2019-2020 WHL Season Previews: Seattle Thunderbirds
2018-2019 Season (31-29-6-2): The Thunderbirds’ 2018-2019 season was very much a tale of two very different seasons. The club was entering their second season removed from a Western Hockey League Championship, and was very much in a year of transition. Seattle got out of the gates hot, but after their first ten games, came crashing back down to earth. As the team approached the trade deadline, a shakeup was in order. On New Year’s Day, first-year general manager Bil La Forge started a flurry of movement. This included moving out veteran players — Zack Andrusiak to the Everett Silvertips, goaltender Liam Hughes to the Lethbridge Hurricanes, and defenseman Reece Harsch to the Saskatoon Blades. Additionally, La Forge moved unsigned 2003-born defenseman Aidan Brook to the Medicine Hat Tigers for 2002-born forward Henrik Rybinski. His biggest move, however, was not a trade but a signing. Before the trades started rolling in, Seattle signed goaltender Roddy Ross to a Standard Player Agreement. Ross became the catalyst for Seattle’s second-half surge. The Thunderbirds were one of the best teams in the league over the latter half of the season, despite losing offensive stalwart Dillion Hamaliuk to injury.
2018-2019 Playoffs. Seattle came into the playoffs after sweeping their hated rival, the Portland Winterhawks, in a season-ending home-and-home series. The Thunderbirds matched up against stand-out defenseman Bowen Byram and the Vancouver Giants. The heavily-favored Giants were given all they could handle, as the Thunderbirds took the eventual Western Conference Champions to six games before bowing out.
Seattle’s roster composition will look much different than last season. Graduating from the WHL are career Thunderbird and fan favorite Nolan Volcan. Also leaving due to age are Noah Philp and Sean Richards, who came over as part of the Zack Andrusiak trade. The other key loss for Seattle is Jarret Tyszka. The veteran defenseman still had one more year of eligibility left in the WHL, but chose to forgo that in favor of pursuing his education. On bantam draft day, Seattle made a major move, sending forward Hamaliuk, defenseman Jake Lee, and goaltender Cole Schwebius to this year’s Memorial Cup hosts, the Kelowna Rockets. Veteran forward Graeme Bryks was also recently dealt to the Victoria Royals, and 2000-born forward Brecon Wood was traded to the Swift Current Broncos.
Seattle comes into the season with a fair amount of new faces, including two that came to Seattle at the trade deadline in January. First, Michael Horon. The forward has turned heads with his speed and offensive prowess through training camp and the preseason. Next, Brendan Williamson, who was a key piece coming back to Seattle in the Everett trade. The bantam draft also saw Seattle acquire new back-up goaltender Blake Lyda, again from the Silvertips. Of course, like any Dub team, Seattle will welcome some 16-year-old rookies this season. Standouts throughout the preseason have been Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Kai Uchacz, and Luke Bateman.
Three Storylines to look to pay attention to:
First and foremost, youth. Seattle will be rostering a very young team this season, and with that, growing pains should be expected. The incoming rookie class is very talented, but like any player entering the WHL for their first season, there will certainly be a learning curve, and some inconsistency should be expected. There will be some nights where the offensive upside is on full display, but also expect nights where it simply isn’t clicking. The draft day trade of Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee, and Cole Schwebius was a good indicator that Seattle was building toward the future, and Thunderbirds fans will get a taste of what that future has to offer in 2019-2020.
The overage situation. There is still much to be decided with Seattle’s overage situation. Matthew Wedman has still not been signed by the Florida Panthers, the NHL team that drafted him in the seventh round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. With Wedman and import forward Andrej Kukuca returning, they will be leaned on heavily to produce with consistency as the Thunderbirds young forward group builds their confidence and gets used to the speed of the Western Hockey League. That leaves one Overage spot remaining. Returning forward Jaxan Kaluski was very much in the conversation for the final spot, but sustained an injury during the last game of the Everett preseason tournament. This leaves Conner Bruggen-Cate. Bruggen-Cate has shown good offensive upside after two big showings in Tri-City during the Red Lion preseason tournament.
The final storyline to watch, is goaltender Roddy Ross. Ross had a remarkable rookie season with Seattle, going 16-5-0-1, and posting a 2.76 GAA and a .919 SV% over 25 regular season games with the Thunderbirds in 2018-2019. Ross was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the sixth round of the NHL Entry Draft in June. Roddy is the unquestioned number one for the T-birds and could see as many as 50 starts this season. Ross will be relied upon heavily by the young Thunderbirds to provide them with key saves and stability.