After the shortest offseason in franchise history, just a little over three months, the Seattle Thunderbirds are set to gather again Tuesday for training camp ahead of the 2016-17 WHL season. For the second straight camp very few roster spots are up for grabs as the Thunderbirds return a large nucleus from their 2016 Western Conference Championship team.
But, unlike a year ago, that doesn't mean there won't be intense competition for the few roster spots that are available. Even after Josh Uhrich announced earlier this summer that he would not return for his final season of eligibility, the T-birds still have 13 potential returning forwards. That number includes seven 1997 born (19 yr. olds) players. Meanwhile, Seattle has seven other signed forwards who are looking to make the roster, for the first time on a full-time basis. That's 20 players battling for, what will eventually be pared down to, 14 spots. Something's gotta give.
Either way, the forward position has very few question marks coming into camp. Certainly the numbers suggest they won't need to trade to strengthen that group. The one question that looms large though, is the fate of Mat Barzal. Does he play one more season with the T-birds or does he make the roster of the NHL's New York Islanders? A recent article on NHL.com projects him making the Islanders roster this season. I've also read and heard commentary that says he needs to refine his defensive game and could use one more season at the WHL level. The decision though, isn't up to internet articles or armchair prognasticators. It's up to the Islanders and Barzal. Either way, those are the only two options for him, New York or Seattle, and we may not know the definitive answer until early November. Stay tuned.
The bigger questions going into camp concerns the group of defensemen and the goaltending situation. No question the loss of 20 year olds Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf leaves a big void on the blueline. Not just for the veteran presence and the ton of minutes they logged on the ice each game, but their unquestioned leadership off the ice will be hard to replace as well. Seattle should have a solid top five in Ethan Bear, Turner Ottenbreit, Brandon Schuldhaus, Jarret Tyszka and Bryan Allbee. The coaches will need to find a reliable 6th and 7th d-man they can rotate in with the veteran Allbee, on that third pairing. Can they find that among youngsters Jared Pelechaty, Reece Harsch and Kabir Gill or will they need to look outside the organization for someone with more experience?
After spending most of the past 18 months as the primary back up to a 20 year old netminder, the number one goaltending job is Logan Flodell's as camp opens. The only question about Flodell is whether he's up to that challenge of being "the guy" 50-60 times this year. He's had solid numbers so far in his season and a half with Seattle. He sports a 26-15-4-1 record with a career GAA of 2.78 and a SVCPT of .901 along with three shutouts. Remember, he did that while rarely getting back-to-back starts.
I think we forget that 2015-16 was Flodell's first full season in the WHL. It seems he's been here longer then that because he was drafted the same year the T-birds picked 1997 born mainstays Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear, Donovan Neuls and Luke Osterman. Flodell wasn't on the roster as a 16 year old because the team preferred he play full time at a lower level. The same was true in his 17 year old season. He started that year playing Junior A hockey in Saskatchewan while Seattle went with the tandem of Taran Kozun and Danny Mumaugh in net. It wasn't until over halfway through the 2014-15 season, after Mumaugh left the team, that Flodell was brought up to be the number two goalie behind Kozun, appearing in just nine games. A season ago he began by sharing the goaltending duties with Taz Burman, before Burman was traded for 20 year old goalie Landon Bow, who took over the number one role.
So often in this league, goalies don't hit their physical and mental maturation until their 19 year old season. Kozun was a prime example of that. Seattle is hoping that's the case with Flodell, who has two untested youngsters in Ryan Gilchrist and Carl Stankowski, nipping at his heels. I think the team's plan after drafting Flodell in the 3rd round, back in 2012, was to bring him along slowly with the idea of having him ready for the #1 job this season. So in that sense, they are on target with his progression. It's just that his development was sped up by the unexpected departure of Mumaugh two years ago.
So what are the other questions that need to be answered in training camp and the subsequent preseason? Let's start with the top heavy forward group. With Barzal, and most likely Scott Eansor and Kolesar, having extended stays at NHL training camps, other veteran forwards should get ample playing time through the preseason schedule to show what they can do with increased responsibility. Players like Garan Magnes, Osterman, and Owen Seidel will be asked to step forward because newcomers like Sami Moilanen and Elijah Brown are in the mix for regular shifts this season and are primed to take ice time away from one or two of those older players.
Meanwhile younger forwards such as Wyatt Bear, Ian Briscoe, Luke Ormsby and Mckenzie Wight are all now 17 years old. Bear and Wight have been signed to WHL education contracts for two years. Briscoe signed just before the start of last season and Ormsby signed last December. These are guys chomping at the bit to play in the WHL. They have yet to make their impact on this team, albeit that's been tough to do on a roster deep with talented forwards ahead of them on the depth chart. Combined that group of four players has suited up for only 13 games of WHL action and nine of those games belong to Bear. They should all get the opportunity through training camp and the preseason schedule to state their case for a full-time roster spot. It means there will be some intense competition for the last one or two forward spots on the roster, a competition that could last through October.
It's a little different on the back end. Five of the six roster spots for defensemen would appear to be spoken for but when Bear and Ottenbreit are away at NHL training camps, the T-birds will be left a bit thin in their defensive corps during the preseason schedule, particularly the two games they'll play in Kennewick. This should give Pelachaty, Harsch and Gill ample ice time to state their case for one of those final two roster spots available on the blueline. The absence of Bear and Ottenbreit for preseason could also give the T-birds brass a chance to get a longer look at 2016 top Bantam draft pick Jake Lee. Lee is not eligible to play full time with Seattle this season but he has already signed his Standard WHL player agreement, thus he's eligible to play in preseason games.
The Thunderbirds could also have up to four or five 16 year old defensemen in as training camp invitees. Will any standout enough this week to earn a second look like Pelachaty did the past two camps? The undrafted Pelachaty had such a good camp last year, and the previous year, that he not only earned a spot with the organization, he got into a couple of games this past season and even scored his first WHL goal. Undrafted winger Nik Holowko did the same the two camps before and now is a potential top six forward with the team going into the 2016-17 season. Those are the kind of stories that make training camp so intriguing. Who will be this year's Pelachaty or Holowko?