Before I put the Thunderbirds 2016-17 championship season behind and look to the future, one final commentary on how this team got to the peak of the WHL mountain.
To do that I do need to look at the T-birds just completed less then stellar showing in the Memorial Cup. Well, not so much a look at how they fared in Windsor, but who they were up against. First, let me acknowledge that I just didn't see a lot of the fire in the T-birds in their three Memorial Cup losses that I saw from this team all season, and especially in the 2017 WHL playoffs. The team was physically present at the WFCU Centre, but mentally, I think they were absent.
But you also have to acknowledge that in Windsor, Seattle faced three teams with better, deeper rosters and that is getting to the heart of what I'm about to write; that the Thunderbirds won the 2017 WHL Championship because their coaching staff, specifically head coach Steve Konowalchuk, got the most out of what he had to work with. It's a whole lot easier working with a team full of the most talented players. They can cover up for a lack of top end skill further down the roster. It takes some strong coaching to mold together a team of hard workers and grinders into championship material.
Let's look at the eventual Memorial Cup winners, the Windsor Spitfires. Despite not advancing out of the first round of the OHL playoffs (beaten in a seven game series by the defending OHL and Memorial Cup Champion London Knights), the Spitfires brought to the Memorial Cup a roster that featured ten NHL drafted players, including three first rounders and another in Gabriel Vilardi, who could go top five in the upcoming NHL draft and a goaltender in Michael DiPietro who could be the first goalie taken in the 2017 NHL draft. Their rosters also included three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders. Of those ten NHL draft picks on the Spitfires roster, six of them were acquired at some point via trade. In other words, the host team loaded up for this Memorial Cup run.
After a 68 game regular season, Windsor played just seven playoff games and had a six week layoff to get healthy and rested for the Memorial Cup. One of the reasons given for the Spitfires fifth place finish in their conference and early playoff exit was injuries. Apparently Windsor couldn't play through them. Seattle played a 72 game regular season plus 20 playoff games, had top players out of the lineup for long stretches and had less then a week between winning the WHL and their first game in Windsor.
Now, let's take a look at the runner up at the Memorial Cup, the OHL Champion Erie Otters. The roster the Otters brought to Windsor only featured eight NHL drafted players, and only one, Dylan Strome (the Memorial Cup MVP), was a first round pick, albeit third overall in 2015 by the Arizona Coyotes. Erie did have three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders. Of those eight NHL draft picks, two were acquired via trade.
Finally, the team that eliminated Seattle from the Memorial Cup, the Saint John Sea Dogs, topped them all with 10 NHL drafted players and one NHL signed free agent on their roster and like Windsor, three of them were first round picks. Four of them were 4th rounders. Also like Windsor, nearly half of those NHL drafted players were brought in via trade as the Sea Dogs loaded up for their championship run.
Now, let's take a look at the Thunderbirds roster. Seattle featured just four players drafted into the NHL, all taken in the same 2015 draft. Every one of them drafted and developed by Seattle. Not one picked up in a trade. They include a first round pick in Mat Barzal, a 2nd round selection in Ryan Gropp, a 3rd rounder in Keegan Kolesar and 5th round pick Ethan Bear. They had a few players in Scott Eansor, Turner Ottenbreit and Aaron Hyman who have been invited to one or two NHL rookie/development camps, but none are signed. They have a couple of players in Jarret Tyszka and Sami Moilanen who could have their names called in this next NHL draft but most likely not in the top half of the draft.
When it came to strengthening this team for the run to the Chynoweth Cup, and the subsequent trip to the Memorial Cup, T-birds General Manager Russ Farwell certainly didn't "load up" in the manner of his cohorts in Windsor, Erie and Saint John. Seattle didn't acquire any NHL first rounders prior to the trade deadline. In fact Farwell didn't add one NHL drafted player to his roster in either of the past two seasons as Seattle twice made a trip to the Chynoweth Cup Final.
What did Seattle do to make themselves better at this year's trade deadline? They sent a third round Bantam Draft pick to Calgary for Hyman and swapped out Brandon Schuldhaus for Austin Strand in a deal with Red Deer. Before that it was picking up Tyler Adams from Swift Current. That's it. Nothing along the lines of a blockbuster deal. No bringing in a Julius Nattinen or a Graham Knott as Windsor did, no acquiring a Warren Foegele or Anthony Cirelli as Erie did and unlike Saint John, no trading for a Julien Gauthier.
Okay, so that's the Memorial Cup opposition. What about in the WHL? Well again Seattle's moves to get them the Ed Chynoweth Cup certainly weren't on the scale of Prince George which added a second round NHL pick in Brendan Guhle, a 5th round NHL selection in Radovan Bondra and a potential first rounder in Nikita Popugaev. They didn't trade for a 40+ goal scorer in Reid Gardiner or a 3rd round NHL pick in Carsen Twarynski like Kelowna did. And their roster couldn't match the seven NHL drafted players that Regina featured including a third rounder, Josh Mahura, acquired at the trade deadline.
Unlike Portland did a few years back, there was no bringing in big guns like a Matt Dumba or a Seth Jones to strengthen the team for a championship run. No trading away first round picks for a chance to win it all like Saskatoon.
Instead Farwell gave Konowalchuk and his staff role players. Smaller pieces to finish the puzzle. It was up to Konowalchuk to make them champions. And he had to do it while some of those NHL drafted players missed games due to illness and injury. He had to work them into a championship team while they combined to miss 309 games. He had to do it while not having a full roster for nearly two dozen games. He did it without either of the team's two 2013 first round bantam picks on the roster. He did it by mixing and matching and using 4th liners on the 3rd line, 3rd line players on the 2nd line and sometimes 3rd liners on the 1st line.
No one player epitomized what Konowalchuk and his staff could do with a player more then Reese Harsch. The same Harsch who, in his only appearance as a 16 year old a season ago looked like he didn't belong at the WHL level, then was molded into a top six defenseman on a WHL Championship team a year later. The T-birds didn't "load up" to win their first ever championship, they were "coached up". It wasn't about who they were as individual players but about what they were together as a team. No weak links.
And that chain of 25 players, that looked like it could break so many times during the course of the season and the playoffs, was held together by a coach and a coaching staff that wouldn't allow them to be pulled apart.
You know what question it seems I got asked more then any other this postseason and during the Memorial Cup? There were plenty about Carl Stankowski and his amazing postseason run. Quite a few times I was asked about that "got-to-see-him-to-believe-him" player Scott Eansor. But the question I seemed to get asked the most? How is it Steve Konowalchuk isn't the WHL Coach of the Year?
I don't have an answer to that question. And Konowalchuk probably doesn't care he was overlooked. Afterall, he may not have a voted-upon award but he does have a well earned championship.