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What to watch as Thunderbirds open preseason schedule

The defending WHL Champion Thunderbirds will open the preseason Friday in Everett (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

For the first time since the Memorial Cup in May, the Seattle Thunderbirds will take the ice to face an opponent in an actual hockey game.

That opponent is the Vancouver Giants as Seattle will open its preseason schedule Friday morning at 11 o’clock in the Everett Delta Hotels Pre-season Classic at Xfinity Arena. The Thunderbirds will then play the host Silvertips Saturday night at 7 pm before finishing the weekend with a Sunday afternoon match up with the Spokane Chiefs that starts at 3 p.m.

The Everett tournament is the annual kick-off for the WHL preseason, at least as the U.S. Division goes. All five U.S. Division teams will be in action, along with the Giants, providing for three games a day and a first chance to see these clubs in action.

With the turnover on the roster that the Thunderbirds have had, it will be the first chance for head coach Matt O’Dette to see his guys playing against other teams, in regular game action.

There’s a lot to see this weekend and here are a few items to watch for.

Who has offensive chemistry

There are plenty of spots available in Seattle’s forward groups and O’Dette will have to start figuring out who is going to play on what lines. This weekend will be a good chance for him to see who meshes well together as he starts to form his line combinations.

Zach Andrusiak and Luke Ormsby are two wingers who are looking for more playing time this year and have shown some chemistry together in the past. The last time the two of them were in Everett, Ormsby set up Andrusiak for a game-tying goal in the third period of Seattle’s Game 2 win over the Silvertips in the second round of the playoffs. They’ve continued that chemistry in camp but need someone to center them.

Elijah Brown could be a contender to play in between the two and would give O’Dette a line that possesses a ton of speed, which could put pressure on opposing defensemen. If healthy, Matthew Wedman could also get a look at the pivot there to provide some size to go along with Andrusiak’s and Ormsby’s speed.

Where will other players line up? Where do players like Dillon Hamliuk, Tyler Carpendale, Nikita Malukhin, Holden Katzalay and Cody Savey fit into the mix? O’Dette will most likely try to get these guys into different roles and situations over the weekend to see if someone starts to emerge.

Which defenseman will make this team?

Seattle’s blue line is nearly the same as it was last season. Of course, there is one big name not returning as Ethan Bear will be moving on to the pro ranks within the Edmonton Oilers farm system. Bear’s not easily replaceable but he is the only spot missing from last year’s team.

2016 first-round pick Jake Lee looks ready to play in the WHL at 16-years-old which gives Seattle six defenseman. Outside of Lee, returning players like Turner Ottenbreit, Jarret Tyszka, Austin Strand, Aaron Hyman and Reece Harsch will give the Thunderbirds a pretty strong back end again this season.

Is there room for another young defenseman to make the team?

Seattle announced Wednesday that they had signed Cade McNellly and the 16-year-old could push for playing time this year. He has turned heads in the past two training camps with his relentless physical play and this year not only got bigger, but appeared to be a sounder defenseman. If he stays with the club for the season, he will need to get into at least 40 games and that may be the only question about whether or not he makes it.

Tyson Terretta is another rookie defenseman in the mix. A year older, Terretta would not need to hit any minimum games played like McNelly does. If Seattle decides to only carry seven defenseman this year it could come down to a decision between these two guys. Terretta has not been able to play in training camp as he has nursed an injury and may have some ground to make up. He has played well in past training camps with the Thunderbirds however and the team has been very high on him.

If he can go this weekend, both he and McNelly could see a lot of ice time as O’Dette looks to make a decision.

Is Cole Schwebius ready to back up?

Schwebius signed with the Thunderbirds on Wednesday which gives them at least two goalies who can play this weekend, if Carl Stankowski is not healthy enough to go. There has not been an official report as to how long Stankowski is going to be out, but if he is not back for the start of the regular season, Schwebius will be asked to back up Matthew Berlin. At only 16-years-old, this weekend will be a good test to see if he’s ready to step into a back up role to start the year.

Another chance for prospects to play

Seattle’s first two picks in the 2017 draft, Payton Mount and Tyrel Bauer, will be with the team this weekend. While both will eventually return home to play out their 15-year-old season, the preseason will give them another chance at getting a feel for the WHL game. Both guys have been impressive in camp but now we’ll get to see them against another team. The experience is a valuable one for these prospects as they’ll get a feel for the speed of the WHL game which should help them as they prepare to join the Thunderbirds full time next year.