THUNDERBIRDS

Thunderbirds’ rookies figure to play important role again in 2016-17

Aug 15, 2016, 10:04 AM | Updated: 10:11 am
Jarret Tyszka got his first taste of the WHL as a 16-year-old and is expected to now be a big contr...
Jarret Tyszka got his first taste of the WHL as a 16-year-old and is expected to now be a big contributor. (T-Birds)
(T-Birds)

While their names may not have stood out in the box score very often, rookies played an important role for the Thunderbirds last year.

Matthew Wedman, Brandon Schuldhaus and Jarret Tyszka were the two most notable newcomers, with the former scoring the series-clinching, double-overtime goal in the Western Conference Finals versus Kelowna and the latter two getting more and more ice time as the season went on. Wedman played in 70 regular-season games, notching 14 points on six goals and eight assists. Tyszka and Schuldhaus both had six points during the regular season.

As the three spent last season getting acclimated to the WHL, they’re all expected to be significant contributors this season. Tyszka and Schuldhaus in particular seem likely to slide up into the team’s second pairing after the graduations of Jared Hauf and Jerret Smith, which means they’ll be playing over 20 minutes per night when you factor in special-teams time as well.

Seattle is deep at center with the potential returns of Mathew Barzal, Scott Eansor and Alexander True, so the pressure won’t be as heavy on Wedman. But T-Birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk will surely want to increase his minutes as it’s very possible that all three of the centers ahead of him on the depth chart are gone next year.

Owen Seidel was the only other rookie to receive significant playing time last year, though his season was cut short after suffering an upper-body injury. Seidel played an important role on the team’s fourth line, wearing down opposing defenses with an aggressive fore-check.

This year, the T-Birds will welcome a group of newcomers who will be asked to jump into a lineup that is capable of duplicating last year’s astounding success.

First and foremost, Seattle will once again need to fill out its third defense pairing with rookies, barring a trade before the regular season to bring in a veteran. According to T-Birds general manager Russ Farwell, the most likely candidates to step in immediately are either 17-year-olds Jared Pelechaty and Reece Harsch – each of whom we saw a brief glimpse of last year – or 16-year-old Kabir Gill.

Harsch and Gill both have good size as they’re listed at 6 foot 2 and 6 foot 1, respectively. Pelechaty is listed generously at 5 foot 11, but he showed last year that despite his small stature, he remains calm in tense situations and is a good puck-moving blue-liner.

Seattle didn’t select a defenseman in the Import Draft – a surprise to many – which makes it even more likely that two of the three listed above will make the team, and possibly all three if one of them holds down the spot of seventh defenseman.

Up front, it’s a little bit murkier as there are so many players who will be competing for few available openings. Josh Uhrich’s retirement frees up one spot and the assumed departure of Ryan Gropp creates two obvious holes.

Fighting for those two spots will be a large group of young players, led by former first-rounder Elijah Brown, who didn’t look uncomfortable as a 15-year-old when he registered two points in two games late in the season. Mackenzie Wight, Wyatt Bear, Ian Briscoe, Luke Ormsby and Dillon Hamaliuk are all possibilities, but there are a number of other former draft picks who will be looking to make an impact at training camp in a few weeks.

In net, Logan Flodell seems likely to take over as the starter at this point, but the backup position – which has shown to be very important over the last couple of years – looks like it will be occupied by a WHL newcomer. Ryan Gilchrist has had strong training camps with Seattle and signed his contract last year, but he has yet to play in a WHL game. Carl Stankowski was the first goalie taken in the 2015 Bantam Draft and the team is very high on him as he enters his first full season of eligibility.

Seattle can’t afford to play just four defensemen over the course of the season, so the biggest pressure will rest on the shoulders of whichever rookie(s) on the blue line make the team. The T-Birds are deeper up front and in net, which means that players in those positions can be brought along more comfortably.

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Thunderbirds’ rookies figure to play important role again in 2016-17