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State of the T-Birds; GM, coaches look to spur turnaround
A cellphone vibrates on Russ Farwell's desk as he tries to tame a clutter of papers, charts, reminders and folders.
With the Seattle Thunderbirds' front office staff busy tending to morning business, Farwell pauses for a moment, then sits up in his chair. He ignores the calls, but only for a moment.
A junior hockey league general manager's job is demanding, perpetual, seldom done. One call follows another, just as Farwell's players – unproven teens and touted prospects – continuously come and go.
"It's constant," Farwell said of the challenges of directing the ever-changing Kent-based T-Birds as a GM and part-owner. "What people don't see is because of that mandating, automatic turnover, a big part of the job is next year's group. Always.
"Our guys are already out ... (watching) tournaments ... doing full-bore scouting for the draft and working with our (players). As soon as these guys hit the ice, we have to start on next year's team."
For Farwell, a longtime top executive in hockey circles – from the Western Hockey League to the National Hockey League – spotting and developing talent remain a big part of what he does in the junior ranks.
Putting a consistent winner on the ice is another.
Lately, the Thunderbirds have struggled in that department. Lacking scoring punch, last season's T-Birds toiled in the rink, posting a losing record and missing the WHL playoffs for the third consecutive year.
All of which is uncommon for an organization accustomed to being a contender.
Farwell hopes to change that this season. An infusion of new faces – coupled with a maturing and deeper roster – could bring the T-Birds back to respectability as the puck drops on the 72-game regular season Friday night at Portland.
The I-5 rivalry returns to the ShoWare Center on Saturday to open the T-Birds' home slate. Face-off is 7:05 p.m.
"I like what I'm seeing in Seattle right now," said Mike Johnston, who orchestrated a revival as general manager and coach in Portland. "They're like we were a few years ago. There's always going to be a transition time where you have a few lean years. I think they are starting to turn the corner there, and I see some positive signs this year."
Despite the futility, the T-Birds remain popular on home ice. Attendance remains strong, having increased to an average of 4,206 fans last season, about the total the team attracted when it occupied Seattle's KeyArena, its home for 32 years.
Faced with an uncertain future at the Key, the T-birds signed a 30-year lease with Kent to become the chief tenant of the 6,500-seat arena in 2009. It's been a good fit, city and team officials say, despite a wobbly economy. The arena hasn't been able to generate nearly enough business to keep it from losing money in each of its three years of existence.
Nevertheless, the T-Birds look to shed the blues behind a retooled lineup, new attitude and sharper focus behind second-year coach Steve Konowalchuk.
"We have a good group that's focused on the right things and understanding what Steve wants. And I think we really improved our skill level," Farwell said. "We're excited about the potential of our team."
Farwell acknowledges the team must improve to soothe impatient fans.
"I don't think what the fans want is any different than what we want as a team," Farwell said. "We want to be legitimate contenders in our own division. We want to legitimately have a chance to win every night and be there to compete in the end."
Pieces come together
To do so, the T-Birds added size, skill and grit.
Size? Try defensemen Evan Wardley (6-foot-4), Jared Hauf (6-6), rookie Kevin Wolf (6-6) and Taylor Green (6-7).
Skill? Quick right-winger Branden Troock – who was selected in the fifth round, 134th overall, by the Dallas Stars in the 2012 NHL Draft – could be a dominating player. Defenseman Shea Theodore, a talented player and the team's returning assists leader, won a gold medal with Team Canada at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in August.
Grit? Wardley, Theodore and Jerret Smith join Jesse Forsberg, who was acquired from Prince George for center Colin Jacobs in early August, as enforcers on defense. Forsberg, a 19-year-old from Saskatchewan, brings leadership and a certain edge to his game.
"He gives us more experienced. He's been a captain and he plays tough, and that always helps the other guys," Farwell said of Forsberg, a physical, two-way defenseman. "He will really step in and give us a presence on the back (line)."
Forsberg is showing the way.
"I play with a lot of passion and love open ice hits," Forsberg recently told seattlethunderbirds.com. "I am a mobile skater with a good first pass, and I am not afraid to drop the gloves. I hate to lose."
Offensively, the T-Birds will rely on the continued improvement of Troock and Luke Lockhart. Troock had 14 goals and 12 assists last season. Lockhart was second on the team in goals with 16 and second on the team in points with 37.
Connor Honey, who joined the team in midseason, finished strong. Right wing Seth Swenson, acquired at the trade deadline from Portland, had 17 points in 34 games with the T-Birds. Center Justin Hickman looks to improve on his 12 goals and 10 assists for last year.
Left wing Riley Sheen, acquired from Medicine Hat for right wing Jacob Doty, is among the newcomers.
Farwell is excited about the potential of the team's top imports. Left wing Alexander Delnov, an 18-year-old from Moscow, Russia, was a fourth round pick of the Florida Panthers in the 2012 NHL Draft. Center Roberts Lipsbergs, 18, represented Latvia in the recent world games.
More goals are a priority but not at the expense of defense, Farwell said.
"We didn't score easily but I think we're going to have more balance," he said. "The guys we have back are more mature and stronger and create more. And we added more skill up front. We have three lines that can score and four that can play regularly."
A big question for Seattle is between the pipes. Goalie Calvin Pickard, the T-Birds' career saves record holder, has moved on to the American Hockey League in hopes of working his way up to the NHL's Colorado Avalanche. Goalie Brandon Glover, acquired from Calgary for a third-round bantam pick, is the next, experienced man up.
"We've got to improve. We know that," Farwell said. "Last season was Steve's first year and I think he was a little disappointed in the results, but he laid some groundwork. Everyone, coaching staff, players, we're feeling we have to take a step forward."