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Top picks Jordan Gustafson and Kevin Korchinski bring high skill to Thunderbirds

Defenseman Kevin Korchinski was selected 10th overall by Seattle, one of two top ten Bantam Draft picks for the club. (Thunderbirds)

They were in different Canadian provinces, one at a school pancake breakfast while the other was in gym class, but Jordan Gustafson and Kevin Korchinski both would end up as first-round selections by the Seattle Thunderbirds in last Thursday’s WHL Bantam Draft.

Gustafson, a center, was taken with the eighth pick overall while the defenseman Korchinski was chosen 10th, a pick that Seattle acquired after swinging a block-buster trade with the Kelowna Rockets. Both will now be key parts of the Thunderbirds future.

“I was thrilled,” Korchinski, who hails from Saskatoon, says. “Seattle is a great place. Great hockey city with great coaching and just it’s a really good place to go to. They had interest in me, but I had no clue if I would go to them.”

For promising young hockey players in Western Canada, the Bantam Draft is a big day.

It’s a day that is the culmination of a long Bantam season played under the microscope of scouts from the 22 WHL clubs. When the day arrives, it can be nerve-wracking.

Getting selected is one thing but going in the top-ten is another.

“Going into the day I had no clue who I was going to, anyone who picked me would have been a surprise.,” Gustafson says. “I just wanted to go to a great team and that’s exactly what I got. That’s what I got with Seattle. I’m really happy going to Seattle, it’s such a great organization.”

Seattle General Manager Bil La Forge has been on the job for about a year now. In that time, he has made an unmistakable mark on the Thunderbirds franchise.

His trade deadline deals shook up the Seattle roster, improving it while also acquiring future assets. The Bantam Draft Day trades were another shake up , but one that secured two first-round picks, along with a future second. It was a trade that La Forge believes will allow for the Thunderbirds to have sustained success.

La Forge has also been consistent about the type of team, and players, he wants to accumulate in Seattle. Hearing the two first-rounders describe their games, its clear that they fit the La Forge mold.

“I think I’m a hard-working, 200-foot player,” Gustafson says of his game. “I think I can contribute in the offensive zone and put the puck in the net, set my players up. I’m also pretty defensive. I like being on the defensive side of the puck, so I think I’m just an all-around player.”

Playing for Fort Saskatchewan, which despite its name is in Alberta, just outside of Edmonton, Gustafson put up impressive numbers. In 33 AMBHL games last year he scored 31 times, adding 39 assists to pile up 70 points.

He says he didn’t know much about Seattle before being drafted but has been talking to another Fort Saskatchewan product of late, to learn more.

“I know Cade McNelly,” Gustafson says. “Every day I’m learning something new about the organization. I played with his younger brother. I know his family quite a bit, and I’ve been talking to him.”

On draft day the Seattle defenseman sent a congratulatory tweet to Gustafson which prompted a humorous reply from the newly minted Thunderbirds prospect.

While he plays a different position, Korchinski seems to possess a similar skill set to his fellow top pick.

“I label myself as a fast, puck-moving defenseman who jumps up into the play and tries to make things happen,” he says.

He made things happen last year with the Saskatoon Generals as he potted 10 goals while assisting on 37 more for a 47-point season in just 31 games. He projects to be a future power-play quarterback for the Thunderbirds as well.

While he’s a defenseman, he likes the way Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane plays, especially the way he handles the puck.

For blue-line inspiration he mentions San Jose defenseman Brent Burns among his favorites and admires the quick and accurate snap shot that Burns deploys. Burns is also known for his epic beard and while Korchinski is clean shaven now, could a similar beard be in his future?

“That would be something,” he said with a chuckle.

The Thunderbirds will get an early look at the two, along with all their recent draft picks, at their spring camp held at the end of the month in Edmonton.

It will be a chance for future teammates to meet and get to know each other as well as meet the coaches. Both Gustafson and Korchinski are looking forward to the camp.

“I’m just hoping to go in there, meet a host of new people and show Seattle that they did the right thing in selecting me in the draft,” Gustafson says. “I’m excited to get to meet everyone and build relationships with people in the organization.”

Neither player has officially signed on to play in the WHL yet and have options. Players can sign with the WHL club that drafts them but that means they give up their eligibility to play NCAA hockey.

The Thunderbirds have had success of late, getting their picks to sign and are coming off a year where none of their higher picks chose a different route.  Both Gustafson and Korchinski grew up watching the WHL and sound as if signing with the Thunderbirds is most likely in the cards.

“I definitely want to go to the WHL,” Korchinski says. “It’s the path that I want to go on. I went to (Saskatoon) Blades games all year. It was a lot of fun to watch the speed of the game and the flow.”

Gustafson expresses similar sentiments.

“That’s definitely the route I hope to take,” he says. “It’s such an elite league and somewhere that I’ve always wanted to play as a young kid…it’s been a dream of mine.”

After spring camp, the two will next be on the ice for the Thunderbirds at training camp in August.

If they sign, they will be able to play in the preseason games but won’t be able to join the Thunderbirds as full-time players until the 2020-2021 season. The Thunderbirds like the potential of the two first-round picks and they could end up being part of a young core of highly-skilled players that Seattle has stocked-piled over the past two drafts.

Training camp will be a good test for them.

Not only will they get a taste of the WHL lifestyle but will get a look at the style of play.

“I think it’s going to be different,” Korchinski says. “Making that jump to stronger and more skilled players, it’s going to be fun to be a part of. I’m looking forward to it.”