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Thunderbirds GM Bil La Forge dishes on the upcoming offseason

Thunderbirds GM Bil La Forge has some moves to make this offseason. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds photo)

The Seattle Thunderbirds are officially in their offseason after completing a sprint of a season two weeks ago. They finished the 23-game schedule with a 10-12-0-1 record which was good enough for third place in the U.S. Division standings.

Standings and records were secondary this year as there were no playoffs, giving the season more of a preseason or training camp feel to it. Development and experience were the main goals for Seattle and general manager Bil La Forge feels that the team accomplished what it set to do.

“I was extremely impressed with all of our players,” La Forge says. “I think out of the 23 games we had one night we weren’t competitive and, in the game, but other than that I thought every night we gave ourselves a chance to win and battle for 60 minutes.”

La Forge praised the developmental step that some of his veterans took.

Henrik Rybinski took a huge step to lead the Thunderbirds in scoring while playing a shut-down center role, manning the power play, and penalty killing. Defenseman Tyrel Bauer was a physical force on the back end while providing leadership during an up and down season. Jared Davidson took a major step forward, filling in as the second center after Matthew Rempe was injured, and set career offensive numbers in just 23 games.

He also liked what he saw from the Thunderbirds heralded young crop. Jordan Gustofson, Kevin Korchinski, Gabe Ludwig, and Jeremy Hanzel all earned regular ice time in high-leveraged roles. They took their lumps at times but also showed a ton of promise.

The team finished just below the .500 mark but played the top teams tough.

“Just being in those games against older teams that were maybe attacking the season a little bit different than we were, that’s obviously going to pay dividends down the road,” La Forge says. “Our guys know that we can play that style of game now. That’s important, we had the puck more than we’ve had in previous years and pushed the pace against these teams.”

With the strange Covid-19 season now in the rearview, La Forge can start to look forward.

With the graduation of Keltie Jeri-Leon, La Forge is left with a roster where every player is eligible to return to the Thunderbirds next season. That doesn’t happen often in junior hockey and it most likely won’t this offseason.

“We have some identified needs that we think we can fill this summer,” La Forge says. “It might take dipping into our draft pick stockpile, but it also might mean moving out a player or two that’s been here a while.”

La Forge has already made one significant move.

On Thursday last week, Seattle acquired the rights to forward Gracyn Sawchyn from the Red Deer Rebels for a future conditional second-round pick.

“He’s a difference maker,” La Forge says.

Sawchyn, who was the top pick in last year’s U.S. Prospects Draft,  will be 16 for the coming season and is coming off a monster season at Shattuck St. Mary’s, one of the country’s premier hockey programs. In 47 games he scored 14 goals, 46 assists for 60 points.

He’s unsigned so La Forge will have to do some recruiting to convince him Seattle is the best road for him.

“He’s a big-time offensive prospect who we’re going to work through,” La Forge says. “It might take us some time to get him to come our way. We think eventually we have a chance and I think if he comes, those are the kinds of moves that put you over the edge. He’s a first-round scorer, he’s creative, he’s competitive, and we just think he’s a big-time NHL prospect who would help us. We want to be playing in May every year, for the right reasons, and we think he could help us do that.”

According to La Forge, Sawchyn has already been offered a spot on the United States National Team Development Program, a major prospect program that has churned out top American players in the past few years.

It will be a tough sell to lure Sawchyn away, but Seattle has some things going for it.

First, Sawchyn will get to play behind the current young Thunderbirds and wouldn’t be relied on to carry the team. He’d also be joining incoming rookies Sam Oremba, Scott Ratzlaff, Brayden Dube, and Sawyer Mynio. All signed Thunderbirds prospects who will be in the mix to make the roster in the fall.

Those four aren’t guaranteed roster spots next year but will be tough to turn away.

“In a perfect world they’ll come in and demand every night spots on our team,” La Forge says. “They’re all going to be given an opportunity. If it fits us best to keep them here, we will but if they have to go back and play midget or Junior A, we’re not scared of that either.”

The arrival of the Seattle Kraken will further help the Thunderbirds players who have NHL aspirations, including Sawchyn.

“We’re going to have NHL general managers in our rink every night,” La Forge says. “For a young prospect, you can’t buy that exposure. We feel we’re in a good spot and at the end of the day, (Sawchyn) and his family will make the decision they feel is best for them and I respect that.”

The Thunderbirds will also be in the import market next season, after playing this year without any on the roster.

Seattle still has the rights to Vladimir Alistrov, whom they acquired from Edmonton in a trade last offseason. Alistrov would also take up an overage spot which could help Seattle complete its roster in the fall.

Also in the mix is Samuel Knazko, a Thunderbirds import pick during last year’s draft. Knazko, a defenseman, was a third-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in October’s NHL Draft. He’s been playing professionally in Finland but has not said ‘no’ to Seattle as of yet.

“We still think we are in the mix there and with those two we still have two picks,” La Forge says. “So we have an opportunity to address needs but we can also take a big swing or two.”

La Forge was recently at the U18 World Championships scouting European players so it will be interesting to keep an eye on who the Thunderbirds take a swing at during the upcoming Import Draft.

Part of La Forge’s rebuild plan was to stockpile draft picks to use as assets either to draft top players or make trades to fulfill needs on the team. He’s got a wave of promising players in the pipeline already and we’ve seen the first glimpses of them and will see more in the fall.

We could see Seattle making more significant moves over this offseason and the coming year.

The chance to land Sawchyn is just the first of those moves but it’s a low-risk, high-reward swing at turning the Thunderbirds into top contenders. And it’s just the beginning.

“It’s a sign that we’re not necessarily sellers anymore, we’re buyers now,” La Forge says.