EDITORS NOTE: We would like to extend a warm welcome to Brian Reid who will be covering the Seattle Thunderbirds this year for Sonics Rising / Seattle Sin Bin. You can follow him at @thseguysfrmkent on Twitter.
On October 10th 2016, then Seattle Thunderbird's general manager Russ Farwell found himself in a situation he wasn’t quite expecting to be in. Ryan Gropp, then an overage player by WHL standards, had been unexpectedly assigned to Seattle from the Hartford Wolfpack, putting them over the maximum three overagers permitted. With the deadline to cut the team down to just three twenty-year-olds looming, Farwell made the call to send forward Cavin Leth to the Prince Albert Raiders in exchange for a conditional draft pick and an eighteen-year-old forward.
That forward was future 35 goal scorer Zack Andrusiak.
Even with the entire WHL knowing that he needed to make a trade, Russ Farwell was able to work some magic and bring back a player who would go on to be a key contributor to the Seattle Thunderbird's. Bil La Forge is likely hoping to have done the same.
Monday afternoon, the Seattle Thunderbird's sent twenty-year-old forward Mike MacLean, sixteen-year-old left defenseman Sam Schoenfeld, and a conditional 2021 draft pick to the Prince George Cougars in exchange for seventeen-year-old forward Keegan Craik and a 2019 fifth round selection. The key component of the trade was obvious. The Thunderbird's were carrying four overage players on their roster in MacLean, Nolan Volcan, Noah Philp, and the aforementioned Andrusiak. A decision was going to have to be made at some point. Rather than let it drag into the season, La Forge made the tough call to send a team and fan favorite up to Prince George.
The overage limitations lead to tough decisions among Western Hockey League teams every season. Even a team like Seattle which only has to cut ties with one player will find themselves struggling to come to terms with letting a player go. By all accounts, in his brief time with the Thunderbird's, Mike MacLean was beloved among players and coaches alike. Despite not being a constant offensive threat, Big Mac was an easy guy to root for, and it’s never fun to watch those guys get sent away for any reason.
Ultimately, however, this is a great move for Seattle.
It’s never easy to guess what leads teams to pick one overage player over another, but if we are to assume that Volcan and Andrusiak were locks and the decision came down to choosing between Mike MacLean and Noah Philp, the choice probably came down to position. MacLean plays solely on the wing, whereas Philp is a more than capable center. The Thunderbird's have a fair share of returning veterans on the wing but had they opted to send away Philp instead of MacLean, that would have left Matthew Wedman as the only remain center with more than one year of WHL experience. Retaining Philp allows the Thunderbird's to shelter and develop players like Samuel Huo, and Graeme Bryks a little more by having them play lower in the lineup and having the tougher match-ups drawn to Wedman and Philp.
Now, obviously, MacLean wasn’t the only piece sent to Prince George in this deal. Sixteen-year-old left defenseman Sam Schoenfeld was also a part of the deal, and that likely played into the return being what it was. Schoenfeld, however, faced an uphill climb with the Thunderbird's had he not been dealt. Even if he had been signed to a player agreement, Seattle’s defensive depth chart currently looks like this:
The Thunderbird’s have done a good job building a strong defense not only for the present, but for the future as well. Looking beyond this season and into next, the only spot likely opening up is the departure of Jarret Tyszka, and even then, they are prepared for it.
In return for the pair, the Thunderbird’s acquired seventeen-year-old forward Keegan Craik. While it’s yet to be seen what he can do in the WHL, Craik is entering just his second year of WHL eligibility, and given that he’s spent the last season playing alongside highly touted Thunderbird’s rookie Payton Mount at Delta Hockey Academy, it’s probably safe to assume that the Thunderbird's front office is fairly familiar with his play. Craik put up over a point per game as a sixteen-year-old, scoring 13 goals and notching 16 assists in 27 games.
Much like Farwell (and many others) before him, Bill La Forge was placed in a tough situation with four overage players all vying for one of the three allotted spots. In the end, he managed to turn a player he had to get rid of, and a second player he had no room for into an intriguing, young offensive player.
Hard to find fault with that.