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Offense highlights Thunderbirds top draft picks during WHL Bantam Draft

The Thunderbids selected 75-goal scorer Sam Oremba with their first pick in Wednesday's WHL Bantam Draft. (Lucas Punkari/Prince Albert Daily Herald)

Wednesday turned out to be a long day for Western Hockey League teams as they conducted the Bantam Draft remotely and by utilizing social distancing.

The Draft’s 13 rounds took nearly five hours to complete and the Seattle Thunderbirds ended up with 13 new prospects.

“It was a long day, but Christmas only comes once a year,” Seattle general manager Bil La Forge said when it was all over.

La Forge and his scouts entered the day trying to decide between two prospects they had high regard for and had ranked close together. The first was forward Sam Oremba from Regina and the second was another forward, Brayden Dube from Manitoba.

The two players put up monster numbers last season and La Forge says there was discussion about which one to take, if they could, in the first round.

They ultimately chose Oremba, with the seventh pick overall, but they were also able to snag Dube in the second round with pick 29. They got both their guys.

“(Oremba) is a guy we identified very early on in the process,” La Forge said. “With (Director of Player Personel Cal Filson) being in Saskatchewan, he got to see him play a ton. I got out to see him a couple of times. Our whole staff had eyes on him…Both of those top two guys, to get them both at the end of the day is something we weren’t really expecting but we’re really excited.”

Playing for Regina Monarchs BAA last season, Oremba displayed a dynamic offensive touch during a record-setting year. To go along with a reported high hockey sense, he scored 75 goals with 133 points in just 31 games.

Not to be outdone by his new teammate, Dube also put up record numbers.

He scored 74 goals and 130 points in 36 games while playing with the Parkland Rangers Bantam AAA.

“Dube is another guy that broke scoring records, he actually broke (Conner) Roulette’s record in Manitoba,” La Forge said. “He plays the right way, he’s relentless and he really skates. We’re just ecstatic he was there where he was. Two guys in the first two rounds that scored 70 goals is something that’s really exciting for us.”

After selecting Dube, the Thunderbirds swung a trade with the Regina Pats to pick up a second, second-round pick. The deal sent goalie Roddy Ross the other way but La Forge used the pick to select goaltender Scott Ratzlaff.

Ratzlaff played for the Lloydminster Bobcats Bantam AAA last year and was named AMBHL Goaltender of the year.

La Forge sees Ratzlaff as a goalie-of-the-future type of player who, by the time he reaches the WHL, will follow behind Seattle’s new tandem of Blake Lyda and Thomas Milic.

“I think you always want to have a chain of goaltenders,” La Forge said. “Where you have a big enough separation between them that they’re competing with each other but still have some time and space to solidify themselves. Another guy that I was fortunate to see and our scouts were really high on him. This was the year that we were going to draft a goalie if we could get one at the right spot.”

When the day ended, the Thunderbirds had selected seven forwards, four defensemen, and two goaltenders.

In the fifth round, the Thunderbirds took defenseman Ethan Mittlesteadt who has familial lineage to a former Thunderbird. Mittlesteadt’s uncle, Joey Mittlesteadt, played for Seattle from 1986 to 1987 before spending time with the Portland Winterhawks and Kamloops Blazers.

In normal seasons, the Thunderbirds would follow the draft by inviting all their new prospects to a spring camp in Canada. It’s a chance to introduce the team and staff to the new players and get some on-ice workouts in. Due to the COVID-19 shelter orders, the team won’t be conducting their camp in order to ensure that the players are safe.

La Forge says instead they hope to have virtual meetings via chat rooms or over the phone before the new draftees come to Seattle for training camp.

Regina held the first pick in Wednesday’s draft but made their selection on Tuesday. They took Connor Bedard and immediately signed him to a standard player agreement. Bedard made headlines last month as the first player in the WHL to receive an exceptional status approval from Hockey Canada. That designation allows Bedard to play a full season in the WHL as a 15-year-old.