The year after they captured their first Ed Chynoweth Cup, the Seattle Thunderbirds were very competitive night in and night out. They made some acquisitions to support a very young forward group and rode a strong blue line and surprising goaltending from Liam Hughes – who came in for the injured Carl Stankowski – to a wild card spot.
Their reward was another first round battle with their rival, the Everett Silvertips. Seattle split the two games in Everett and threw everything at Carter Hart in Game 3. He showed his mettle and Everett won the game and went on to take the series.
Of the 22 players who suited up in the playoffs, the T-birds are losing eight.
- Donovan Neuls – C – 1997 – aged out.
- Turner Ottenbreit – D – 1997 – aged out.
- Austin Strand – D – 1997 – aged out.
- Sami Moilanen – RW – 1999 – signed to play in Finland.
- Nikita Malukhin – LW – 2000 – did not return to Seattle.
- Miek MacLean – RW – 1998 – traded to the Prince George Cougars.
- Blake Bargar – RW – 1998 – released.
- Holden Katzalay – C – 2000 – released.
- Tyson Terretta – D – 2000 – retired.
- Carl Stankowski – G – 2000 – traded to Calgary.
The biggest offseason acquisition was Everett Silvertips Director of Player Personnel Bill La Forge heading down Interstate 5 and replacing Russ Farwell as General Manager. Farwell, who had talked about stepping down, is still staying on as Vice President of Hockey Operations.
With Moilanen and Malukhin not coming back, Seattle drafted twice in the CHL Import Draft. They took forward Andrej Kukuca from Slovakia and defenseman Simon Kubicek from the Czech Republic.
Seattle also acquired 2001-born forward Keegan Craik as part of the Mike MacLean deal and defenseman Payton McIssac from the Kootenay ICE.
Seattle also has a handful of rookies coming, in, none more highly touted then 2017 first round pick Payton Mount. Joining Mount up front are fellow 16-year-old forward Jared Davidson and 17-year-olds Graeme Bryks and Cody Savey.
Seattle has another 16-year-old rookie in defenseman Tyrel Bauer on the back end. He was a second round pick in 2017.
The net is where another duo of rookies are on the roster. 17-year-olds Eric Ward and Cole Schwebius have carried their battle for the backup spot behind starting goalie Liam Hughes into the regular season.
This one was pretty cut and dry as soon as the season ended in Everett. Forwards Nolan Volcan, Zack Andrusiak and Noah Philp were the three leading returning scorers. MacLean and Bargar were two other options but Bargar did not come to training camp and MacLean was dealt away.
Seattle was put in a tough spot when the often injured but also very often dynamic winger Sami Moilanen chose to g back to Finland. They responded by bringing in the darling of the preseason Kukuca, who has shown immediate comfort in the WHL as a first-year, 19-year-old.
Kubicek had some legal issues with coming to the United States, but eventually got to the T-birds and seemed to fit right in. He had two goals and three assists for five points in six preseason games.
Kubicek also played for the Czech Republic at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
The position that was a big question with so many forwards going pro in 2017-18, is one of their biggest strengths this year. Even with the unexpected loss of Moilanen, Seattle trots out one of the most productive returning groups in the U.S. Division.
Volcan is the heart and soul of the team and was named team captain. The overage winger worked his way up from a shutdown role to a go-to scorer last year and will look to build off of that. Andrusiak went from 11 points in 2016-17 to 74 last year. The shifty forward is a play-maker who likes the puck to be on his stick. Good things usually happen when it is. There is every reason to believe he could get close to 50 goals this season, even though it is four games shorter than last year.
Philp was another player who excelled in an increased role in Seattle. He should slide into a second line center role for the T-birds.
Matthew Wedman has had a compelling run in Seattle. He scored one of the bigger goals in franchise history as a 16-year-old but sadly had his draft year cut short by a leg injury. He bounced back last year and assumed a strong two-way center role. The big, 6-foot-3, speedy Edmonton native could take that next step into a point-a-game type player.
Hamaliuk, a late 2000 birthday forward found a home at times in the top-six last year and that home should be more permanent this year. Bryks has a rocket shot, which he showed while putting up four points in the preseason.
Samuel Huo, Tyler Carpendale and Kukuca and the rookies give Seattle more options. While the group is still pretty young outside of the trio of overage players, it is in much better shape than last year.
This was a big strength on the team last year with overage do-everything blue liner Ottenbreit holding the Seattle end of the ice down and just doing everything it takes to get the win. Strand was also a huge producer and stepped up into the power play producer role in the absence of Ethan Bear.
Now Seattle has to deal with their absences.
Jake Lee, who was playing top pair minutes with Ottenbreit by the end of his 16-year-old season, would seem to be the next guy in a line of great Seattle d-men. Lee was a late cut from Hockey Canada’s U18 Hlinka Gretzky Tournament and will use the sting of missing out on a gold medal to drive him this year in Seattle.
Reece Harsch battled an injury in the preseason but once healthy should build off of the massive improvements he made a season ago and development camp with the Vegas Golden Knights and hold down a top-four role.
Another injury question that looms over this group is what the status of Jarret Tyszka is? Tyszka was checked head-first into the boards by former Spokane Chiefs center Hudson Elynuik while playing for the Montreal Canadiens and has yet to return to Seattle.
If Tyszka is none the worse for wear, he would seem to fit right in on the top power play, using his skating and play-making prowess to create more magical moments like his overtime winner against Portland last year.
Owen Williams was acquired as part of the trade for Aaron Hyman last year and the 2000-born defenseman bloomed in more ice time. He, Kubicek, Bauer and McIssac will be asked to play pivotal minutes while Harsch and Tyszka work their way back.
Liam Hughes played in 36 games last year. Look for that number to be much higher this year as the 19-year-old carries the load. He won the starting job last year over Matt Berlin after it became clear that Carl Stankowski was not going to come back anytime soon.
Hughes, like many other Thunderbirds took an opportunity and ran with it. So many times late in tight games, Hughes was the difference. He will have that chance again many times this season.
There are a lot of questions, like there is with most other U.S. Division teams, but they will again be led by a strong contingent of overage players in Volcan, Philp and Andrusiak. Along with a strong supporting cast and the strong play of Hughes, Seattle should be in the mix in another competitive year in the U.S. Division.