While Seattle was busy the past few days preparing for a U.S. Division showdown Tuesday night against Spokane at the ShoWare Center, rumors began to be whispered that 20 year old winger Ryan Gropp was going to be returned to Seattle by the NHL's New York Rangers. The rumors turned into reality Monday when the Rangers made it official.
Just last week New York had assigned Gropp, their 2015 second round draft pick, to their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. It didn't appear Gropp, who signed his three year entry level contract with the Rangers back in January, would be spending another season in a Thunderbirds jersey. This move does and doesn't surprise me. The fact he was signed, the fact New York doesn't have a lot of highly drafted youngsters in their system (they've been void of first round picks the last few years having traded them away) and the fact signed, high draft picks are rarely sent back to play their 20 year old season at the Major Junior level, would have you thinking the chance of a Gropp return to Seattle was slim. Not to mention the Rangers also had the option of sending him to their ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.
But there are lots of hockey people and scouts who come through the ShoWare Center over the course of a season and someone with a lot more hockey acumen then I, mentioned to me late last season don't be surprised if Gropp does get sent back for another year with the T-birds. He didn't think Gropp was physically mature enough yet to hold up to the rigors of a full season in the AHL. And it may be just that. Gropp has the physical frame you want in an NHL player. He's listed at just under 6'3". The Rangers may want him to add more weight and learn to play a more physical game. He's already a gifted offensive player, with great skating ability.
So why the WHL and not the ECHL? I think back in Seattle he will play both with and against other highly skilled NHL prospects, more so then he would have at the ECHL level. They also know that with the Thunderbirds he'll get top line minutes. Most NHL teams only have an agreement to provide a few players to their ECHL affiliate. The rest of the ECHL roster is made up of free agents and the ECHL owners pay them to play. The NHL team doesn't have as much control over the ECHL team like they do their AHL clubs.
So getting Gropp back is unexpected good news for Seattle, right? Afterall, this is your top goal scorer from your run to the WHL Final returning for one more season. But it does present a dilemma. In the WHL you can only carry three 20 year old players on your roster for the bulk of the season. Seattle now has one too many. They have approximately two weeks to decide which three they'll keep. Knowing GM Russ Farwell, he'll try to resolve the situation sooner rather then later so that whichever player is the odd man out can get to a new team quickly and not have it drag out and affect their game.
What are Seattle's options? Well, the four 20 year olds are Gropp, captain Scott Eansor, winger Cavin Leth and goaltender Rylan Toth. All four would bring back a fair to decent return in a trade. But which one goes?
I'd be surprised if it was Gropp. This is a player Seattle drafted in the first round of the WHL Bantam Draft back in 2011. They waited patiently on him while he decided whether he would play NCAA (he had verbally committed to North Dakota) or come to the T-birds. He eventually decided on Seattle and joined the team one month into his 17 year old season. The T-birds then helped develop him into a second round NHL draft pick. He's coming off back-to-back 30 goal seasons. With Keegan Kolesar out with injury and no certainty of Mat Barzal being returned by the New York Islanders, Seattle needs Gropp's offense.
I think Eansor being traded would actually be a bigger shock then sending Gropp out. He is currently the number one center on your roster, not to mention you just named him team captain. He plays in all situations and is integral to your penalty kill and he is adept at shutting down opposing team's top scorers. Like Gropp he's a guy you developed in your system after bringing him in as an undrafted player three years ago.
Seattle paid a significant price meanwhile to acquire goaltender Rylan Toth. Not only did you send Red Deer a third round bantam pick to get him, but you traded away the only other goalie on your roster with WHL experience when you subsequently dealt Logan Flodell to Saskatoon. Dealing away Toth would leave you with the barely tested 16 year old, Carl Stankowski, as your #1 netminder. Seattle has high hopes for Stankowski but I doubt they believe he is ready to carry the load now. With Gropp back, Kolesar eventually back from injury and the possibility of Barzal returning at some point, this team is built to win now. You do that with a quality veteran goalie like Toth.
The other option is to deal Leth. All he has done is become an integral part of this team since being acquired last January at the trade deadline. he has developed a tremendous chemistry with Alexander True and newcomer Sami Moilanen. He teams up with Eansor quite often on the penalty kill. He's the type of player Steve Konowalchuk values; a fast skater who plays a 200 foot game and to top it off, his mom drives a tractor! Leth has also become part of the leadership in the Seattle locker room. Seattle envisions him having a productive offensive season as well.
This is the tough part of the WHL, having to trade or release a player because the rules say you have to, not because you want to. The balancing act is doing what is best for the team while trying to do well by the player.