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Barzal signs with the New York Islanders, Thunderbirds ranked #7 in CHL pre-season Top 10

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Thunderbirds fans have gotten two somewhat surprising pieces of news over the last 24 hours. Center Mathew Barzal has signed an entry level contract with the New York Islanders, and the T-Birds have been ranked #7 in the BMO CHL pre-season Top 10.

Mathew Barzal after being drafted #16 overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal after being drafted #16 overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

While Thunderbirds fans are getting ready for what should be an exciting season, we all got a couple surprising pieces of news in the last 48 hours.

T-Birds Center Mathew Barzal signed a three year entry level contract with the New York Islanders, the team that drafted him in the 1st round, 16th overall in this June's draft in Sunrise, Florida.

Barzal, who many considered a top 10 pick, fell to the Islanders at #16 overall, with the most notable snub coming from the Boston Bruins, who had a historic three picks in a row, at 13th, 14th, and 15th overall. Clearly, the Islanders were pleased with the fact that several other teams passed on the playmaking Center. Shortly after he arrived in New York this week for rookie camp, the Islanders - a good young team who appear to be on the rise - signed him to an three year entry level contract. It should also be noted that former Seattle Defenseman Thomas Hickey is a regular with the Islanders, and the two could very likely be teammates within a few years.

An 18 year old native of Coquitlam, BC, Barzal was selected first overall by the T-Birds in the 2012 Bantam draft.. After debating the junior hockey vs. college route, he eventually chose the Thunderbirds and the WHL. Over the past two seasons, Barzal has scored 111 points (26-85-111) in just 93 games. He's also posted a combined +16 over the two years, while receiving only 40 penalty minutes. Those coming only from minor penalties - Barzal has never been issued a major penalty during a WHL game.

After scoring 54 points (14-40-54) in his 16 year old rookie season, Barzal was off to a great start for the 2014-15 season until he had freak injury in the dressing room when the team first arrived in Saskatchewan for their Eastern swing, resulting in a broken knee cap for the Center. Barzal missed two and a half months, and the team floundered with the loss of their #1 Center and top offensive threat.

Understandably, Barzal's draft stock slipped while he was out with the injury, however once he returned to action, he quickly regained his previous form and started to turn a lot of heads. A strong end to the season, an impressive playoff series against Portland, and an excellent showing playing for his country at the Under 18 World Championships elevated his appeal. Although the T-Birds dropped the series against the hated Winterhawks in six games, Barzal looked excellent in the in the process, scoring 8 pts (4-4-8).

Headed into an exciting season, the playmaker is expected to lead the way offensively. T-Birds fans who are worried that Barzal has played his last game in blue green and white should rest easy. For the next two seasons, the Islanders must either keep him on the NHL roster, or send him back to juniors. He will not be eligible to play in the minors until his 20 year old season, 2017-18. This rule is in place to protect junior teams against losing their top players prematurely.

Fortunately for T-Birds fans, the Islanders are very deep at center ice, led by Capitan and Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares. However, they have no Centers who are right-handed shots, which Barzal is, and teams tend to like having a balance in that department.

There is a possibility, though I believe it to be a small one, that Barzal will crack the final roster for the Islanders. If that were to happen, they would need to decide whether to keep him after he has played ten games, because at that point they would have to either send him back to the Dub, or pay him the first year of his contract. Most likely, he will be with the Islanders for the entirety of the preseason and be returned to Seattle thereafter.

The Islanders open their exhibition season on Monday, September 21st against the Philadelphia Flyers, and wrap up their preseason Tuesday, September 29th against the Washington Capitals. Their regular season opens October 9th at home in their new arena, Barclay's Center, versus the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.

In another surprising bit of news, the T-Birds, on the verge of a promising season, were ranked 7th overall in the BMO CHL Pre-season top 10 rankings.

It's safe to say this took most of us by surprise. With 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th round draft picks all returning to the club, most experts and fans are predicting that the T-Birds should be good this season, and with Portland likely to take a step back after losing their two best players, the division crown appears to be ripe for the taking.

Despite being not terribly deep at Center, the Birds have a very strong group of Forwards, and despite not having a big name blue liner, the T-Birds top 4 Defense (Smith, Bear, Hauf, Ottenbriet) would rival that of just about any team in the league. The obvious question mark is between the pipes. Will netminders Taz Burman and Logan Flodell be able to fill the large hole left by the absence of Taran Kozun? We shall see. Taz Burman, who was acquired from Red Deer in the Lane Pederson trade, is expected to the starter, and while his performance is up and down so far, we all know that looking too much into pre-season performances is rather foolhardy.

Fans who have followed the T-Birds for awhile might remember a situation similar to this prior to the 1999-00 season. Hopes were high coming into the season, the previous year being a fairly fruitful one. Despite losing to the Scott Gomez led Tri-City Americans in the second round, T-Birds were returning top scorer and fan favorite Bret DeCecco, as well as first round draft picks Oleg Saprkyin and Scott Kelman. However, the question mark was - and as is now - in the nets.

After a trade to acquire a goalie, (Alexandre Fomitchev) the T-Birds were ranked #3 in the CHL. The team did not respond to the hype well at all, and the club finished just over .500 in what ultimately was a disappointing season for the Birds, resulting in the firing Coach Don Nachbaur.

Here's hoping that Coach Konowalchuk - who has led the T-Birds back to prominence after the club missed the playoffs three seasons in a row, the worst stretch the team has seen since the 80's - will be able to keep egos in check, make sure the players don't let the ranking go to their heads, and lead the Thunderbirds to their greatest season since the move from KeyArena to the much more comfortable confines of the ShoWare Center.

The Thunderbirds final pre-season match is next Friday, the 18th @ 7:35 at home against the BC Division's Victoria Royals. The regular season begins Friday the 25th @ 7:00 in Vancouver against the Giants. T-Birds home opener is Saturday October 3rd, @7:05 against the Prince George Cougars, who will be sporting a new look and logo.

Season ticket packages and single game tickets, including the pre-season, are on sale now. Tickets are available by calling the Thunderbirds @ 253.239.PUCK (7825), in person at the ShoWare Center box office, or anytime online at ShoWareCenter.com.