By Tim Pigulski
It didn’t take long for newly acquired left wing Jaimen Yakubowski to endear himself to Thunderbirds fans. Just 3 minutes and 37 seconds into the second period of Saturday night’s 5-3 Seattle victory over Vancouver, Yakubowski exchanged blows with the Giants’ Brooks Orban.
Having arrived in Seattle just hours before puck drop, Yakubowski and fellow trade acquisition Sam Mckechnie certainly hope to bring more to the Thunderbirds’ lineup than the occasional scrap – something Yakubowski is known for, but Mckechnie isn’t.
Mckechnie did not find himself in the lineup on Saturday night. After being sent home by the Lethbridge Hurricanes after requesting a trade, he hadn’t had much of an opportunity to take the ice. It’s likely he’ll play in Tuesday night’s game against the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Despite the two players requesting a trade at the same time, it’s not something they had discussed beforehand. In fact, the players didn’t hear the news about one another until each had been sent home.
“We didn’t talk about it together, but we both found ourselves in similar situations as 19-year-olds who needed a change,” said Mckechnie.
Yakubowski echoed his current and former teammate’s thoughts.
“It’s something we decided on separately,” he said. “We have the same agent and we do talk about what’s going on, but we inquired about it separately and didn’t know about it until it was brought up later. We kept it to ourselves.”
Coming from the Hurricanes, who currently sit in last place in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, both players are relishing the opportunity to play for the Thunderbirds, who currently possess an impressive 10-3-0-2 record.
“Everything worked out really well in the end. Getting traded to a great organization like Seattle, it’s something really exciting for me,” said Yakubowski, who had one goal in 11 games with his former team. “It felt great to go out there and play with these guys and win a game like that. They’re all great hockey players and I’m really excited to be here.”
“I’m really excited to get back out on the ice,” Mckechnie said. “I’m really looking forward to spending the next couple of months here. These guys can score and they’re working hard and I hope I can add some speed to the lineup and help any way I can.”
With a forward group that now stacks up against some of the best in the entire CHL, the two newcomers’ biggest contribution may come in one area where the Thunderbirds have struggled in recent years – on special teams, particularly the penalty kill.
Thunderbirds general manager Russ Farwell made it clear that both players will play significant minutes in odd-man situations, a role that they are embracing.
“That’s my style,” said Mckechnie, who had 43 points last season. “As a small guy, I have to use my speed to be a pest and get on the bigger guys. I want to be a fly in their ear.”
Without addressing his role on the penalty kill specifically, Yakubowski plays a style that will translate well to situations where the Thunderbirds are shorthanded, a position they’ve found themselves in often this season.
“I’m a grinder,” he said about himself. “I try to be physical out there and get under the other team’s skin. I’m not the most skilled player in the league, but I work hard and like to muck it up in front of the net. I’m going to put my heart on the line for these guys and this team. I’m excited to be a part of a winning team and a winning culture.”
With the acquisitions of the two skilled forwards, as well as Ryan Gropp’s recent signing, the Thunderbirds now feature a roster that essentially plays two first lines and two second lines. Many WHL teams would jump at the opportunity to be able to play guys like Yakubowski and Mckechnie, who both possess some offensive talent as well, on their third or fourth line and penalty kill.
Expectations are sky-high for a roster that now contains nine 19-year-olds, most of whom won’t be around next season. After a tough couple of seasons, the moves being made by the front office indicate a “win now” attitude and a desire to compete for a championship this season.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.