The WHL Bantam draft will be held Thursday (May 2nd) and for the second consecutive year, the Seattle Thunderbirds will have three of the top 30 selections (8,22 and 27) including two first round choices.
A year ago Seattle had the first overall selection and chose Mathew Barzal. While Barzal has not yet officially committed to playing for the Thunderbirds there are signs that seem to indicate he will. He attended training camp last fall, he practiced with the team late this past season and he attended Seattle home playoff games this spring too.
Meanwhile, three of Seattle's top four picks from the 2012 draft , Keegan Kolesar (1st rd), Ethan Bear (2nd rd) and Logan Flodell (3rd rd) have already signed and have suited up for the club. Others from both the 2011 and 2012 draft classes are on the T-birds radar as well.
In the case of Kolesar and Bear, they have already seen ice time. Bear played a regular shift in a late season game down in Portland while Kolesar was in the lineup in Portland New Year's Eve and then played extensively in the final two games of Seattle's first round playoff series versus Kelowna. Though he never saw the ice, Flodell suited up and served as the backup goalie for one game in December after Justin Myles was injured.
Additionally, through the course of the season, the Thunderbirds had various other young drafted or listed prospects participate in practice sessions, especially during their playoff run. This isn't an unusual occurrence in the WHL but the large number of T-birds prospects eager to join the team for a practice session or two speaks volumes. It harkens back to the early part of the last decade.
This tells me these players view the WHL as a good path for their hockey growth and, more importantly, they want to do it as a Seattle Thunderbird. A similar scenario occurred two seasons ago when list players Conner Honey, Jerret Smith and Danny Mumaugh attended camp and eventually signed. Honey came to the T-birds midway through the 2011-12 season from the USHL. In the case of Smith and Mumaugh, both saw late season practice time with the T-birds in 2011-12 and then made the decision to come play for the T-birds this past season.
Meanwhile, in a recent online interview with ESPN Seattle, Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell mentioned the team is still pursuing their unsigned 2011 first round bantam draft pick, Ryan Gropp, who just finished up a very strong season with the BCHL's Penticton Vees.
All these moves coincide with the hiring of Steve Konowalchuk as head coach prior to the 2011-12 campaign. I don't know that the T-birds are consciously using Konowalchuk as a recruiting tool, but players talk to each other and you can be sure one of the questions prospects are asking current T-birds is "What's it like to play for Konowalchuk?" From my vantage point, Konowalchuk has shown to be firm but fair with his roster. I think players respect that, and players want to play for a coach they respect. Furthermore, players don't always get recognized by NHL scouts if coaches don't use them properly. Scouts are recognizing Seattle players.
While it is still too early to pass judgment, the preliminary return on the 2012 draft is very favorable, especially with those three high picks. With the same success Thursday Seattle should have six top end players on the roster in two seasons all picked in or near the first round of the bantam draft. A best case scenario would see a 2014-15 roster laden with 13-15 players chosen with picks high in either the 1st, 2nd or 3rd round.
As for what Seattle will do in the upcoming WHL bantam draft, while they don't have the first overall pick as they did last spring, they still have a high choice, making their first selection at #8. The word, from various sources, is that the talent among the 1998 born players is very good making for a deep draft.
That's good news because, as we said, the T-birds have two first round picks plus an early selection in round two. The downside is that the Thunderbirds are without a 3rd or 4th round choice, having dealt those picks away. The 3rd round selection (pick #49) was sent to Calgary last summer for goalie Brandon Glover and the 4th round pick (#71) went to Moose Jaw at the January trade deadline in exchange for center Andrew Johnson. So, after that 2nd round pick at #27, the T-birds don't select again until pick #90 early in the 5th round.
When I hear scouts say this is a "deep draft" I think that means there will be 1st and 2nd round talent available in the 3rd and 4th rounds (as an example, Shea Theodore was a 3rd round pick in 2010, which was also considered by many as a deep draft). Let's hope in this case the depth of talent reaches back even further in the draft as Seattle has a combined four picks in rounds five, six and seven (Luke lockhart and Adam Kambeitz were both 7th round picks). But if the T-birds hit homeruns with those three high picks, the lack of a 3rd or 4th round selection will be somewhat mitigated.
By the way, if you don't think the T-birds are drafting or recruiting well just look at the final Central Scouting Service rankings of North American players for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Seven T-birds players are on that list (up from one at the mid-term rankings with the inclusion of Taylor Green). Four of those seven players were drafted by the Thunderbirds. Jared Hauf was a first round pick, Green was picked in round two and Theodore was a 3rd round choice. Meanwhile Roberts Lipsbergs was a 1st round import selection. Two of those players were listed "free agents"; Conner Honey and Jerret Smith. Only Riley Sheen came to the T-birds via trade. This is a great testament to the hard work of the Thunderbirds scouts.
In memory of Bruce MdDonald, 1971-2012