By Tim Pigulski
The Seattle Thunderbirds’ roster looks much different today than it did at the beginning of September.
Gone are forwards Seth Swenson, Riley Sheen, Erik Benoit, Michal Holub, and Carter Folk. On defense, Griffin Foulk, Jesse Forsberg, and Austin Douglas are all playing elsewhere. Justin Myles, who began the season in a battle for the No. 1 goaltending spot, has moved on to Kamloops.
Arriving in Seattle have been four former members of the Lethbridge Hurricanes in Adam Henry, Sam McKechnie, Jaimen Yakubowski, and Russell Maxwell. Taran Kozun came to Seattle at the trade deadline and has been a revelation in net.
The talent that the Thunderbirds have acquired has been invaluable in helping them clinch a playoff berth and their first winning record since the 2008-2009 season, including a turnaround that already includes 15 more wins than they accumulated last season.
Henry hasn’t been the flashiest player since he arrived in Seattle, but he has been consistent and played in every situation. On the power play, he’s taken some of the pressure off of Shea Theodore as the only puck-moving defensemen. For most of the season, he’s been paired with rookie Ethan Bear and provided guidance that has been instrumental in the young blueliner’s development.
With 35 points in 57 games, the Winnipeg native has been Seattle’s second-leading scorer on defense and ranks fifth on the team with 28 assists.
“He gave us a real good puck handler and he’s been a great fit with Bear,” general manager Russ Farwell said about Henry. “He really rounded out our defensive depth and has given us some extra offense back there in addition to Theodore.”
Maxwell, Yakubowski, and McKechnie were Lethbridge’s top three scorers last season. This year, however, their biggest contributions are those that aren’t showing on the score sheet. All three have excelled in shutting down the opposition’s top lines and killing penalties.
Maxwell has been an exceptional addition in the middle, winning faceoffs and playing in all three situations. With the recent illness of Scott Eansor, Maxwell’s addition has become even more important.
“Maxwell has been a real feisty and competitive player over his career,” Farwell said about the 5-foot-8 center. “He’s been real important with Eansor out, but has also contributed a lot on offense.”
Yakubowski has been one of the hardest-nosed players in the league since his arrival, accumulating 110 penalty minutes in 40 games, including 13 fighting majors.
Farwell describes Yakubowski as a physical player who “plays with an edge and intimidates his opponents.” Being such a well-rounded player capable of scoring points, shutting down opposing scorers, and standing up to opposing enforcers makes Yakubowski one of the most valuable players on the team.
McKechnie, who says that the role he enjoys playing is that of “a fly in the opponent’s ear,” has been just that since arriving in Seattle. He’s been perhaps the team’s best penalty killer and a constant nuisance for opposing defensemen in their own zone.
“McKechnie has been really consistent and reliable on the penalty kill,” Farwell said. “I wouldn’t say [Maxwell, Yakubowski, and McKechnie] are playing a different role here, but these three guys aren’t always being counted on to score like they were in the past. We’re a team that’s hard to shut down because we aren’t just focused on one scorer – the threat is spread out, which makes it tough to neutralize.”
Each player has been a welcomed addition, but no one could have expected Kozun to perform the way he has since leaving Kamloops.
In 19 games, he is 13-5-0-1 with a .943 save percentage a miniscule 1.81 goals-against average. After a hot start that included back-to-back shutouts over division rivals Spokane and Tri-City, Kozun hasn’t slowed down, continuing his dominance of the WHL in allowing more than three goals in a game just once.
“We expected him to come in and play well, but I don’t think we expected back-to-back shutouts,” Farwell said of Kozun, who has won the CHL’s top goaltender award twice since arriving in Seattle. “We spend much less time in our own end with him in net. He’s great at handling the puck and gets things going the other way quickly.
“He came in here and looked at this opportunity as a new start. He’s such a solid kid, low-maintenance and he’s always in a good mood.”
All five players that Seattle acquired are playing their 19-year-old seasons, which means we already know that some of them won’t be here next year. Considering Seattle has six 19-year-olds on its roster in addition to the five new faces, the moves left some scratching their heads. However, when you consider what the Thunderbirds gave up in each of the trades, it’s tough to say that Seattle lost on any of the deals.
In acquiring Henry, the Thunderbirds sent the 18-year-old Foulk to Lethbridge. While he could have given them an extra year of service time, it didn’t seem likely Foulk would be with the team next season anyway. With three 18-year-old defensemen (Shea Theodore, Jared Hauf, and Jerret Smith) and a 16-year-old (Ethan Bear) receiving consistent minutes this year, four spots were already almost guaranteed to be locked up next season. Kevin Wolf, 17, has been a healthy scratch much of the season, but will also be fighting for a spot next year.
In the pipeline, the Thunderbirds are hoping to receive a commitment soon from highly-touted prospect Dante Fabbro, and Luke Osterman, 16, showed enough in training camp to convince many that he might even make the team this season.
With seven defensemen potentially fighting for a spot for next season, as well as the possibility of Henry and/or Evan Wardley returning, the defensive group is filled with both young and veteran talent, even without Foulk in the mix.
The moves of both Jesse Forsberg and Austin Douglas follow the same logic, as neither would have had a place here next season. Forsberg, 20, is in his final WHL season, and Douglas, 17, had fallen behind Wolf for the seventh defensive spot this season.
Swenson, 20, and Holub, 17, both sought trades due to a lack of playing time. Holub may be the biggest loss of all of the players that Seattle sent elsewhere, but Seattle has a bright group of 16-year-olds and reinforced its 1996-born age group with the offseason addition of Eansor and the in-season signing of Calvin Spencer out of Minnesota.
Benoit, another 20-year-old, had been relegated to fourth line and penalty killing duties, both roles that Seattle felt were better filled by younger players.
Sheen, 19, and Folk, 17, were sent to Lethbridge in exchange for Yakubowski and McKechnie. Folk’s future seemed to have him playing the role of enforcer, a place Seattle didn’t have room for with its crop of young talent. Sheen is a good player and was difficult to give up, especially with how well he was playing at the time, but at 19 years old, the team gained even more value with the two players it acquired.
Myles, an 18-year-old goaltender, had fallen behind Danny Mumaugh, who is a year younger, in the battle for the top spot in net. With 16-year-old Logan Flodell fighting hard for a roster spot next season, there simply was no room for Myles, who has also had trouble staying off of the injured list during his career.
Ultimately, each of the trades benefited Seattle a great deal this year, and sacrificed little for the future. The T-Birds sent a few mid-round draft choices the other way as components of different trades, but with the pending wholesale of soon-to-turn-20-year-olds this offseason, they’re sure to recover some of those choices, in addition to the third-round pick they acquired for Forsberg.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.