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T-Birds season preview: defense, goaltending will need to be team’s backbone

Seattle defenseman Jarret Tyszka was injured while playing for the Montreal Canadiens this weekend (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

The Seattle blue line suffers one major loss as Ethan Bear, the WHL Defenseman of the Year, moves on to the AHL, where the Edmonton Oilers will be keeping a close eye on his development. Bear will be extremely difficult to replace as he’s been a solid contributor at both ends of the ice for three seasons, but Seattle possess the depth and talent that they should be able to fill his skates without taking a major step back on the blue line.

In net, they lose the veteran netminder that got them through the regular season in Rylan Toth, but they found their replacement for the next few years during Carl Stankowski’s magical playoff run.

Overall, Seattle should feel more comfortable on the defensive end of the ice, where the only major losses are Bear and Toth. With everyone else a year older and some up-and-coming prospects ready to take the next step, the T-Birds’ should be able to do a good job keeping pucks out of their own net.

Defense

Austin Strand. A trade deadline acquisition last season, Strand has now played in two consecutive Mastercard Memorial Cups — first with the Red Deer Rebels as the host team in 2016, and then last year with the T-Birds. In 74 games last season between Red Deer and Seattle, Strand had a career-high 32 points on nine goals and 23 assists. Eight of those goals came in his 36 contests with the T-Birds, which would have been a personal best in itself.

With Ethan Bear moving on, Strand takes the reigns as perhaps Seattle’s top offensive defenseman. Strand is one of Seattle’s four overage players still left on the roster, so it’s possible he could be moved, though that seems unlikely given his experience with deep playoff runs and ability to contribute points from the blue line.

Cade McNelly. Still just 15 years old, McNelly won’t turn 16 until a couple weeks after the regular season begins. Watching him play, it’d be easy to confuse the Westlock, Alta. native for a player much older as he already stands 6-foot-2 and isn’t afraid to mix it up with players four and five years his senior.

McNelly turned heads at his first training camp last season when he was just 14 years old as an undrafted player who wasn’t afraid to challenge any of the T-Birds’ veterans. It remains to be seen what kind of offensive contributions McNelly will make on the offensive side, but based on what we’ve seen so far, he projects as an enforcer on the backend. He’ll continue fighting for a full-time spot on the T-Birds’ third defensive pairing this season.

Turner Ottenbreit. The grizzled veteran on the Thunderbirds defense, Ottenbreit enters his overage season having completed three full years on the T-Birds blue line. This will be his first season without Ethan Bear as his defensive partner, but “Otto” still appears to be a lock for the T-Birds’ top defensive pairing if/when he is returned from Anaheim Ducks training camp.

The Yorkton, Sask. native has been an intimidating presence on Seattle’s blue line for the past couple of seasons but really upped his offensive game last year when he set career-highs in goals (7), assists (25) and points (32). He also led all Western Conference defensemen with a plus-45. Now in his final season, don’t be surprised to see Ottenbreit take another leap forward as his confidence grows and he continues to shoulder more of the load with Bear’s departure.

Jarret Tyszka. The lone NHL draft pick on the T-Birds roster — Tyszka was selected in the fifth round by the Montreal Canadiens in June — Tyszka will be one player the team will be counting on to make a giant leap in production and consistency. A former first-round bantam draft choice, Tyszka has always had the tools to be an excellent player but has had some trouble putting that together over a full season, perhaps due to injury (he missed a third of his rookie season and a quarter of his sophomore campaign) or perhaps due to youth.

We did see Tyszka make major strides last season at both ends of the ice, as he upped his point totals from six in his rookie year to 25 last year, and also finished as a plus player. Now 18 years old, it’s a pivotal point in the Langley, B.C. native’s career to show that he can combine his excellent size, skating ability, and vision and turn it into consistent on-ice production.

Aaron Hyman. Another midseason acquisition that helped push the T-Birds over the top, Hyman enters his 19-year-old season as another player Seattle will need to step up if they’re going to have success this season. At 6-foot-5, Hyman is the biggest player on the Seattle blue line, though you wouldn’t necessarily call him an enforcer (he had only 21 penalty minutes last season in 67 games).

Hyman was the only full-time defenseman on the Seattle roster last year who finished the regular season with a negative plus-minus rating (he was a minus-three in 39 games with the T-Birds), but stepped up big in the postseason, where he had seven points and was a plus-four in 20 playoff games. Hyman figures to fit somewhere in the T-Birds top-four defensemen this season and, if he can play like he did in the playoffs last year, should give Seattle one of the deeper defensive groups in the Western Conference.

Reece Harsch. Harsch spent most of last season on the T-Birds’ third defensive pairing and was one player whose game showed clear improvement from the season opener through the final game of the Memorial Cup. A former eighth-round bantam draft selection, Harsch’s ascension into a reliable defenseman has been impressive.

Now 18, Harsch may fit on the third defensive pairing again, but like everyone else, will need to take a major step with Seattle needing to rely more on their blue line this season without the likes of Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Scott Eansor and Alexander True up front.

Tyson Terretta. Terretta is a player who saw action in two games as a 16-year-old and looked like he might be in line for a seventh defenseman spot heading into the playoffs and eventual Memorial Cup, but his season was derailed by an injury and we never saw him after the March 4 game against the Everett Silvertips. He also has yet to play in the preseason and didn’t participate in training camp, so it remains to be seen what kind of rust there may be when he does eventually return.

Jake Lee. Lee worked his way into four regular season contests and two playoff games last season, but also joined the team and practiced with them through the Memorial Cup. He was just 15 and picked up valuable experience that most players never get to experience. Lee, like Tyszka, is a former first round bantam draft pick that the team is very high on. He’s not quite as tall as Tyszka, but possesses an excellent skill set that should see him receive significant playing time and a full-time roster spot as a 16-year-old.

The young defenseman has already taken major steps this preseason and has three points in six games. He’ll be a fun player to watch over the next few seasons and someone that the T-Birds likely invest a lot of time into as someone they can build their blue line around.

Goalies

Carl Stankowski. What else is there to say about Stankowski? Injured for most of the regular season, the 16-year-old came in and was unphased by the bright lights of the WHL playoffs, backstopping the T-Birds after Rylan Toth’s injury to their first ever WHL Championship. During that run, his numbers were reflective of the impressive play we saw on the ice, as he posted a 2.50 goals against average, .911 save percentage and a 16-2-2-0 record.

Unfortunately, Stankowski starts this season on the shelf again with another injury suffered during the summer. General manager Russ Farwell expects him to return towards the end of October, when he will surely be inserted back into the number one spot. Stankowski did have some struggles during the Memorial Cup, being pulled in favor of Rylan Toth twice, but that does nothing to take away from what he did during the playoff run or what he showed with his skillset. Stankowski gives the T-Birds their goalie for the next few years and someone they’re likely focused on building around once he reaches the latter stages of his WHL career.

Matt Berlin. Acquired last season when Stankowski went down with his injury to back up Toth, Berlin did a fine job in the 13 regular season games he played in for the T-Birds, posting a 2.82 goals against average and earning points in the standings in nine of those games.

With Stankowski injured again, Berlin seemed like the obvious choice to lead the T-Birds into the regular season, but he has struggled during the preseason, posting a 4.65 goals against average, .845 save percentage and a 1-2-0-0 record during the exhibition season. Granted, it’s preseason and lines are being juggled and veterans are being scratched, but Seattle did make it a point to go out and grab another goaltender just in case.

Liam Hughes. Acquired just yesterday from the Edmonton Oil Kings, not much is known about Hughes at this point as he played in just seven games last season. Farwell did say that the team has liked what they’ve seen out of Hughes, 18, during the preseason as he’s posted a .889 save percentage in two games played. It remains to be seen what Seattle will do when Stankowski does return as they’ll have multiple veteran goalies on their roster.

Cole Schwebius. A former tenth round bantam draft pick, Schwebius signed earlier this offseason to give the T-Birds additional goalie depth as, at the time, Stankowski and Berlin were the only two signed goalies in the system. The preseason numbers don’t look great, but Schwebius is still just 16 years old and gives the T-Birds another goalie to keep an eye on for the future. The acquisition of Hughes gives the impression that Schwebius will likely be sent down this season, but that remains to be seen.