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Young Thunderbirds improvement over course of the season is a reason for optimism

Seattle Thunderbirds rookies Matthew Rempe (right) and Lucas Ciona (left) were part of the youth movement this year. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

It was early December when the Seattle Thunderbirds hopped on a ferry headed for Vancouver Island to play a couple of games in Victoria against the Royals. They would split the weekend series but the trip to Victoria would end up being a major sea change for the Thunderbirds.

Before the first game, they traded their captain Matthew Wedman and handed the club over to its young core.

Wedman, 20, had spent his entire WHL career up to that point in Seattle and was the last reminder of the Thunderbirds 2017 Championship team. He was coming off a 40-goal year the season before and was drafted by the Florida Panthers in the NHL draft. He was the team leader and logged a ton of minutes, upwards of 25 a night.

To fill the minutes lost in the Wedman trade, head coach Matt O’Dette and general manager Bil La Forge would turn to the team’s young forwards. It would be four 16-year-old rookies (Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, and Mekai Sanders) along with a handful of 17-year-ods (Payton Mount, Jared Davidson, Matthew Rempe, and Brendan Williamson)  to pick up the slack and pull the team towards its future.

Seattle was one of the youngest teams in not just the WHL but in all of the CHL. They regularly iced a lineup with six rookies and they paid for that with some lopsided scores. In the 25 games before the Wedman trade, the Thunderbirds were 8-14-2-1 and out of playoff position in the Western Conference.

The thought coming into the season was that the young players would certainly take their lumps on some nights but ultimately the team would be better at season’s end than it was to start.

In the 38 games that followed the trade, the Thunderbirds did improve, despite losing their captain and best player.

Seattle went 16-18-2-2 the rest of the way and was in playoff position when the season was canceled due to concerns over the COVID-19 disease. After struggling to score goals to start the season they improved their goals scored per game from 2.32 to 3.08 over the final 38 games.

Conner Roulette was the flashiest of all the rookies, but it took him some time to find his footing in the league. The 16-year-old had five goals heading into the weekend on the Island against Victoria. A couple of games prior to the Wedman trade, O’Dette put Roulette on the team’s top line with Henrik Rybinski and Keltie Jeri-Leon and the three meshed.

Roulette would score 14 more goals after the trade and was on pace to be the first Seattle 16-year-old to hit the 20-goal mark since Patrick Marleau scored 32 during the 1995-1996 season. Uchacz, Ciona, and Sanders didn’t put up the offensive numbers that Roulette did but all three got stronger as the season wore on.

They picked up more minutes and all three became key players on Seattle’s penalty kill.

Seattle’s power play was a problem all season long and finished with a 15.5-percent success rate which landed them 20th in the league overall. During the second half, O’Dette found some magic with a power-play unit that included the rookie Rempe in front of the net, Mount in the middle of the ice, and Roulette working off the half boards.

That unit was starting to click as the season was winding down the stretch and over the last 19 games, the Thunderbirds power play was scoring at a 23-percent clip (15-for-64).

At that pace for a full season, the Thunderbirds would have a top-ten power-play unit. Roulette ended up with seven points on the power play (3 goals, 4 assists), Mount with 16 (6 goals, 10 assists), and Rempe with seven (5 goals, 2 assists).

Seattle’s improvement over the second half of the season was made more impressive considering the schedule it played.

Playing in a tough U.S. Division, 19 of the Thunderbirds final 38 games came against a trio consisting of the Portland Winterhawks (8 games), Everett Silvertips (7 games), and the Spokane Chiefs (4 games). Those three teams combined to go 132-42-10-6 and were ranked in the CHL’s top ten at the end of the year.

Being able to play around .500 against a schedule like that with a bunch of rookies and young players is a credible feat.

Those young players will be back for the coming season and will be armed with valuable experience gained by playing top minutes against some of the toughest competition offered in major junior hockey. This is the part of the plan that La Forge had in mind when he began to rebuild the Thunderbirds around its young core of players.

Wednesday is the WHL Bantam Draft and the Thunderbirds will once again load up their pipeline. Those players will be two years away from contributing and as the current young group progresses, the new draftees could be joining a team that is no longer competing to squeak into the playoffs, but rather to win the division.

If that is the case, the Thunderbirds can look back to a trade made on Vancouver Island. A trade that saw young players thrown to the fire and respond by getting better.