Previewing the rest of the US Division entering the 2016-17 T-Birds season

Aug 29, 2016, 3:20 PM

Tri-City’s Michael Rasmussen is being counted on to build on an impressive rookie season. (WHL ph...

Tri-City’s Michael Rasmussen is being counted on to build on an impressive rookie season. (WHL photo)

(WHL photo)

We’ve kept a close eye on the Seattle Thunderbirds and all of their moving and shuffling this offseason. The T-Birds hope to sit atop the US Division once again, but the rest of the division figures to look very different than it did last year. We spoke to individuals who cover each team to get their thoughts on their team’s offseason activity.

Portland Winterhawks, by Chad Balcom of Pucklandia Podcast

Almost every skater underachieved for Portland in 2015-16. However, they’ll still need to replace most of their offensive production from a disappointing season. Jamie Kompon’s biggest pitfall with the ‘Hawks was in the development of players.

Gone up front are Dominic Turgeon, Alex Schoenborn, Rihards Bukarts and Paul Bittner. These represented three of their top four scorers and a player they were counting on prior to season ending injury.

On defense, Jack Dougherty and Blake Heinrich are moving on.

Goalie Adin Hill will be playing pro hockey this season as well.

Notable additions include Henri Jokiharju (D), Joachim Blichfeld (F) and Jackson Caller (D). Jokiharju is considered by some to be the top Finn available for the next NHL draft:

Blichfeld went in the 7th round to the Sharks in the most recent NHL draft and was picked by Halifax in the last CHL import draft, but Halifax went with their returning Euros instead – so there have been eyes on him for some time now.

Caller made a strong bid to make the Winterhawks last season, but he got caught in the numbers game.

Portland will be looking for big years from returnees like Keegan Iverson (20), Cody Glass (17), Ryan Hughes (17) and Bronson Sharp (16), to name a few. Iverson has one last shot at a pro deal after falling short of the potential we saw early in his junior career. Folks are high on Glass – there’s first-round NHL Draft talk surrounding him. Hughes was given a larger role than most undersized 16s last season. Portland fans are optimistic about having Mike Johnston developing these guys again.

Rodrigo Abols presents an interesting situation: if he returns, he’s a “two-spotter” as an overage and a Euro, and Portland now holds the rights to three imports as well. Vancouver could sign him to a pro deal and assign him to the minors but they haven’t done so yet.

The biggest issue they face is in goal: they enter a season with a grand total of eight WHL wins on their roster – four each for Mike Bullion and Cole Kehler, both 19s this season.

Everett Silvertips, by Jesse Geleynse of The Everett Herald

Last season, the Everett Silvertips significantly overachieved for the second straight year. The Tips led the US Division for much of the season before they were ultimately run down by eventual Western Conference champion Seattle.

Everett graduated overage forwards Remi Laurencelle and Carson Stadnyk and defenseman Cole MacDonald. Laurencelle and Stadnyk provided a significant portion of Everett’s admittedly paltry offense a season ago.

Both Euros on last year’s team, Yan Khomenko and Dario Winkler, were also released after the season.

A once muddled overage situation for the upcoming season has cleared up a bit as defenseman Brycen Martin will play professionally, forward Dawson Leedahl has been traded to Regina and defenseman Tristen Pfeifer has retired due to injury.

That leaves forwards Graham Millar and Brandon Ralph and defenseman Lucas Skrumeda as the remaining overage candidates, but don’t be surprised if general manager Garry Davidson tries to swing a deal to bring in a high-scoring 20 year old who needs a new home.

Everett has one of the top goaltenders in the CHL in Carter Hart, a second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers. The Tips also have a strong defensive presence led by 2015 Montreal first-rounder Noah Juulsen, who is presumably in his final year with Everett before moving on to the pro ranks. Fellow 19-year-old D-man Kevin Davis is also a key returnee.

Up front the Tips will look for increased contributions from Matt Fonteyne and Patrick Bajkov, both who were key contributors on last year’s second line.

Sean Richards was acquired in the Leedahl trade and is a 1998-born forward. The Tips are very thin in that class with the exception of Hart.

Finnish right wing Eetu Tuulola and Slovakian right wing Mario Mucka were Everett’s two picks in the CHL import draft and will look to provide offense. Tuulola also was picked in the sixth round of the NHL draft by Calgary.

Look for 16 year olds Wyatte Wylie, Montana Onyebuchi and Gianni Fairbrother to make the team out of camp as well.

Spokane Chiefs, by Thomas Clouse of The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Chiefs were a team haunted by injuries and inconsistency last season. However, all those minutes given to younger players gives the organization hope that the Chiefs can turn all that experience into success this coming campaign.

On offense, the top scoring threats all return, led by Kailer Yamamoto (19 goals, 71 points); older brother Keanu Yamamoto (22 goals, 54 points); Dominic Zwerger (team leading 27 goals, 55 points); Markson Bechtold (17 goals, 48 points); and Hudson Elynuik (19 goals, 44 points), who was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in the third round (74th overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft.

But the Chiefs lost a captain and glue guy in defenseman Jason Fram (12 goals, 46 points). His leadership alone could provide enough spark to turn a close game into a thrilling victory.

On the defensive side, the team does return Tyson Helgensen and Dalton Hamaliuk, who has the size (215 pounds) to provide enough thump to keep opposing forwards looking over their shoulders.

The team will also bring along the 2015 No. 1 pick Ty Smith, who got a cup of coffee with the team last season. Also look for “big” things from Trent Huitema, a 1998-born defenseman, who is every bit his listed height of 6 foot 7.

In net, the team returns starter Tyson Helgensen (0.892 saves percentage; 3.16 GAA; 1 shutout). However, the team traded for 20-year-old Jayden Sittler and has prospects Matt Berlin and Donovan Buskey, all who will compete for the job.

Sittler, who played for Lethbridge (2.94 GAA and .905 saves percentage), would have to compete for one of the overage positions to make the team. The other candidates are Zwerger, Keanu Yamamoto and forward Jacob Cardiff.

Zwerger, of Austria, is also a “two-spotter” who will compete with newly drafted Czech players Ondrej Najman and Pavel Kousal, a pair of 1998 forwards, for the two import-player positions.

Tri-City Americans, by Annie Fowler of The Tri-City Herald

Injuries derailed the Tri-City Americans last year, losing D Riley Hillis and F Taylor Vickerman for the season early on. The loss of rookie F Kyle Olson (played 19 games) compounded problems as the Americans struggled on offense.

Gone are leading scorer Parker Bowles, captain Beau McCue and rugged F/D Mackenze Stewart. D Brandon Carlo has another year of eligibility, but has opted to join the Boston Bruins organization.

The Americans have room for an overage player. They have F Tyler Sandhu and D Jeff Rayman. A top-scoring forward would be the best move.

While scoring is a need, consistency in goal is a must if Tri-City wants to get back to the top of the US Division. Evan Sarthou was 26-28-2 last season with a 3.46 GAA and a .888 save percentage, a step below his stellar season the year before when he stepped in for the injured Eric Comrie. He got a confidence boost this summer being invited to Team USA’s World Junior camp.

Nick Sanders was a good second option in goal last season, going 9-6-0 with a 2.99 GAA and a .901 save percentage. He plays the puck well behind the net.

Third-year man Jordan Topping is the returning leading scorer (33 goals, 34 assists), followed by D Parker Wotherspoon (11 G, 45 A). Look for Michael Rasmussen (18 G, 25 A) to build on an impressive rookie season. He had a hand in Canada’s fifth-place finish at the Ivan Hlinka tournament earlier this month.

Tri-City’s defense should be solid with Wotherspoon, Juuso Valimaki, Brendan O’Reilly and Dylan Coghlan returning. Wotherspoon and Valimaki are good with the puck and helping out with scoring.

Valimaki, who captained Team Finland to a fourth-place finish at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Tournament and a gold medal at the 2016 World U18 Championships in April, and Rasmussen both are mentioned on the NHL Central Scouting 2017 NHL Draft Futures list.

The Americans will be young once again, but second-year forwards Vladislav Lukin, Morgan Geekie, Parker AuCoin, Jordan Roy and Nolan Yaremko got a ton of ice time as rookies and should be ready for more responsibility this season. Incoming rookie Carson Focht is a proven scorer and should help out right away.


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

Andy Eide

Thunderbirds GM Bil La Forge dishes on the upcoming offseason

Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge will make some moves this summer to improve his club. Will they be big ones?

2 years ago

Seattle’s Keltie Jeri-Leon celebrates his final WHL goal Sunday against Spokane. (Brian Liess...

Andy Eide

Thunderbirds end strange and hard season on a high note with dominating win over Spokane

The Seattle Thunderbirds dealt with a lot of adversity this season but end on a high note.

2 years ago

Keltie Jeri-Leon plays his final WHL game for the Thunderbirds Sunday night. (Brian Liesse)...

Andy Eide

Keltie Jeri-Leon set to play his final WHL game as Thunderbirds face Spokane Sunday

After five seasons, Seattle's lone over-aged player, Keltie Jeri-Leon will play his final junior game Sunday night.

2 years ago

Seattle rookie Scott Ratzlaff won his first WHL game in his first start. (Judy Simpson/TC Americans...

Andy Eide

Scott Ratzlaff earns first WHL win as Thunderbirds beat Tri-City

Behind a rookie goalie, the Thunderbirds kicked off the season's final weekend with a 5-2 win in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans.

2 years ago

The Seattle Thunderbirds celebrate after snapping a six-game losing streak Sunday night. (Brian Lie...

Andy Eide

Thunderbirds enjoy winning again after snapping six-game losing streak

The Seattle Thunderbirds have been scuffling but battled against a good Portland Winterhawks club to snap a six-game losing streak.

2 years ago

Thunderbirds forward Reid Schaefer fights for position Sunday in Portland. (Megan Connelly/Winterha...

Andy Eide

Dealing with adversity, young Thunderbirds drop pair of games in Portland

Injuries and penalties have thrown a ton of adversity at the young Thunderbirds which showed up in a pair of losses at Portland this weekend.

2 years ago

Previewing the rest of the US Division entering the 2016-17 T-Birds season