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Thunderbirds notebook: Draftee signings, imports and ex ‘Birds

Seattle forward Andrej Kukuca is in an interesting position as the club prepares for June's import draft (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

Despite being in their off season, the Seattle Thunderbirds and General Manager Bil La Forge have had a busy couple of weeks.

Wednesday morning, the club announced that it had signed the first of two second-round draft picks, Spencer Penner, to a standard WHL player agreement. Penner was the third such signing in a week’s time as first-round picks Jordan Gustafson and Kevin Korchinski were inked the previous week.

The Thunderbirds have now signed their first three picks from the 2019 Bantam Draft that took place earlier in the month. This is a trend that is carrying over from last year’s draft haul that saw the them get seven of their nine picks in the fold.

Signing Bantam players can be a tricky proposition for a team in the WHL. Players have options and can choose to forgo playing in the WHL to pursue a route through NCAA hockey.

Seattle’s 2016 Bantam Draft saw them sign first-round pick Jake Lee, eighth-rounder Graeme Bryks, and 10th round selection Cole Schwebius. They missed out five other picks which includes second-round pick Eric Fawkes and third-rounders Alex Swetlifkoff and Layton Ahac. After a trade, Sweflikoff eventually signed with the Kelowna Rockets last year while Ahac is committed to Ohio State after playing for the BCHL’s Prince George Spruce Kings last season and is ranked 64th among North American skaters by Central Scouting for this June’s NHL Draft.

That can leave an age group hole on the roster and the Thunderbirds have had to fill some of those misses via trades.

All WHL teams scout Bantam players and try to gauge interest before spending a valuable pick on them. The Thunderbirds have done a good job the last two years in their scouting to make sure that the players they commit to with a draft pick are willing to commit to them. It doesn’t happen by accident and requires a great deal of due diligence as well as communication with the player and his family.

Credit should go to La Forge but also to Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson, Director of Scouting Mark Romas and the rest of the club’s scouting team. Not only have they been able to draft players that have followed through and signed, but they’ve selected guys that appear to be highly skilled.

Seattle still has 10 draft picks from the latest Bantam Draft to work on and, surely, not all of them will sign. The Thunderbirds drafted four U.S. Born players this spring and the NCAA route is going to be competition in signing them. However, when you hit on your first three picks, coming off signing seven players the year before, you can afford to take a flyer on a player or two. Hitting on one or two would be an added bonus.

The Thunderbirds, and their scouts, have set themselves up in a position to acquire a great deal of talent moving forward.

As summer approaches, here is the latest news surrounding the Thunderbirds:

Thunderbirds select 19th in June’s CHL Import Draft

This year’s CHL Import Draft will take place on June 27th and the Thunderbirds will be making one pick at 19th overall. Currently Seattle has forward Andrej Kukuca and defenseman Simon Kubicek on the roster as its two imports.

They can only keep two which means there will be a decision to make.

Kukuca’s situation is the one in flux. The Solvakian forward started slow last year but caught fire over the second half of the season. After returning from the World Junior Championships, where he played for Slovakia, he scored 18 of his 25 goals and 33 of his 57 points in 30 games down the stretch. He would go on to add four more goals on seven points in Seattle’s six-game playoff loss to the Vancouver Giants.

The problem is that Kukuca will be 20-years-old next season and would take up one of Seattle’s three over-aged spots as well as one of the two allowed import slots. The door is still open for him to return, however.

Seattle will still use the 19th pick in the Import Draft and make a selection. The WHL rules only allow them to have two imports so either Kukuca, or the player picked at 19, will have to be released.

The decision won’t have to be made right away and may hinge on how the team’s over-aged situation plays out. Currently, Kukuca joins Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Jaxan Kaluski, and Conner Bruggen-Cate as potential 20-year-olds for next season and only three can stay.

Wedman could be key here. If he is selected in June’s NHL Draft he could potentially be sent to play professionally in the AHL this coming year. If that were to happen, Seattle may opt to keep Kukuca, even though he would take up two slots.

However, if at 19 the Thunderbirds end up with a high-end prospect, it could be Kukuca who is the odd man out. Clearly, there is still a lot to sort out here.

Tyszka a free agent?

After being drafted during the 2017 draft by the Montreal Canadiens in the fifth round, Tyszka has yet to sign an entry-level contract with the NHL club. The deadline for Montreal to do so is June 1 and if Tyszka goes unsigned he will become a free agent again.

The 1999-born defenseman was injured in a development camp with the Canadiens last summer and missed half of the WHL season in Seattle. When he returned, he provided some much needed veteran stability to a young Thunderbirds blue line and finished with his strongest offensive season. Limited to just 41 games, he posted 30 points (8-22-30) with a career-best .73 points-per-game. He also potted four game-winning goals for the Thunderbirds.

If Tyszka is indeed not signed he should be a lock for one of the Thunderbirds returning three 20-year-old slots next season.

Ex Birds in big games

While the NHL is down to the Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues, there have been some ex Thunderbirds playing in high profile games of late.

Keegan Kolesar, part of the 2017 WHL Championship team, scored what would be the game-winning goal for the Chicago Wolves on Monday to clinch their Western Conference Finals series against the San Diego Gulls. Kolesar and the Wolves – who are the Vegas Golden Knights affiliate – will now advance to the Calder Cup Final to face the Charlotte Checkers, beginning Saturday night.

Meanwhile, Team Canada lost in the IIHF World Championships gold medal game to Finland this past weekend. Seattle’s all-time leader in defenseman scoring, Shea Theodore, scored the lone goal for Canada in the loss and was named player of the game.