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Thunderbirds mailbag: Speed vs. size, signing draftees, and trades

The WHL season is over so we answer some readers questions in a Thunderbirds mailbag. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

This week would have been the start of the WHL Championship Series but it was canceled, and the start of next season is unknown. There are no games to talk about so let’s open up a Seattle Thunderbirds mailbag.

You asked so we’ll answer some questions from Thunderbirds fans on Twitter.

The Thunderbirds have done a masterful job of signing their draft picks over the last few years. This was reinforced with the recent draft, where they’ve already inked first-round pick Sam Oremba and the two seconds, Brayden Dube and Scott Ratzlaff.

After the 2016 draft in which Seattle only signed three players – Jake Lee, Graeme Bryks, and Cole Schwebius – the team changed up their routine a bit. None of those 2016 signed players were on the roster this last season and they missed out on some promising prospects, including third-rounder Layton Ahac who committed to Ohio State and was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights during last summer’s NHL Draft.

That draft class created a hole in Seattle’s depth chart — one of the reasons for the trades that General Manager Bil La Forge has made to rebuild the roster.

Two main changes have swung the pendulum for the Thunderbirds in signing prospects.

First, Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson and Director of Scouting Mark Romas implemented a more thorough method of gauging interest in the WHL among prospects. They wanted to know how serious the player was in signing and if there was enough doubt, they aren’t drafted. Continued contact and recruitment of those players through the season is done as a follow-up and the results have been positive.

Secondly, La Forge not only has a keen eye for prospects but trusts his scouts, is a good recruiter, and has installed a great development program with the Thunderbirds that make the team attractive. The hiring of former Thunderbird Steven Goertzen as a development coach has helped head coach Matt O’Dette work with players to build the skills they need to advance in their hockey careers.

The WHL is a development league, but so is NCAA hockey, and if you can build a good program, you’re going to be attractive to prospects. We’re just beginning to see the results, but the Thunderbirds have put such a program in place.

La Forge wants to add speed to his team at all times, but he doesn’t want the team to get smaller or less physical. He stresses that his scouts look for players who can still play a physical game and we saw that last year.

Having a combination of speed, skill, size and grit is a great combination and are the ingredients that the Thunderbirds 2017 Championship was made of. Looking at the current roster you can see players who play a physical brand of hockey. Players like Lucas Ciona, Matthew Rempe, MeKai Sanders, Tyrel Bauer, and Cade McNelly are going to be in the league for a few more years and won’t soften up their play.

Trades are always tough in junior hockey. Players are certainly notified of a trade prior to it being announced publicly but not always before it is made. There have been players in the league, and in Seattle, over the years who have requested a trade for various reasons.

A recent example of this is Seattle’s Henrik Rybinski. He wasn’t happy with his situation in Medicine Hat and left the club to wait for a trade. The Thunderbirds were able to acquire him last January as a result.

The WHL changed their rules a couple of seasons ago and do not allow trading of 15 or 16-year-old players who have signed a standard WHL Player’s Agreement. That requirement does not cover older players or any player that has yet to sign a WHL player’s agreement however some players can negotiate a no-trade clause during their school years into their agreement which would cover the 17-year-old players. Those clauses can be waived by the player and his family if they wish.

Players in the WHL are not paid a salary but do enjoy some benefits. There is a small monthly stipend given and they receive room and board along with equipment, medical and dental coverage.

The WHL also offers a scholarship for guys who don’t sign pro contracts. A year’s tuition and books for the school of the player’s choice is offered for each year they play in the league. Players who sign, or even play a preseason game, in the WHL are not eligible to play NCAA hockey, but you will see many play college hockey in Canada. An example of this is long-time Thunderbird Nolan Volcan who played for the University of Alberta last year after his WHL time ended.