Brian Liesse

Thunderbirds battling injuries and showcasing youth

The Seattle Thunderbirds (6-11-2-1) made it known this summer that they were headed toward a youth movement with a big trade that sent two key, older players to the Kelowna Rockets.

They also had six 16-year-old players that all had moments in the preseason. But with a strong group of overagers in captain Matthew Wedman, Conner Bruggen-Cate, and Andrej Kukuca and NHL drafted players in goalie Roddy Ross and forwards Henrik Rybisnki and Wedman, the experience was there for them to contend in a young U.S. Division.

Andrej Kukuca (Photo-Brian Liesse)

Then, towards the end of the preseason, injuries started coming in hard and fast. Trades had to be made just so there was a full roster on the ice.

“We haven’t had a night with our full roster yet. We lost (Tyler) Carpendale in exhibition and he’s out long term. Mekai Sanders is out long term. (Cade) McNelly has been out since I think Game 2. We have had to deal with it, but getting guys signed in the league and playing in spots where they might not have played if guys were here is big. Everyone goes through it, but I’m hoping we get ours out of the way,” Seattle general manager Bil La Forge relayed.

Because of the injuries, Seattle has leaned on rookies: forwards Brendan Williamson, Matthew Rempe, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Kai Uchacz, Sam Popowich, and Reid Schaefer, and defenseman Luke Bateman.

That is eight rookie skaters currently on the roster who have played four or more games for the T-Birds. Rookies have scored eight of the team’s 48 goals this season.

“We have had some ups and downs. We have had some good games and we have had some games we would have liked to have played a little better. But for the most part, with maybe the exception of one or two, we have been in every game and battling and competing. Our young guys have really stepped up. Our leadership under guys like Wedman, Bruggen-Cate, and Owen Williams have been really good,” La Forge stated.

Kai Uchacz (Photo-Brian Liesse)

Even their rookies have missed time. Roulette and Uchacz recently joined signed prospect goalie Thomas Milic at the U17 World Hockey Challenge in Medicine Hat and Swift Current.

Roulette had two goals for Team Canada Red, Uchacz posted four penalty minutes for Team Canada Black, and Milic had a 2.53 GAA and .925 save percentage for Team Canada Red.

Milic returned to the Burnaby Winter Club’s Prep team while Roulette and Uchacz came back to the Thunderbirds. La Forge thinks their shared experience will do nothing but benefit them as they continue to develop their skills as 16-year-old rookies in the WHL.

“It was a great experience for all of them. I have talked to them and just the opportunity to play against the best players in the world in their age group is something you can’t put a value on. It was an incredible experience for them. Conner and Kai came back now and are excited to get going again.”

Kevin Korchinski (Photo-Brian Liesse)

Injuries were such that 15-year-old defenseman and 10th overall pick from the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft Kevin Korchinski was called into action. La Forge liked what he saw from the 2004-born blue liner.

“I just love when the puck is on his stick. You know he’s going to be calm and make the right read. He still does a lot of things like a Midget player, but I think by the time he’s here next year, he is going to pass really hard and his shot will be harder. But he does a lot of things really well. He plays with his mind, which is something that I value a lot in a defenseman.”

With the young players continuing to grow, La Forge was put in a spot where he had to move 18-year-old forward Michael Horon. He was traded to the Prince Albert Raiders for a conditional seventh-round pick.

“I love Mike. He’s a good kid, but it did not make lot of sense for him to take ice time from guys that are 16. It was an age thing and we wish him nothing but the best,” La Forge stated.

Reid Schaefer (photo by Brian Liesse)

Giving the younger players more ice time is the priority this season for La Forge and the T-Birds. With the experience they gain, though, and the older players leading the way, there are signs that this team can still beat any team in the league on any given night. That was certainly the case last Saturday night when they pulled out a 5-4 shootout win over the visiting Portland Winterhawks.

The youth movement has shown it can provide results this season as well. Seattle will still be a tough out this season for other WHL teams.

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