Saturday, February 6, 2021

A Treasure Trove of Talent

First things first.  Woohooo!  Seattle Thunderbirds hockey is on its way back!  After getting approval from the State of Washington, the WHL announced this past week that the league's five U.S. Division teams will commence an abbreviated season March 19.  There is still a lot of work that needs to be done to get up and running, but the teams, the league and the State have come together to make this happen and that partnership will continue to ensure a safe and healthy campaign.

Most likely it will be a 24-game season.  We already know the games will be staying within the division.  A schedule will be announced later but some variation of the T-Birds playing each of their division rivals six times seems the most plausible.  There will be no fans allowed in any of the arenas but video and audio streaming services will be available. 

Now, you may be asking why go through all the trouble for just 24 games? It certainly won't be a profitable endeavor.  Simple answer?  For the players.  The Western Hockey League is one of the top development leagues when it comes to sending players on to the NHL.  It's the league's mission to develop players for the next level.  In fact, I'll take it one step further.  It is their promise to the players. 

A lost season is a lost year of development.  Even 24 games are critical for the players but especially those who are eligible for the next NHL Draft scheduled for this summer.  Seattle's roster is filled with players who fit that criteria.  At least eight Thunderbirds are first time draft eligible.  These 24 games could be the difference when it comes to being selected by one of the 32 NHL teams.

And there is talent to be found up and down a WHL roster.  The other night former T-Bird defenseman Austin Strand became the fifth member of the T-Birds 2017 WHL Championship roster to make his NHL debut when he stepped on the ice for the Los Angeles Kings.  Remember, Strand went undrafted by the NHL.  By playing as much as he did in the WHL though, he constantly had the eyes of the scouts on him and he eventually signed as a free agent with the Kings.  

Not only did Strand make his NHL debut that night, but so did another former WHL defenseman, one time Tri-City American Dylan Coghlan, who suited up for Vegas.  In fact every U.S. Division team, except Everett, had a former player on the ice in that LA versus Vegas matchup.  There was not just Strand and Coghlan, but Spokane's Jarret Anderson-Dolan played along side Strand with the Kings while former Portland Winterhawk Cody Glass scored a goal for the Golden Knights. 

We haven't even mentioned former T-Bird, and current Golden Knight, Shea Theodore was also on the ice while Strand's former teammate with the T-Birds, Keegan Kolesar, was a scratch.  T-Birds fans should remember the name Austin Wagner.  He played against Seattle in that 2017 WHL Final as a member of the Regina Pats.  He now plies his talents with LA.  Kale Clague?  A member of the Brandon Wheat Kings team that beat Seattle in 2016.  Now a member of the LA Kings.  

You want an example of just how deep the talent pool is in the WHL?  Let's time travel back to those back-to-back WHL Championship Series Seattle was a part of in 2016 and 2017.  Check the rosters of the three teams involved, Seattle, Brandon and Regina.  Combined, 15 players have played at least one NHL game now.  Seattle is represented by six names.  Strand joins, Mat Barzal, Ethan Bear, Landon Bow, Keegan Kolesar and Alexander True.  

Five players from the Brandon club that bested the T-Birds in the spring of 2016 have since skated in the NHL; Jayce Hawryluk, Nolan Patrick, Ivan Provorov, John Quennville and Clague.  And for Regina, the 2017 WHL runner-up?  Three other player besides Wagner, (Adam Brooks, Josh Mahura and Sam Steel), have suited up in the NHL.  

Quite a bit of NHL talent has put skates down on the ice at the accesso ShoWare Center in just the last decade plus, players like Brenden Dillon and Thomas Hickey.  And not just T-Birds players.  Just from the U.S. Division alone, we've been spoiled to see the likes of current Boston Bruin and former Tri-City American Brandon Carlo.   Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Carter Hart honed his skills with the Everett Silvertips.  Spokane produced New Jersey Devils defenseman Ty Smith while Columbus d-man Seth Jones helped lead the Winterhawks to a 2013 WHL title.  

Those players are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more have reached the NHL level and still more are playing in the AHL, ECHL or pro leagues overseas. Now, another batch of talented players are chomping at the bit to join them including the T-Birds own Conner Roulette.  But they need to play.  That is why you put together an abbreviated 24 game schedule; for the players. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

How Youth Doing?

My fingers have been crossed so long, hoping that we'll get even a shortened 24 game WHL season in at some point, that my hands are starting to look like lobster claws.  I'm an optimist, so I'll keep them crossed.

Meanwhile, as we wait, there have been a few roster moves made by the Thunderbirds recently and the moves point to what is not surprising.  The T-Birds are going to put whatever season unfolds in the hands of their young players.  The T-Birds were the youngest team in the WHL last season, as well as one of the youngest in the CHL, and the same could very well hold true for this season, should it unfold.

When the 2019-20 season abruptly ended last March, Seattle had three candidates who could potentially return to fill the three 20-year old slots for 2020-21; goaltender Roddy Ross, defenseman Owen Williams and winger Keltie Jeri-Leon.  Ross was dealt to Regina during the May WHL Bantam Draft, leaving two.  Recently General Manager Bil LaForge told's Andy Eide that the team has parted ways with Williams.  

That leaves just Jeri-Leon and I get the impression LaForge is just fine with that.  If there is going to be a season this winter/spring two dozen games doesn't leave a lot of time to evaluate the young talent.  To create more ice time for those young players, you don't crowd the field with veterans.  I fully expect the T-Birds to go with just one 20-year old on the roster.

Then Monday, in a swap of Imports, LaForge announced the trade of 19-year old Czech defenseman Simon Kubicek to the Edmonton Oil Kings for 19-year old forward Vladimir Alistrov of Belarus. Alistrov is currently playing in the KHL, so it is unclear if he will come to Seattle for a 24-game campaign.  

If Alistrov, who potted 19 goals for Edmonton last season, does report he will give the T-Birds some offensive punch and add to an age group (19-year olds) where the team is light.  It would also potentially put him in the mix for one of the 20-year old slots for the 2021-22 season.  Barring an offseason move the T-Birds would have four players in the mix for those spots, Alistrov, Henrik Rybinski, Cade McNelly and Ryan Gottfried.  

By moving Kubicek (and the earlier release of Williams), Seattle signaled that they want to give as much ice for this proposed 24 game schedule to their young defensemen.  Specifically they are saying three rookies, 16-year olds Kevin Korchinski and Spencer Penner along with 17-year old Jeremy Hanzel, will be a significant part of the rear guard. But it also indicates a level of trust in second year player, 18-year old Luke Bateman.  It gives him a chance to showcase himself in his first year of NHL Draft eligibility.  Even NHL drafted Tyrel Bauer is still relatively young at 18 as he enters his third season with the team. The 19-year old Gottfried would be in just his second season with the club.  Yep, at 19 that makes McNelly the grizzled vet of the group.

Not to be overlooked in the youth equation is Seattle's group of forwards.  Outside of the 20-year old Jeri-Leon and the 19-year old Florida Panthers prospect Rybinski, the T-Birds are very much a green group.  They have four 18-year olds in Jared Davidson, Matthew Rempe, Payton Mount and Brendan Williamson.  Only Davidson and Mount though, have played more then a full season at the WHL level. 

The bulk of the Seattle forward group will be composed of their 17-year olds.  All have played at least a few games of WHL hockey, but even those who were on the roster fulltime didn't get in a full rookie season due either to the pandemic, injury or both.  

It's a group that holds a lot of promise, led by a trio of player who have all been rated for the upcoming NHL Draft by NHL Central Scouting Service.  At the top of the list is Conner Roulette who could hear his name called in the first two rounds after being rated as an "A" Skater.  Kai Uchacz and Lucas Ciona, each with a "C" rating, are right behind him.  The others in that 2003 born group who will fight for ice time this season are Mekai Sanders, Reid Schaefer and and Sam Popowich.  

Meanwhile at least a couple of 16-year old forwards will be heard from as well.  2019 first round draft pick Jordan Gustafson made his WHL debut with Seattle last season while second round selection Gabe Ludwig, who signed with the T-Birds last spring, should make his Seattle debut if and when the season commences.  There are so many young forwards battling for ice time that it most likely means that another signed 2019 draft pick, Nico Myatovic, will probably have to wait until next season to be added to the mix.  

So, if there is going to be a season, the average age of the players on the current 23-man T-birds roster will be 17.5 years old, and feature nine rookies and nine second year players.  Youth will be served.

One final note on Simon Kubicek.  Last summer he sent me a text.  He wanted to know the proper spelling for Kubi-dooby-doo!  He was planning on getting a tattoo.  Then, early Tuesday, the day after he was traded, I got another text from him.  He wanted to thank me for the nickname, I suppose, and his father wanted to thank me as well.  Dad stayed up late listening to a lot of T-Birds games online from his home in the Czech Republic.  I asked him about the tattoo.  Unfortunately, because of Covid, he said he hasn't been able to get it yet but he promised to send a picture when he does.  And when he does, I'll pass it along.  Kubi-dooby-doo!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Swing for the Fences

Let's start off with a big congratulations to Tyrel Bauer and Matt Rempe who were chosen with back-to-back selections in the sixth round of last week's NHL Draft. Bauer went first, chosen by the Winnipeg Jets and Rempe followed, taken by the New York Rangers.   They were a couple of well earned selections.  

Lost in the excitement of these two Thunderbirds players being selected was the fact that there were actually four, one time, T-birds draft picks chosen in the draft.  It may seem confusing because other current, first time draft eligible, Thunderbirds such as Simon Kubicek, Cade McNelly and Blake Lyda were bypassed in the draft.  But look closer and you will see that, not only were there two other players with T-bird ties taken, but they were selected fairly high.  

Of course I'm speaking of the last two players Seattle selected in a CHL Import Draft; Tim Stutzle and Samuel Knazko.  The T-birds picked Germany's Stutzle in the 2019 Import Draft.  With their lone 2020 Import selection, Seattle chose Knazko, who hails from Slovakia.  Stutzle was the third player picked in Round One of last week's NHL draft and is headed to the Ottawa Senators.  Knazko went in the third round, 78th overall, to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now the ship has already sailed on Stutzle ever putting on the T-birds jersey.  Seattle relinquished his rights last October after he opted to play professionally in his native Germany.  Knazko is a different story.  The T-birds still hope to convince the Slovakian defenseman to come play with them, whenever this season gets underway.  It may still be a longshot but the T-birds have his CHL rights.  

I know what you're thinking,  It looks good on paper to say Seattle selected these two players who went high in the NHL Draft,  but if neither of them ever play as T-birds, weren't those just wasted picks?  My answer to that is no because nothing ventured nothing gained.  You really don't lose anything if the player doesn't sign so, no harm, no foul.    

It also speaks to the philosophy of T-birds General Manager Bil LaForge when it comes to the Import Draft; go big or go home.  Stutzle and Knazko were LaForge's first ever Import Draft selections.  It's hard to argue, talent wise, that he isn't 2-for-2 with his choices.  While he was technically the T-birds GM when Seattle selected Andrej Kukuca and Kubicek in the 2018 Import Draft, he had been on the job for less then a month and let outgoing GM Russ Farwell and the T-birds scouts, who had been doing the prep work for that draft, handle those two picks.  

Remember, Import players are not a requirement on a CHL roster.  It's a great way to supplement the talent you have but not a necessity.  So when making his Import picks, LaForge isn't going to choose a player just to have an Import on the team.  He wants impact players. 

To bring a player over from Europe he wants someone who can fit into his top six forward group, preferably someone who can play on his top line.  Who was Seattle's leading scorer last season?  Kukuca,   Or he wants a defenseman who will be in his top four on the back end, realistically someone who will play in his top pairing.  That defines Kubicek,  And if he ever drafts a European goalie, you can bet it is with that player being his number one netminder in mind.  

Had Stutzle reported, no question he would have been the best forward on the team last season.  Sure, from a fan's standpoint it is disappointing that Stutzle turned down the offer.  How great would that have been to watch, if only for one season, a player who would go third overall in the NHL Draft, even if you only had him for one season.  But his reporting to Seattle was always a longshot.  

And if a third round NHL selection such as Knazko comes over, I'd be surprised if he wasn't on the top pairing defensive tandem.  Seattle has accumulated a bevy of talented players from Western Canada and the U.S. over the past couple of years.  Those young players need ice time.  There is no way the T-birds can afford to give third and fourth line minutes or third pairing defenseman ice time to an Import player. It would stunt the growth of all those recently drafted and signed players. 

So, late next June or early July, whenever the next CHL Import Draft rolls around, don't be surprised if LaForge and the T-birds are selecting high end European talent on par with Stutzle and Knazko.  The next step will be getting them to come over and play for the T-birds, turning that swing for the fences, into a grand slam.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Fall in Line

Normally we'd be one week into the new WHL season and scouts would be travelling into Kent to view a host of Seattle Thunderbirds eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft. But, as has been noted on many occassions over the past seven months, these are not normal times. If they were, we would have witnessed the 2020 NHL Draft three months ago. But because of our circumstances that draft was delayed until early October. 

It's meant a half dozen first time draft eligible T-birds have had an extended wait to see if they'll hear their name called by one of the 31 NHL teams who will participate in the selection process. Not all six players will be selected. In fact there is no guarentee any of them will be chosen over the course of the seven rounds. But Seattle does possess some intriguing prospects who will get considerable consideration. So when the two day virtual draft rolls around, listen carefully to see if you hear the names Bauer, Kubicek, McNelly, Rempe, Lyda or Mount. 

Of those six players, three made it onto NHL Central Scouting's final rankings for the draft, Bauer, Kubicek and Lyda. All are considered late round prospects but it only takes one team to fall in love with your skill set and your potential, to pull the trigger and call your name. Is their a safe pick among the six eligible T-birds? At the moment I'd say none of them possess the high end skill of a Mat Barzal or a Shea Theodore, two recent Thunderbirds who were first round NHL selections and led their respective NHL clubs on deep playoff runs this summer. 

All six have areas in their game that will need improving if they are to get to hockey's highest level. But one thing all of them possess that you can't teach, with the exception of Mount, is size. Mount is 5'9". Of the other five prospects no one is shorter then 6'2" with Rempe measuring in, at last check, at 6'8". 

Three of the draft eligible players are defensemen. Seattle has a decent recent track record of producing d-men who get drafted or sign pro deals, including the aforementioned Theodore along with Ethan Bear and Austin Strand, to mane a few. The current crop of draft eligible d-man, Bauer, McNelly and Kubicek, all bring a physical element to their game. While many see the game evolving into a more skilled contest, just watching this summer's Stanley Cup Playoffs shows the physical aspect of the game is still extremely important. So much of the work necessary to win is done along the boards, in the corners or in front of the net. 

Of those three Bauer is probably the most well rounded player at the moment and comes with built in leadership. His lack of offensive numbers may hurt his draft stock but he has so many other desired intangibles. 

Kubicek is probably more of the offensive defenseman. I think he projects out to someone who can be an important power play piece. Maybe not on a first unit but h e has some upside in that area. He was a little hot and cold with the T-birds last season, but again, that's why he is considered more of a middle to late round prospect. 

Maybe the sleeper in that threesome is McNelly. Playing a physical brand of hockey will never be his problem. He plays with too much emotion at times, which I think even he would admit he has to tone down. We've seen glimpses of an offensive game. When he does shoot, he has shown an ability to get pucks on net. The question out there is do NHL teams beleive that can be developed into a more consistent part of his game? McNelly is that kind of player where a lot of teams may not even have him on their board but there are one or two teams that just love him enough they could take a late round flyer on him. I don't know how player interviews were conducted for this draft, over the phone or over video, but I'd put money on McNelly acing that part of the process. 

Many were surprised when the seldom used Blake Lyda made Central Scoutings final North American goalie rankings. I wasn't. T-birds GM Bil LaForge told me he was getting calls on Lyda well before those rankings were published. A couple of times before laast season abruptly shutdown I saw Lyda outside the T-birds room postgame, being interviewed by an NHL scout. Projecting goalies might be one of the hardest scouting jobs in hockey. They all seem to develop at a slower pace then skaters. I think part of that is that 16 and 17 year old goalies in the WHL traditionally don't see a lot of ice as they sit behind a 19 or 20 year old. So whether he gets drafted or not, Lyda is on a lot of radars. Ignore his numbers. Hard to be consistent between the pipes when you are playing once every two to three weeks. There was a stretch last season where he got to play 2-3 times in a week and his numbers were solid. At 6'2" he has the length NHL teams now covet in metminders. He needs to fill out his frame then show what he can do with more consistent playing time. 

The most shocking omission for me when it comes to those Central Scouting rankings, was forward Matt Rempe. And I don't mean the most shocking T-birds ommission. I mean of all the player who were listed from North America and Europe, I can't fathom how they could not find a spot for a guy who is 6'8", can skate like he's 6'1" and projects to fill out to about 240-250 lbs. if not bigger. After starting last season on the sidelines he ended up putting up 31 points (12g, 19a) in 47 games. For a roster where a double digit plus/minus was more the rule then the exception, he finished at just -1. 

Maybe scouts just looked at his stat sheet and saw there were no long scoring streaks or big offensive games. But last season was his first at the WHL level and he had to get going without much benefit from a training camp or preseason. Then he had to work his way into the lineup, starting on the fourth line and moving up. By season's end he was one of Seattle's most reliable players. 

They don't play the same position but watching the NHL postseason I've been keeping an eye on defenseman Jamie Oleksiak of the Dallas Stars. Physically Oleksiak is where Rempe could be in a few years. The Dallas d-man is listed at 6'7", 255 lbs. Like Oleksiak, Rempe also has sisters who compete or competed at a high level. Okeksiak's younger sister Penny is a multiple medal winning Olympic swimmer. Rempe has twin older sisters who played NCAA hockey for Brown University. I also believe Rempe is using the Central Scouting snub as a motivator. He's been using the offseason, focused on training to take his game to a higher level.

Mount's size and a bit of an injury history may work against him.  He might be someone, like Matt Wedman who will need 3-4 seasons in the WHL before he gets the attention of the scouts at the next level.  In a few years Seattle will have a group that has grown together and should be competing for banners and Cups.  he could be the leader of that group and that could help his stock.  

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

What Next?

As expected, the Thunderbirds made just one selection in the two round 2020 CHL Import Draft Tuesday. With Czech defenseman Simon Kubicek expected to return for a third season, the T-birds had just one import spot open on their roster. That spot was previously occupied by Slovak winger Andrej Kukuca, but he graduated out of the program.

So to fill the void Seattle once again turned to Slovakia, choosing Kukuca's countryman, 17 year old defenseman Samuel Knazko. The left-handed shot d-man, whose birthday is in early August, is entering his 18 year old season. Knazko was ranked in the top 45 among European skaters for the upcoming NHL Draft. This is the second time he's been selected in the Import Draft. A year ago he was chosen by the Vancouver Giants but decided to play in the Finnish Junior A league for TPS Turko.

In normal times, we'd sit back and wait until late August, when training camp normally gets underway, to get a first glimpse at the team's newest acquisition. But as you know by now, these are far from normal times. Because of the coronavirus pandemic the WHL has tentatively pushed back the start of the next season to early October. But even that start date is written down in pencil and not pen. We just don't know.

In fact, there are a lot of things we don't know. Will players be allowed to travel over from Europe? Will those players prefer to stay in their home country with the virus surging in North America? Will league's in Europe start up before the CHL, making it more favorable for those players to stay home? Lots of questions, very few answers. For more on that you can check out Andy Eide's conversation with Seattle General Manager Bil La Forge over at

But, let's just say that everything falls in to place. let's go on the premise that Knazko decides this time he'll come over to North America and play next season in the WHL as a Seattle Thunderbird. Let's just close our eyes and pretend everything is normal and we get a full 68 game season underway come October 2nd. What will the 2020-21 version of the Seattle Thunderbirds look like?

Last season the T-birds were one of the youngest team in the entire CHL, let alone the WHL. Guess what? They very well could still be one of the youngest teams again this upcoming season. The T-birds graduated out three 20 year olds from the 2019-20 roster in Kukuca, Max Patterson and captain Conner Bruggen-Cate. As the roster sits right now, they have only two 20 year old players to occupy the three allowed 20 year old spots for next season; defenseman Owen Williams and winger Kelti Jeri-Leon. Goalie Roddy Ross was in line to be a third 20 on the roster but Seattle traded him to Regina back in April, during the WHL Bantam Draft. They can always trade for a third 20 year old, or pick one up off waivers, but will they? Three is the maximum number of 20 year olds you can carry on the roster, but it is not a requirement.

As it sits right now, assuming Knazko comes over from Slovakia, the T-birds have 28 players who are eligible for full-time duty on the team's roster next season. Those are players age 16 and older who have signed a standard WHL player agreement. Seattle typically starts the season with 25 players but eventually the roster is trimmed down to about 23. The reason is some players are still at NHL training camps, so you keep a few extra players around to get through the opening couple of weeks. Your game day roster consists of 18 skaters and two goalies with three players scratched. So Seattle has to whittle down 28 to 23.

Typically a roster is made up of 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders, 14+7+2=23. For Seattle the hard work will be determining who those final 23 will be because there is going to be some tough competition for the final three or four roster spots.

At the moment, when it comes to a position that is locked down, the only sure thing is in net. After the trade of Ross, Seattle is left with 18 year old Blake Lyda and 17 year old Thomas Milic as their goaltending tandem. The T-birds would not have traded Ross if they weren't confident in these two manning the crease. The question is who takes up the 14 forward and seven defensemen spots on the roster? Let's break it down by position and age group. These are the players we know are eligible to be here full-time next season.

Forward group:
20 year olds-Kelti Jeri-Leon.
19 year olds-Henrik Rybinski.
18 year olds-Payton Mount, Brendan Williamson, Jared Davidson and Matt Rempe.
17 year olds-Mekai Sanders, Kai Uchacz, Reid Schaefer, Conner Roulette, Sam Popowich and Lucas Ciona
16 year olds-Jordan Gustafson, Gabe Ludwig and Nico Myatovic

Defenseman Group:
20 year olds-Owen Williams
19 year olds-Simon Kubicek, Cade McNelly, Zach Ashton and Ryan Gottfried
18 year olds-Tyrel Bauer, Luke Bateman and possibly Samuel Knazko
17 year olds-Jeremy Hanzel
16 year olds-Kevin Korchinski and Spencer Penner

Not included in this list are any unsigned prospects currently on the team's protected list that may sign a standard WHL player agreement between now and the start of the season. I'm not saying that will happen, but it is always a possibility. It also doesn't include the potential addition of a third 20 year old either and you can't predict a trade. So there could conceivably be more then the 28 players listed above fighting for a roster spot.

I'm not going to play roster roulette here and tell you who I think will be on the team, although Conner Roulette will be on the team. Instead, I invite you, the reader, to use the list above and put together the roster you think will make the 23 man version of the 20-21 Thunderbirds. You've got three months (maybe more) and I've already started you off with the two goalies.

Just keep in mind you need four centers among your forward group and you need a good mix of left and right shots in both your wingers and defensemen. Then you have to figure how many rookies you are going to carry, especially 16 year old rookies. I know it would be easy just to eliminate the 16 year olds from the discussion but trust me, there will be 16 year old rookies on the opening night roster.

Will there be enough ice to get them all the required number of games? A season ago Seattle used six 16 year old forwards, three of them on a nightly basis. Now those six, 16 year olds are a year older and all six of them figure to be in the lineup nearly every night. A team typically dresses 12 forwards. So the T-birds newly turned 17 year olds will comprise one half of your game night forward group.

The list above shows 11 defensemen eligible to be full-time T-birds next season. Ten if Knazko doesn't report. Either way, we know ten or eleven defenseman on the roster is not going to happen. Only seven, maybe eight will make it. Even if you were to eliminate the two 16 year olds you are still left with eight or nine. Again though, I refer you to my statement above. there will be 16 year olds on this team. Paring down the defense to the requisite number might be the most difficult task.

The hard part for you as you try to put together the roster is you don't know which older player or players the coaches and GM value not just for their on ice ability but for the intangibles they bring to the team. Intangibles such as their leadership both on and off the ice do factor in to these decisions. Keep in mind too that some of these young players, while eligible to play at a lower level, are so important to the team's future that the organization sees more value in keeping them in Kent. The whole point of this exercise is for you to think like a WHL GM and weigh all the variables as you put your team together. The key phrase there is "WHL GM". Don't think like an NHL GM. At this level you have to factor in that you are in a league that focuses on player development.

Wear a mask when necessary and wash your hands! It will get us closer to hockey again!

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Dotted Line

When Bil LaForge was hired to be the Thunderbirds General Manager on June 6th, 2018, it was a month after that spring's WHL Bantam Draft. That meant outgoing GM Russ Farwell, along with Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson, were in charge of making the T-birds nine selections. This was the draft class that netted Seattle Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, among others. After his hiring was announced LaForge made a point of saying he agreed with the T-birds draft day choices.

Now, you may say he was just toeing the company line, but the proof is in the pudding. LaForge wasted little time in signing six of those nine selections (Roulette signed the day before LaForge's hiring was announced). The two he didn't sign would later be traded for immediate impact players. One went to Medicine Hat in the Henrik Rybinski deal and the other to Red Deer last September in the deal that brought Ryan Gottfried to Seattle. The other seven signed picks, all have made their T-bird debuts. Four of them spent the entire season with Seattle. Every one of those nine 2018 draft selections has already had a direct or indirect impact on the Seattle roster.

May of 2019 was the first chance LaForge had to directly oversee a Seattle Bantam Draft. This time he, Filson and Head Scout Mark Romas, had 13 picks to work with. Trade deadline deals and draft day trading gave the T-birds extra picks to use, including a second first round choice and a second pick in round two. It was a draft day highlighted by LaForge's trade of three players, including Dillon Hamaliuk, to Kelowna. It brought back, among other assets the second first round pick that year. Seattle used that pick to acquire defenseman Kevin Korchinski. Like so many from the 2018 draft, Korchinski has already made his T-birds debut. He also stands a good chance of being a full-time T-bird this coming season. Of the 13 players chosen, nearly half have already signed.

Now, the Thunderbirds aren't going to sign all 13 selections from any one draft. There just isn't enough room on any WHL roster for one age group featuring a baker's dozen prospects. It will increase the competition for rosters spots though because all those prospects want to prove they are talented enough for the WHL. And extra picks allowed LaForge and his team of scouts to gamble on some high end players without passing over other prospects in that draft that they liked. In essence they secured their WHL rights should they ever opt to come this way. Other players picked that aren't or don't sign can be used in trades, as was the case with two of the 2018 selections.

One of the gambles LaForge and his team of scouts took in that 2019 draft, was to use their extra second round pick, a pick they obtained from Everett in the Zack Andrusiak deal, on U.S. born forward Gabe Ludwig. Like most of you, before the T-birds drafted him with the 42nd overall pick, I had never heard of the Eagle River, Alaska native. Let me tell you though, since that selection by Seattle I've heard quite a bit about Ludwig. Much of what I've heard comes from outside the organization. Things like "first round, top ten talent" or "a steal of a pick" and "high hockey IQ". Most of that was before the T-birds even convinced him to sign and come play for them, which they did back in early April.

Now only time will tell if all those outsiders are correct about their assessment of Ludwig but LaForge listened to his scouts, made the pick, then went out and recruited the player. Some times it takes convincing that one player in order to open the doors to others who might be on the fence regarding the WHL.

That brings us to 2020 and the most recent WHL Draft. The draft was held a week ago. the T-birds made another 13 selections and already LaForge has inked the top three picks, first rounder Sam Oremba and the two second round choices Brayden Dube and Scott Ratzlaff. The building blocks are falling into place. LaForge has laid out his blueprint and is building his team.

For those of you who are counting at home, it's a month shy of two years on the job and the new GM has signed fourteen draft picks. Roulette makes it 15 signed in two years and believe you me, had he not already been signed the day before LaForge's official hiring, LaForge would have signed him. Of those fifteen, ten were chosen with either a first or second round draft choice. That's fifteen players all within two year in age of each other. So in a few year when these fifteen are ages 19,18 and 17 years old, they will constitute two-thirds of the roster. There will be other signings. Whether they are draft picks, list players or Import Draft selections, but players who fall into that age group. Recently signed 2003-born defenseman Jeremy Hanzel is one such player. There will probably be more deals consummated to shore up that group as well.

If you are puzzled by the recent trades of older players LaForge has made, he's not hiding anything. He's literally showing you that he is building a team that will grow together. It is a team of players who all have the attributes he wants on his team. Instead of being puzzled, think of it as a puzzle. The pieces are on the table and they are now being joined together.

So under LaForge Seattle has accumulated, drafted and signed a lot of high picks (1st, 2nd rounders). One last note before I go. If you're still on the fence about the LaForge hiring, consider this: Between the next draft in 2021 and the 2024 draft, the T-birds, thanks to LaForge's work have, as of today, six first round picks, seven 2nd round picks, four third round selections and six picks in the fourth round to work with going forward. This follows in the footsteps of the last three drafts. In the 2018, 2019 and 2020 drafts they had 15 picks in the top four rounds, which is the top third of the draft. So far, they've signed all but three of those picks and two of those were just picked last week.

They can use the picks or trade them to bring in other players but they have plenty of high draft picks to use to try and put together a championship team...or two. Again, nothing guaranteed but they have the capital to try.

Be safe, wash your hands!

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Ice-olated for the Draft

Prospects are just that. Until they hit the ice and prove themselves, they are just prospects. Same with draft picks. They haven't proven anything yet at the WHL level. Still, with that in mind, you have to be impressed by what T-birds General Manager Bil LaForge and his team of scouts have done with the last two WHL Drafts. They've accrued a lot of prospects and draft picks. They've signed what most consider, high end talent for the future.

What LaForge did on Draft day 2020 is exhibit A. He took a player, certainly a good player, in goalie Roddy Ross and turned him potentially into two second and one fourth round draft picks. He then used one of those second round picks to choose a player he obviously thought was the premier goalie talent in the 2020 draft. It was a move that cost very little in the big picture, but could pay huge dividends in the future.

Sure they lose the talented, 20 year old Ross for next season, but Seattle has two young goalies in 18 year old Blake Lyda and 17 year old Thomas Milic who they strongly believe in and now they've drafted another goalie of the future. Was Seattle going to win it all with Ross between the pipes next season? With the young roster they will ice, the odds were very much against that. Remember, LaForge and the T-birds spent zero to bring Ross into the fold in January of 2019. No draft pick was used to get him here, no trade was made. All they did was list and sign him.

Now to continue, lets start with the premise that a new GM gets to, or at least wants to, build a team that fits his style. He wants to put together a team that will play a brand of hockey that he thinks will win championships. To acquire those players, he may have to flush out some of the players he inherited. He has to assess where the team he took over, is on the junior hockey life cycle. For LaForge, who took the reigns in the spring of 2018, the T-birds were still coming off a cycle that saw them win a league title in 2017. They were on the down slope. They were still good enough to compete for the postseason but, after player graduations, the roster for a few seasons wasn't seen as championship caliber. That's just the nature of the beast. You go up, you go down.

I'm sure LaForge recognized he inherited a team in transition. What he most likely wanted to do was make the transition period as short as possible. He wants to get the organization back up to the top quickly and keep it there. It may mean a little short term pain for the fan base. Good and popular players might get traded away to accumulate enough draft capital to get your brand of player into the system.

Sure Seattle could have held on to players like Dillon Hamaliuk, Matthew Wedman and Jake Lee, to name a few. Would it have put them in position to win a banner? That's debatable. Those players all went to Kelowna and that team barely finished ahead of the T-birds in the Western Conference standings. So, if Seattle had kept them, maybe they finish ahead of the Rockets instead of vice versa, but holding onto them might have also meant a longer climb back to the top of the standings because they wouldn't have gathered the draft capital to hasten the climb back up.

Yes, there is no guarantee that all these moves will equal banners and Chynoweth Cups. You are competing against 21 other teams with the same goal. But what is it they say? If you ain't tryin' to move forward, you're standing still. If there is one thing I've noticed being around Bil LaForge for nearly two seasons now, it's that he doesn't like to stand still. If his feet aren't moving the cogs in his brain are. I've learned he has a definite mold for a successful WHL player; fast. Fast of feet, fast of thought, fast of hands. He's communicated that to Player Personnel Director Cal Filson and his team of scouts and they go get him those type players.

In a very short period he has wheeled and dealed to acquire high picks, signing most of them so far. There are the first round picks Kai Uchacz, Jordan Gustafson, Kevin Korchinski and Sam Oremba. Now, add in the second round picks Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Spencer Penner, Gabe Ludwig, Brayden Dube and Scott Ratzlaff. That's ten players from just the first and second rounds of the last three Bantam Drafts. That is essentially half a team. We haven't even mentioned 2018 third rounder Milic. We haven't spoken of other signed recent draft picks in Sam Popowich, Reid Schaefer, Mekai Sanders and Nico Myatovic.

It also doesn't include many of the 2020 selections like third rounder Sawyer Mynio or any of the other unsigned picks from the past two years, not to mention the other draft capital that has been acquired and put in the vault for future seasons. That includes extra first and second round selections. Lets also not forget Landon Dauner and Drew Mackie from the initial US Prospects Draft earlier this year.

Even with that, we've only touched the surface because LaForge has also scouted and signed or traded for some pretty strong talent in Jared Davidson, Matt Rempe, Brendan Williamson, Blake Lyda and Jeremy Hanzel. More importantly he'll never be satisfied. He will always be looking to add to his talent base. Not everyone will work out. So far he has turned four or five former players potentially into a dozen future T-birds. There will be some misses among the hits. No one bats a thousand but LaForge and the rest of his lineup are going to get in some healthy swings when at the plate. The goal is to get back to the top and stay there or at least make those down turns as short as possible. I'm looking forward to seeing his work play out.

Stay safe. Wash your hands!