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T-Birds notebook: WHL start date, NHL Draft watchlist, and Birds hit the ice

Conner Roulette (left) and Kai Uchacz (right) were two of the three T-Birds ranked by NHL Central Scouting. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

After two previous target dates had passed, the Western Hockey League announced a new return-to-play date two weeks ago. According to league commissioner Ron Robison, the league will open the season on January 8th.

Unlike earlier dates, Robison stressed that the new date was a ‘firm date’ and not a target or tentative start. Robison had previously claimed that league play would not be able to start until local health authorities in each of the league’s jurisdictions allowed for up to 50-percent attendance at its rinks. However, the league has moved off that stance and will play, even if no fans are allowed into WHL arenas.

All teams will play a schedule confined to within their division to cut down on travel and to avoid having to cross the closed Canadian-U.S. border. With an early May end date in mind, Robison said that a maximum schedule of 50 games was possible although the full schedule would not be released until ‘mid-November’.

The league has yet to formalize a playoff configuration and Robison said that will be determined at a later date in conjunction with the CHL and the Memorial Cup.

For the Seattle Thunderbirds, and all WHL teams, players will report after Christmas to begin an abbreviated training camp which may include exhibition games. The WHL and Robison stressed the overall safety of its players, staff, and fans are driving protocols, details of which have yet to be announced.

Here’s the rest of the news surrounding the Thunderbirds:

Three Thunderbirds land on NHL’s Central Scouting list for 2021 Draft

The NHL released its initial Central Scouting Watchlist for next summer’s NHL Draft on Tuesday. Three Thunderbirds were ranked among 36 WHL players, highlighted by Conner Roulette earning an ‘A’ grade. Lucas Ciona and Kai Uchacz also showed up on the list, both as ‘C’ rated prospects.

Roulette is coming off an impressive rookie season as a 16-year-old and worked his way into the Thunderbirds top forward line midway through the year. He finished with 19 goals with 39 points in 54 games. He was invited to Canada’s Hlinka-Gretzky camp this summer, only to have the camp and tournament canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Uchacz was Seattle’s first-round pick in the 2018 Bantam Draft and scored twice last year, playing mostly in the Thunderbirds bottom-six. He shows offensive promise however and could be in for a bigger year with an elevated role. Ciona played a similar role to Uchacz last season. The power forward has the size at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and chipped in with three goals. Both Uchacz and Ciona became key penalty killers for head coach Matt O’Dette.

An ‘A’ grade by Central Scouting indicates the potential to be a first-round NHL pick. The ‘C’ ranking puts a prospect on the radar for the fourth or fifth round. Far from a final ranking, the watch list is imperfect and is generally used as a guide for who is being looked at, and each NHL team, including the Seattle Kraken, will produce their own internal draft ranking for the 2021 Draft.

As the season progresses, the list is updated, and players can rise or fall.

T-Birds hit the ice early

With the WHL start a few months out, the league is allowing rostered players to be loaned to Junior A, Junior B, and other U-18 leagues. Any players loaned will be allowed to play until mid-December when they will return to their WHL teams.

Several Seattle players are taking advantage of this announcement.

Six Thunderbirds are in Spruce Grove to play with the Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Included in that group is goalie Blake Lyda, Tyrel Bauer, Matthew Rempe, Ciona, Uchacz, and Jared Davidson. The Saints, who are owned by Thunderbirds owners Dan and Lindsey Leckelt, have preseason games against the Sherwood Park Crusaders Friday and Saturday.

Elsewhere, Payton Mount will be playing with the BCHL’s Victoria Grizzlies while Roulette is with the Selkirk Steelers of the MSHL.

Mekai Sanders has spent time practicing and scrimmaging with the BCHL’s Wenatchee Wild this month as well.