1.Seattle Thunderbirds-The time has come, I present to you the number one team heading into the 2016-2017 campaign, the Seattle Thunderbirds. From battling their way to the league final a year ago, they gained valuable experience that will lend itself well to the adversity the league favourite will inevitably face. This is a nasty group that General Manager has assembled. Speed and size kills in hockey and they tons of it. Clearly, the numero uno ranking that I've associated with the T-Birds would drastically change if Matt Barzal isn't returned from New York Islander camp but all indications are that Garth Snow and company will allow Barzal another year of junior with the opportunity to be one of the catalysts for the upcoming World Junior Hockey Championship. They have the size and speed down pact, but my one worry heading into this season is if there's enough skill to go around to match the wits of some of the leagues more skillful squads.
Part of the reason why I selected the Thunderbirds as my team to beat this coming season was due to the depth they possess with the forwards. Sure, most of the gossip will center around Matt Barzal but stalwarts such as Nolan Volcan, Alexander True and Scott Eansor lead a supporting cast for Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk that few if any across the league can match. Ryan Gropp who's signed by the New York Rangers I anticipate will begin the season in the American Hockey League which has me presuming that Farwell will scour the market for another top six forward, Tyler Benson at the right price or Brayden Burke stand out at me as possible acquisitions that could decimate the scoring deficiencies this team MAY be faced with. Before you shoot me for throwing out the name Burke, let me explain. Everywhere I read, there's a lot of positivity hovering over the Hurricanes chances but this blogger isn't as optimistic, not anywhere close. The ownership group may look not to sell regardless of record around the trade deadline but I honestly believe unless the Hurricanes begin to add a scurry of pieces quickly, this organization will be fighting for a playoff spot, not a Conference Championship. While adding a piece may be that necessary evil to continue skating along as the top dog, it's critical that Konowalchuk not stray away from the very facets that make this team successful, using the size to create advantages with the board play, and bore teams to sleep with an effective cycle game. Speaking from experience, team that enter a season with lofty expectations tend to pay too much attention to the stat sheet and become more invested in padding their own personal numbers as opposed to concentrating on team fundamentals. I noticed that a little last year especially during the second half of the season where at times Ryan Gropp and Matt Barzal were split up periodically. When placed on the "second" line, Ryan Gropp stopped driving the net and began attempting to make plays individually without using his linemates. The detriments to team prosperity were minimal at best as like any staunch WHL fan knows, the T-Birds trapped the opposition all the way to a league final appearance before bowing out to the Brandon Wheat Kings but with scoring at more of a premium, utilizing linemates to the best of their abilities HAS to be emboldended or else these low scoring games, and trust me there will be plenty will cause frustration amongst players if a proper structure isn't implemented. To begin the player profile section, someone who primarily played on the third line but will be promoted within the top six will need to step up offensive production, and that's Nolan Volcan. It wasn't a coincidence that I hinted about the imperativeness of buying into the team concept because that's an area where Nolan needs vast improvement. For somebody who I imagine will be the second line left winger this winter, his aptness for skating through the blue line with the puck only to find himself in unenviable positions leaves coaches frustrated. He has decent speed but has to learn to slow the game down as when a play is ripe for the making, make it and don't pull a Bantam maneuver where you think you can skate past all suitors. It's unfortunate that Nolan didn't have his name called in this past summer's entry draft but hopefully this will serve as motivation to grow his game and fingers crossed have his name called for the 2017 draft. The following likely won't transpire but to get him going offensively, I'd love to see him get minutes with Matt Barzal. With Matt not expected back until Mid to late October as he'll assuredly receive a nine game regular season tryout with the Isles so that experiment may have to wait but Volcan has comparable speed to Barzal so he wouldn't find himself behind the play ever. It's worth a try and in lieu of that, allow Scott Eansor and Alexander True to play together on the second unit fully understanding that True and Barzal spent large chunks together last year. I just think, and this isn't a notion necessarily shared by most within hockey capacities that having your two best offensive weapons on the same line, as would be the case this year with True and Barzal is the recipe for success as dispersing the wealth is more advantageous. Barzal doesn't need linemates that will raise his level, his level is already higher then his WHL counterparts so why not get Nolan going to bolster secondary scoring? Scott Eansor the new Tyler Johnson??? Not so far fetched if you ask me. Eansor, like Johnson is a Western League rartiy in that there are very few twenty year olds who return for their overage season after playing in the WJHC the year before. Eansor undoubtedly is one of the league's best penalty killers evidenced by Scott fulfilling the role on the American junior team. It's fitting that he hails from Engelwood, Colorado as that's also thve hometown of former Milwaukee Brewer Chris Narveson. I have a wealth of knowledge pertaining to baseball and the book on Narveson is he wasn't the most talented pitcher but had a workmanlike attitude that went unmatched. He fought his way through A ball only to finally catch on with the Brewers Big League club and was entrusted as the long relief option. Similarly with Eansor no one will ever attempt to sell you that he has Martin St.Louis-esque pedigree but his wheels will create chances and I felt his 5 on 5 play improved slowly through last season. Even though Scott is again the second line center thus some offence will be required, the beautiful qualities of his skill set are that he can comfortably match up against the top line centers and easily hold his own. When they suit up against their rival Spokane Chiefs, Yamamoto will be seeing # 8 all night long, same goes with Michael Rasmussen as well. There's simply not a better shutdown option league wide. Now, let's ponder this premise as to why Eansor remains without a National Hockey League contract. I truly don't have a good answer for ya'll as I can't envision his lack of puck skills are enough for teams to keep him off their draft boards. If it's an attitude concern, that goes far beyond my pay grade but in all seriousness we live in a society where the Tampa Bay Lightning expended a first round pick on Anthony DeAngelo so if their is a character void, precedent has been set that he can be worked with and modeled to your liking. Here's what I do know however, if he puts forth a performance such as last year and can once again elevate the Thunderbirds to the final, a NHL contract will come calling next spring and a temporary home in the American Hockey League will be guaranteed. I know player polls are conducted by league governors throughout the dub, not one I can find but I know they're out there and I can safely assume that in the category of "Hardest player to play against", Eansor would win the vote unanimously.
Losing the "Twin towers" to graduation in Jared Hauf and Jerret Smith will be tough to overcome. Jared and Jerett were admittedly not the most skilled defenceman in the world but brought the sheer toughness to the rink which wreaked havoc for some of the league's smaller players. Ethan Bear is the household name for this group but as is the reputation of this preview, I don't care to spend much time on the featured commodities, let's analyze someone like Bryan Allbee. The Landon Bow trade acqusition from the trade deadline steals the thunder but one of the more understated moves last year was Farwell's decision to bring over Allbee. Bryan was beginning to fade into obscurity as a member of the Kootenay Ice(who doesn't?) and the transaction reinvigored a dissipating career. Will likely skate aside Jarrett Tyszka on the second pairing but where Tyszka thrives offensively, Allbee takes pride in his shot blocking and net presence. A great compliment if I do so say myself! For Bryan, it's all about confidence. He's entering his third full season and what I'd like to see out of him in 2016/2017 is being more proactive in the oppositions end. Not citing one example particularly but there was a few highlight packs I was privy that as per usual Barzal was working his magic down in the corners and when the forward responsible for covering the d-man collapses, Allbee stays put when he's got to provide Barzal a passing lane. There's no bigger pet peeve of mine when the label "defensive defenceman" gets thrown around. For me, a defensive defenceman is reliable in his own zone but just because you excel when clearing pucks, that doesn't excuse not contributing on the scoresheet. Coach Konowalchuk has to instill confidence in Bryan as a top four defenceman you can't afford to be so one dimensional. His defensive partner from last year Schuldhaus will be clamouring for increased responsibility so it's not as if Allbee's name is carved in stone. In some what call one of the dumbest trades in recent memory the Saskatoon Blades shipped out Turner Ottenbreit in September 2014 for a twenty year old in Adam Henry who spent a whole thirty two games with the organization. Ottenbreit at the time was seventeen and starting to come into his own and it's completely unforgivable that they give up on a player so quickly at the expense of a brief stop gap. Here's my thoughts on the trade, I recall seeing reports that Turner was unhappy getting demoted as a sixteen year old and you do mull over whether the Ottenbreit family requested a move(wouldn't be the first Blade). Regardless, he's Thunderbird property now and is expected to be one of the go-tos, the go-to while Ethan Bear is away at a NHL camp. Being called mean is generally met with negativity but defining Turner as a mean hockey player is a humbling descriptor for the Yorkton native. When ask myself which past WHL player does Turner remind me of, the name of former Lethbridge Hurricane Ben Wright comes to mind. Uses excellent stick work to gain positioning and most importantly he;s not afraid to lay a hit. Let's not kid ourselves by surmising that Seattle will find themselves in a lot of low scoring contests so having someone like Turner who can clog up the neutral zone is more beneficial than someone that can lead the rush. Kamloops and Seattle will win games in similar fashion and it's a far cry from the way modern teams breed success but perhaps the Blazers and Thunderbirds are turning a new leaf and bringing the old adage of defence wins championships back. By my count, barring a miraculous return from Ryan Gropp the T-Birds will be in the market for a third twenty year old and on top the wish list that includes either Brayden Burke or Tyler Benson, a veteran old puck moving defenceman would be a premium get. Although not twenty, Giants defenceman Brennan Mennel has asked to be moved and a player of Mennel's elk could be exactly what the doctor ordered in Seattle,
I remember previewing Thunderbirds last season feeling confident that Logan Flodell could handle the every day duties. As it turns out, T-Bird management thought otherwise electing to bring in Landon Bow from Swift Current. It was a genius resolution as Bow was the missing link that backstopped the Birds all the way to the final. With Bow exhausting his junior eligibility, the question that we must once again pose is can Logan be the trusted presence in net to lead a team with championship aspirations? His numbers last season, 22-13-4 with a .904 SP behind a brickwall of a defence could be construed as stellar and due to the fact they again bring back a rock solid defensive core, he won't have to singlehandeldly win a lot of these games. His focus will be to ensure he doesn't allow the untimely marker that kills momentum. Flodell's numbers were respectable and if he continues,the adminstration won't blink an eye handing him the reigns however early struggles will force their hand and with a plethora of quality goaltenders on the market compounded by the teams soaring goals, mediocrity won't be endorsed and he could be headed to the back up chair sooner then he may like. Internally at camp right now, goaltender Ryan Gilchrist poses no threat to his starting position and basically it's his job to lose. The proverbial ball is in his court. A lot of people had doubts about Jordan Papirny headed into the Wheat Kings illustrious season and those doubts were put to rest so it's time for Flodell to replicate these statistics and if I've read the climate correctly will be one of the first to raise the Ed Chynoweth Cup in May 2017,