KENT – The No. 1 goal of every Western Hockey League team is to make the playoffs, and it paid huge dividends in many ways for the Seattle Thunderbirds last season.
After missing the postseason for three consecutive seasons, the T-birds made it back last season and impressed one very important guest during an upset overtime win in Game 3 over the Kelowna Rockets in the first round.
The T-birds ended up losing that series in Game 7 in overtime, but it left a lasting impression on one visitor. At that time, Mathew Barzal, the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2012 bantam draft, was deciding whether to join the T-birds or accept a big-time college scholarship.
“My dad (Mike Barzal) and I were there and the barn was just rocking,” Barzal said of ShoWare Center. “I’ve never been at a game that loud. I had a smile on my face the whole game. It persuaded me quite a bit. It was so cool.”
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Barzal eventually signed with the T-birds and he’ll make his WHL debut at ShoWare on Saturday night against the defending WHL champion Portland Winterhawks. Barzal has impeccable credentials and last season the Coquitlam, B.C., native scored 55 goals and 103 points in only 34 games for the Vancouver North East Chiefs.
Based on what he’s seen this preseason, Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk expects Barzal to step right into the heart of a Seattle lineup he calls the most talented team he’s seen since he has been the coach of the Thunderbirds.
“He’s an elite talent and people are going to love to watch him play,” Konowalchuk said. “It’s really impressive the way he sees the ice and understands the game. He’s a kid who has been driven from a young age to be the best.”
Barzal, who is 5 feet 11, 170 pounds, had four goals and six points in seven exhibition games. He believes the greatest attribute he brings to the team is his work ethic and desire to get better.
“This is an adjustment for sure,” Barzal, 16, said. “Everyone is faster, more physical and just more skilled. Being the top pick obviously comes with expectations and I have to be prepared to play every night. I’ve already learned a lot from my teammates. I really like to watch (Russian center) Alexander Delnov in practice. I just like the way he plays the game.”
Delnov and Barzal are expected to center the T-birds top two lines, giving Seattle a potential high-scoring team featuring Connor Honey, Roberts Lipsbergs, Seth Swenson, Justin Hickman and Branden Troock.
“He (Barzal) has raised the standards and the expectations,” Konowalchuk said. “We basically have the same team back and this team really believes in themselves.”
The T-birds are unsure whether talented defenseman Shea Theodore, a first-round NHL pick, will be back from NHL training camp for the opener, but he is an elite player who can change a game.
Goaltending experience is an issue, but it’s not a big concern for Konowalchuck.
Justin Myles will start the opener, but he’s played only 11 games with a 3-4 record. Danny Mumaugh will be the backup, but he’s seen action in only 18 games. Devon Fordyce, who has played 18 games in the WHL, still is in the mix.
“I’m happy where it’s at,” Konowalchuck said. “Without experience you wonder, but I’m confident any of the three could step in and give us a chance to win.”
The biggest area where Seattle needs to improve is defense, especially with Jesse Forsberg expected to miss the opener with an injury.
“We have the ability to put pucks in the net, but we have to play in our own end,” Konowalchuck said. “Defense has been our focus. We have to cut down on the number of breakdowns that don’t give our goalie a chance.”
Barzal, whose stated goal is to play in the NHL at age 18, paused when asked what he thinks makes him such a special talent.
“People say it’s my vision or skating, but honestly it could be my hard work,” Barzal said. “I love to be on the ice for practice working hard in get better. It’s just what I love to do.”