This week the Western Hockey League will hold its annual Bantam Draft as the 22 teams will choose the stars of tomorrow. The Seattle Thunderbirds will have three of the top 35 picks. They choose tenth overall in round one and will have two selections in round two. They have the 32nd pick which is their own, and the 34th pick, a selection they acquired from Medicine Hat in the Elijah Brown deal.
The T-Birds do not have a third round pick. That belongs to Swift Current. It was the price Seattle paid two years ago to acquire goaltender Landon Bow at the 2016 WHL trade deadline. At the time of the trade it was a conditional second rounder going back to the Broncos. Apparently the conditions weren't met and it reverted to a third round choice.
Bow of course would help lead Seattle to the WHL Championship series that year against Brandon, a series they would lose in five games. Seattle would return to the WHL Championship last spring and claim the Chynoweth Cup for the first time in franchise history, besting Regina in six games. Once again Seattle surrendered a third round pick to help strengthen their team for the playoffs. They acquired defenseman Aaron Hyman from Calgary. But that third round pick was originally Price Albert's, one Seattle got in the Cavin Leth trade.
Now, there were other deals made along the way to improve the T-Birds roster for their two runs to the league final, but the highest price they paid in both instances was a third round draft pick, one of which wasn't even their own. I emphasize that point to make this point; the best way to build a championship caliber team is through the Bantam Draft. I'm not saying it is the only way, I'm saying it is the best way.
Look at three of the four teams remaining in the postseason heading into the week of April 30th. Everett, Swift Current and Tri-City paid steep prices for their deep playoff runs. At a minimum, all gave up at least one first round bantam draft pick. All three gave away young prospects. Other teams, who have since been eliminated from the postseason, paid big prices for a shot at the holy grail too. Teams like Portland, Regina, Victoria and Moose Jaw all made splashy trades at the deadline that cost them either first rounders or young prospects and in most cases both. A year ago it was Prince George selling the farm for a chance at the Cup. Meanwhile in two runs to the Chynoweth Cup Finals Seattle never sent their first rounder, or for that matter their second round pick, away in a trade. They didn't mortgage the future. Because they drafted well, they didn't need to.
You could argue Seattle lost first rounders along the way too. That is true but it wasn't because of a deal to help them win their first ever WHL title. Seattle had two first round picks in 2013 but neither of them made an impact on the team. Defenseman Dante Fabbro never signed, foregoing the WHL for the NCAA. Winger Kaden Elder was with the team until being dealt to Swift Current in December of 2015 in exchange for Owen Seidel. That trade was made to accommodate a dissatisfied 17 year old Elder who was not happy with his ice time on Seattle's fourth line. Unfortunately Seidel, after a promising start with the T-Birds, got hurt and retired from the game just before the start of the 2016-17 season.
Again a disagreement over ice time led the T-Birds to trade 2015 first round bantam pick Elijah Brown this winter to Medicine Hat in exchange for a second and a third round draft pick but Brown was still on the roster for their Championship win.
Of the players on Seattle's Cup winning team, 17 of 24 were either drafted or listed by the T-Birds. 14 were bantam draft choices, two were import picks and one, Scott Eansor was a listed player. Ten of those players were selected in either the first or second round of their bantam drafts. Two were first round Import Draft selections. I'm no math expert, and I'm sure someone out there will point that out to me after reading this, but I believe that is about 66 percent of that roster coming out of the bantam draft and 42 percent of the championship roster built through the first two rounds. The draft is key!
The players they acquired in trade? Hyman, Turner Ottenbreit, Rylan Toth, Tyler Adams, Austin Strand, Anthony Bishop and Zack Andrusiak. Only two of those players they traded for cost Seattle a draft pick, Hyman and Toth. You could argue though that the acquisition of Hyman really was at the expense of Leth. Remember before the start of the 2016-17 season Seattle traded Leth to Prince Albert for Andursiak and a third round pick, then sent the third round pick to Calgary in January 2017 for Hyman.
In a January trade with Regina T-Birds GM Russ Farwell turned Hyman into a 2019 second round pick and young defenseman Owen Williams. The T-Birds also got a draft pick back in the Strand trade, acquiring the defenseman in December of 2016 along with a sixth round pick from Red Deer for Brandon Schuldhaus.
Four years of Ottenbreit was acquired from Saskatoon for a few months of 20-year old Adam Henry. Seattle sent prospect Mackenzie Wight to Swift Current for Adams. Acquiring Toth and having a young Carl Stankowski made former third round pick Logan Flodell expendable prior to last season. He was dealt to Saskatoon for Bishop. Bishop subsequently was dealt to Victoria for Blake Bargar.
In the past I've mentioned how Seattle has found gems late in the draft. Recently graduated out Donovan Neuls being a prime example. There have been others such as current defenseman Reece Harsch or even a guy like Lane Pederson, a former fifth rounder who spend most of his WHL career with Swift Current. Plain and simple though, Seattle built their Chynoweth Cup winner specifically through the top of the draft, then didn't sacrifice future drafts to supplement it.
Which brings us to this week and the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft. Three picks in the top 35. A draft that, if you listen to those in the know, may not have tremendous superstar power throughout, but is thought to have tremendous depth.
Three picks in the top 35 doesn't guarantee success. Twice recently Seattle had a similar scenario. In 2012 they ended up with Barzal, Kolesar and Bear. In 2013 they selected Fabbro, Elder and Nolan Volcan. You might rush to say in one instance it worked out and in another they fell a bit short. I will argue they got the picks right in both instances. At the time of the 2013 draft they had no way of knowing Fabbro would spurn them for the NCAA or that Elder would ask for a trade two years later, primarily because Seattle had a team full of older, quality forwards.
No one bats a thousand but the T-Birds have made more contact then not when they swing away at the draft recently. Four of those six players mentioned are now NHL draft picks and two of them, Barzal and Fabbro were first round NHL selections. Barzal and Bear are already in the NHL with Barzal soon to be named the NHL's Calder Trophy winner as 2017-18 NHL Rookie of the Year.
Kolesar, property of the NHL's Las Vegas Golden Knights, just finished a strong season in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves. Volcan, will be the T-Birds captain next year and is on the path to earning a pro deal. He's already been to and had a solid NHL camp with Pittsburgh. Meanwhile Elder is currently helping Swift Current as they chase a WHL Championship. Let's also not forget that Seattle's first round pick before those two drafts, 2011's Ryan Gropp was drafted into the NHL, and their first round pick after those two drafts, 2014's Jarret Tyszka, was as well.
The scouts have done their work. If the T-Birds can have similar success with their first three picks later this week, they will be well on their way to continuing to build upon the culture of winning they have created. Remember too, not only does Seattle have three selections in the top 35 picks this year, but next spring, barring trades, Seattle could potentially have five picks in the first three rounds. That includes their own first, second and third round choices, plus Regina's second rounder obtained in the Hyman trade and a conditional third rounder from Medicine Hat acquired in the Brown deal. So Seattle conceivably will end up with eight players from the top of the next two bantam drafts. That could constitute the core of a championship contender.