Monday, August 24, 2015

Training Camp by the Numbers

Monday players arrived at the rink for the first official day of training camp. The day's calendar consisted of check-in, getting mug shots taken and the usual height and weight check. On Tuesday players will hit the ice. With that in mind I offer up a little training camp primer as we go by the numbers:

76. That's how many players from throughout Western Canada and the Western U.S. are converging on the ShoWare Center this week. This is one of the larger training camp contingents in recent memory. With parents and other family members in tow, that's a nice little boost to the local economy. Good time to own a hotel.

9. The number of players the T-birds drafted in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft back in May, who are attending their first training camp with the Thunderbirds. That group is led by Elijah Brown, their first round pick out of Edmonton.

1. The T-birds made only one selection in the CHL Import Draft this summer. Gustav Olhaver, from Sweden, will be attending his first T-birds training camp as well. At 6'6", Olhaver will be the tallest player at camp.

18. That's the number of returning players and WHL veterans who will be at camp. That includes 11 forwards, 5 defensemen and 2 goalies.

6. The veteran of that veteran group is defenseman Jared Hauf. This will be his 6th and last T-birds training camp. The Calgary native was Seattle's first round pick in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft.

5. Five players attending camp were drafted into the NHL back in June. Matt Barzal went in the first round, 16th overall, to the New York Islanders. Ryan Gropp was a second round pick of the New York Rangers. The Columbus Blue Jackets picked Keegan Kolesar in Round 3, Ethan Bear was a 5th round choice of the Edmonton Oilers while Olhaver went to the Colorado Avalanche in Round 7.

23. At some point the T-birds will settle on a regular season roster of 23 players. It might not be until early October though. With some players heading to NHL training camps, Seattle may actually have more then 23 players listed on the roster when the regular season begins. That number will be pared down to 23 when those NHL camp players return. Could they carry more then 23? Yes, sometimes you'll see a team with a 25 man roster but that's a lot of scratches every game night. Those players are probably better served playing every game at a lower level.

19. With the 18 returning or veteran WHL players, plus the addition of Olhaver, it would appear 19 of those 23 roster spots are all but locked up. Barring a trade it is hard to see any of those 19 players not on the regular season roster.

4. The number of roster spots still to be decided. Unless Seattle goes the trade route to fill one of those spots with a more seasoned player, it looks like there could be as many as four rookies on the final roster. My best guess is those four spots will be taken by two rookie forwards and two first year defensemen. Don't expect a player to come out of nowhere to grab one of those last roster positions though. The players battling it out are all known commodities to the coaching staff and most have been to one, if not two, previous training camps. All were scrutinized while playing at a lower level last season by the team's scouts or GM Russ Farwell.

17. That's how many 1998 (17 year olds) and 1999 (16 year olds) born players attending this camp are trying to make the roster for the first time, as a full time player. To be eligible to play full time you must be at least 16 years old. A 15 year old can play a maximum of five games during the regular season. They can join the team full time once their Midget team's season back home has concluded. For instance, last year, as a 15 year old, Wyatt Bear suited up and played in three games.

7. Of those 17 '98 and '99 born players who have never made the T-birds regular season roster before, seven have already signed their Standard WHL Player Agreement. They are forwards Wyatt Bear, Matthew Wedman and McKenzie Wight, defensemen Reece Harsch, Brandon Schuldhaus and Jerret Tyszka and goalie Ryan Gilchrist. Signing the agreement doesn't guarantee them a roster spot this season and conversely those players who haven't signed are not precluded from earning a roster spot. Some players wait until they have officially made the team before signing, as was the case with Luke Osterman and Nick Holowko last year.

3. Seattle will have three goalies in camp, Gilchrist, Taz Burman and Logan Flodell, battling for two roster spots. Both Burman and Flodell have WHL experience and probably have a leg up on the younger Gilchrist. The bigger question is which of the netminders will emerge as the team's number one option. Don't be surprised if it ends up similar to 2007 when Seattle went with a two-headed monster in goal. That season Jacob DeSerres (20) and Riku Helenius (22)combined for 42 wins, a 2.35 GAA and a save percentage of .918.

Let the fun begin!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Spencer Headed to Speedy Creek

With less then a week remaining until the start of training camp, the Seattle Thunderbirds pared down their glut of forwards by sending 1996 born Calvin Spencer to the Swift Current Broncos in exchange for a conditional sixth round draft pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.

This move is really not a surprise. Even with the trade of Lane Pederson two weeks ago, Seattle still had too many signed forwards and not enough roster spots for all of them. Keeping Spencer would have been a luxury. He's a solid, two-way 19 year old who would have probably been playing on the Thunderbirds fourth line. The problem was Seattle has four or five younger forwards they need to get ice time and that ice time usually comes playing on the fourth line. Remember, the WHL is a developmental league and developing the young 16 and 17 year olds on the roster often comes at the expense of a 19 or 20 year old who is not among your top six forwards or top four defensemen.

The trade to the Broncos should benefit Spencer greatly. He should get top minutes most likely playing on their second line. But he'll also be one of their top penalty killers. Spencer, who came to Seattle as an undrafted 17 year old in the fall of 2013, can be a physical player who will work hard along the boards. He has some good hockey tools. He just needs more consistency in his game and getting more consistent ice time in Swift Current will help that. Calvin was also one of the most polite, good natured players on the roster and will be a welcome addition to the Swift Current locker room. I know we hear the term "character" tossed around a lot when discussing these players. I think the word integrity might be more appropriate. Whatever word you choose, Seattle definitely traded away a couple of players in Spencer and Pederson, who had a lot of it. That's a testament to how well the T-birds have drafted or recruited players recently.

The one thing Spencer is going to miss, being in the Western Conference, is playing twice each season in Prince George. In his T-bird career he registered eight goals and I think at least half were scored against the Cougars up at the CN Centre.

The trades of Pederson and Spencer will also make training camp a little more interesting. There are three signed 1999 born forwards, and at least one other who has yet to sign, who will be fighting for one or two roster spots. There are also a couple of signed 1999 defenseman and probably only one spot available for them. So, you're looking at six 1999 born players with a legitimate shot to make the roster but odds are there is probably only room for, at maximum, three of them, two forwards and one defenseman. If you're going to camp, keep an eye out on the battle among the 16 year olds for one of those few, coveted, rookie roster spots available.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Tinkering Before Camp

What's the old saying when you make a trade? You have to give up something of value to get something of value in return. Well, that is certainly the case with the latest trade by the Seattle Thunderbirds.

On Wednesday the T-birds sent Lane Pederson to Red Deer, along with a 5th round draft pick, in exchange for goalie Taz Burman. Pederson is listed as a center but showed versatility with Seattle last season playing on the wing as well. In 65 regular season games with the Thunderbirds he registered 20 points (8g, 12a). Going into his 18 year old season, his best is yet to come. There's no doubt he has the potential to be a 20+ goal scorer in the WHL. He'll now be doing that with the Rebels rather than the T-birds. Not only is he a very good hockey player, but he was also well liked in the locker room by his teammates and last season, on their swing through the Eastern Division, the entire team stopped off at the Pederson home in Saskatoon for a home cooked meal. That just shows he comes from a terrific family and Red Deer is getting a real asset.

That being said, the Thunderbirds are deep enough among their forwards to absorb this trade. I don't know where he pencils in on the Rebels roster, but as talented as he is, he was still a third or fourth line player had he remained with the T-birds this season. Seattle's top three centers are Matt Barzal, Scott Eansor and Alexander True. Don't forget former first round draft pick Kaden Elder, another center, is entering his second season with the team and Seattle also drafted Gustav Olhaver earlier this summer in the Import draft and he is listed as a center as well. Additionally, Donovan Neuls can play center if needed, so they're fairly well stocked at that position.

I've mentioned in the past that Seattle did well in the 2012 Bantam Draft, the 1997 born class. At year's end last season the top eight selections from that draft were on the T-birds roster, including Pederson who was taken in round five. But five of those players are forwards and that doesn't include Nick Holowko, another '97 born forward who was listed, then signed as a free agent. At some point that group was going to have be broken up. You have to make room for other young players from subsequent drafts. For instance, Seattle has three forwards from the 2014 bantam draft already signed; Matt Wedman, McKenzie Wight and Wyatt Bear. All three are eligible to play full-time in the league this coming season but you can't just stick them on the roster and healthy scratch then every night. They have to play a minimum number of games. Then there is Elijah Brown, the team's 2015 first round selection and another forward who they've already signed. He's not eligible to play in Seattle this season but will be in 2016-17. The T-birds are going to have to create ice time for him when he arrives so at some point trading one or two of the '97 born forwards was inevitable.

So, why trade Pederson and not one of the other '97 born forwards? Well it comes back to my opening sentence, you have to give up something of value to get value in return. Go back two seasons to the 2014 trade deadline when Pederson was in the T-birds system but not yet on the Seattle roster. The one player other teams were asking for in trade back then was Pederson. Other teams valued him even then as a 16 year old playing back home in Saskatchewan.

General Manager Russ Farwell held on to that chip and now, when the team needs goaltending depth after the graduation of Taran Kozun, he uses that asset to trade for Burman. Burman is also a 1997 born player. He was selected in the second round (30th overall) of that deep 2012 draft, going 17 spots ahead of the guy he's going to compete with for the starting job in Seattle, Logan Flodell. You don't go that high in the draft unless good, knowledgeable hockey people think you have upside. In his first two seasons in the league, Burman has been the back up in Red Deer. As a 16 year old two years ago, his first season, he backed up 20 year old Patrik Bartozak, the WHL's Goaltender of the Year that season, so he saw very little of the ice. Last season he posted a 9-5-1-1 record with a 3.08 GAA in spot duty. Now he's ready to make the next step.

Remember, goalies usually don't blossom at this level until their 18 or 19 year old season and now Seattle has two such 18 year olds to compete with each other for ice time. The '97 born players are still the strength of this team and that includes Flodell. This is a team that believes it can compete to be one of the top clubs in the WHL this coming season. This move was made to strengthen one of the few weaknesses they were perceived to have and they made it without weakening another area of the roster, rather dealing from a position of strength.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Now the Waiting Begins

A flurry of activity, from player signings, schedule announcements and national team invites, to NHL drafts and a CHL Import draft selection, put an end to the Thunderbirds busy month of June.

The last scheduled event on the calendar until training camp was Tuesday's annual two round CHL Import Draft. With center Alexander True, whom the T-birds chose in last summer's draft, already on the roster, Seattle spent just one of it's allotted two choices. Picking 44th in round one, they chose hulking Swedish center Gustav Olhaver. The native of Angleholm, Sweden is listed at 6'6", 213lbs. Just this past weekend Olhaver was selected in the 7th round of the NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche. Olhaver, who celebrates his 18th birthday at the end of the week, adds another 1997 born player (18 year old) to the Thunderbirds roster. With this addition Seattle now has 11 such players on the team.

I can't tell you much about Olhaver. Like you, I can read his stats over at Eliteprospects.com and it appears he put up decent numbers. Here's a link to a scouting report on the big Swede: http://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1smso5k.

At the end of this past T-birds season it was a prevailing thought among many who follow the club that Seattle would look to the import draft to find an elite offensive-minded defenseman to fill some of the void created by the departure of Shea Theodore to the pro ranks. But when Seattle announced the signing of '98 born defenseman Brandon Schuldhaus on Monday, it seemed clear to me that there wasn't room for another d-man on the roster.

Not that there is much room on the roster for another forward. As of today there are 13 forwards on the Seattle roster returning from last season. Toss in Olhaver, who tweeted minutes after the draft that he is coming, and you have 14 forwards on the club before you get to any possible 16 year old rookie forwards such as Matthew Wedman or Wyatt Bear. But late Monday night I thought Seattle would possibly look for a forward in the Import Draft, of they type who could fill the void left by Roberts Lipsbergs, someone who could come in and immediately give the team a 30 goal season.

Is Olhaver that guy? He could be, you never know. Upon further reflection though, this choice makes sense because you already have so many returning forwards who should increase their goal totals from last year to pick up the Lipsbergs void. What the team lacks is a little more grit and physicality up front. What were Seattle GM Russ Farwell's first comments regarding the drafting of Olhaver? "We are excited to add a NHL drafted player with his size where we were picking."

Matt Barzal had 12 goals in an injury shortened season. The recent New York Islanders first round draft pick should be able to conservatively double that number. Meanwhile players like Keegan Kolesar (another player selected in the NHL draft this past weekend), Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan, Donovan Neuls and Lane Pederson should be able to increase their 2014-15 goal totals. Meanwhile, Olhaver is a big body who can create space for those players and that will help them increase those numbers. Olhaver himself told the T-birds, "I'm a tall forward that can get to the net and be hard to move. I can play a physical game and am smart with the puck." If the Thunderbirds other import player, True, has been able to add weight and muscle to his 6'4" frame this offseason, the team will, along with Kolesar, have three big-bodied players who play a similar, physical game.

As I mentioned earlier, the T-birds announced Monday they had signed 2013 5th round Bantam draft pick Brandon Schuldhaus to a standard WHL player agreement. Many observers at Seattle's training camp a year ago thought he played well enough to earn a roster spot as a 16 year old. Indeed, he was one of the last cuts in camp because there just wasn't going to be enough opportunity for him to get significant playing time. Instead he returned to the prestigious Shattuck St. Mary's prep school in Faribault, Minnesota. Schuldhaus already had good size but this year he should be more physically mature. What I remember most about his time in camp last season was he played a responsible defensive game but had a knack of when to jump up and join the attack. The T-birds now have eight signed defenseman who will be competing for the seven roster spots for the 2015-16 season.

On paper, this is a very talented team as we head into the dog days of summer, slowly counting the days until training camp arrives. Players are deep into their offseason workout programs. There could always be a trade or two between now and then but if this roster stays intact, there is going to be some fierce competition for playing time once the season rolls around and how the players train in the summer could be the difference in who is on the ice this winter.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Junesin' for Some Hockey

Summer officially started this past weekend but we certainly have a lot of hockey news this week affecting the Thunderbirds. First off, Seattle announced it's six game exhibition schedule which begins with three games at the traditional preseason tournament up in Everett the weekend of September 4th. The T-birds are in the Tri-Cities the following weekend for a pair of contests, before they host Victoria in their only preseason home game Friday, September 18th. Earlier Seattle announced their regular season home opener, which will be Saturday, October 3rd at the ShoWare Center versus Prince George. We can surmise by this that the team will begin the regular season on the road the previous weekend. The full regular season schedule will be unveiled Wednesday and that's when we'll find out where and who the T-birds open the regular season against.

Meanwhile the T-birds have signed Elijah Brown to a standard WHL Player Agreement. Brown was Seattle's first round selection in the May WHL Bantam Draft. The Edmonton, Alberta native was selected 15th overall.

This is the earliest the Thunderbirds have inked their first round bantam selection since 2010, when they drafted defenseman Jared Hauf fourth overall, meaning there will be none of the wait associated with the last four top Seattle selections. In 2011 the T-birds picked Ryan Gropp in round one, eighth overall, but Gropp waited until October of 2013 before deciding on Seattle.

Matt Barzal was Seattle's first round pick, and first overall, in the spring of 2012 but he didn't announce he was joining Seattle until the following spring. Of course 2013's first round pick, defenseman Dante Fabbro, remains unsigned while another defenseman, Jarret Tyszka, the top choice of the T-birds in the spring of 2014, was just recently brought into the fold when he signed his player agreement with the club in April, 11 months after Seattle picked him 16th overall.

We have to remember that these players have options, such as NCAA hockey or staying and playing closer to home. Additionally these aren't just player decisions but family decisions. The parents are also weighing the options of what is best for their son going forward. let's not forget that Seattle had two other first round picks in that time span, they just weren't their first overall selections. But both Keegan Kolesar (2012) and Kaden Elder (2013) signed shortly after they were drafted in the first round of their respective drafts.

What should get you excited if you are a Thunderbirds fan is that Seattle will have a minimum of six first round WHL Bantam picks on their roster this coming season with Hauf, Gropp, Barzal, Kolesar, Elder and Tyszka and room for a seventh should Fabbro opt to join the club at some point.

Nolan Volcan wasn't a first round selection. Instead, Seattle chose him high in round two back in the spring of 2013. He was the fifth pick of the second round, 27th overall. Volcan played like a young first rounder this past season though and Hockey Canada rewarded him by inviting him to Canada's U-18 team summer camp. The word came down Tuesday, the same day Barzal was extended his expected invite to Canada's U-20 (World Juniors) summer camp. That means three T-birds are heading to national team summer camps this year. Earlier this month USA Hockey released the list of their World Junior summer camp invitees and it included Seattle's Scott Eansor.

The week is not over though as the NHL Draft takes center stage this weekend down in Sunrise, Florida. The first round begins Friday night and expect Barzal to hear his name called within the first 15 picks. I can't see him lasting past the 10th pick, but if he does,in my opinion, someone would be getting a steal. Three other Seattle players should be locks to hear their names called; Gropp, Kolesar and defenseman Ethan Bear. A few others have an outside chance of being drafted such as Alexander True and Turner Ottenbreit. My darkhorse though, is Eansor. I would not be surprised to see some team take a flyer on him in the final round.

And, lest we forget, next Tuesday is the CHL Import draft. Seattle currently only has one import player on the roster, True, so they will be making a selection with their first round pick. Whoever the T-birds pick, they will be looking for a dynamic player who can jump right in and contribute from day one, because unlike the signing of Brown, this first round pick will have to have an immediate impact. The prevailing thought is they will look for a defenseman who can take up the slack for the departed Shea Theodore. In other words someone with a good offensive game who can be affective on the power play but defensively responsible.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Circle of Life WHL Style

An eventful last two days for the Seattle Thunderbirds. All highs, no lows! It started with some terrific recognition for a couple of T-birds leaving the organization and ended with Seattle welcoming nine new prospects into the nest.

Wednesday up in Calgary the WHL held it's annual awards banquet and two Thunderbirds walked away with some valuable hardware. I was certainly not surprised that Taran Kozun and Shea Theodore won their respective awards. Kozun took home the Del Wilson Trophy as the 2014-15 WHL Goaltender of the Year, besting Eastern Conference representative Tristan Jarry of Edmonton. Kozun's numbers speak for themselves, a 33-19-4-4 record along with a 2.41 GAA and save percentage of .915.

This is a pretty nice "feel good" story too. Kozun, who was not selected in his WHL Bantam Draft year, had a remarkable season and a half career as a Thunderbird after coming over from Kamloops at the 2014 January trade deadline. At the time it seemed Seattle was just looking for a healthy goalie to help in net with Danny Mumaugh after Justin Myles got hurt. In his previous two seasons in Kamloops Kozun was either the back up or shared duty in goal there too. His numbers were decent with the Blazers but he never really had to carry the load. That all changed once he became a Thunderbird. I still think, initially, he was going to split the goaltending job in Seattle as well, but in his very first start for the T-birds he shutout the Spokane Chiefs. He grabbed a hold of the number one goaltending job and never let go. In 84 regular season games in net for the T-birds he went 47-28-4-5 and recorded eight shutouts. Seattle went from being a team without a #1 goalie to having the #1 goalie in the league.

Meanwhile, Theodore culminated his terrific junior career by accepting the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy as the WHL's Defenseman of the Year for 2014-15, winning out over Ivan Provorov of the Brandon Wheat Kings. Theodore was honored by the league even though he missed a good chunk of the first half of the season because of an elbow injury suffered at training camp with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks and being away from the T-birds to play for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. Despite playing in only 43 of Seattle's 72 games, he still earned 48 points. In the process he became the franchise's all time leading goal scorer and point producer among defensemen. His stellar play with the Thunderbirds led to him being drafted in the first round of the NHL draft two years ago by the Ducks.

Theodore reached these heights after being selected in the third round of the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. In fact, he was the third defenseman Seattle selected in that draft (after Jared Hauf and Taylor Green)and their fourth pick overall. And Theo may never have been a Thunderbird if not for something that happened a year before Seattle selected him. When training camp rolled around prior to the 2009-10 season, T-birds center Jeremy Boyer opted not to report for his 19-year old season, instead staying home back in Saskatchewan and requesting a trade. Seattle GM Russ Farwell eventually honored his request and shipped Boyer to the Saskatoon Blades in exchange for prospect Stefan Burzan and a third round draft pick. While Burzan never made it out of training camp and onto the Seattle roster, the T-birds used that third rounder in the spring of 2010, the 64th pick overall, to draft Theodore.

Earlier in that round with the 48th pick, Seattle had chosen James Neil, a right winger out of Surrey. So, we'll never know if the T-birds would have been able to draft Theodore had Boyer never requested a trade and instead reported to camp. The T-birds didn't have a 4th round pick that year meaning their next selection was in the 5th round, #92 overall and Theodore would have probably been long gone by then. I guess we owe Jeremy Boyer a big "thank you!"

This all segues nicely into what happened Thursday, the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft in which Seattle made nine selections. It started in round one when, with the 15th overall pick, Seattle chose Elijah Brown a playmaking center out of Edmonton. Brown is described as "having speed that creates opportunities all over the ice". In round two the T-birds grabbed Carl Stankowksi, a goalie from Calgary. It's the highest Seattle has drafted a netminder since choosing Calvin Pickard in the second round back in 2007. Want a little more intrigue? Pickard was the 38th player selected that spring, Stankowski was the 37th player chosen Thursday.

And this pick makes sense as well. Seattle has a couple of goalies they're very high on, 18 year old Logan Flodell and 17 year old Ryan Gilchrist, to tend goal for the next few years. When those two are ready to move on, Stankowski should be ready to take over between the pipes.

Outside of Brown and Stankowski, the two T-birds picks that intrigued me the most were 5th rounder Sabir Gill, a defenseman out of Vancouver's North Shore Winter Club, and forward Chase Sakic, selected in the 8th round out of Englewood, Colorado. Gill has a champion's pedigree, having been a part of a Western Canada Bantam championship team. He registered 70 points (20g, 50a) and quarterbacked his team's power play. We often hear coach's say that winning is a learned habit. Well, Gill comes with that habit already learned.

Sakic, is the son of Joe Sakic, a two-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Colorado Avalanche, and a certain Hall of Famer who enjoyed a stellar 20 year NHL career, so he obviously comes with good bloodlines. Chase didn't last until the 8th round because he was on the fence about the WHL. He made it clear before the draft he wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps and play in the Dub.

He most likely lasted that long because of his size. He's listed at just 5'4" and 130 lbs. I don't have any idea how much bigger he's going to get but size was also a knock on his dad when he played in the WHL for Swift Current back in the 1980s. While he may not have the size yet, the one thing that Chase Sakic probably does have as a result of growing up around an NHL locker room, and some of the best hockey players in the world, is that innate hockey IQ that you just can't teach. He's seen first hand from his dad and the players around his dad in the NHL what it takes to play at the highest level, the day-to-day commitment to being the best. Of the nine players Seattle drafted Thursday, he was the first to tweet out how excited he was for the chance to be a T-bird and play in the WHL. He is ready to get his career going.



Thursday, April 9, 2015

Ode to the Ward-dog

I remember Evan Wardley's "first game" with the Thunderbirds. It was his only game of the 2010-11 season. I don't think he got one shift in that game. I think he got more air time then ice time that night as I interviewed him before the game for that night's radio broadcast. It was December 31st. The Thunderbirds, as they usually are, were down in Portland for the New Year's Eve matchup at what was then still called the Rose Garden. Seattle dressed seven defensemen that night; Bobbee, Ramsay, Bonsor, Dillon, Sutter and Baecker. The then 16 year Wardley was one of them too, but spent the game parked on the bench. The T-birds won the game when Luke Lockhart broke a 3-3 tie with just three and a half minutes left in the third period. Final score; Seattle 4, Portland 3. After the game Wardley returned to his midget team back in Alberta. It was as if he was never there.

So that was Wardley's inauspicious WHL debut. His name on the scoresheet and a great seat on the bench watching Seattle beat their fiercest rival. And this past weekend, Wardley's WHL and Thunderbirds career came full circle as he was on the bench when the Winterhawks Nic Petan scored late in overtime Tuesday to end the T-birds season in Round One of the playoffs. In between those two games Wardley became a fan favorite at the ShoWare Center in Kent and public enemy number one in many of the other venues the T-birds visited over the course of his four year WHL career.

The Vulcan, Alberta native was a 6th round selection by the T-birds in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, 122nd overall. He was taken one pick after Lethbridge chose Russell Maxwell, the same Maxwell who would spend the second half of the 2014-15 season as Wardley's teammate after Seattle acquired him from the Hurricanes at the trade deadline. He was drafted four spots ahead of Cole Wedman who went to Spokane. Wedman is the older brother of Matthew Wedman, a T-birds prospect who spent a week late this season practicing with Wardley and the T-birds. Hockey...there is always a connection, it seems, to everyone who plays the game.

In his career with the Thunderbirds Wardley earned a reputation for straddling the line with his physical play. Some of it was warranted, most of it was not. And while fans with other teams showed their disdain for his on-the-edge physical game, he is the kind of player you'd want on your team protecting your best assets. You want him on that wall, you need him on that wall.

Let me relate to you a story from early this season. Seattle was on their eastern swing. Wardley had just been suspended for the second time on the year for a checking-from-behind major in a loss in Saskatoon. It was a pretty run-of-the-mill hit but this was a case where Wardley's reputation probably got the better of him. But it meant Seattle would have to make due without their big, rugged defenseman for the rest of the road trip. Without him in the lineup, they went 1-4 the rest of the way.

On an off day, the team stopped in Grenfell, Saskatchewan to practice. There were a lot of onlookers at that practice. A good chunk of the town of Grenfell showed up. So did a good number of player's parents, especially those players from Saskatchewan who were following the team on their journey, among them a great many parents of Seattle's plethora of rookies. I engaged in a conversation with one of the dads and the subject of Wardley and his importance to this young team came up and he told me of an incident earlier that year that reinforced Wardley's role on a team with so many first year forwards.

He said his son was on the ice. It was one of his first shifts in the WHL. The teams were lining up for a face-off. As his son readied for the drop of the puck, an older player on the opposing team sidled up to him. According to his son this older player tried to intimidate him, telling him how hard he was going to hit him and he better prepare to get knocked around by him all night, that he was ready to inflict pain.

Before the puck is dropped though, he hears another voice...a familiar voice. Wardley has skated in behind the young Seattle player and the older opposing player. He's heard the one-sided conversation going on and Wardley feels it necessary to interject himself into the dialogue. "Just remember", Wardley tells this opposing player, "you hit him, I hit you harder".

As the dad is telling me this story I can see the wide eyed look on his son's face and the accompanying big smile. "Dad", he says, "that guy never touched me once the rest of the game!" I know there was a lot of debate about whether to keep Wardley on this team as a 20 year old, what with his penchant for penalties that could lead to suspensions, but that story is the best illustration of why keeping him was the right decision. You want him on that wall. You need him on that wall.

Wardley saved his best for last. His finest season as a T-bird was this last one, finishing with 22 points (6g,16a) and +7. But he also played his best when it mattered the most. In 22 playoff games over three seasons with Seattle, he registered six points (2g, 4a) and was +5. His game winning overtime goal in Game Three of the 2013 first round playoff series against Kelowna is probably the most electrifying moment in the five year history of the ShoWare Center.

Wardley got a long look at camp with the Montreal Canadians this past fall. Let's hope he's still on their radar. We certainly wish him the best going forward in his career. There's always room in this game for players like that who put their team and teammates first. There is always room on that wall for Evan Wardley.