By Nick Patterson Herald writer
The Seattle Thunderbirds have high expectations for Mathew Barzal this season.
Saturday night Barzal had his first test, and so far he’s passed.
The 16-year-old phenom made his WHL debut Saturday night as Seattle opened its season against the Portland Winterhawks in Kent. Barzal had an assist in regulation and a goal in the shootout as the T-birds knocked off the defending league champions 4-3.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Barzal told the Seattle Times about his debut. “That shootout at the end only made it that much better.”
It’s been a while since a 16-year-old has entered the league with as much fanfare as Barzal, who’s considered a generational talent. The Burnaby, B.C., native was the first-overall pick in the 2012 bantam draft, then had a record-setting season with the British Columbia Major Midget League’s Vancouver NE Chiefs in which he scored 29 goals and had 74 assists in a mere 34 games. The assist total broke the league record. The most common comparison has been to former Red Deer Rebels star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was the first-overall pick in the 2008 bantam draft and went on to be the first-overall pick in the 2011 NHL draft.
But it wasn’t always a sure thing Barzal would end up with Seattle. Speculation was rampant throughout last season as Barzal refused to commit to the T-birds, keeping open the option of playing in the NCAA. But Barzal signed with Seattle in the offseason and he’s expected to be an immediate offensive contributor.
Saturday night his biggest contribution was scoring in the shootout, despite fumbling the puck. That helped the T-birds top the Winterhawks 2-1 to earn the full two points.
“I pushed it forward and had no idea it was going to run like that,” Barzal said. “If I would have pushed it any harder it would have been a dump in. I had a move coming in, but that caused me to get in a little too tight with my mixup and I had to change it.”
Now the T-birds hope Barzal can keep it going the rest of the season.
Around the WHL
The T-birds acquired some overager insurance by claiming forward Erik Benoit off waivers from the Saskatoon Blades. Benoit fills the overage roster spot that is currently vacant while forward Mitch Elliot has his professional tryout with the Vancouver Canucks organization. … A flurry of trades took place last week in the run up to the start of the season. Two of those involved overagers as Moose Jaw acquired defenseman Zach Hodder from Medicine Hat for a conditional pick in the 2014 bantam draft, while Kamloops acquired forward Tyson Ness from Red Deer for a third-round pick in 2014. Two involved goaltenders as Saskatoon picked up 19-year-old Troy Trombley from Tri-City for a fifth-round pick in 2014, while Medicine Hat acquired 18-year-old Daniel Wapple from Moose Jaw for a fourth-round pick in 2015 and a conditional pick in 2016. Also, Portland shipped 19-year-old enforcer Joe Mahon to Calgary for a fourth-round pick in 2014 and a conditional sixth-round pick in 2015. … Regina cleared up two overage roster spots by releasing forward Trent Ouellette and defenseman Luke Fenske. The moves left the Pats with just one overager, forward Dyson Stevenson. … Swift Current’s Julius Honka was named the WHL Player of the Week. The 18-year-old rookie defenseman from Finland had one goal and four assists as the Broncos went 2-0.
Points — Oliver Bjorkstrand (Portland) 6; goals — Taylor Cooper (Brandon) 4; assists — nine tied with 4; penalty minutes — Jari Erricson (Prince George) 20; wins — five tied with 2; goals against average — Marek Langhamer (Medicine Hat) 1.00; save percentage — Langhamer .955.