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A look at the young but improved Thunderbirds forwards

Lucas Ciona is one of many young forwards leading the Thunderbirds into the future. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

If the entire world hadn’t slipped into the quicksand pit that is COVID-19, the Seattle Thunderbirds would be a month away from opening up training camp to prepare for the 2020-2021 season. We are still in that pit and since we don’t know for sure when the WHL will open camps, why not take a look at some of the position groups on the Thunderbirds.

Last season, Seattle was young up front.

The Thunderbirds routinely had six rookie forwards in their lineup, including four that were 16-years-old. Those young guys were thrown to the fire but got better as the season went on and Seattle improved its scoring nearly a goal per game over its last 38 contests.

Generally, the top teams in the WHL rely on their 19-year-old core to lead the way. An example of this can be seen in the Thunderbirds team that won the 2017 WHL Championship. That team relied on five 19-year-old forwards, three of whom have made it to the NHL since.

Last year the Thunderbirds had one 19-year-old forward.

This year’s forward group will be young again but could be better in the long run. They will start the season with one 20-year-old forward as opposed to three last season –Conner Bruggen-Cate, Max Patterson, and Andrej Kukuca all graduated. Henrik Rybinski was the lone 18-year-old forward last year and this year there will be four. The four 16-year-old rookies will now be 17 and Seattle will feature at least three rookies up front this season.

Here’s a look at the forwards in the mix – by age – for the upcoming Thunderbirds’ season:

20-year-olds

Keltie Jeri-Leon, RW (Last season – 63 GP, 23G-18A-41Pts): Jeri-Leon found a home in Seattle and set career marks in goals, assists, and points last year. He ended up on the Thunderbirds top line with Rybinski and Conner Roulette and fit in well. He’s respected by the younger guys and will be counted on as a leader both on and off the ice this season.

19-year-olds

Henrik Rybinski, C (Last season — 53 GP, 11G-20A-31Pts): The Florida Panthers prospect slid over to center last year and would eventually become Seattle’s top pivot man. He created a ton of chances but only scored 11 times. If he can convert on more of those looks, he’ll be in for a big scoring season. A relentless forechecker, Rybinski forces a lot of turnovers and is a possession machine that will start as the number one center again.

18-year-olds

Payton Mount, RW/C (Last season – 62GP, 15G-24A-39Pts): Seattle’s 2017 first-round pick isn’t flashy, but he was productive last year. He showed some versatility by filling in at center for portions of the season – something he hadn’t done since Pee Wee hockey – and found a home on the power play. Stationed in the high slot he scored six power-play goals and was second on the team with 16 points with the man advantage. He’ll be a top-six forward this year.

Matthew Rempe, C (Last season – 47GP, 12G-19A-31Pts): A rookie last year, Rempe was a revelation after returning from a preseason injury. Don’t be surprised if he hears his name called in October’s NHL Draft after a season where he was physical while playing with pace and skill. He’s added muscle this summer which makes him scary. Should be Seattle’s second center and look for his 6-foot-8 frame to be parked in front of the opposing goalie on the power play.

Jared Davidson, C (Last season – 59GP, 8G-8A-16P): Is he a center? Is he a winger? The answer is yes. Davidson can play either and is one of Seattle’s more versatile forwards. After going undrafted, Davidson has turned himself into a good junior player that head coach Matt O’Dette can fill in throughout the lineup and in all situations. Is this the year he cracks the top six?

Brendan Williamson, LW (Last season: 54GP, 1G-7A-8Pts): They don’t track it as a stat, but Williamson had to have led the WHL in great saves against last year. Nobody was robbed as many times as he was, and the result was just one goal on his ledger. He played well during his rookie season however and has speed, skill, and is another versatile guy who can play at center if need be. Will he break through scoring-wise this season?

17-year-olds

Conner Roulette, LW (Last season: 54GP, 19G-20A-39Pts): Coming into the season there was hype around Roulette, who put up huge numbers on his way to Seattle, and he lived up to it. A creative scorer, he earned a spot on the Thunderbirds top line as a rookie. He’s entering his NHL Draft season and got a big boost by being invited to Canada’s Hlinka-Gretzky camp — an annual showcase for top prospects. Nobody loves the game more than he does and it appears that the sky’s the limit for Roulette.

Kai Uchacz, C (Last season: 52GP, 2G-6A-8Pts): The Thunderbirds first-round pick in the 2018 draft got better as the season wore on last year. He was relegated to the bottom six but proved to be a top penalty killer and by the end of the year was one of the first guys over the boards when short-handed. The offense will come as he’s given more opportunity and will have a chance to earn the third center position this season.

Lucas Ciona, LW (Last season: 53GP, 3G-10A-13Pts): A combination of size and skating ability allowed Ciona to flirt with top-six minutes early last year. His scoring should increase with more ice time this season. Like Uchacz, Ciona became a strong penalty killer and he just might have the skill set to be a net-front presence on the power play. He may be the strongest player on the club.

Mekai Sanders, RW (Last season: 24GP, 2G-1A-3Pts): After missing the first half of the year to injury, Sanders showed no effects after getting back on the ice in January. Tenacity is the name of his game and despite not being the biggest player, he never turned down a chance to lay a big hit. He eventually earned minutes on the penalty kill and should play a bigger role this coming season.

Reid Schaefer, LW (Last season: 7GP, 0G-1A-1Pt): A 2018 late-round draft pick, Schaefer got a couple looks last year as injuries occurred. A big, skating forward he showed some promise in limited action. He’ll have to impress in training camp to crack the lineup.

Sam Popowich, C (Last season: 7GP, 0G-1A-1Pts): Like Schaefer, Popowich spent last season primarily with the Spruce Grove Saints in the AJHL. He got a brief look with Seattle, showed off some decent speed, and will have to earn his spot in camp.

16-year-olds

Jordan Gustafson, C (Last season with Fort Saskatchewan Rangers AAA): Picked eighth overall in the 2019 draft, Gustafson is a two-way center who can score. He’s been selected for Canada’s U17 development camp and will get a chance to play for Seattle next season. While young, he has leadership potential and could very well develop into a future team captain. As a rookie, he’ll have a learning curve for sure, but the future is bright for Gustafson.

Gabe Ludwig, F (Last season with Pittsburgh Penguins Elite): The Seattle brass has been high on Ludwig since taking a swing at him in the 2019 draft. The Alaska product took his time but decided to forgo the NCAA route and signed with the Thunderbirds earlier this spring. He’s a playmaking forward who scouts say make those around him better.

Nico Myatovic, F (Last season with the Cariboo Cougars): A sixth-round pick in the 2019 draft, Myatovic impressed at the Macs Tournament, where he outperformed some higher picks. That was enough to convince the Thunderbirds to sign him. He most likely will have to wait a year to play full time but is a player to watch.