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Thunderbirds bench boss Matt O’Dette reflects on the season that was

Seattle Thunderbirds head coach Matt O'Dette completed a successful first season behind the bench (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette was back behind the bench two Saturdays ago, leading a team into action on the ice.

O’Dette was taking part in the WHL’s U.S. Prospects Camp in Anaheim, Ca. with a couple other league coaches. His team won all their scrimmages but undoubtedly O’Dette would have preferred to have been coaching the Thunderbirds deep into the playoffs.

With the smoke cleared from the season that was, O’Dette’s first as the head coach of the Thunderbirds, he has had some time to reflect on whether Seattle’s 2017-2018 campaign was a successful one.

“I think so,” O’Dette said. “I think realistic goal going into the season was to make the playoffs and see what we could do from there. I thought we did that and I think as a coach of course we’re disappointed that we didn’t make a deeper run but I think we’re happy with how hard the guys played.”

He took over a Thunderbirds team that was coming off a WHL Championship but was also looking at having to replace six key players, and over 350 points of offensive production, with guys who were either being thrust into elevated roles, or rookies just getting their feet wet.

That’s not an easy task, but O’Dette was able to get career years out of the returning players and get valuable playing time and learning experiences for his rookies. In the end, the Thunderbirds finished with an above .500 record and a spot in the playoffs.

“We knew going into the season that there were opportunities for everybody,” O’Dette said. “A chance to get quite a bit of ice time for being young players.”

Heading into the season, it was generally believed that O’Dette and the Thunderbirds would be able to have stable goaltending with Carl Stankowski. The goalie was coming off an incredible playoff run and had already established himself as the winningest post-season goalie in franchise history.

That didn’t work out however, as Stankowski dealt with injury and illness that kept him out for the entire season. Right off the bat, O’Dette and the Thunderbirds had to scramble and adjust.

“The one position we felt good about was in the net with Carl,” O’Dette said. “We try not to dwell on that stuff. You put your best lineup together and move forward. I think (general manager Russ Farwell) did a good job finding (Liam) Hughes and he turned into a really good goalie for us.”

Hughes was brought in from Edmonton just before the season started and by the end of the year had established himself as a number one goalie.

“He was great,” O’Dette said of Hughes. “We all know how important goaltending is in this league. I don’t think without his emergence we have the success that we did. He developed into one of the better goalies in the league. We knew how good he was and I think the word is out that he’s a really good goaltender.”

Seattle’s inexperienced lineup dealt with growing pains in the first half of the season. Specifically, a stretch in November when it seemed like they found a way to lose games late.

Those losses were tough but they were also great learning experiences.

“It’s part of the process,” O’Dette said. “They learn to play in different situations. Having leads late in games is a situation where having experience helps. We learned the hard way several times with those situations. We did have some adversity that we had to get through, but I think that it helped us come together as a team.”

O’Dette credits leaders like Donovan Neuls, Turner Ottenbreit, and Nolan Volcan for helping the younger players learn from those tough games. He says those losses could have derailed the team but they fought through it and by season’s end, were a thing of the past.

In what was a transition year for Seattle, there were promising performances by the young guys.

Defenseman Jake Lee, a 2016 first-round draft pick, emerged as one of the team’s top defensemen and by season’s end was playing on a top-four pairing.

“He had a little bit of maturing to do at the start of the season,” O’Dette said of Lee. “He did that and his game came along with it, he became a top-four D with us. He’s a defenseman that can do a little bit of everything and for his age he’s a real strong powerful kid that can win a lot of battles.”

Lee wasn’t the only emerging player. While not a rookie, Zack Andrusiak finally got playing time and responded with a 36-goal season. Forward Dillon Hamaliuk impressed with a strong rookie year, as did fellow first-year players Samual Huo and Holden Katzalay.

Those players were either new to their roles, or new to the WHL. They got their first taste of the league and got the type of ice time that young players often don’t get. The key for those players moving forward is putting in the work this off season in order to take the next step in the fall.

“Now they know what it’s like,” O’Dette said of his young players. “For those young guys that are just starting to fill out it’s an important summer to put the work in. This is an important time in their careers where’s it becoming a job and they have to take it seriously. They know that.”

As O’Dette and the Thunderbirds get into their summer routine the feeling is that positive things are on the horizon. This past season’s edition of the Thunderbirds struggled at times, but the effort was there every night. The new players bought into the culture that the team has established and never lost a game due to lack of effort, or desire.

That’s a good foundation to have as the development of players continues to progress.

“Definitely a lot to look forward to,” O’Dette said. “Getting to know the guys that much more and having a year under my belt and a staff in place. The familiarity with everybody will be there right from the start.”