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Thunderbirds’ overage situation all but settled for 2015-16 season

Jared Hauf has spent his entire WHL career in a Thunderbirds uniform. (T-Birds photo)

When the Thunderbirds acquired Jamal Watson from the Lethbridge Hurricanes on May 14, it seemed to settle the 20-year-old situation for the upcoming season. It’s still over two months until Seattle opens the season in Vancouver and anything can happen during that time, but the three overage players on Seattle’s roster will provide the combination of production and leadership that teams should seek from their veterans.

Unlike last year, T-Birds general manager Russ Farwell wasn’t forced to sell multiple veterans to get down to the league’s maximum of three 20-year-olds. He entered the offseason with defensemen Jared Hauf and Jerret Smith and forward Cory Millette as the incumbent overagers before dealing Millette and a fifth-round draft pick for Watson.

The longest tenured of those veterans is Hauf, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2010 Bantam Draft. The 6-foot-5 Calgary, Altberta native is an imposing presence on the blue line and, along with Evan Wardley last year, formed what was arguably the most physically intimidating defensive pairing in the WHL. Wardley has graduated, so Hauf will inherit the team’s enforcer title and be charged with protecting the team’s stable of talented forwards.

Hauf has been with the T-Birds since he was 16 years old and been a reliable presence on the back end, missing just four games over the past three seasons. It’s tough for larger players in Hauf’s mold to adjust to the greater speed of the game, and he suffered some growing pains, but he’s become much better at using his size to his advantage in becoming a reliable defenseman. Seattle’s blue line will feature a couple of young D-men, so Hauf’s veteran leadership will be essential in the coming year.

Smith joined the T-Birds as a 17-year-old and has been the definition of steady on the blue line. He’s been paired up with Anaheim Ducks draft pick Shea Theodore for the past two seasons, but even with Theodore earning many of the headlines, Smith’s value has never been underestimated by his coaching staff. He became more of an offensive force last season with Theodore out of the lineup for much of the year, posting a career high in goals (11), assists (27), and points (38). As a 19-year-old, Smith usually faced the opposition’s top forward line. He’ll be expected to do the same this coming season and continue to build on last year’s offensive contributions.

In three full campaigns with Seattle, Smith has missed just one contest and has played in all 72 games in each of the past two seasons. He was an alternate captain for much of last year and seems like a strong possibility to earn the “C” this year. Smith was invited to the New York Rangers’ development camp and could still earn a professional contract before the season begins, which would take him out of Seattle’s plans for the upcoming season.

The third 20-year-old is Watson, who has spent his entire WHL career to date with the Lethbridge Hurricanes. In four full seasons, he’s missed only 18 games, playing in over 60 contests in each of those seasons. Watson was an invitee to the Montreal Canadiens’ development camp and therefore also has a shot at earning himself a professional contract.

Watson has been a member of a Lethbridge team that has struggled for the past few years. He has an exciting opportunity is his final year of WHL eligibility to join a roster that is hoping to advance deep into the WHL playoffs. Farwell has raved about the Calgary native’s skating ability and expects him to fit right in to Seattle’s top six forwards. If that’s the case, he’ll be playing with two other highly skilled forwards and should easily top his career high of 54 points, which he set last year.

Watson served as the Hurricanes’ captain, so the T-Birds won’t be skipping a beat in the leadership department, either. He was well liked in the Lethbridge locker room, which should make his adjustment to Seattle that much easier.

Hauf and Smith, pending potential professional contracts, seemed like locks to return to the roster for their final WHL campaign. Millette, who was acquired at last season’s trade deadline, was more of a question mark. He was a very effective player on the power play in front of the net, but spent much of his even strength time on the team’s fourth line. While his net front presence will be missed, it’s difficult to fill one of your valuable overage spots with someone who will play very limited minutes at even strength. Watson’s two-way ability and more versatile game should more than make up for what was lost when Millette was traded.