Josh Uhrich won't be returning to the Thunderbirds for his final season in the WHL. Instead he's opted to get started with the next chapter of his life and that means putting hockey aside. This doesn't come as a surprise to me. Uhrich hinted to me after Seattle acquired him last December from Saskatoon that the 2015-16 season could be his last, telling me you never know if you'll be playing in this league at age 20. I think having been traded a couple times in his WHL career and not being drafted into the NHL, he had a good grasp on his future in the sport. I'm glad he got to enjoy a ride that took him and Seattle all the way to the WHL Final. Until last spring, he had never experienced the WHL postseason. And enjoy it he did. No one on the team had as much fun on that ride to the Championship Series as he did, showing up for every game, every series, every postseason practice, bus ride or flight with a big grin on his face. I think he knew then it was his final hurrah and he soaked it all up. He capped it off by scoring twice in his last WHL game.
With Uhrich announcing his retirement at the ripe old age of 20, it left the Thunderbirds roster with just two returning over-age players for the upcoming season in the form of forwards Scott Eansor and Cavin Leth. That's one short of the WHL maximum for 20 year old players on a roster.
Technically Ryan Gropp is eligible to return for his 20-year old season but being a signed prospect of the NHL's New York Rangers, it is more likely that he spends the season with their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack or even the ECHL's Greenville franchise, which has an affiliation with the Rangers. The Rangers could still return Gropp to Seattle if they thought it was best for his development but usually NHL team's look to get their more valuable prospects playing against older players as soon as possible. Would I be shocked if Gropp was sent back to the WHL? No, but it so rarely happens to 20 year old, signed NHL draft picks that the odds of it happening are pretty slim.
Of course there is still the chance the 20 year old Eansor could sign a pro deal and not return to the T-birds either. I don't think that scenario is likely to play out even though Eansor has been at development or training camps the last two summers with the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. I think Eansor's situation is similar to Jamal Watson last year. The longer Watson stayed at training camp last September with the Canadians the more worried many T-birds fans were that he would sign a pro deal with them and be assigned to one of their minor league clubs. Watson was eventually returned to Seattle and finished out his major junior eligibility with, first the T-birds, and then the Swift Current Broncos, after a mid-season trade. After he was returned to the T-birds Watson told me he never came close to signing a deal with Montreal and that his plan all along was to play out his final year of junior eligibility.
When you are an undrafted, free agent 20 year old WHL player, it seems your best course is to play out that final WHL season. If you have a strong enough year on the ice you may have numerous NHL teams bidding for your services come March, rather then just one team. Then you can take the best offer. It is a gamble and doesn't always work out. Watson didn't have the season he had hoped for, mostly because of injury, and as far as I know hasn't signed a pro deal yet. But a number of overage WHLers have parlayed a strong final season of Junior into a pro contract. Former T-bird defenseman, and current San Jose Shark, Brendan Dillon is a prime example. By the end of his 20 year old season with the Thunderbirds he had scouts from a number of NHL teams on his tail before signing with the Dallas Stars.
A few years before that former T-bird Gregg Scott actually signed his first professional contract with the Maple Leafs at the start of his 20 year old season but still came back to Seattle and played as an overager before embarking on his pro career. I could see either of these scenarios playing out for Eansor.
So, at the moment, it appears the only T-birds locks for returning as 20 year olds are Eansor and Leth. What does General Manager Russ Farwell do about that third, open spot? Make a trade? Pick up a player who gets released at the overage deadline? One problem is the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, wasn't a very strong or deep one, and not just for Seattle, but league-wide. Like Gropp, the best players from that draft are signed to pro contracts and off to begin their professional careers. After that, it appears to be slim pickings.
Logic would suggest that since Seattle graduated out two veteran defensemen (Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf) from last season's Western Conference Championship team, Farwell will fill the void by trading for a 20 year old d-man. Easier said then done. Take a look at rosters around the WHL heading into training camps later this summer and you will see a dearth of 1996 born players, let alone quality veteran '96 born defensemen. For one, most teams seem to have only three overagers on their current rosters. Any team with a surplus seems to have surplus forwards, not defensemen.
If you think your team is a contender and you have a quality 20 year old d-man, you're not going to trade him. If you're not sure your team is a contender, you're going to wait until the January trade deadline before dealing. If you don't believe your team is a contender this coming season and you have a quality 20 year old defenseman, well you have yourself a very valuable commodity. How much in the form of current players, current prospects or future draft picks is a G.M. like Farwell willing to spend to acquire a 20 year old defenseman?
Could the T-birds management convince an undrafted college defensemen who's currently on their 50 Player Protected List to play as a 20 year old in the WHL? I think the days of pulling a quality collegian away at that age have passed. Players at that age are just less inclined to give up two more years of a full ride scholarship. The T-birds would probably have better luck with say, an NHL drafted, 19 year old college defenseman on their PPL, deciding to sign a pro contract and thus losing his NCAA eligibility and his NHL team assigning him to Seattle. This is what happened last season with Jack Daugherty in Portland.
I'm sure Farwell and his scouts will exhaust all avenues in regards to filling that final 20 year old roster spot, but there is no rule that says you have to have three overage players. Just go back to the 2013-14 season. Seattle played the second half of that season with just one 20 year old on the roster, Mitch Elliot. In fact they spent the first half of that season with just two overage players, Elliot and Seth Swenson, after shipping Jesse Forsberg to Moose Jaw just before the season kicked off. At mid-season Swenson was then dealt to Lethbridge in the Russ Maxwell trade.
You can do that, play with less then the maximum 20 year olds, when you have a bevy of young talent that needs the ice time and is as good or better then any 20 year old you could acquire. With just one 20 year old on the roster for a good portion of that season, the T-birds went 41-25-2-4, finished second to Portland in the U.S. Division then won a first round playoff series over Everett before bowing out in Round Two to Kelowna. That club featured five youngsters getting their first real taste of WHL potseason; Mat Barzal, Ethan Bear, Keegan Kolesar, Gropp and Eansor. Those five would be instrumental in leading Seattle's charge to the WHL Final this past spring, using experience they might not have gotten had Seattle had two more 20s on the roster in 2014.
Does Seattle have similar young talent on the roster going into this season that they may ride with just two overage players? Certainly I think they have enough forward depth to absorb the loss of Uhrich. They added Sami Moilanen in the Import draft. The Finnish forward was recently listed on the 2017 NHL Draft Futures List. Matthew Wedman, who is also on that list, enters his second season looking to build off a solid rookie campaign. Signed 17 year olds Luke Ormsby, Wyatt Bear, Ian Briscoe and Mckenzie Wight will all battle for ice time and a roster spot while 16 year old Elijah Brown, the team's 2015 top bantam selection, appears ready to have a strong rookie season. Two other 16 year old forwards, Connor Pyne and Dillon Hamaliuk, could also be in the mix. Meanwhile American-born Baker Shore, a 2014 draft selection could be a wild card if he opts to go the WHL route.
What about the blue line crew? The returning veterans are 19 year olds Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit. They could be one of the top d-pairings in the league. 17 year old Jarret Tyszka, like Wedman and Moilanen, is on the 2017 NHL Draft Futures List. He and fellow 2015-16 rookie, and now 18 year old, Brandon Schuldhaus should be able to build off strong freshman campaigns. The big question mark is the third defensive pairing. Bryan Allbee, who will be 19, fills one spot. After that it is a couple of untested youngsters in Jared Pelachaty, Reece Harsch and possibly 16 year old Kabir Gill. If Farwell gets everyone, including Barzal, back from NHL camps and believes his team has another run to the Final in them, it might be in the team's best interest to fill one of those top six defensemen spots with a 20 year old veteran.
The good news is, I personally don't see filling that final overage position as a pressing priority. Seattle isn't in the position yet of making a deal just for the sake of making a deal. You're not looking to acquire a 20 year old just so you can have three on the roster. You are looking for a player who is going to make your team better. I think there is enough talent on the team to let it play out. Certainly if they can get a deal done before the season, that's a plus. But they can also wait until the overage cut down date in mid-October or until the trade deadline in January. Furthermore, a deal doesn't have to be for a 20 year old. I think they have enough surplus talent and assets that they can come up with a deal that could net them a top end 19 year old d-man.
I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out.