Brian Liesse

2019-2020 Thunderbirds: Exciting youth has Seattle primed for success

Last year’s edition of the Seattle Thunderbirds was the definition of hot when they needed to be as they inched their way into the playoffs. The club finished 7-1-1-1 in their last 10 games of the season to grab and hold the second wildcard spot in the Western Conference. They had 70 points, six more than the Kelowna Rockets.

Matthew Wedman (photo-Brian Liesse)

Seattle would put up a pretty decent fight against Vancouver in the first round, the team that ultimately lost in the WHL Final against the Prince Albert Raiders. The T-Birds won games two and four before losing the final two games to fall in six games. They were led in the regular season by a man named Matthew Wedman and his 77 points.

Wedman began this season with Seattle where he had 17 points (6G) in 19 games before he was dealt to Kelowna, the host of the Memorial Cup — which has been cancelled this season because of COVID-19 — where the Edmonton native chalked up 36 points in 35 games.

Playoff-bound again:

The last time Seattle missed the playoffs was in the 2011-2012 season when they came up just two points short. This year’s edition of the Thunderbirds successfully extended what has become a near-decade straight of playoff appearances.

Unlike last year’s team; however, Seattle was going in the wrong direction this year before the season was postponed and then cancelled. The Thunderbirds went 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and they finished with a record of 24-32-4-3. That was in the end, good enough for the final spot in the Western Conference, seven points ahead of Prince George.

This year’s team was led by Andrej Kukuca. The right-winger scored 26 times and he added 31 assists in 63 games with the team.

Rookie success:

Conner Roulette (photo-Brian Liesse)

Four of Seattle’s top six scorers weren’t rookies. That means two were and that’s led by Conner Roulette of Winnipeg, Manitoba. In his first year in the league, Roulette busted onto the scene with his 19 goals and 20 assists. His 39 points were the most among rookies on the team and put him third in team scoring as well.

One of Conner’s highlights came when he scored the Teddy Bear Toss goal against the Everett Silvertips on January 11. He also had one assist in the 4-3 win.

In the sixth spot when it came to team scoring was Matthew Rempe. He added up 12 goals in just 47

Matthew Rempe (Photo-Brian Liesse)

games and 19 assists for a 31 point total. Rempe had one game-winning goal as did Roulette.

Roulette finished the season with .72 points-per-game while Rempe averaged .65 points-per-game.

Seattle also had two other rookies finish the season with more than 10 points. Lucas Ciona had three goals and 10 assists while Luke Bateman had one goal and 11 assists.

Eight Thunderbirds in all were rookies when the season came to an end in mid-March.

Roddy Ross show:

Roddy Ross (Photo-Brian Liesse)

Only three other goalies in the Western Hockey League played more minutes than Roddy this season. Those goalies are Taylor Gauthier, Max Paddock, and Joel Hofer.

Ross played 2835 minutes this year and he accounted for 20 of Seattle’s wins. When it came to goalies that faced a boatload of shots, Ross ranked third as he faced 1625. Only Isaac Poulter (1795) and Gauthier (1677) saw more.

When it comes to goalies that faced more than 1400 shots this season, only Max Paddock (23) had more wins. Beck Warm of Edmonton tied Roddy with his 20 wins.

Ross’ full numbers saw him go 20-21-4-3 with a 3.17 G.A.A and a .908 save percentage.

Each WHL team will only be able to roster three-2000 born players next season, the year that Roddy is born.  Ross – drafted but not yet signed by the Philadelphia Flyers – , forward Keltie Jeri-Leon and defenseman Owen Williams seen the most likely to fill those three spots. Ross has shown that he can handle a heavy workload and win this team games. With Blake Lyda and CSSHL goalie of the year Thomas Milic pushing for time, the battle for time in net for Seattle will be a good one.

What needs to change?

When the team won the WHL in the 2016-2017 campaign, they won 46 games and gave up just 206 goals. Just three teams in the league allowed fewer while Kelowna allowed the same amount.

This year’s team allowed 240. Only five teams allowed more than Seattle this season, all of which missed the playoffs. The Kelowna Rockets allowed 208 and that’s the most when it comes to playoff teams other than Seattle.

Solid returning group:

Keltie Jeri-Leon (photo-Brian Liesse)

Seven of Seattle’s top 10 scorers this season are eligible to return next year led by Jeri-Leon and his 41 points. Five of the skaters are forwards which is a good thing considering this year’s team struggled scoring at times with just 175 markers. With another year under their belts and especially the likes of rookies  Roulette and  Rempe, things on paper are surely looking up.

The other two skaters are defencemen in Simon Kubicek and  Williams.

Florida Panthers drafted prospect Henrik Rybinski is a game-breaker who put up 31 points in an injury-shortened season and 2020 NHL Draft eligible defenseman Tyrel Bauer played a ton of tough minutes as a 17-year-old. Bauer and forward Payton Mount have played a ton of minutes – all with Seattle – and will be leaned on even more as leaders next season.

The 2020-2021 season will be one where Seattle will look to extend their playoff presence and they’re hoping, they can get back to the promise land that they were in back in 2017. This is certainly a fun team to watch and that should translate into some success next season.

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