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Thunderbirds open Bantam Draft with a four-player blockbuster trade

Dillon Hamaliuk was part of a four-player swap with the Kelwona Rockets Thursday (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

The Seattle Thunderbids wasted little time making a splash during Thursday’s WHL Bantam Draft in Red Deer.

General Manager Bil La Forge pulled off a blockbuster trade that sent Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee, and Cole Schwebius to the Kelowna Rockets for 1999-born forward Conner Bruggen-Cate, the 10th pick overall in Thursday’s draft,  a 2022 first-round pick, and a second-round pick in the 2021 draft.

Both Hamaliuk and Lee were looking to be selected in this June’s NHL Draft and this move is a clear sign that La Forge is building for the future.

“This was a difficult deal to make but we had a potential log jam on defense with the development of (Tyrel) Bauer, (Simon) Kubicek and (Cade) McNelly last season,”  La Forge said in a press release. “We felt we could give up a defenseman in this age group. Hamaliuk will be a great addition for Kelowna but these picks allow us to add to the great draft we had last year and pool a group of players together with all the elements needed to compete for a championship in the WHL.”

“In the WHL today it is very hard to gather a number of elite players together over two age groups. This trade puts us in that position and it allows us to accelerate our timetable with the group of players coming in next season. This deal shines a very bright light on the future of the Thunderbirds.”

With the move, the Thunderbirds selected two players in the first 10 picks of Thursday’s first round. They nabbed center Jordan Gustafson from Fort Saskatchewan with the eighth pick and defenseman Kevin Korchinski with the pick acquired from the Rockets.

Hamaliuk played in 31 games last year with Seattle and scored 11 goals along with 15 assists. He was injured on December 30th and missed the rest of the remaining season. As a late birthday 2000-born player, the upcoming season was most likely going to be his last in the WHL – assuming he gets drafted and signed by an NHL club.

A first-round pick by the Thunderbirds in 2016, Lee played in 135 games for Seattle over the past two-plus seasons. This last year was his best offensively when he scored three goals and 21 assists. He played in the CHL Top Prospect game and like Hamaliuk, should be drafted in June.

Schwebius was the back up to Roddy Ross in net last year. He appeared in 17 games for the Thunderbirds and will now return to his hometown of Kelowna.

The Rockets are hosting next year’s Memorial Cup which means that all three players traded will get a chance to play in the prestigious tournament.

In return, Seattle picks up Bruggen-Cate, who will be an over-ager this coming season. The 6-foot-1 left-winger played 200 games for the Rockets over the past four seasons. His best year came in 2017-2018 when he potted 18 goals. Last year, he scored five and his addition gives Seattle five potential 20-year-old’s for next year.

WHL teams may only keep three so some decisions will have to be made between Bruggen-Cate, Matthew Wedman, Jaret Tyszka, Andrej Kukuca, and Jaxan Kaluski.

710 ESPN will have more on this trade and the draft later on.