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Thunderbirds GM Bil La Forge looking to build future in Thursday’s Bantam Draft

Payton Mount was one of four former first-round draft picks to play for the Thunderbirds this past season (Brian Liesse/Thunderbirds)

With the Western Hockey League’s annual Bantam Draft taking place Thursday morning in Red Deer, schools across Western Canada might see an uptick in absentees. Hundreds of 2004-born WHL hopefuls will be eagerly watching online to hear if their name will be announced on a day that could change their hockey-playing lives forever.

The Bantam Draft is how WHL teams build their roster and for Seattle Thunderbirds General Manager Bil La Forge, Thursday will be his first draft as a general manager.

“It’s one of the more stressful days, shaping the future of the franchise with days like this,” La Forge said earlier in the week. “It’s a lot of work but it’s nice to get the reward for the scouts who have worked hard all season. They get to come in and pick the players that we’re going to build around in the future.”

While Thursday is La Forge’s first draft as a general manager, it’s not his first draft.

Prior to joining the Thunderbirds front office last June, he had spent the previous four seasons as the Director of Player Personnel for the Everett Silvertips. He started scouting for Everett in 2008 so these are not new waters for him.

Seattle has three picks in the first 42 selections on Thursday, starting with the eighth pick overall in the first round. The Thunderbirds don’t have a third-round selection but will have at least one in all of the remaining rounds.

For the most part, the kids that will be picked are not household names, yet, but will make up the bulk of rosters in the near future.

“I have a board in my office that has a projected lineup for the next five years so we’re always looking towards building,” La Forge added. “Going into the draft, we’re just trying to secure as much talent as possible. We want to be a talented, fast team.”

The one name that is known heading into the draft is Matthew Savoie who hails from Alberta. Savoie is the consensus most talented player that will be available but may not be picked first by the Winnipeg ICE – holders of the top selection. After being denied by Hockey Canada to be granted an exceptional status to play in the WHL next season, Savoie has committed to play NCAA hockey at Denver University.

Drafting him Thursday would be a risk as it doesn’t look like he will play in the WHL. That doesn’t mean a team won’t take a chance on trying to recruit him, despite his college commitment.

“I would be surprised if he’s not going on the webcasted portion of the draft,” La Forge said, indicating that Savoie would be picked in the first round.

With these players being two years away from having an impact on the roster, most clubs will pick the best player that’s available. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an eye for certain positions.

“We spent all year ranking these players and we’re not going to vary very far off our list,” La Forge said. “If a forward is up and we think he’s got a chance to be a Thunderbird we’re going to take him. Last year we were pretty forward heavy so I’d suspect that there’ll be some defensemen drafted.”

The picks in the first two or three rounds end up getting the most attention but La Forge’s track record with Everett suggests that the later rounds can produce quality players.

While with Everett, La Forge played a role in the drafting of players like Connor Dewar (fifth round), Patrick Bajkov (sixth round), Riley Sutter (sixth round), Wyatt Wylie (seventh round) and Carter Hart (eighth round). All of those players have either made their professional hockey debuts, or have been drafted, and Hart played the bulk of this past season in the NHL with Philadelphia.

“We grade our players and our list will be different than a lot of the other teams,” La Forge said. “We put value on certain things and as you get later in the draft sometimes it’s easier to focus on just those core fundamentals that we’re looking for and that’s when I think you can make some steals in the draft.”

Since joining Seattle, those core fundamentals have been apparent. La Forge values players with skill and that are loaded with speed. It won’t be a surprise if all of the players selected by Seattle on Thursday are described as being one of the fastest players available.

Seattle’s draft class from last year looks to be a promising one and it was able to sign most of the picks.

La Forge, Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson, and their scouts take the time to contact players they are interested in to gauge interest in the WHL and the hope is that the ones who say they want to come, end up signing. Having late round picks decline to sign can be overcome but having top picks choose a different route can hamstring a team and create a hole in certain age groups.

The hope is that La Forge can fill in names on the five-year depth chart hanging in his office with permanent ink. To do that, guys will have to sign.

“Each one of them is a different recruiting situation,” La Forge added. “But I think we’ve had those discussions with the kids that we are interested in and we go into every situation with our eyes wide open. We’re not going to be surprised by anyone… we should have a good idea of the signability of the kid.”

The draft begins Thursday morning in Red Deer at 7:30 am and the first round will be webcast for free on the WHL’s web site.