Friday, June 28, 2019

This Offseason, the T-Birds play Baseball

The annual Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, as most CHL General Managers and scouts will tell you, is a different ball game compared to the Midget or Bantam drafts, so when it was Seattle's turn on the clock this past Thursday the T-Birds decided to play a little baseball and swing for the fences. Seattle, able to utilize just one of the two picks they were allotted, chose German Right Winger Tim Stutzle, regarded in some circles as a potential Top 10 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

Playing last season in his native country for Jungadler Mannheim U20, the 17-year old put up 55 points (23g, 32a)in just 21 games. Remember, he started the season as a 16-year old. He didn't celebrate his 17th birthday until January 15th. He's currently listed as 5'11", 165lbs, but he was playing with guys three years older then he was and, it would appear, dominating. So why would he be available to Seattle with the 19th pick? Well, he's signed to play in the German Elite League (DEL) next season where he'll be playing against men. The T-Birds will have to present a really strong pitch to recruit him. It's not unheard of for a young Import, under those circumstances, to still head across the Atlantic to play in the Western Hockey League, despite that pro contract. Two recent Finns, Julius Honka with Swift Current and Lassi Thomson with Kelowna, were essentially "loaned" by their pro teams in Finland to play in one of the world's top Junior leagues.

So, if Stutzle's selection was not a sure thing, why would Seattle swing for the fences, knowing they only had one pick to use, rather then playing it safe and making a selection they were sure would come over? Because Seattle has a batter in the on deck circle they already know can handle WHL pitching. They know they too have some young hitters they want to get in the lineup to get some at bats. They essentially went up to the plate Thursday with a five-run lead in the top of the ninth inning. They were just looking to tack on some runs.

Let's explain. First, the guy in the on deck circle is Andrej Kukuca, the Slovakian winger, who as a 19-year old last season registered 57 points (25g, 32a) for the T-Birds in 59 games. Now based on that alone, it would seem a no-brainer to bring him back for the 2019-20 campaign, especially when you have lost two of your top four goal scorers (Volcan and Philp) to graduation. The issue is Kukuca would be a "two-spotter". He would occupy both a 20-year old spot and an Import slot and you are only allowed to have three of the former and two of the latter on your roster. Seattle has 17-year old Czech defenseman Simon Kubicek locked in to one Import spot. Meanwhile, they potentially have five players (Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Jaxan Kuluski, Conner Bruggen-Cate and Kukuca) fighting for the three 20-year old positions. The simplest solution to the puzzle is to sign Stutzle for the second Import spot, thus dropping Kukuca which leaves just four players fighting for the three 20-year old roster spots.

Here's where it gets complicated in trying to fill out the batting order for that lineup card. Wedman was just drafted by the NHL's Florida Panthers. At age 20, he could ink a pro deal with the Panthers and take his projected 40-plus goals to the American Hockey League. All of a sudden three of your top four scorers from a year ago, are gone. Even the 20-year old Tyszka, a free agent attending development camp with the NHL's Dallas Stars, could be signed to a professional contract and be put on an AHL roster. All of a sudden you're now down to just three 20-year old candidates, and only one of them, Kukuca, has been a prolific offensive player. If Wedman does not return and you can't convince Stutzle to come over, where will the offense come from? Kukuca becomes very important then. He becomes your designated hitter.

If you read between the lines, T-Birds General Manager Bil La Forge has made it clear the organization is more then happy with Kukuca back as a two-spotter. He's already proven himself in the WHL. And Kukuca wants to be back. They may need his offense should Wedman not return. He's been participating in the team's offseason program. He's coming to camp in August. So why then you ask, did the T-Birds even bother with making a selection in the Import Draft? To that, there is a simple answer. Because you are always trying to make your team better. Stutzle is a tremendous talent, a projected NHL first rounder for next spring. It's the same reason Seattle chose Mat Barzal at the top of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft and the same reason they used a first round pick on Dante Fabbro in 2013. You can't hit a home run if you don't take the bat off your shoulder. You usually won't drive in the runner from first base with two outs if you bunt. Sometimes you gotta swing for the fences. Seattle was upfront with Kukuca throughout the process. They told him they would be making one selection at the Import Draft but they were also willing to give him the chance to be that second Import again.

What other scenarios are in play here? Well, if the T-Birds are successful in getting Stutzle to play for them next season, they can't keep Kukuca. The Import slots would belong to Stutzle and Kubicek and there is no room for Andrej in the dugout. If you don't convince Stutzle to come across the pond, you keep Kukuca and have to drop two of your other 20-year olds if all those mentioned above, Wedman, Tyszka, Kaluski and the recently acquired Bruggen-Cate, return. You could also still drop Kukuca, keep a variation of the Wedman,Tyszka, Kaluski, Bruggen-Cate group and pick up a non 20-year old Import player recently dropped from another CHL roster.

You could also go with just one Import player on your roster. There is no hard set rule that says you have to have two. Two is just the maximum. Same applies to 20-year olds. No edict that compels you to carry three. Back in 2013-14, Seattle played with just one 20-year old, Mitch Elliot, on the roster for half a season. The reason? They wanted to give all their young players as much ice time as possible, to hasten their development and build their chemistry. Those young players were named Barzal, Gropp, Bear, Kolesar and Eansor. That experiment turned out well. The T-Birds could be in a similar situation this coming season with young talent like Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Mekai Sanders, Brendan Williamson, Michael Horon and Matthew Rempe all looking for roster spots. If you keep them all, you have to play them. You can't sit them in the bullpen. Odds are Seattle will have some variation of three 20-year olds on the roster, but the competition for those spots is going to be intense.

Which brings me back to something La Forge told's Andy Eide regarding the Stutzle selection in the Import Draft. “We knew we weren’t going to bring someone over just to play in our bottom six,” La Forge added. “If we bring someone over, they’re going to be a big-time talent and that’s what we acquired today.” That statement applies to those other young players. La Forge and head coach Matt O'Dette aren't keeping 16-year olds around to shag fly balls in the outfield at practice. IF they're on the roster, they're going to play, because their talent has earned that right.

Thursday Seattle swung for the fences. Did they hit a grand slam, or did they strike out? Either way, they stepped up to the plate.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Into the Petri Dish

So, if I have this right, going off players who were on their roster at the end of the 2018-19 season, the Seattle Thunderbirds had four players selected at the 2019 NHL Draft this past weekend in Vancouver. That was the most of any WHL team. Let me say that again, that was the most of any WHL team. In a draft that was one of the best for the WHL in recent memory, Seattle led the way. Yes, technically, at the time of the draft, Dillon Hamaliuk was officially a member of the Kelowna Rockets, after being traded there by the T-birds back in early May. But let's not kid ourselves, he hasn't played a game for Kelowna and won't for another three months. He was drafted off of his body of work as a Thunderbird.

What does this mean for the team going forward? Well, don't look at those draft results and start thinking the team is ready for a Chynoweth Cup run this coming season. Again, Hamaliuk, the highest of those to be drafted, going in the second round, 55th overall to San Jose, has been dealt away. Goalie Roddy Ross, chosen by Philadelphia in Round Six, is going into his 19 year old season while Florida Panthers seventh rounder Matthew Wedman, as a 20 year old, is entering his final year in the league. Only Panthers fifth round pick, 18 year old Henrik Rybinski was drafted in his first year of draft eligibility. Those older players will be surrounded by a fairly green squad.

Instead, go back to comments made by the organization after their 2017 Championship season and the idea of building a culture around the team that will attract players to Kent. Developing players for the next level is part of that attraction. Having players drafted into the NHL boosts your stock while recruiting players to be T-birds. Seattle wants the "T-bird way" to be both competing for Chynoweth Cups and producing talent for the next level. The movers and shakers at the top of the organizational chart, from the owners to the coaching staff, are committed to that goal.

Over the past five years the T-birds have reached two league championship series, winning one, AND have had 16 players either drafted or signed to pro contracts. They've drafted other players, like Dante Fabbro and Layton Ahac, who chose a different path, but ended up as high NHL picks. They'll miss on a few, but the choise is still the right one because they want the best players to help build that culture. More are coming.

Franchise brass like owners Dan and Lindsay Leckelt, Vice President of Hockey Operations Russ Farwell and General Manager Bil LaForge have a plan in place to keep the T-birds competitive. Others like Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson, Director of Scouting Mark Romas and head coach Matt O'Dette are helping to execute that plan.

They turned a player unhappy with his playing situation at his last stop (Rybinski) into an NHL draft pick in four months time. They took an off-the-radar goalie and helped him hear his name called from the podium in Vancouver. They brought out enough in a player (Hamaliuk) so that despite missing half a season to serious injury, he still got picked in the second round. And they brought along another player (Wedman), nurtured him, were patient with him, gave him more responsibility over the course of four seasons and turned him into a NHL draft pick as well.

Now, think about what the T-birds have done over the past two Bantam Drafts. They had a lot of picks at the top of the draft. Three first rounders and four second rounders. They've already signed 11 of their 22 picks from those two drafts, including six of the seven they chose near the top of those drafts. That's not by accident. Winning and developing players drives other players to your organization.

What happened this weekend in Vancouver means something, not necessarily now or next season, but down the road. It's another building block in constructing that winning culture. It's as important as winning a championship or having an uber-talent come through your organization on the way to winning a Calder Trophy at the highest level. It's another page in the recruitment brochure. When young players like Kai Uchacz and Mekai Sanders, or Jordan Gustafson and Conner Gourley, arrive at training camp at the end of August they'll see Rybinski, Ross and Wedman. They'll see the fruits of doing things the "T-birds Way". They'll see that coming here can lead them to an opportunity to reach the same goal.