THUNDERBIRDS

Your guide to the 2018-2019 Seattle Thunderbirds

Sep 21, 2018, 3:48 PM | Updated: 4:47 pm
Matthew Wedman and the Seattle Thunderbirds open the 2018 season Saturday against Portland (Brian L...
Matthew Wedman and the Seattle Thunderbirds open the 2018 season Saturday against Portland (Brian Liesse/ T-Birds)
(Brian Liesse/ T-Birds)

Coming into last season the Seattle Thunderbirds were working with a new head coach, new assistant coaches, and the small task of replacing five key players who had moved on to the pro ranks.

That’s most often a recipe for disaster but Matt O’Dette fit in behind the bench and got his players to come out hard each night. They found just enough pieces to compete, rather than nosedive, and would not only end up with a winning record at 34-28-8-2 but would return to the playoffs.

O’Dette’s squad this coming season is still one that is in a state of transition with veteran players at the top of his lineup complimented by younger, inexperienced guys.

How will they fare? Will there be a break out star? Who are some of the rookies to watch? Where will the Thunderbirds end up in the U.S. Division standings?

With the season starting Saturday night in Kent, here is a look at the 2018-2019 Seattle Thunderbirds:

The top six

Seattle’s strength this season will come from its top-six forward group. In the last preseason game, O’Dette had Matthew Wedman centering a top line with Nolan Volcan and Andrej Kukuca on the wings. The second line had Noah Philp in the middle with Dillon Hamaliuk and Zack Andrusiak on the outside.

Those six are interchangeable and in fact, O’Dette had them in a different deployment during practice this week. Volcan and Andrusiak are coming off monster seasons that saw them pot 32 and 36 goals respectively. They will be the key snipers for Seattle’s attack.

Hamaliuk is looking for a break out second year after scoring 15 times last season, playing mostly on the third line. Philp and Wedman also had career seasons last year and are both capable two-way centers. Philp led the Thunderbirds in faceoff percentage so look for him to get most of the key defensive-zone draws late in games.

The 19-year-old Kukuca is the wild card of this group after Seattle selected him in the 2018 Import Draft out of Slovakia. He was goal-per-game performer in Europe and the reviews in North America have been glowing to start. He played in all seven of Seattle’s preseason contests and piled up nine points. A right-handed shot, he looks to shoot the puck and will be a force on the power play.

The new faces

Kukuca is joined by fellow import Simon Kubicek. The defenseman from the Czech Republic was selected by the Thunderbirds in the second round of the Import Draft this summer. The soon to be 17-year-old came over with some positive scouting notes and had a strong preseason. He plays with an edge, has a big point shot, and was quarterbacking the power play for most of the exhibition season.

2017 first-round Bantam pick, Payton Mount, has made the roster and comes with a lot of high expectations. He arrives in Seattle after an impressive 22 goals in 27 games with the Delta Hockey Academy in Vancouver last year. Mount has speed and a scorer’s touch and while he has top-six potential he is still just 16-years-old and there will be a learning curve. Because of his age, expect to see him start on the third line which will protect him a bit but also give Seattle an offensive weapon on one of its lower lines.

On the back end, rookie Tyrel Bauer is a player that the club is excited about. He was a second-round pick in the 2017 draft and will get playing time this year, especially early on. Bauer has the size of a WHL defender and is not afraid to play physical.

The blue line starts green

When the Thunderbirds begin the season on Saturday, they will be relying on some youth and inexperience on defense. Veterans Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch have been out with injury forcing O’Dette to go with a young group. Harsch has not played at all in the preseason and while he did practice this week, his availability for Saturday is still in doubt.

That leaves second year defenseman Jake Lee as the anchor on the back end. Lee came on strong during his rookie campaign and was already a candidate to end up in the top pairing even with Harsch and Tyszka in the lineup. He’s a strong two-way player, can use his body and has shown an offensive upside. He’s entering his draft eligible season and appears ready for a break out year.

Kubicek will also be an important player early on. While he is playing his first games in the WHL he does have international tournament experience with the Czech Republic and the moment should not be too big for him. The returning Owen Williams will be asked to log some big minutes early, along with newly acquired Payton McIsaac, Cade McNelly, and Bauer.

Between the pipes

The best medicine for an inexperienced defense is a veteran goaltender. Seattle has that with 19-year-old Liam Hughes returning for his second season. Hughes took over during the second half of the year last season and is playing with a ton of confidence. Seattle had faith enough in him to move Carl Stankowski and Dorrin Luding during the off season.

Special power play?

The Thunderbirds were ranked 11th on the power play last year – right in the middle of the pack. This year they have to potential to have a more potent man advantage. During the preseason O’Dette used a first power-play unit of Kubicek on the point, Andrusiak and Kukuca on the half boards, Volcan down low and Wedman as a forward on the point.

The five of them moved the puck well and were a dangerous unit. This should be the first unit to jump over the boards on Saturday and could give Seattle a big boost offensively.

Who’s winning the U.S. Division?

The U.S. Division is seemingly a tight race every year. Over the past four seasons the team that has won the division has done so by just an average of five points. Last year all five clubs made the playoffs and Seattle’s 78 points would have been good for fourth in the B.C. Division and second in the Central.

Coming into this season the Spokane Chiefs are the favorites. They return a bevy of talented, high-end players like Los Angeles Kings prospect Jared Anderson-Dolan, along with 2018 New Jersey Devils first-rounder Ty Smith. If goalie Dawson Weatherill can give them enough goaltending, the Chiefs could be the fourth straight U.S team to go to the Championship Series.

Everett won the division last season and while it has lost a ton of firepower due to graduation, the Silvertips cupboard is not bare. Riley Sutter and Connor Dewar return to pace the offense and in net, Dustin Wolf will take over from the all-everything Carter Hart. Wolf showed promise last year and the Silvertips won’t expect a big drop off.

After the top two teams there is a jumble of clubs that are all going to be competitive again. Portland has Cody Glass but they have lost a ton of goal scorers. The Tri-City Americans fortunes may hinge on whether the Detroit Red Wings return Michael Rasmussen to the WHL.

Seattle will fall somewhere in this group of second tier teams in the division. The Thunderbirds have a top six that can match up well in the division and if the young defense can hold up, could make some noise in the U.S.

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