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Breaking down the 2019-2020 Seattle Thunderbirds

Jared Davidson and the Seattle Thunderbirds open the WHL season Saturday night at home. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

The Seattle Thunderbirds kick off their 45th season Saturday night when they host the Kamloops Blazers at the accesso ShoWare Center.

They do so with one of the youngest rosters in recent memory. Seattle’s roster could have nine rookies on it come Saturday, four of which will be just 16. While young, there is excitement surrounding the team as the incoming class of rookies are talented and could be the best batch the Thunderbirds have had come in since the 2012 draft class – a class that included Mathew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, and Ethan Bear.

Seattle’s forwards are where the bulk of the youth resides and they are coming off a successful preseason that saw the Thunderbirds earn a 5-0-1-0 record. The Thunderbirds scored a lot of goals but as head coach Matt O’Dette stressed after Seattle’s preseason finale against Everett, the record should be taken with a ‘grain of salt’.

That doesn’t mean the coach didn’t like what he saw in the preseason.

“I think the preseason is important for those guys to get their feet wet and get some experience to get adjusted to this level of hockey,” O’Dette says about his young group. “They’ve obviously done that pretty seamlessly. The lineups are a little on the younger side so they’re playing against a lot of their age group but it’s a nice gradual step to what they’re going to see come opening night when there are full lineups.”

Here’s a look at the 2019-2020 Seattle Thunderbirds.

Forwards

Thanks to graduation, and some trades, the Thunderbirds will look to replace 70 goals from their top-six forwards and if Matthew Wedman is not returned by the Florida Panthers, then that number jumps to 110 goals.

If Wedman does return he, and his 40 goals, will be firmly planted on Seattle’s top line. Joining him will be Henrik Rybinski, who could be in for a big year in his first full season with the Thunderbirds. He scored seven times along with 28 assists last year in 33 games and is looking to shoot more.

Over-age import Andrej Kukuca will be in the top six again this season. The Slovakian winger scored 25 times last year, 18 of which came over the last 30 games. Joining him in the top-six should be second-year player Payton Mount. Seattle’s top pick in the 2017 draft had a strong preseason and could get a look at center this year.

As the centerpiece in the Zack Andrusiak trade with Everett last January, 17-year-old rookie Brendan Williamson has made a strong case to play in Seattle’s top-six this year. Also in that mix are veterans Keltie Jeri-Leon,  along with over-agers Conner Bruggen-Cate and Jaxan Kaluski.

Jared Davidson, 17, looks primed for a big year based on his training camp and preseason. He’s got a shot and is versatile, able to play on the wing or at center. Look for him to be in the competition for the top-six.

Seattle’s four incoming rookies from their 2018 draft class will be intriguing. Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, and Mekai Sanders all have talent, but are young and don’t have WHL experience.

Could they end up in the top-six or top-nine?

“We’re still sorting that out,” O’Dette says. “We want to put guys in situations where they’re going to have some success. At the same time, they’re capable of sprinkling anywhere into the lineup, first line, second line, third line. I’ll be able to move those guys around in different spots and I think they’ll see some time on the power play as well. Definitely for young guys, they’re going to get their opportunities to play.”

Also at forward, 18-year-old rookie Michael Horon will get ice time as will big Matthew Rempe and newcomer Alex Morozoff.

Defense

Despite the loss of Jarret Tyzska, Seattle returns an experienced defensive corp. Tyrel Bauer and Simon Kubicek are the top two and both are 2020 NHL Draft prospects. Bauer, 17, is a big, strong shutdown defenseman who has an improved and hard shot that he showed off in training camp. Kubicek, a Czech import, also has a big shot and plays with an edge.

Both players could also see time on the point when Seattle is on the power play.

Owen Williams and Cade McNelly both return to the Seattle blue line and should get a ton of ice time. With Tyszka gone, Williams should also be in line for time on the Thunderbirds power play as he can move the puck. McNelly has quietly turned himself into a sturdy stay at home defenseman as well as the type of physical presence that grabs the attention of opponents.

Zach Ashton, Hunter Donohoe, and rookie Luke Bateman will be in the defensive rotation as well.

Goalies

With Philadelphia Flyers draftee Roddy Ross back for his first full year in Seattle, the Thunderbirds are set in goal. Ross joined the team on New Year’s Day and his 16-5-1-2 record, .919 save percentage, and 2.76 goals-against gave Seattle confidence over the second half and was a big reason for the team’s resurgence.

The Thunderbirds picked up Blake Lyda from the Everett Silvertips in a Bantam Draft Day trade and after a strong preseason, he will be ready and able to spell Ross when needed this year.

Outlook

This season should be one of the more interesting Thunderbirds campaigns in the past few years. They have a lot of young talent and while that may lead to some inconsistent nights and youthful mistakes at times, it should be entertaining.

There’s no reason to think that Seattle won’t be in the playoff mix this season. As usual, the U.S. Division is stacked with the Spokane Chiefs looking like the early favorites. The Portland Winterhawks, like Seattle, have a ton of young talent, while the Everett Silvertips have goalie Dustin Wolf to deal with and always seem to find a way to win.

The Thunderbirds may be fighting it out with the Tri-City Americans for a wild card spot this year but the ceiling is high. If the young guys gel and get their legs under them enough, Seattle could push for a higher seed.