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What to watch for as Thunderbirds kick off preseason schedule

Matthew Wedman (left) and Samuel Huo (right) will finally faceoff against an opponent as the T-Birds start preseason on Friday (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

After two weeks of grinding it out in practice and scrimmages against friendly fire the Seattle Thunderbirds will face off against a different opponent this weekend.

The Thunderbirds open the annual Delta Hotels Preseason Classic at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett with a Friday morning tilt against the Vancouver Giants. Seattle will then play the host Everett Silvertips Saturday evening before wrapping up the weekend with an afternoon match up with the Spokane Chiefs.

For Seattle, the preseason games this weekend will be a continuation of the roster evaluation and there are still spots to be had. It also is a chance for the veterans to get into regular season form as well as giving the 2003-born prospects their first taste of WHL game action.

“We’re still evaluating guys, trying to pick our team,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said prior to Tuesday’s practice. “I think at this time we start implementing systems stuff gradually. Our 03’s that are signed get an opportunity to get some game action, get their feet wet so that next time around, next year, they’re more comfortable.”

All five U.S. Division teams will be in action this weekend and with three games each day its safe to say that hockey has returned to the Puget Sound region.

Here’s what to look for this weekend.

There are still spots to win on the Thunderbirds roster. The Seattle blue line is mostly set but where will young rookies like Tyrel Bauer and Luke Bateman end up? With injuries limiting defenseman Reece Harsch and Jake Lee, Seattle’s young defensemen will get a lot of playing time this weekend.

With the forward group, there could be some battles at the bottom of the lineup. The top six or seven guys seem to be in place. Players like Tyler Carpendale, Cody Savy, and Holden Katzalay will want to show well to lock down a roster spot. Another forward to watch is 16-year-old Matthew Rempe. The 6-foot-5 winger signed with Seattle this week after a strong camp and could crack the roster.

“There are opportunities up for grabs but we’re looking for the best guys to help our team,” O’Dette said. “Age doesn’t necessarily factor into it too much, if a young guy can contribute, he’ll be on the team. That’s the way we’re approaching it and the battle continues.”

In Everett last season, Payton Mount, dazzled with one of the prettiest end-to-end goals you’ll see. He wasn’t eligible to play a full season with Seattle last year, but he is now. The 2017 first-rounder had a good camp and he’ll be in action this weekend to see how far up the lineup he could play. Is he a top six forward already?

Andrej Kukuca has arrived

The first of Seattle’s two import picks has landed and will play this weekend. Kukuca hails from Slovakia and was on the ice practicing with the Thunderbirds Tuesday. He’ll get a crash course this week and O’Dette says that he’ll get some game action this weekend. A prolific scorer in Europe, this weekend will be the first glimpse to see if that prowess carries into the North American game.

Simon Kubicek, Seattle’ other import pick, has not yet arrived. The Czech defenseman is still working through some immigration paperwork but he is expected to join the team shortly, although most likely not in time to play this weekend.

The goalie rotation

Starting goalie Liam Hughes saw limited scrimmage action in camp. He played one period in Sunday’s Blue-White game but that was it. O’Dette expects to get Hughes into a game this weekend for sure. Hughes will then leave the club to join the Philadelphia Flyers rookie camp.

Two guys are playing to be Hughes’ understudy. Cole Schwebius and Eric Ward have both turned in strong camps and it would reason to expect they would each get a start over the weekend.

Winning is everything, or is it?

Preseason results can be misleading. Teams ice a lineup mixed with veterans and young prospects and the records at the end of the preseason have little to no bearing on how a club will fare during the regular season.

Last year, Seattle had a 1-6 record heading into its regular season schedule. The Thunderbirds would end up above .500 and in the playoffs so you really can’t judge anything on preseason wins and losses.

That doesn’t mean that the Thunderbirds don’t want to win these games.

“Obviously, we’d like a better preseason,” O’Dette said. “We want to play well. We want to see progression throughout the preseason. As long as we see our game improving and guys compete hard (we’ll be OK).”