By Anthony Dion
Searching for offensive consistency for much of the first half of the season, the Seattle Thunderbirds began to find it in the month of December. Forwards Keegan Kolesar, Ryan Gropp, Lane Pederson and Justin Hickman provided enough scoring to complement a defense led by the stingiest goaltender in the league.
Taran Kozun’s 2.23 goals against average in 32 starts through January 4 is tops among all qualified Western Hockey League netminders. That reliability between the pipes has kept Seattle (20-16-2-3) in nearly every game, giving it hope for an aggressive playoff push in the second half.
In fact, the T-Birds opened the second half of their season by winning five consecutive games to extend their longest winning streak of the season to six games. Suddenly the T-Birds found themselves a mere eight points back of Everett for the U.S. Division lead and home ice in the first round of the WHL playoffs.
That stretch of play helped convince T-Birds general manager Russ Farwell to upgrade the 23-man roster where applicable. Over the last seven days, Farwell has done so, and the Thunderbirds roster has undergone considerable change due in part to injuries and the end of the World Junior Challenge. Here are those moves broken down by date and analyzed:
January 4 — Center Alexander True returned to the Thunderbirds’ lineup after spending the month of December competing in the World Junior Challenge with his native country of Denmark. True, a 17-year-old rookie import player, provides Seattle with another healthy center and a big body for its top power-play unit. The 6-foot-4 True provided five goals and five assists in 31 games prior to his departure.
January 4 — In a corresponding move, the Thunderbirds sent 15-year-old Wyatt Bear back to the Interlake Lightning of the Manitoba Midget League. Bear played sparingly in three games with the T-Birds from December 28 through January 2.
January 4 — Hickman, Seattle’s 20-year-old forward and team captain opts for season-ending surgery to repair a nagging shoulder injury. The surgery not only ends Hickman’s season, but his career with the T-Birds. Hickman finishes 2014-15 with 28 points behind 19 assists and 11th on Seattle’s all-time list with 285 games played, leaving a large void in leadership and experience behind.
January 5 — Farwell announced the return of Roberts Lipsbergs, a 20-year-old forward who played the previous two seasons with Seattle after being acquired in the 2012 Import Draft. Lipsbergs joins the T-Birds from the Stockton Thunder of the East Coast Hockey League. It is hoped that Lipsbergs, the T-Birds’ leading goal-scorer last season with 33, can pick up production Hickman leaves behind and also provide a veteran presence.
January 5 — With the addition of Lipsbergs, Farwell announced the team placed rookie import forward Florian Baltram on waivers Monday to meet league-mandated limit of two import players. The 17-year-old Baltram had one goal and four assists in limited minutes over 34 games for the T-Birds. Baltram was picked up by Lethbridge on Tuesday.
January 8 — Farwell agreed to a trade with Prince Albert, acquiring forward Cory Millette from the Raiders for a conditional sixth round draft choice in either the 2015 or 2016 Bantam Draft. The 19-year-old Millette had eight goals and 10 assists in 39 games with Prince Albert. Like with the addition of Lipsbergs, Millette adds a veteran forward presence to the T-Birds’ lineup as it looks to fill the void of Hickman. In his debut with Seattle on Sunday, Millette delivered a goal and an assist to help the T-Birds beat Tri-City 4-2.
January 9 — Defenseman Shea Theodore returns from his gold-medal winning run with Team Canada at the World Junior Challenge. Theodore, 19, immediately made his presence felt with two goals and an assist in Friday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Americans. Given Theodore’s elite talent (drafted in first round by Anaheim) and experience playing amongst the best junior talent in the world, his return gives Seattle a massive boost. Theodore also immediately joined True on Seattle’s top power-play unit, a position where he really excels.
January 10 — As the WHL trade deadline neared its final hours, Seattle announced one final transaction, sending 17-year-old defenseman Scott Allan to Lethbridge for a fifth-round selection in the 2016 Bantam Draft. The return of Theodore made Allan, a player the T-Birds acquired in October from Medicine Hat, expendable with the team at eight defensemen. Allan showed considerable improvement over his two months with the team, but not the consistency to claim a regular spot in the T-Birds rotation.
One final move awaits the Thunderbirds in the coming days. With it, the team will be as close to full strength as possible with a piece like Hickman out for the season.
Mathew Barzal, the team’s leading scorer prior to fracturing his knee cap in an early-November practice, took part in the team’s recent practice Thursday. The initial diagnosis was an eight-week hiatus, a timetable reached last week. His return is imminent, but could also be interrupted by an appearance in the annual CHL BMO Top Prospects Game on January 22 in Ontario.
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