Thursday, May 2, 2019

New Sheriff in Town

Bil La Forge was named General Manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds last spring. The announcement that he would take over from Russ Farwell, who would become Vice President of Hockey Operations, came in a press release June 6th of 2018. In his first season in that role, La Forge helped guide the team into the playoffs, using a couple of midseason trades to bolster the team's second half push to the postseason. But it may be May 2nd of 2019, at the WHL's annual Bantam Draft, where La Forge really grabbed the reins and stamped the T-birds as "his team".

La Forge dealt three veteran players, a couple of presumed NHL Draftees among them, to the Kelowna Rockets, in exchange for three high draft picks, including two first rounders. The T-Birds used one of those Thursday and tapped defenseman Kevin Korchinski out of Saskatoon to go along with their own first round pick, center Jordan Gustafson from Ardrossan, Alberta. The other first round pick they got from the Rockets will have to wait until 2022, while a 2021 second round selection has been put in the vault as well.

Throw into that mix two 2019 second round draft picks. Seattle used their own second round pick on defenseman Spencer Penner out of Blumenort, Manitoba. With a second round pick acquired from Everett in the Zack Andrusiak deal from this past January, the T-Birds went north to Alaska for winger Gabe Ludwig. Through La Forge's wheeling and dealing, the T-Birds ended up with four of the top 42 selections, two in the top ten. Meanwhile, they still have all their 2020 picks.

Seattle also got back from the Rockets forward Conner Bruggen-Cate, who two seasons ago, was an 18-goal scorer during his 18-year old campaign. His offensive numbers did dip this past season, so maybe a change of scenery is what's best for him. At the very least he's competition for one of the three 20-year old spots on the roster for the upcoming season.

Did the T-Birds pay a hefty price to acquire the draft capital? Sure they did, dealing away a former number one Bantam pick in Jake Lee who is going into just his 18-year old season, a top six forward in 19-year old Dillon Hamaliuk and a promising young goalie in 18-year old Cole Schwebius. But La Forge saw a chance to build a strong, deep team that should be able to compete for a championship in a couple of years, rather then waiting four or five. It's similar to the last time Seattle made a trade that got them two first round bantam picks in return. Back in 2011 Farwell sent Marcel Noebels to Portland for two top picks. At the time he said it was an offer he couldn't refuse. One of those picks turned into Keegan Kolesar, a key component of Seattle's 2017 Championship team.

I'm guessing La Forge had the same sentiment when Kelowna offered up two first round selections in this deal. It was an offer he couldn't say no to. In that Noebels deal with Portland, the picks coming back from the Winterhawks were at the bottom of the first round. In this instance, Seattle ended up with at least one top ten pick.

What made the deal easier for La Forge to pull the trigger on, was the T-Birds Bantam Draft from the previous spring. It's this core that he is building around, the 2018 selections. We've already caught glimpses of some of that talented young group. Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, all selected in the first two rounds, have already made their T-Bird debuts. Still to come are at least four other signed prospects from that draft; goalie Thomas Milic along with forwards Sam Popowich, Reid Schaeffer and Mekai Sanders. Add in just the players from the top half of the 2019 draft in Gustafson, Korchinski, Penner, Ludwig and fourth round left winger Conner Gourley and you have at minimum, 12 players to build around. The T-Birds though, had eight other selections from this year's draft, including three high end Americans. If they can hit on even just two more from that baker's dozen group of 2019 draftees, the trade of those three veterans was well worth it.

How does Seattle make up for the absence of those three traded players going into the upcoming season? Well, they're going forward up front with a youth movement. They'll have solid leadership from veterans like Matthew Wedman and Tyler Carpendale among others. A couple of second year players, Payton Mount and Jared Davidson, will be expected to take big steps. But now the battle for roster spots will open up for guys like Brendan Williamson, Michael Horon and Matthew Rempe as well.

Remember, Seattle's second half charge this past winter was done without the injured Hamaliuk, his void filled remarkably well by Henrik Rybinski. When Hamaliuk went down with injury, the T-Birds were seven games below .500. By the end of the regular season they were two games above. Of course Seattle would have loved to have had a player of Hamaliuk's caliber available for that second half run. They would have loved to have had him for their playoff matchup with Vancouver. Circumstances dictated he wasn't available. They learned how to play well without him, so just think of next season as an extension of that.

And remember, Hamaliuk is a late birthday. It's anticipated he'll be drafted by an NHL team in June but this upcoming season is most likely his last in the WHL. Even if he hadn't been traded this week, I would have laid good odds he would have been dealt at next January's trade deadline. Trading him now, gives the Rockets a full season of him on their roster, rather then a half season rental. It also probably led to a bigger return for the T-Birds.

Meanwhile, even with the trade of Lee Seattle will return seven defensemen with WHL experience next season in Jarett Tyszka, Tyrel Bauer, Cade McNelly, Simon Kubicek, Owen Williams, Zac Ashton and Luke Bateman. Trading away a former first round selection just as he enters his junior hockey prime is a big decision. But if Seattle was going to trade out one of those defenseman, why not the one with the most value? The T-Birds watched the progression of the others in that group and are confident they are all on the right development path. Bauer and Kubicek are on pace to be 2020 NHL draft picks. For all the fan excitement over McNelly's rough and tumble play, if you watched closely you could see the tremendous strides he's taken in his overall game. In Lee's absence, Ashton showed his worth in the playoffs.

Soon after that deal sent Schwebius to the Rockets, La Forge acquired Blake Lyda from Everett to back up Roddy Ross in goal. All it cost was a 2021 third round pick Seattle had received from Everett in January. Lyda will fill the same role Schwebius had with the T-Birds, the number two goalie behind Ross.

The T-Birds still have a conundrum at the 20 year old spots. Wedman and Tyszka are locks, if they don't go pro. The final spot is up for grabs between Bruggen-Cate, Jaxan Kaluski and Andrej Kukuca. While it doesn't preclude Kukuca from returning, Seattle will make a selection in the upcoming CHL Import Draft, making his return less likely. If the youth movement is the team's direction, it would make more sense to go with a younger import who can develop with this young group.

After this trade is it going to be easy to replicate the team's second half performance from this past season, next year? No. But that may have more to do with the loss of graduating players Nolan Volcan and Noah Phlip, then the trade of this trio. Seattle will miss the experience Lee, Hamaliuk and Schwebius brought to the table. They are going to have to do more scoring by committee while tightening up in the defensive zone, but this team is going to be young, fast and energetic. Above all they should be fun to watch as the bulk of the roster begins their growth and development together. It may be like taking one small step back to prepare for a couple giant leaps forward. I trust Matt O'Dette and his coaching staff to get them playing the right way. I don't think I've seen a coach do so much, with a roster not considered to be elite, as I saw O'Dette and his staff do with the T-Birds the second half of the 2018-19 season.

I do think the T-Birds are a year, possibly two, ahead of where they were when they started their climb to the 2017 championship. That team was built primarily around one very good 2012 Bantam draft. The team has had two solid back-to-back drafts now. Yes, there is no Mat Barzal, uber talent in this group, but top to bottom these two drafts appear to be deeper. Nothing is guaranteed from all this roster movement. Assembling a roster you think is championship worthy is just the start. It's up to the players and coaches to bring it all together and, oh by the way, 21 other teams have the same plan. It's also hard to be patient and think long term instead of grabbing for instant gratification but even when Seattle drafted Barzal and the rest of that group, success didn't come overnight, but both the wait and the journey was worth it.