The Seattle Thunderbirds recently had their two top scorers from last season — Mathew Barzal and Ryan Gropp — returned by National Hockey League teams.
Inside sports business
The unique business of major junior hockey has positioned the Seattle Thunderbirds to improve their overall record and financial bottom line.
It has been an up-and-down season for the T-Birds, coming off a stellar 2015-16 Western Hockey League campaign in which they nearly advanced to the Memorial Cup championship tournament. But things are looking up for the Kent-based squad, which recently saw its two top scorers from last season returned by National Hockey League teams.
Major junior hockey’s mid-ground between a professional and amateur circuit made it possible. It takes 10 games for a first-year NHL player’s entry-level contract to kick in, meaning they can be returned for another junior season as long as they have appeared in nine games or fewer.
Last month, forward Ryan Gropp, 20, returned from the New York Rangers right before the NHL opener. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the New York Islanders sent center Mathew Barzal, 19, back after he played two NHL games.
Imagine Florida State getting quarterback Jameis Winston back from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for more seasoning a few games into his first NFL season. Or Kris Bryant returning to play for the University of San Diego had he displayed trouble hitting major-league curve balls for the Chicago Cubs.
That’s another reminder of how the Canadian Hockey League — the umbrella under which the WHL operates — and its quasi-pro status differs from the NCAA. While the WHL age level of 16 to 20 resembles college hockey, its players receive stipends and forfeit a season of NCAA eligibility for every major junior game played.
And, unlike NCAA players, they can return to junior teams if they don’t make the NHL.
Gropp and Barzal aren’t the projected talents Winston and Bryant are in their sports. But their T-Birds return could swing the balance of power within the WHL’s U.S. Division.
T-Birds general manager Russ Farwell said there is a reason the rule about returning players “has been around forever’’ and is something from which many teams benefit. Despite teenage NHL stars like Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, most players that young typically struggle from a physical perspective.
“For a real top player, it’s still hard to play in the NHL at 19 and that’s something people sometimes forget,’’ Farwell said.
Barzal was drafted 16th overall by the Islanders last year and piled up points during the NHL exhibition season. But the physical aspects of Barzal’s game without the puck were lacking.
“For a centerman here (in junior) you have the puck and you’re making plays all the time,’’ Farwell said. “But there, you have to be able to step across and help the defense down low. It’s handling those big guys one-on-one coming out of the corner and going to the net. And if you don’t have good body position and you’re not ready to dig in and do that, then the coach doesn’t have confidence in you and he’s not going to play you.’’
Farwell was the Philadelphia Flyers’ GM in the early 1990s and helped orchestrate the mammoth trade that landed junior prospect Eric Lindros from the Quebec Nordiques in exchange for Ron Hextall, Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci and other players, draft picks and $15 million cash.
Farwell said that, unlike most junior players entering the NHL, Lindros’ physical abilities erased any doubts about giving up so much to get him.
“You were talking about a guy who was not only big and strong enough for the league, he was going to change the league,’’ Farwell said of Lindros, inducted this month into the Hockey Hall of Fame. “You could hear Eric Lindros coming. When he dumped the puck in and was bearing down the ice, he was 240 pounds and it was like a linebacker.’’
While Barzal’s junior return was expected, Gropp rejoining the T-Birds wasn’t.
NHL rules require players 19 and younger to be returned to junior squads. But 20-year-olds can be sent to pro American Hockey League minor affiliates, an option the Rangers passed on with Gropp.
They figured he would enhance his overall skills better in junior than the more physical AHL.
Gropp and Barzal have since bolstered a previously struggling power play, while the T-Birds have only one regulation loss — to the first-place Everett Silvertips — in their last eight games to improve to 13-9-1-1 after a sub-.500 opening month. This still isn’t quite the T-Birds’ runaway of last season, with Everett proving formidable and Gropp and Barzal taking time to mesh with teammates on the ice.
Gropp has five goals and nine assists in 18 games while Barzal has a goal and 10 assists in eight contests.
“It’s disappointing for a couple of days, but you’ve got to get on with it,’’ Barzal said. “I’m here now and I’m not taking anything for granted. There are things I still need to work on to get to that next level.’’
Accepting business decisions is part of major junior life as players are groomed for pro careers. Unlike college teams, junior hockey squads make trades all the time and decisions on player usage can take winning and profit into account above talent development.
Teams can also benefit financially when star players return from NHL teams. The improving T-Birds have drawn three ShoWare Center home crowds greater than 5,000 this month after previously averaging about 4,200 per game.
They’ve also glimpsed what life without Gropp and Barzal will be like next season and can prepare. Farwell said he’d already been doing that.
“You know guys are moving, so you’re always looking at next year’s team,” he said.
For now, the T-Birds will gladly take this in-season talent infusion from a hockey business system that operates unlike anything in other major North American sports.