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Florida Panthers prospect Henrik Rybinski a driving force for Thunderbirds

Florida Panthers draftee Henrik Rybinski poised for a big year in Seattle. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

Seattle Thunderbirds forward Henrick Rybinski is a driver. Both on the ice and off.  Rybinski famously missed hearing his name called by the Florida Panthers during the fifth round of June’s NHL Draft because he was attending a driver’s ed class. The class was in his hometown Vancouver, the same city that the draft was taking place. He got a call, skipped out of class and got a ride to nearby Rogers Arena so that he could meet with Panthers staff and the media.

When the whirlwind of the draft was over, it was back to class.

“It worked out, I have a license now,” he says. “I’m driving around. It’s nice.”

On the ice, the Thunderbirds expect more of what they saw last year from Rybinski after picking him up in a January trade with the Medicine Hat Tigers. They expect him to drive the play.

In 33 games with Seattle, he was a ferocious forechecker, often catching defenseman by surprise. That led to forcing turnovers which created extra possessions for the Thunderbirds. He made plays as well.

He set up 28 goals for his teammates, averaging .85 assists per contest. That was the second-highest rate on the team – he trailed only Noah Philp’s .88. At that rate, over a full 68-game season, he would have led the Thunderbirds in helpers last year.

Coming into a new season, a year older and wiser, the expectations are high.

“We know what he can do for our team,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette says. “Obviously he’s a big part of it. We expect all our guys to take big steps this year. Rybie is a big part of our team. He’s a top six guy that will play lots of minutes for us.”

Rybinski, 18, comes into the season off a busy summer.

After being drafted, he headed down to Florida to take part in the Panthers rookie development camp. He got his first glimpse of what life in the NHL might look like.

“It was super fun,” he says. “It was not what I thought it was going to be, I thought it would be a boot camp. It was really inviting for the new guys. It was a good learning experience and good to know where I have to get to in order to make the next step.”

After playing in last Sunday’s preseason game with the Everett Silvertips, Rybinski is headed back to Florida.

He’ll start with the rookies – which includes fellow Thunderbird Matthew Wedman —  but hopes to move onto the main camp with the Panthers.

“I’m going to try to leave an impression on them,” he says. “Just try to go as far as I can and try not to let all these really good players cause my confidence to lower. Just go out there and play.”

When he returns to the Thunderbirds to start the season, he’ll try to put the NHL experience into action, along with the work he’s put in all summer.

O’Dette says he doesn’t want Rybinski to change too much from what he did last year, with maybe one exception.

“He’s an unselfish guy and I think he can shoot more,” O’Dette says. “He’s worked a lot on his shot and I think he’s gotten better. He’s got a great ability to make plays, but I think he could get a little more selfish and get pucks to the net. I think it would be good for us as well as Henrik.”

With Seattle last season, Rybinksi averaged 1.8 shots-per-game and shot 12-percent for 7 goals. By comparison, the Thunderbirds leading goal scorer, Wedman, averaged 3.7 shots a contest. If Rybinski manages the same number of attempts as Wedman, at 12-percent shooting, he’ll score 29 goals.

Wedman led the team in shots and while Rybinski may not reach the same number, any increase will result in more goals. Add that to his playmaking ability and he becomes more dangerous than he already is.

“Sometimes I’d pass when I should have shot,” Rybinski says about last year. “For me, I think it’s a mental game. I just need to believe in my shot, I worked on it during the summer. Sometimes making a pass is better but when a guy’s not open or something, a shot would be better. I think it will come along just working on it and thinking about it.”

Seattle will have a young forward group this season. As the Thunderbirds work through the remainder of the preseason, they will have to trim down from the 22 forwards currently on the roster.

It’s possible that seven forwards could be rookies and Seattle will need an experienced player like Rybinski to have a good year and lead the way. He’ll be on the top line and despite missing most of training camp to an illness, he looks ready to go.

He had three assists in the Blue-White game at the end of camp and added one in Sunday’s preseason game against Everett. He was up to his old tricks of forechecking and forcing turnovers.

Rybinski is legally allowed to drive himself to the accesso ShoWare Center this year and once inside, the Thunderbirds will be better with him driving the play on the ice.