Seattle has a strength to build around. They return five of their top six defenseman from the team that captured the Chynoweth Cup. Of course, that one defenseman not returning won't be so easy to replace. Ethan Bear is the reigning WHL Defenseman of the Year, was an integral part of the T-birds very successful power play and was one of the top scoring defenseman in the league each of the past two seasons. Those will be big skates to fill.
Still, the team returns a good mix of veterans and young and up and comers in their blue line crew. They are led by a pair of 20 year olds in Turner Ottenbreit and Austin Strand along with 19 year old Aaron Hyman. Returning for his third season with the club is 18 year Montreal Canadians draft pick Jarret Tyszka while fellow 18 year old Reese Harsch enters his second year with the team after a solid rookie campaign.
To fill the spot vacated by Bear the T-birds will use a combination of 2016 first round bantam pick Jake Lee and 17 year old Tyson Terretta. While those two are officially entering their rookie seasons, both actually made their WHL debuts last year. In fact Lee not only made his regular season debut with the team last season but also played in two playoff games as a 15 year old, twice taking the ice in the Western Conference Final versus Kelowna.
With the five players returning and the two rookies, Seattle essentially ices a group of defenseman with the same average age of the group that led them to the WHL title last spring.
Goaltending should be in good hands with 17 year old Carl Stankowski, who played every minute of Seattle's WHL playoff run, and 19 year old Matt Berlin. The unknown is the situation with an injury Stankowski suffered this summer while training with Canada's U-18 team.
The biggest question mark for the T-birds will be the forward group. Look, no team is going to replace the likes of Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Scott Easnor, Keegan Kolesar and Alexander True in one offseason. Those are five players expected to play this coming season in either the NHL or AHL. Those five were a once-in-a-generation group that, along with Bear, led this team to their first ever WHL championship. Still, it took two to three seasons to develop their chemistry and reality says it will take a few seasons to develop the next generation of T-bird forwards.
They should have a solid top line centered by 20 year old Donovan Neuls, flanked on the wings by fourth year player Nolan Volcan and 18 year old Finnish import Sami Moilanen. What the T-birds need to do is cobble together a second, third and fourth line from a group of youngster led by 18 year old center Matthew Wedman and 2015 first round bantam pick Elijah Brown.
First year head coach Matt O'Dette and his new look coaching staff of Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer, will be looking for returning players such as Zack Andrusiak, Luke Ormsby and Ian Briscoe, along with newly acquired Blake Bargar, to take the next step in their development while infusing the lineup with a number of rookies such as Dillon Hamaliuk,Tyler Carpendale, Holden Katzalay, Russian import Nakita Malukhin and 16 year old Cody Savey. The good news? All but Malukhin and Katzalay have had a taste of the WHL.
I would also expect the team to keep a couple more untested 16-year old forwards, depending on which ones sign. Two potential candidates are 2016 draftees Eric Fawkes and Nakodan Greyeyes. I also wouldn't be surprised to see the team make a September trade for an 18 or 19 year old forward with WHL experience. I'm not saying it will happen, because it all depends on cost in terms of draft capital and prospects, but should such a player become available I would expect General Manager Russ Farwell to at least kick the tires.
The team also has a decision to make on winger Tyler Adams who played a prominent role the second half of last season after being acquired from Swift Current in December. Adams is one of four 20 year olds in camp fighting for three roster spots. If Adams is retained, one of Neuls, Ottenbreit or Strand would have to be traded or released. It may come down to which three of that foursome have the most value to this year's team as opposed to which of the four garners the most return in a trade. This is a decision that probably won't be decided until the mid-October 20 year old cut down date.
One more thought as we embark on main camp and, next weekend, the preseason. This will be my 17th season broadcasting Thunderbirds hockey. Over that span I've seen firsthand the cyclical nature of the WHL. Players come and players go as they push through in hopes of developing into pros. Heck, the 20 year old players on the roster my first season with the club back in 2001, are now in their mid-30s. When I began, my son was a one year old. He's now entering his senior year of high school. During that span a few hundred players have worn the Thunderbirds jersey, some for as many as five seasons and some maybe for as little as five games.
It has started to hit me though, how special this last group that just passed through, truly was. That I won't see Barzal out there on the ShoWare Center ice to fire that last puck during pregame warmups. I won't hear Kolesar's full-of-confidence, bellowing voice chirping someone, rookie, vet, it didn't matter, from the back of the bus or that, try as I might, I've missed my chance to turn Eansor away from the Denver Broncos and into a Seahawks fan. There won't be any smiling, laid back "how's it goin'" greeting from Gropper any more as I walk down the hallway back near the locker room in search of a player interview and no more True lurking tall over everyone as he taped his stick outside the equipment room, his game face seemingly always on.
But what really made me think about this most recent passing of the torch was the noticeable absence of the dozen or so Bear jerseys and the many Bear family members who annually seemed to descend upon the ShoWare Center for the start of training camp these past five years. It seems like only yesterday those six players arrived on the scene and blazed a trail to a championship and now, they're gone.
Man, I miss those guys already.