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April 27th, 2017

[LJ Idol 10: Week16] 13

One of the strange things that can happen when you go from aggressively not-caring-at-all-ever about sports to falling in love with a sport and a team is that, if you're like me, "your team" turns out to involve a lot more people than just whoever happens to be on the main roster this year.  There are trades, and free agency signings, which can mean that your favorite player on your favorite team goes...somewhere else.  Maybe to a team you don't really like that much.  (Alex is still sad about Matt Martin leaving the Islanders for the Maple Leafs.). Or maybe a team you never really thought much about starts picking up a lot of players you kind of like, and you get interested despite yourself.  Or you watch a game that your favorite team is playing, and someone on the other team just really impresses you.  Or someone does something really awesome off the ice.

Or the madness spreads beyond the major league.  Hockey has a draft, and prospects (late teens/early 20s players who are playing in college or minor or junior leagues, or in Europe, and whose rights to play at the NHL level are "owned" by a specific team).  And following prospects means following those teams and those leagues.  Which is how I started cheering for a major junior (semi-professional, too "pro" for NCAA scholarship purposes, 16-20 year olds) team on the other side of the USA from me.

See, back in the 2015 off-season, the New York Islanders (my NHL team of choice) weren't supposed to do much at the draft until a pick somewhere in the 70s as the result of past trade deals, and one of the fan blogs started trying to guess which players might still be available to draft at that point.  One of the posted guesses was Keegan Kolesar, who seemed to be the kind of player I often like to watch (or one of the three kinds - I tend to like small speedy forwards who "play bigger than they are" as well as large physical forwards who don't shy from body-checking and the occasional fight, and then goalies just in general).  Kolesar was the big physical guy to the smaller, faster, higher-skill-level Mathew Barzal, on a team called the Seattle Thunderbirds.

Well, the Islanders didn't draft Kolesar.  Instead, there was trade magic at the draft and suddenly they had Barzal instead.

One of the rules set by the NHL is that 18 and 19 year old players who have been drafted from a major junior team is that they either have to play in the NHL or go back to their junior team - the lower full-pro leagues are not an option (except in very unusual circumstances that don't apply here).  Players of that age can play in up to nine NHL games before their first year professional contract is fully activated - so sometimes people will call this the "nine game trial period."

Barzal didn't get the nine game trial in 2015 - he was sent back to Seattle the day the regular season started.  And I sort of kept an eye on him and on Kolesar and Gropp, his usual linemates and future division rivals.  And as their playoffs went on, the Seattle Thunderbirds Twitter account would post a stylized number on a puck with every win, counting the progress towards the 16 wins for their league championship.

The last number they posted last year was 13, meaning they won three best-of-seven rounds (the first two in a sweep, if I remember right) and then lost the final round 4 games to 1.

This year, Barzal made the opening night roster and I thought he was going to get the nine games.  Unfortunately, he had a really bad night his first game (though he did manage to laugh it off) and ended up going back after two.  But he's continued to keep going, and to lead Seattle back to their playoffs.

The last number I've seen posted on their Twitter is 10.  I hope that their Captain, #13, can lead them past 13 this year, even all the way to 16.



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