Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Convoluted Conundrum

With another training camp behind them, the Thunderbirds head into the 2019 preseason with lots of questions still to be answered. They have a bevy of eligible forwards but not enough roster spots for everyone. They are one short in their defensive group and are on the hunt for another d-man. Their goaltending, for the first time in a while is settled, but maybe the biggest question mark, and the one that may take longest to solve, is their 20 year old situation.

Maybe my memory is fading as I get older but I don't remember the team having such an unsettled 20 year old situation. usually the team is short of candidates, necessitating a trade or the roster is already set. Per league rules, Seattle must get down to the mandated three 20 year old players by early October. Heading into the Everett preseason tournament the T-birds currently have five such players on the roster. Picking the final three may come right down to that October deadline. There are just too many scenarios that can play out for the team to know today who those final three will be.

If you had asked me last January, following the trade deadline, who Seattle's three 20 year olds would be for this season, I would have said that's an easy question to answer. The T-birds had just dealt defenseman Reece Harsch to Saskatoon, leaving them with Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Jaxan Kaluski and Andrej Kukuca as the candidates. The simplest solution would be to keep the first three, release Kukuca and draft his replacement in the Import Draft.

You might wonder how I could be so quick to put Kaluski, who contributed all of 19 points (6g, 13a) a year ago, into one of those spots. Well, I know that he played through a nagging wrist injury all of last season, which affected his ability to shoot. Despite that he still contributed, playing wing and center and was a staunch penalty killer. He also has one of those intangibles that, while not necessarily at the top of the check list, is still important in a veteran player, leadership. So at that point, it seemed fairly cut and dried who the three 20 year olds for the 2019-20 season would be. But things have a way of changing, and changing rapidly.

First, Kukuca, who had returned to the team from representing Slovakia at World Juniors over the holidays, adjusted to the North American game and caught fire. Over the last 30 games he registered 33 points (18g,15a). With the T-birds graduating out a pair of top scorers in Nolan Volcan and Noah Philp, Kukuca put himself back in the picture for one of those 20 year old spots, at least until the Import Draft. The T-birds may need his offense.

So it appeared it was now a four player race. Then the WHL Bantam Draft rolled around in early May and the field got a little more crowded. Seattle made a draft day deal with Kelowna and one of the assets coming back was 20 year old forward Conner Bruggen-Cate. The situation took another turn in June at the NHL Draft when Wedman was selected in the seventh round by the Florida Panthers. That made Wedman, last season's leading scorer, eligible to play in the AHL if he were to sign a pro contract.

A week later the T-birds participated in the CHL Import Draft and made one selection. Surely that meant the end of Kukuca, right? Except Seattle didn't play it safe. Instead of choosing a younger player who they knew would come over to North America to play and replace Kukuca, they picked uber-talended German winger Tim Stutzle. Stutzle is considered a first round pick for the 2020 NHL Draft. He also has a contract that pays him to play for Mannheim in the professional German Elite League. The odds of Stutzle coming over to play with the T-birds are on the low side, but the door hasn't been shut. Because of the uncertainty though, Kukuca remains a high probability to play in Seattle for a second season.

To increase the competition for the crowded 20 year old field this summer, the T-birds added 20 year old Baron Thompson, a former Brandon Wheat King, to their protected list and invited him to training camp. Now there were six candidates for three spots. The field narrowed to five just before the start of camp when Tyszka announced he would forego his 20 year old season in the WHL and head to the University of British Columbia instead. You would think that would alleviate some of the decision making for the T-birds front office but actually, it may have further complicated it. Tyszka's departure left Seattle with just six signed defenseman. Teams traditionally carry seven, and sometimes eight.

The T-birds could rectify that situation by signing a young defenseman and still may, but the loss of Tyszka left the team with a young defensive corps. One matter complicating the issue is Seattle only drafted two defensemen at the 2018 bantam draft. One of those, Aiden Brook, was subsequently sent to Medicine Hat in the Henrik Rybinski deal in January while the other, Noah Barlage, chose not to attend training camp this summer. Tyszka's four years with the club provided a steadying hand and invaluable experience on the back end. It may mean Seattle management looks to fill that experience void by adding a 20 year old defenseman either through trade or waiting to see if any get released at the 20 year old cutdown deadline in October. Seattle might opt to trade for a 19 year old defenseman but I'm not sure they want to expend current draft or prospect capital for a one year rental.

Here's what we know about the 20 year old situation. even if he signs a pro deal with the Florida Panthers, Wedman can still be returned to Seattle for one more season. If that happens, he is a lock for a roster spot. Secondly, if the T-birds can't lure Stutzle away from Mannheim you can probably count on Kukuca taking the second of those three 20 year old spots. That leaves one spot to be filled by one of either Kaluski, Bruggen-Cate, Thompson or a 20 year old defenseman they deem necessary to replace Tyszka. But what happens if Wedman ends up in the AHL? What do they do if that need for a 20 year old d-man arises or if Stutzle decides playing in North America in his draft year is his best option and suddenly Kukuca is gone? What if all three of those things happen? Then the field is wide open.

That's why the final answer to the 20 year old question may be more then a month away. It's decisions like this that earn GMs and head coaches the big bucks and why I am sitting behind a keyboard musing over it all.

++++UPDATE+++ Monday afternoon the Thunderbirds addressed their need on the back end for another veteran defenseman by acquiring 19 year old Hunter Donohoe from the Red Deer Rebels. A native of Surrey, B.C., Donohoe has played 79 games in the WHL over the past two seasons. Seattle sent a conditional 2020 7th round Bantam pick to Red Deer along with the rights to list goalie Louden Hogg in exchange for Donohoe. Hogg is a 17 year old from Wyoming who turned down an invite to T-birds training camp this year. He played high school hockey last season in Minnesota but was also one of four goalies in World Junior camp with Team USA this summer. So, in reality, T-birds GM Bil LaForge spent very little in draft or prospect capital to acquire his new blue liner. This is reminiscent of the Loeden Schaufler trade last fall. LaForge paid a small price to acquired Schaufler from Kootenay when Seattle's D-corps was a bit thin due to injury. You may recall the first half of last season when Tyszka was out rehabbing from a long term upper body injury and Harsch was dealing with his own ailments.

Does this mean Seattle's D-group is settled? Well, at the very least it lessens the odds they look for a 20 year old defenseman via trade, but LaForge will probably still check the waiver wire at the 20 year old cutdown date in October to see who comes up available. +++UPDATE+++