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What to watch for in Thunderbirds training camp next week

Hockey is back in the Northwest as the Seattle Thunderbirds open training camp on Tuesday (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

The Seattle Thunderbirds begin their 2019-2020 journey Tuesday morning with the start of training camp.

Seattle will look different this year and will rely on younger, inexperienced players, especially among the forwards group. It will make for an interesting season and offer fodder for an even more intriguing camp.

General manager Bil La Forge is mixing up how camp operates this year.

Gone are the rookie scrimmages, historically held over the first two days, and in are full squad scrimmages, beginning on day one. Scrimmage games will continue all week long, culminating in a double-header on Saturday with a futures showcase and the annual Blue-White game.

With the number of new faces and questions, here are some areas to watch for over the next week.

Will a top-six emerge for the Thunderbirds?

With the graduations of Nolan Volcan, Noah Philp, and Sean Richards, half of the Thunderbirds top-six forward group at the end of last season won’t be back. Dillon Hamaliuk, who was a top-six forward before having his season end due to injury in December, was traded to Kelowna in May, making it four out of six spots in need of filling.

Who will emerge?

There are some obvious choices. Henrik Rybinski, who came on strong in the second half last year, will be a top-line winger – a spot he held last season. After being drafted in June’s NHL Draft by the Florida Panthers, he should be full of confidence and in for a big year.

Over-age center Matthew Wedman is a lock as well if he stays in Seattle. Wedman, 20, was selected by the Panthers at the NHL Draft and because of his age, would be eligible to play in the American Hockey League, if that’s where Florida wants him.

Import Andrej Kukuca can be penciled in as a top-six forward, as well as a top-liner. His future in Seattle is also in flux. He’s 20, which means he would take up both an overeager spot and an import slot. If the Thunderbirds can lure this year’s import draft pick, Tim Stutzle, into camp, Kukuca could be moved.

The rest of the group is less obvious.

Payton Mount, Seattle’s 2017 first-round pick, stands the best chance. Mount, 17, showed flashes last year as a rookie, scoring five goals and 21 points in 57 games. He played a lot on Seattle’s power play and should be back there, and in the top six, again this season.

After Mount, it will be players like Tyler Carpendale, Jared Davidson, Conner Bruggen-Cate, Keltie Jeri-Leon, Jaxan Kaluski, and Graeme Bryks who have a chance to step up. The returning forwards will get a push from the incoming rookies.

How have the rookies developed?

Seattle could end up with nine rookies making its roster.

The rookies with the marquee spotlight are the 2018 draft class. Led by former first-round pick Kai Uchacz, the group was impressive in last fall’s training camp.

Uchacz showed strong, playing in five games last year, including one in the playoffs. He’s a two-way center, who has offensive skill and has the confidence to boost. He’ll be joined by second-rounders Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette.

Ciona is a power forward listed at 6-foot-2 and 193 pounds last year at 15-years-old. A year older, he could end up being even bigger and stronger. His fellow 2018 second-round pick, Roulette, has a ton of potential as well. Roulette is coming off a monster year offensively with the Winnipeg Thrashers and won a gold medal for Canada in ball hockey this summer.

Gig Harbor’s Mekai Sanders will be looking to build off his camp last year, where he was a high-energy ball of fury on the ice.

There are a couple of older rookies who could end up playing larger roles for the Thunderbirds.

Chief among them is Brendan Williamson, who Seattle picked up in the January trade with Everett for Zack Andrusiak. Williamson, 17, spent last year with the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds in the BCMMHL and in 29 games, potted 12 goals, 28 assists, and 40 points.

Michael Horon is another older rookie who could contribute for the Thunderbirds. The 18-year-old was acquired by Seattle from the Lethbridge Hurricanes in last year’s Liam Hughes trade. Horon averaged over two-points-per-game with the Lethbridge Hurricanes Midget AAA team.

There will be growing pains with the rookies for sure, but also a lot of potential, which gives them all a chance to be contributors this season.

Which undrafted players emerge for the Thunderbirds?

It happens in every camp.

Undrafted players, invited to camp, play well and earn their way onto a team. Seattle will get contributions from undrafted players like Cade McNelly, Davidson, Matthew Rempe, and of course, goalie Roddy Ross. The later wasn’t a camp standout, but he was not drafted by a WHL team and the Thunderbirds signed him off their protected list in January.

We haven’t seen the Thunderbirds camp roster yet but count on an unheralded player standing out.

“Honestly, after draft day, I just look at all the kids the same,” La Forge said earlier in the summer. “They’re all on an even playing field. After that, they forge their own way… I’ve talked about it a number of times with younger players and parents. Just because you didn’t get drafted in May, it’s not the end of the road. You get to write your story.”

The introduction to those stories get written next week.