Inside the NHL

The biggest anticipated hockey news locally is whether the Kraken gets a shot at Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour, though word Wednesday was that he’s expected to re-sign with his current club this week.

If that happens, it’s Plan B for the Kraken on potentially a bunch of coaches we’ve mentioned in recent months, including Rick Tocchet, Bruce Boudreau and other possibilities, such as John Tortorella and Kevin Dineen, the team may or may not be all that serious about. Either way, things should happen quick, because none of the four semifinalists in the Stanley Cup playoffs is about to fire its coach, and Kraken general manager Ron Francis is on-record about preferring an experienced NHL bench boss as opposed to an up-and-coming assistant.

Speaking of the semifinals, there’s plenty of rooting interest locally and throughout Washington state in some of the participants on the Vegas Golden Knights, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens. Spokane native Tyler Johnson is now mainly a fourth-liner for the Lightning but had a huge second-round goal in a pivotal Game 4 comeback that swung the series against the Hurricanes.

Canadiens goalie Carey Price, of course, played for the WHL Tri-City Americans and helped carry Montreal through its two opening playoff rounds.

But the Seattle-area local angle to all this is really intriguing, as three former WHL teammates with the Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds — center Mathew Barzal, winger Keegan Kolesar and defenseman Shea Theodore — are on two of the semifinalist teams and could wind up squaring off in the final.

Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore celebrates after scoring against the Montreal Canadiens during Game 1 of an NHL Stanley Cup semifinal series, June 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / AP)

It would be the first time that has happened for Washington’s oldest WHL franchise, now in its fifth decade. Not only that, but all three ex-Thunderbirds have played big roles for their teams in recent games.

Advertising

The Islanders have former T-birds captain Barzal, who had a slow start points-wise to these playoffs before catching fire the latter part of the East Division final against Boston.

Barzal had scored his team’s lone goal of a Game 3 overtime loss, added a go-ahead marker late in Game 4 to knot the series at 2-2 instead of the Bruins going up 3-1. He scored a power-play goal and assisted on another in a Game 5 victory the Islanders were mostly outplayed in until the Bruins took a string of penalties.

The Islanders clinched the series comeback with a resounding Game 6 win at home before moving on to face Tampa Bay in a semifinal, with Barzal scoring again in the opener to give his team a 2-1 upset road victory. Tampa Bay has since evened things at a game apiece, but Barzal has emerged as a go-to catalyst that sits third in Islanders playoff scoring with five goals and six assists despite the rough start.

Just four years ago, Barzal and the Thunderbirds captured the 2017 WHL championship against Regina. Interestingly, the decisive Game 6 of that series saw Barzal’s teammate, Kolesar, score the tying goal with under three minutes to play in Regina before the T-birds won the title in overtime.

Now, Kolesar and his Golden Knights are vying for a chance to possibly face former teammate Barzal in the Cup final. Kolesar helped that cause with a go-ahead goal in a decisive Game 6 of the second-round to help Vegas get past Colorado.

Golden Knights right wing Keegan Kolesar skates around Minnesota Wild Ryan Suter during Game 5 of an NHL Stanley Cup first round series, May 24, 2021, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / AP)

In the semifinal opener against Montreal, Kolesar and teammate Theodore played key physical roles as the Golden Knights defeated the Canadiens 4-1. Theodore opened the scoring in the first period on a one-timed blast in a game the Canadiens had dominated to that point.

Advertising

The Vegas defenders accounted for three of the team’s four goals in the opener. The Golden Knights fell 3-2 in the second game of the series Wednesday night and it’s tied 1-1.

Unlike Barzal and Kolesar, Theodore wasn’t part of the 2017 title run for the Thunderbirds. But all three players teamed together for most of two full seasons starting in 2013-14. 

Having three former Thunderbirds players in the Cup final at all — let alone as former junior teammates — would also be a rarity. Thunderbirds communications director Ian Henry helped supply the back research on this, going back to the late 1970s when the franchise was first known as the Seattle Breakers.

In all, 15 franchise alumni — including coaches and support staff — have won the Cup 25 times and lost in 16 appearances, starting with winger Glenn Anderson of the Edmonton Oilers winning in 1984 and most recently with third-string goalie Landon Bow of the Dallas Stars losing last year’s final to Tampa Bay.

Only two times have three former players from the Thunderbirds franchise appeared in a Cup final together, starting in 2003 when current Seattle-area resident Turner Stevenson, Ken Daneyko and Corey Schwab played for the New Jersey Devils in their win over Anaheim. But unlike today’s trio still going in these playoffs, the Devils’ threesome hadn’t all been junior teammates. Daneyko played for the early 1980s Breakers version of the franchise, and Stevenson and Schwab were Thunderbirds teammates at decade’s end.

The only time three former Thunderbirds players opposed one another in the championship round came the following year, when the Lightning won with Cory Sarich and Ben Clymer squaring off against Oleg Saprykin of the Calgary Flames. But again, they hadn’t all been junior teammates, as Sarich appeared in only 13 games for the 1997-98 Thunderbirds and was not on the roster in 1998-99, when Clymer and Saprykin were there.

Advertising

So as we wait for the Kraken to hire a coach and pick some players, we’re guaranteed some former in-state makeup in the upcoming final round one way or another — perhaps a lot more recent and plentiful than we’re used to.