After losing its top scoring forward early in the 2014-15 campaign, the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League needed someone to step up and carry the load offensively. Ryan Gropp took the opportunity and ran with it.
When forward Mathew Barzal injured himself in November, Gropp said he felt it was his responsibility to take charge up front and fill the void left by his centerman.
“That was definitely a tough stretch for us,” said Gropp, whom the Rangers selected in the second-round of the 2015 NHL Draft. “[Barzal] is one of our top offensive guys and him being my linemate … I thought I played some of my best hockey. I stepped up my game and tried to lead offensively.”
And lead he did. Gropp scored nine goals and 21 points in 24 games in Barzal’s absence, part of one of the best stretches during his 30-goal, 58-point season in Seattle.
“It shows his ability. You have to have the ability to do that,” said Thunderbirds head coach and former NHLer Steve Konowalchuk. “He didn’t buckle under pressure. That’s what you like to see.”
Gropp has been the type of player the Rangers have targeted in recent drafts, as the organization has focused its efforts on skill players, according to Gordie Clark, the team’s Director, Player Personnel.
“His game is what we’re all about right now going forward,” Clark said. “Three or four years ago in our meetings … we wanted to go with speed and skill. That’s been a big part of our game.”
Gropp, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 187 pounds, said he feels he “really fits in perfectly with the way [the Rangers] play their game,” and added he’s a fan of the way head coach Alain Vigneault and his players “move the puck and play fast.”
Gropp certainly fits that mold, according to Konowalchuk.
“He’s very fast. Probably the fast in our league,” he said. “[He has a] very good, quick-release shot. When he has the puck, he has the ability to draw the defender to him” and then pass to an open teammate.
With the draft behind him, the focus now shifts towards next season with Seattle.
The 18-year-old said he expects to be a player for whom the team looks to for leadership, especially the young players just entering the organization.
“I think I lead by example,” Gropp said. “We have a real good group of guys and I think we’re going to do big things this year.”
Before he does head back to the Northwest, Gropp will represent the Rangers at the annual Traverse City Prospect Tournament in September, giving him his first opportunity to wear the Rangers’ jersey on ice.
“It’s a real competitive tournament,” Gropp said of Traverse City. “It’s real good hockey. The biggest thing is going in and playing my game and keep things simple.
“Every game you want to make an impression and the way to do that is to play your game,” Gropp added. “Keep it simple and play to your strengths. When you win those games, it makes a lot of the guys look better than if they lost.”
While the draft may be over, Gropp understands the work is just beginning. The 6-foot-2, 187-pound winger said the biggest thing he must work on as he faces tougher competition is his strength.
“With all that I’ve got going on right now [with my speed], it’s just getting stronger up top so I can handle those bigger guys,” Gropp said, before stating he felt he’s already made progress in that area.
Gropp, who said he feels he and current Rangers star Rick Nash play a similar style game, said the anxiety is already building towards a future in the Big Apple.
“I’m really excited to show my stuff in the fall,” he said, before adding he hopes to call New York home sooner rather than later.