It's never too early to take a look at how the next WHL season will shape up and now is as good of a time as any, to do just that.
In breaking down the U.S. Division outlook for 2016/17, let's go over the teams in order of their finish last year.
2016/17 U.S. Division Early Preview Part One: Seattle Thunderbirds
-Defenseman Jared Hauf and Jerret Smith and goalie Landon Bow are all gone, as they aged out of the league. Forward Ryan Gropp (second leading scorer in 15/16) has been signed by the N.Y. Rangers and as a 20-year-old player will likely play in the Rangers' system somewhere. Swedish import forward Andreas Schumacher could look for a professional contract overseas as well.
-Schumacher is likely not back as he would be a two-spotter (import and overage player). Alexander True should be back and will be expected to play more like he did in the playoffs, than the regular season. He had 10 points in 18 playoff games, after only 32 points in 65 regular season games. Seattle will likely be drafting another import and could use some help along the blue line.
-Incoming 16-year-old forward Elijah Brown was very impressive in his two-game stint (he had two points) and should make the team. 2016/17 17-year-old d-men Jared Pelechaty and Reece Harsch and forwards Luke Ormsby and Wyatt Bear will all be vying for roster spots as well. They all made their WHL debuts during the 2015/16 season.
2016/17 Overage Situation:
-Besides Schumacher, Seattle has forwards Scott Eansor, Cavin Leth and Josh Uhrich all entering their 20-year-old seasons. Eansor is a lock to return to Seattle, as he provides energy and centers a potent line with Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan. Leth was dynamic in the playoffs, scoring nine points in 15 games, after only 10 points in 34 regular season games, after being acquired from Swift Current. Uhrich mostly played on Seattle's fourth line and would be the odd man out, if Seattle were to look to upgrade their overage group.
Three Major Story Lines:
1) Will Mathew Barzal Return?
-Barzal was magnificent in Seattle's playoff run and as a 1997 born player, should return for one more run at a WHL title. However, the N.Y. Islanders own his draft rights and their general manager Garth Snow has a history of pulling his first-round picks up the NHL level early. See: John Tavares in 2009, Nino Niederreiter in 2010 and 2011 and Ryan Strome in 2013 and 2014. I think the most likely outcome is that Barzal gets a eight or nine-game stint in the NHL, before returning to the Birds.
2) Is Logan Flodell Ready?
Flodell was given the reins in 2015/16, but did not really do enough for general manager Russ Farwell and coach Steve Konowalchuk to feel comfortable with him back-stopping a long playoff run. Thus, the trade for Landon Bow that seems to have been the catalyst for Seattle's great run to end the regular season. If Flodell stumbles again, Seattle may look around the league again for another option.
3) How Will the Blue Line Hold Up?
Losing Smith and Hauf is huge as they were the shutdown pairing for Seattle and got all of the difficult assignments. Turner Ottenbreit and Ethan Bear now move into that role and will need to bear more responsibility both in shutting the other team down, as well as, provide needed scoring from the back end. Jarret Tyszka should be ready for a top-four d-man role in his second season, though he struggled through injuries for most of the season. I expect Seattle to try and find another top-four d-man somewhere via import draft or trade, or this could be a glaring weakness.
-A lot of areas to upgrade at, but returning five of your top-six forwards from the Division's most explosive offensive group is a positive. Combine that with the return of a d-man who potted 19 goals last year (Bear) and you have a group that will score with anyone. How much they can stop the opposition from scoring will likely determine how deep of a run they make next year.