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Khaira brings size, youth to T-Birds’ blue line


Sahvan Khaira, 16, signed with the T-Birds on June 23 and is expected to contribute immediately. (Kyle Scholzen)

When Sahvan Khaira slipped all the way to the ninth round of the 2013 Bantam Draft, it wasn’t a difficult decision for the T-Birds front office to grab him with the draft’s 181st pick.

The truth is, had Khaira been fully committed to playing in the WHL at the time of the draft, he more than likely would have found himself taken with one of the first 40 picks.

Leading up to the draft, the 15-year-old Khaira and his family were honest with teams: they didn’t know at that point whether Sahvan would choose to play in the WHL or whether he’d go elsewhere — perhaps the British Columbia Hockey League, as his older brother did for two seasons before attending Michigan Tech and eventually signing with the Everett Silvertips.

“I wasn’t too sure at that point (what I wanted to do) and that’s what I was telling teams,” said Khaira, now 16. “I’m not too sure (if I would have been picked higher). It may be true, just looking at it from the perspective that my brother (has been successful).”

Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farwell wasn’t quite as modest when describing the situation regarding Khaira and his draft position.

“If he had been in the pool like any other player, he’d have been picked in one of the first two rounds,” he said. “We didn’t know for sure we could sign him. We just felt he was so good at the B.C. Cup and at the point we got to, we just thought we have to take him and see where it goes.”

As the year progressed, things changed for the 6-foot-1, 212-pound Khaira.

After being drafted he turned some heads at T-Birds training camp. Clad in a bright red helmet that made him difficult to miss, Khaira was excellent all over the ice, confirming Farwell’s sentiments that this was a first- or second-round caliber talent that the Thunderbirds were lucky enough to grab in the ninth round.

Khaira enjoyed his training camp experience immensely, but still wasn’t quite convinced the WHL would be the best place for him.

Fast forward to March, when Khaira returned to Seattle to practice with the team during their first-round playoff series against his brother’s Silvertips. It was at that point that the Surrey, British Columbia native’s outlook really started to change.

“Those practices were all fun,” said Khaira of working with the team during their playoff run. “I couldn’t have enjoyed it any more. The coaching staff and players made it a really memorable experience. That was one of the main reasons I chose the WHL.”

Farwell knew getting Khaira committed was a long shot, but the potential reward far outweighed the risk of losing out on a ninth-round pick. He knew that, if Khaira was going to agree to play in Seattle, it was going to be a long process in which he’d need to work extensively with both the player and his family.

“With what happened with his brother, everyone assumed he wasn’t going to play (in the WHL), but things changed and his brother ended up going to Everett and the experience was good here at camp (for Sahvan),” said Farwell of Khaira’s initial WHL experience. “All of the sudden, they were prepared to look at it and were positive about the idea, whereas when everyone talked to (the family) the year before they didn’t think it was something they were prepared to do.”

Khaira joins a talented defensive group that could potentially return their top six blueliners from last year, but almost certainly won’t to make room for the big newcomer. Playing with the heavily-experienced group will help ease Khaira’s transition, and won’t force him into an uncomfortable role during his rookie campaign. Even if the two 20-year-old defensemen currently on the roster, Adam Henry and Evan Wardley, don’t return for their final season, the other four returning players will have over 600 combined games of WHL experience between them.

“I hope to learn how to be a professional,” said Khaira of joining the veteran group. “I hope to be there, maybe not for as long as possible since I hope to be drafted eventually, but mainly I just want to learn from those guys how to be a professional.”

Much like his older brother, a 6-foot-4 power forward, Sahvan won’t shy away from the physical side of the game. However, his play with the puck is also something that deserves to be acknowledged.

“The first pass out of the defensive zone is my strong point,” said Khaira when asked to describe himself as a player. “I like to jump in the play and I like to shoot. Whatever I can do to help the team becomes my ultimate goal.”

It wasn’t long after the difficult news that Dante Fabbro would be headed to the BCHL that the Thunderbirds were able to recover with the signing of Khaira. However, Khaira shouldn’t be thought of as a consolation prize. Instead he’s a unique player with a bright future of his own, and if Seattle can eventually figure out a way to get Fabbro in the mix, they’ll feature two of the league’s top defensemen from the 1998-born age group.

“In the long run, if we can get over the hump with Fabbro, this will have accelerated Khaira’s development more than if had we gone the other way and didn’t have room for him,” said Farwell of how this timing may actually be beneficial for the T-Birds in the long run. “We wanted to get him in. It was important and we’re excited to have him committed and ready to get started.

“He’s a big body who we had in at practice at the end of the year and he looked really good. With his size and vision I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player.”

The 2013 draft class will likely see at least three players be a consistent part of the T-Birds roster during the 2014-15 season, as Khaira will be joined by forwards Kaden Elder, a first-round pick, and Nolan Volcan, who was taken in the second round.

With impressive 16- and 17-year-old age groups already committed, and 15-year-old Matthew Wedman signing on Tuesday to join the team in 2015-16, the Thunderbirds have established a pipeline that will help them contend for the foreseeable future.

Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski