Thunderbirds have added youth and skill to their defense

Mar 17, 2021, 12:23 PM | Updated: 1:09 pm

Thunderbirds rookie Kevin Korchinski (right) battles Cade McNelly for the puck. (Brian Liesse/T-Bir...

Thunderbirds rookie Kevin Korchinski (right) battles Cade McNelly for the puck. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

(Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

The Seattle Thunderbirds had a bit of a redundancy issue with their defense last season. They lacked a consistent puck-mover and would routinely deploy six blueliners who all possessed similar skill sets. That played a role in allowing the second-most goals in the Western Conference but also impacted the offense and the power play.

Things will look different when Seattle kicks off its regular 2020-2021 season Friday night against the Spokane Chiefs. The Thunderbirds have added puck movers to play along with a group of veterans who look to have taken a step forward.

“I think you have to have a mixture of all kinds of defenseman,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette says. “You can’t have six offensive guys, power-play guys, it’s not going to work. Bringing in this element, with our younger guys, with elite skills on the offensive side, it’s something that we needed.”

The younger guys in question will help the returning veteran defenseman and should help Seattle keep the puck out of its net but also help kickstart its offense.

Key among the new players is 16-year-old rookie Kevin Korchinski. Selected 10th overall in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft, Korchinski has grown to 6-foot-1 and during last week’s Blue and White game showed off top-end puck skills, smooth skating, and confidence making plays on the power play.

It’s the power play where Seattle could use his skills the most.

Last season, the Thunderbirds struggled with the man advantage, ending the year 20th in the WHL at just above 15-percent. Seattle routinely would fail to get the puck broken out of its own end and would spend most of the power-play time regrouping after turning it over in the neutral zone.

Korchinski has power-play quarterback written all over him.

“I enjoy being on the power play, scoring goals and all that,” the rookie says. “Getting an opportunity to help create chances, it’s one of my strengths and hopefully I’ll get some time to prove myself.”

He’s not the only newcomer who can advance the puck.

A year older, Jeremy Hanzel, 18, will be an added offensive threat on defense as well. Seattle signed the listed player last season after he posted 36 points in 38 games with the Vancouver NE Chiefs. Like Korchinski, he saw some power-play time during the Blue-White scrimmage.

“When it’s all said and done these guys will be running our power play one day,” O’Dette says. “As we go, they’re going to earn those spots naturally, but we want to get them time in those situations. It fits their skill sets. As they develop and get more comfortable running the power play, we’re going to see them more and more in those spots.”

None of this is to imply that Seattle isn’t returning quality defenseman from its veteran group.

Tyrel Bauer will return and will be a lock for the Thunderbirds top pairing after being drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in October’s NHL Draft. He has the size, physicality, and looked to jump in more offensively during last week’s scrimmage.

He was paired with veteran Cade McNelly, who might have been the best player during the scrimmage, last week but O’Dette has yet to make any final decisions with his veterans.

“It’s a good problem to have,” O’Dette says. “We haven’t necessarily pinned down who’s going to be on that ‘top pair’. We know that each team in the US Division is going to be a tough assignment with their top line. Bauer is a no-brainer for that job but who’s going to play with him is a question.”

McNelly, 19, will be in that mix and looked ready in the Blue-White game. In that scrimmage, he recorded a goal and an assist but more importantly threw timely hits, retrieved the puck calmly, and made pinpoint outlet passes.

Along with McNelly, Luke Bateman, 18, and Ryan Gottfried, 19, will be in the mix with another rookie in Spencer Penner.

All have looked strong in practice the past two weeks and give O’Dette some options with players who have WHL games under their belt. It’s a group that was given a shot early on thanks to a Thunderbirds club that has been rebuilding.

“It’s definitely paid off,” O’Dette says of having to play young defenseman the past couple of seasons. “Bauer has been playing a lot since he’s 16, McNelly spent some time with us a 16 and had ice time the last couple years, he’s ready for more ice time. Same with Bateman. Maybe on more veteran teams they’d get less ice time and wouldn’t be as far in their development.”

It will all begin to shake out this weekend, but the Thunderbirds should ice an improved defense that has new flexibility.

That will manifest itself in fewer goals, shots, and chances allowed but also in their offensive attack. With a combination of veterans and new, exciting puck-moving additions, Seattle’s forwards should have to spend less time deep in their own end. That will allow them to transition the puck quicker and more efficiently than in the past couple of seasons.

How the mix comes together will have a say in the 24-game season and have lasting impacts in the seasons to come.


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