T-Birds looking for younger defensemen to step up this season
Aug 24, 2016, 5:54 PM
KENT – There’s an old saying in sports that offense puts people in the seats but that defense wins you championships. That was true for the Seattle Thunderbirds last year.
While they had some top-end offensive players, they were one of the strongest defensive clubs in the league, which ultimately was the backbone of their success. As they hit the ice on Wednesday to open their 2016 training camp, they are looking for some new players on defense in hopes to continue their strong play on the blue line.
The T-Birds only allowed 2.58 goals-per-game last year, good enough for third-best in the WHL. They also were one of the top teams in suppressing shots against, averaging only 28.6 shot per game – again, third-best in the league.
That stingy defense was led by two 20 year olds in Jared Hauf and Jerret Smith, who logged a lot of tough minutes for the T-Birds and won’t be easy to replace.
“It’s going to affect us for sure,” assistant coach Matt O’Dette said Wednesday at training camp. “Losing the two 20 year olds with that much experience, who logged so many minutes for us. We expect some guys to step up and it’s an opportunity for guys to step up and assume bigger roles on the back end.”
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Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit will be the first two players asked to step up. The duo made up Seattle’s second defensive pairing last season and were in many ways a 1A to Smith and Hauf.
A year older now, that pairing will become Seattle’s top combo.
“We definitely expect big things out of Bear and Ottenbreit,” O’Dette said. “They’re going to be our anchors.”
Bear turned in a spectacular season with Seattle last year. He set career highs in goals (19), assists (46) and points (65) and will be asked to do the same this year. Ottenbreit is the more physical of the two defensemen and is a nice complement to Bear’s offensive prowess. Expect those two to be the go-to tandem when the opponents have their top line on the ice.
Behind them, the T-Birds are going to look at some younger players to continue their development. Jarret Tyszka and Brandon Schuldhaus had solid rookie seasons last year and now will be counted on for an expanded role.
Tyszka, the former first-round Bantam pick, showed a lot of potential as a 16 year old last year. He suffered a wrist injury in December that slowed him down a bit but picked up some valuable experience nonetheless.
“Tons of potential,” O’Dette said about Tyszka. “I think he’d be a lot further along if he didn’t hit that speed bump. (With) a full offseason of development and training, he looks great so far. A guy with that skill package has us excited for this year.”
Like the top pairing, Tyszka will be the puck mover while Schuldhaus is more of a physical defenseman. The 18 year old Schuldhaus appeared in 57 games for the T-Birds last year and now will be leaned on for more.
Seattle picked up Bryan Allbee from Kootenay at the trade deadline last year and he’ll be stepping in on the T-Birds’ third pairing this year. Who is playing next to him is still a mystery.
A trio of rookies will be looking to take on that spot. Jared Pelechaty was signed midway through the year and ended up appearing in nine games with Seattle as a fill-in for injured players. He’s had a taste of the WHL and has shown that he has some puck moving skills.
Along with Pelechaty, 17 year old Reece Harsch and 16 year old Kabir Gil appear to be the frontrunners to land a roster spot during camp.
“Great opportunity for young guys to step in and earn a spot,” O’Dette said. “Right now it’s pretty wide open. Those guys are in the mix. We’re here evaluating to see if they’re WHL-ready and it’s an opportunity for other guys who aren’t in the conversation yet to get their name in it.”
O’Dette and head coach Steve Konowalchuk will get a look at these guys a lot over the next few weeks as the team transitions from training camp into preseason games. While they may have a younger group on the back end than they had last year, the defense will be just as vital to the team’s success in this one.