Keith Hershmiller Photo

Top 19 Thunderbirds: A completely subjective list you certainly disagree with. Continued. #2.

Well folks, our long journey is coming to an end. When looking at the next player on this list, you would be hard pressed to convince me anyone else in Tbirds history belongs at number two. He wasn’t just the most dominant player on the Seattle roster during his tenure, but was among the very best in the entire league. At #2 on our list is center Mathew Barzal.

It had been over a decade since Seattle had a true elite star on the front end, and there was little hope for one between 2009 and 2012. Then, at the draft, something happened. It’s amazing how a ping pong ball can shift the fate of a franchise. Seattle received the first overall pick in the 2012 bantam draft and used that pick to select the highly-touted prospect and welcome him into the Thunderbirds family.

Mathew Barzal was again invited to Canada’s U20 WJC camp(Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

However, the young Barzal still was unclear of his path, as he had multiple NCAA Division I offers on the table as well. He was invited to see the Thunderbirds in playoff action during the 2013 season, and after seeing the amazing ShoWare Center crowd, he was convinced. Mathew signed a Standard Player Agreement, and the rest is history.

2013-2014 was Barzal’s rookie season, and his skill was on display immediately. He appeared in 59 regular season games, scoring 14 goals and adding 40 assists for 54 points. Mat also played in 9 playoff games that spring, scoring one goal and adding five assists for six points. Barzal showed early on that his vision and ability to distribute the puck was well beyond his age. He was named to the Canadian roster for the U18 World Championships, where he scored three goals and chipped in one assist in a bronze medal effort in the tournament.

Mathew Barzal (photo-Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

2014-2015 was an up and down season for Barzal. Mat lit the league on fire during the first half of the season, making Seattle’s playoff push look inevitable while also catapulting himself up the NHL Central Scouting list. Unfortunately, a locker room horseplay incident with a teammate left Barzal with a knee injury that sidelined him for a large portion of the second half of the season. Barzal appeared in 44 total games, scoring 12 goals and 45 assists for 57 points. That postseason, Seattle had a first-round matchup with their hated long-time rival, the Portland Winterhawks. The Winterhawks were heavily favored in the series, and not many people gave the young Thunderbirds squad even a puncher’s chance. What transpired was a spirited affair and six-game classic that was really a warning for the rest of the league: Seattle was back, and their time at the top was coming. Mat scored four goals and four assists for eight points in the six-game series. Internationally, “Barzy” was also named to team Canada for the Ivan Hlinka tournament, scoring two goals and five assists in five games for the gold medal winners.

Barzal finished the season ranked 11th by NHL Central Scouting for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. His injury and questions about his maturity caused him to fall in the draft. Originally projected to be drafted anywhere from sixth to tenth overall, Barzal fell to the 16 spot, where the general manager of the Edmonton Oilers made one of the worst trades of his tenure — moving the 16th pick to the New York Islanders for WHL alumnus Griffin Reinhardt and a second-round pick. It is amazing to think we could have been living in a reality where the Edmonton Oilers enjoy a one-two punch at center of Connor McDavid and Mathew Barzal.

Mathew Barzal (photo-Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

2015-2016 was a season to remember for the Thunderbirds, as well as Barzal’s most productive in his Western Hockey League career. He played in 58 games for the Tbirds that season, scoring 27 goals and adding 61 assists for 88 points. He was also selected for the World Junior Championships that winter, appearing in five games and contributing two goals and one assist for three points. The Canadians, however, failed to medal. The stretch run was a battle for first with their northern rival, the Everett Silvertips. The two teams swapped positions seemingly every night in the hunt for the US Division crown, which Seattle ultimately managed to capture for the first time since 2004-2005.

With a division title in their back pockets, the Thunderbirds looked to make a deep playoff run. In the first round, Seattle swept the Prince George Cougars. The second round saw Seattle dispatch their cross-town rival Everett in five games. They completed their dominant run through the Western Conference with a shocking sweep of the defending Ed Chynoweth Cup champions, the Kelowna Rockets, including a double overtime classic in Game 4, where a 16-year-old Matthew Wedman scored possibly the biggest goal of his career (so far). Unfortunately, this Thunderbirds team suffered an all-too-familiar fate, as the heavily-favored Brandon Wheat Kings jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, with all games being decided in OT. Seattle salvaged a Game 4 win, but Brandon closed out the series in Game 5. An incredible run came to an unceremonious end. However, there was hope, as most of the core members of the roster were expected back. The only question mark was Seattle’s star player — would he or wouldn’t he return?

 

(photo – Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

Barzal’s season started in Brooklyn, New York, as he made the Islanders roster out of training camp. But his inclusion raised questions from not only Seattle fans but NYI fans as well, as Mat spent most games confined to the Barclays Center’s press box. Barzal made two forgettable appearances with the Islanders before being reassigned to the Tbirds.

His return marked the big acquisition Seattle was searching for. Barzal was named a co-captain of the team, splitting duties with Scotty Eansor. Barzal also represented Team Canada at the WJC once again, this time winning silver after losing in a shootout to the United States.

As the season marched on, Seattle and Everett once again fought for the US Division crown, but this time, Everett came out on top. Just weeks before the playoffs began, Barzal took warmups in a game in Kent against the Tips, and after the national anthem, he was seen going to the Seattle dressing room, not to be seen again until the second round of the playoffs. Questions arose to whether “Matty” had been the latest victim of the measles outbreak that had torn through the WHL. It was later revealed that he had Mononucleosis.

Seattle, sans Barzal, still managed to dominate the Tri-City Americans in a first-round sweep, leading to a second consecutive meeting with the Silvertips. Seattle was led by Barzal, and Everett just could not keep up with the offensive prowess of the Thunderbirds. Seattle swept Everett, moving to the WCF for a second year in a row where they met an old foe in the Kelowna Rockets. Again, Seattle dispatched its old rival, heading to the league final to meet the number one team in the CHL, the Regina Pats.

Seattle had unfinished business dating back to the previous year, and nothing short of an Ed Chynoweth Cup win would satisfy the hungry squad. Seattle and Regina split the first two games, with both decided in OT. Game 3 went to Regina as they held on to a 3-2 win that easily could have gone Seattle’s way. The next two games in Seattle were dominated by the Tbirds, setting up their first ever chance to clinch the title in Regina on Mother’s Day. The Thunderbirds came from behind in the third period to force OT, and the game and championship were iced by Alexander True, giving Seattle its first title in franchise history. Mathew was named the WHL Playoffs MVP, recording seven goals and 18 assists for 25 points in just 16 games.

Mathew Barzal went from No. 1 overall draft pick to WHL champion in five years with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Keith Hershmiller Photo

After a quick stop home, Seattle made its way to Windsor, Ontario, for the Memorial Cup. Unfortunately, Seattle just did not have anything left after a grueling regular season and playoff run as the team was eliminated in the round robin portion of the tournament without recording a single win. Despite the loss at the “Memmer,” the Thunderbirds were still WHL Champions, and fans will look back on the season fondly for years to come. Even with one year of junior eligibility left, fans knew this would be Mat’s final season in a Tbirds sweater, as he was primed to make the NHL the following season.

Barzal’s rookie season with New York was one to remember, as his speed and playmaking ability showed immediately. Most of the season was dominated by the Boeser vs. Barzal narrative for rookie of the year, but in the end, Barzal’s production proved to be too much for Boeser (a former list player for the Tbirds), and Mat won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. The campaign saw Barzal score 22 goals and add 63 assist for 85 points. During his follow-up season, he did regress in total points, but vastly improved his play in the defensive zone under new head coach Barry Trotz. Barzy was also named to his first All-Star Game.

(photo – National Hockey League)

A bonafide NHL star already, Mathew’s NHL career will no doubt be full of highlight reel moments and hopefully a Stanley Cup championship. But when we look back at this WHL career, Seattle fans will remember the speedy, playmaking center as one the true greats in the organization’s long history. Since his departure after the 2017 season, no player has worn his No. 13, and I don’t think anyone will be surprised when his sweater is lifted to the Accesso ShoWare Center’s rafters, possibly as early as 2021.

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