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Thunderbirds looking for right mix down the middle

Payton Mount may play center this year for the Seattle Thunderbirds. (Brian Liesse/ T-Birds)

KENT – It’s the waning seconds of a game and while clinging to a one-goal lead, there’s a faceoff deep in your own end. Lose it and the opponent gets one last possession to tie. Win it, and you can kill the clock and earn your club two points. It’s a moment that top centers relish.

Hockey is like most sports in that being strong down the middle is key to having a successful team. As the Seattle Thunderbirds prepare to open their season Saturday night, they’re looking for the right guys to play center.

Seattle’s top center, Matthew Wedman, most likely won’t play Saturday as he is still in camp with the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds trying to earn his first professional contract. The Seattle Thunderbirds will need a fill-in for Wedman and a replacement for the graduated Noah Philp, who was the second-line center last season.

Head coach Matt O’Dette has options.

In training camp and preseason, Payton Mount played center, as did Brendan Williamson, Alex Morozoff, and rookie Kai Uchacz.

“The guys that we have auditioned have done well,” O’Dette said earlier in the week. “Guys like Mounter and (Henrik) Rybinski have played center before so we’ve got some good options there. Morozoff obviously had a good debut down the middle. I think those guys will probably be our guys down the middle for now. But we’ve got guys like (Jared) Davidson and Uchacz that can play down the middle as well. Missing Weds is a big hole but we feel we’ve got some guys who can do the job.”

Mount,17, spent last season exclusively on the wing.

His audition during the preseason was positive. In four games he scored four goals, added four assists for eight points. He won 50-percent of faceoffs taken, which is a good number for someone who averaged less than one draw per game last year.

“I think it went well,” Mount said. “I’m just trying to adapt every game, watching lots of clips of the games and trying to adapt as best I can. So, if I get thrown into center during the season at any point, I’m ready for it.”

Playing center means more than being the one to take a faceoff.

Centermen have added responsibility, especially on defence, and you’ll often see them down low helping the defensemen retrieve the puck.

“Down low battles, things like that, you’re expected to play those and win those,” O’Dette adds. “There are a few more details than playing the wing. Our guys, we feel, are pretty smart and that will help with their adjustments.”

For some players, that extra defensive responsibility is a draw to the position.

“I feel like when I get down low in the D-Zone I can get up ice and see the whole ice,” Uchacz, who’s played center most of his hockey life said. “Get some speed starting low. It’s a position I love.”

While a player like Uchacz has always played center, others have switched between the middle and the wing.

Rybinski played on the wing for the Thunderbirds last year but does have some time in the middle in his background. Mount hasn’t played the position since he was in youth hockey and the rookie Williamson spent last year doing both.

It’s not the easiest of transitions, but one that all the players are comfortable making.

“It’s definitely different,” Mount said of the change. “Different plays on faceoffs, you have to know what the center has to do.  Definitely some changes but it’s good to know what the different roles are so during a game if you have to play center or on the wing, you’ll know the roles.”

Depending on how long Wedman is away at pro camp, O’Dette may tinker with his center position to start the season.

The forwards mentioned will be in the mix, as will Davidson, who played a lot of center last year and is versatile enough to play on the wing. He is coming off a strong preseason showing where he recorded seven points in five games.

Seattle picked up Morozoff last week in a trade with Red Deer. He scored twice in the Thunderbirds preseason finale while playing center.

“I’ve always been a center but I think I’m versatile and can play everywhere,” he said. “I’ve been working a lot of my defensive game so I take pride in that. Giving a lot of support so I’ve been trying to work on that for when I play center.”

With the number of new faces on the roster this season, who will play in the middle remains to be settled. The good news for the Thunderbirds is that there are options and eventually four will emerge.

It all starts to get sorted out Saturday night at the accesso ShoWare Center against the Kamloops Blazers.