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Busy draft day for Thunderbirds ends with two trades and 13 players selected

Seattle took Jordan Gustafson with its first pick in Thursday's WHL Bantam Draft (Thunderbirds)

Bil La Forge made his first WHL Bantam Draft as the Seattle Thunderbirds general manager a memorable one on Thursday.

After swinging a four-player, blockbuster trade with Kelowna he ended up with two picks in the top ten and the Thunderbirds ended the day with 13 drafted players and two trades.

The big move was the early trade of Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee and Cole Scwebius to Kelowna for Conner Bruggen-Cate, this year’s 10th pick overall, a first-round selection in 2022, as well as a second-round pick in 2021.

Kelowna will host next year’s Memorial Cup and was looking to beef up a roster that missed the playoffs this past year. La Forge and the Rockets began discussing a deal in the days leading up to Thursday’s draft and finalized it in the morning.

“They have a goal and a mandate in mind, so do we,” La Forge said about the deal. “We like our young defense and we thought we could eat those minutes (lost by trading Lee). Losing ‘Hammer is going to be a bit of a hit for sure and Schwebie is a great kid. We gave up three good pieces, definitely, but we also did a really great job today of solidifying our young core. Going with the group that we drafted last year that we’re so proud of, these guys that we got today are equally as talented.”

With its first pick, the eighth overall, Seattle selected Jordan Gustafson from Androssan, Alberta. Playing in the AMBHL last season with the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers, the 5-foot-10 center scored 31 goals to go with 39 assists in 33 games. With the pick acquired from Kelowna, the 10th overall, the Thunderbirds picked up defenseman Kevin Korchinski from Saskatoon. Korchinski played last year with the Sask Generals and had 47 points (10-37-47) in 31 games.

Both players fit the mold that La Forge is looking for in future Thunderbirds.

“They’re exactly what we want to be,” he explained. “They’re fast and smart. Both guys are elite skaters. Gustafson was captain of his team, right near the top of the scoring lead. Korchinski was the captain of his team and our guys all year have identified those two guys as important pieces for us going forward. We were chopping at the bit to get them.”

All of Thursday’s draft picks are at least a year away from playing in the WHL and with the big trade, the focus turned to this coming season.

Hamaliuk and Lee were both players that were to play large roles in the upcoming season. La Forge looks at the deal that ends up netting two first-round picks and a second round pick as one that will allow the Thunderbirds to build a strong team and sustain being competitive.

With the loss of a player like Hamaliuk, it also gives some new guys a chance to step up. Jared Davidson took strides last year as a rookie and incoming Brendan Williamson and Michael Horon now have a chance to earn some playing time up front for the Thunderbirds.

“We wanted to clear up some ice time and ability for these guys to step into roles,” La Forge said. “Once the season starts, you see where guys fall. You hope the guys had good summers. We’re a hard team to play against and I think we’ll continue to be that. The truth of the matter is that we went a lot of last year without Hammer. ‘Davie showed at times that he can play.

“We made the trade for Williamson, I envision him as eventually a top-six player and he’s going to get a chance to come in now and show us that. We think that moving forward his was the best trade for the franchise.”

With Bruggen-Cate coming back from the Rockets, La Forge will have some tough decisions to make with the 20-year-old slots next year. Seattle will have to narrow its way down to just three and Bruggen-Cate joins a group with Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Andrej Kukuca, and Jaxan Kaluski.

There is some unknown with Wedman and Tyszka. After a breakout season saw him pot 40 goals, there is a chance the big center, Wedman, gets drafted and ends up in pro hockey this year. Tyszka has yet to sign with the Montreal Canadiens, who drafted him in 2017, and if they do, he could also end up in the AHL.

The addition of Bruggen-Cate gives La Forge and the team some insurance.

“We’re going to allow it to unfold,” La Forge said of the over-aged situation. “If Matthew Wedman gets drafted into the NHL and gets an AHL contract we’re going to be extremely proud of him and that’s what we’re here for. We like all four of our 20-year-old options from last year and we’re adding one to the mix.”

Seattle had two picks in Thursday’s second round and first took defenseman Spencer Penner out of Manitoba. Penner played with Eastman in the WBD1 last season and scored 14 times for 40 points in 35 games.

With its second selection in the second round, Seattle went north to Alaska and took Gabe Ludwig from Eagle River.

He would end up being one of four American players that the Thunderbirds selected Thursday. Seattle hasn’t drafted many U.S.-born kids in the past and their willingness to sign and play in the WHL is always in question.

“Gabe is another guy our scouts have seen play a lot this year,” La Forge said. “We’ve had really good conversations with him and his family. They’re excited about the potential in Seattle and we felt it was an opportunity to get another first round player with our second pick in the second round. They’ve indicated to us that they consider us to be a very viable option.”

In the eighth round, Seattle selected Cruz Lucius out of Blain, Minn. and Jacob Lize Rochon who is from San Jose but was playing in Detroit with Detroit Belle Tire 14U.

Lucius is an interesting player as he has already committed to play NCAA hockey at the University of Minnesota, one of the youngest players to ever commit to playing college hockey.

“When you’re late in the draft like that you take a giant home run swing,” La Forge said of Lucius. “If he goes on our college list then so be it. Lize is a guy that has indicated to us he is interested in playing in the Western League. He’s friends with (Seattle’s 2018 draft pick) MeKai Sanders and is a nasty son-of-a-gun to play against. He raises the temperature of the game.”

In the ninth round Seattle added one more U.S. player, Brodrick Williams, who hails from Southern California but was playing hockey with Shattuck-St. Mary’s.

The Thunderbirds ended the day by picking up goalie Blake Lyda in a trade with the Everett Silvertips. Lyda was injured for most of last season but did play in three games with Everett in 2017-2018. He cost Seattle a 2021 third-round pick, the pick that Everett sent to Seattle as part of last January’s Zack Andrusiak trade, and will most likely fill in as the back up to Roddy Ross.