brought back for the 2014-15 campaign.