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T-Birds notebook: Final word on the 2019 NHL Draft

Henrik Rybinski made a tough call last year and it paid off for him and the Seattle Thunderbirds (Brian Liesse)

The Seattle Thunderbirds finished the 2018-2019 regular season just a hair above .500 with a 31-29-6-2 record and yet, at this past weekend’s NHL Draft in Vancouver, had four players from that squad drafted.

No other team in the WHL had more players taken this weekend. Not the champion Prince Albert Raiders, not the Western Conference champion Vancouver Giants, making Seattle’s draft class somewhat of a surprise. Or was it?

Seattle’s final record is misleading when you consider that the Thunderbids only had 11 wins on January 1st. The roster was reshuffled, restructured, and they were one of the top teams over the second half.

Two players, Henrik Rybinski and goalie Roddy Ross, were acquired early in January and both would go on to be drafted in Vancouver. Neither player was in the WHL at the time the Thunderbirds brought them in. The fact that both would impress enough for the next three months to draw attention from NHL scouts is remarkable.

Credit should certainly go to both players, but also to general manager Bil La forge, head coach Matt O’Dette, his assistants, goalie coach Ian Gordon, and player development guru Steven Goertzen.

La Forge brought them in, O’Dette and company coached them up, and the players put in the work and got results.

Redemption for Rybisnki

It happens once or twice a year in the WHL. A player is not happy with his situation and wants a change. Maybe its playing time, maybe its lifestyle, its different for every guy. With limited options, players will ask for trades and some will even return home while they wait for that trade.

Sometimes that works out, often it doesn’t.

It couldn’t have worked out better for Rybinski, who was buried on the third line in Medicine Hat and wanted different scenery and a fresh start. So he returned to Vancouver and played with the Coquitlam Express of the BCHL, waiting for a trade.

When Seattle picked him up, he earned a spot in the top six forward group and flourished. His frenzied forechecking was a perfect fit for O’Dette and the Thunderbirds. He caused havoc, forced turnovers and became a point-per-game player.

It worked out for the Thunderbirds, and for Rybinski.

“I can’t say that if I was still there this would have happened,” he said Saturday, about his decision. “I feel like it was the right choice and at the time I was kind of nervous about how things were going to go and it turned out to be really worth it.”

Rybinski is a humble player who is thoughtful, insightful, and when he hits training camp with the Thunderbirds, he’ll be in another new role.

Seattle is going to play a number of young and inexperienced players in the coming season. Rybinski will now be leaned on as a leader and an older player that has some wisdom to share.

“I’m ready to embrace the challenges that being an older guys has,” he said. “I just want to be the guy a younger guy looks up to. I know I’m not that old yet, 18, I still have a lot of time, but I’m just going to try to inspire the younger players.”

Patience pays off for Matthew Wedman

One of the last holdovers from the Thunderbirds 2017 WHL Championship squad, Wedman had been passed over by the NHL twice before.

The 6-foot-3 center kept grinding.

He scored 40-goals last year and put the team on his back for stretches over the second half. Not only did he drive the offense but he was physical, won face offs, and played in every situation for O’Dette and the Thunderbirds.

There’s an old adage that if you’re 19-years-old and can play, someone will find you. That couldn’t be more true for Wedman.

Even if the Florida Panthers hadn’t chosen him in the seventh round on Saturday, Wedman had three offers to attend NHL development camps this week. He was going to get a look, something the Panthers realized as they mulled over who to pick with their last pick.

It’s a good reminder to players who get overlooked early on in their careers. It takes patience and some self-belief.

When Wedman came to Seattle, after being selected in the second round of the 2014 Bantam Draft, he was raw. He wasn’t a fluid skater and it took a while for him to learn how to utilize his big frame. But, every season he improved, the skating got better, and he found his game.

It has now paid off.

“I think it’s been to think the game at a higher pace,” he said Saturday afternoon about where his game has improved the most. “That’s the biggest difference from going from Midget to Junior. You have to play with confidence, know when to shoot, when to skate it and pass.”

Two players with Seattle ties also drafted in Vancouver

In the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, Seattle picked up defenseman Layton Ahac in the third round. Ahac has not signed with the Thunderbirds and instead played for the Prince George Spruce Kings in the BCHL. He committed to playing NCAA hockey for Ohio State and Saturday was drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights in the third round.

He talked about choosing the BCHL over Seattle and the WHL.

“I went to the camp and I liked it,” he said at Rogers Arena Saturday. “I didn’t see a point in signing until I was old enough to play in the league, so I waited it out. Some interest from the BCHL came and I just went with my gut feeling. I went to Prince George, which is where I play, and I just fell in love with it.”

In the fifth round of the NHL draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs selected defenseman Mike Koster. The Minnesota product is on Seattle’s protected list after the Thunderbirds acquired his rights from the Calgary Hitmen in last summer’s trade of Carl Stankowski.

Koster is slated to play in the NCAA for the University of Minnesota.

Next up, the CHL Import Draft

There’s more drafting coming up for Seattle as the CHL Import Draft takes place Thursday morning. The Thunderbirds hold the 19th pick and will be making a selection. They have defenseman Simon Kubicek and forward Andrej Kukuca on their roster currently and a decision will have to be made.

Seattle will only be able to keep two imports and one guy will have to be let go before the season begins.