As the calendar turns over to the second post-WHL Championship season, the Seattle Thunderbirds will see more key players from the squad that won it all depart. Following a mass exodus last season, the Thunderbirds were dealt more blows this summer as Turner Ottenbreit, Austin Strand and Donovan Nuels all aged out, and Sami Moilanen returned to his native Finland in what would have been his nineteen-year-old season. With a season of understandable regression behind them, the Seattle Thunderbirds will be looking for a few players to step up and fill those spots as they look to re-establish themselves amongst the top teams in the US Division. Today, let’s take a look at five candidates for breakout seasons on the Seattle Thunderbirds roster.
I went back and forth on whether or not I wanted to include Wedman on this list. Entering his fourth season, Wedman has already shown increased offensive output each season, very quietly putting up 0.65 points per game last year, finishing sixth on the team in both goals (17) and points (47), more than doubling his totals from the previous season. Though you would typically expect higher end players to be hovering around a point per game by their eighteen-year-old, it would fair to argue that Wedman has already broken out, but I do think there’s more here. Wedman’s sophomore season was stalled by injuries which held him to just 48 games. He still managed to increase his point total by six in spite of playing 32 fewer games. This year, Wedman is going to be looked upon to center the team’s top line, and head coach Matt O’Dette has already given us a glimpse of him playing between the Thunderbirds two leading scorers from last season in Nolan Volcan and Zack Andrusiak. If that line holds for the majority of the season, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Wedman have a monster season that’s punctuated with 40+ assists.
After two years of Turner Ottenbreit and Jarret Tyszka manning the left side of the top four in Seattle, it’s time for a new face to get their chance to establish themselves. Although there were some typical rookie struggles along the way, Jake Lee’s first season in the WHL made it clear that he was that guy. Lee, the Thunderbirds first-round selection in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, looked solid in his 64 games for the Thunderbirds last season, the fourth highest amount of games played among sixteen-year-old defensemen in the WHL. Though he doesn’t appear to possess the offensive skills to needed to quarterback a power play like Tyszka or newcomer Simon Kubicek, Lee is already a solid defensive player and looks more than capable of handling top penalty killing responsibilities for Seattle in 2018. Offensively, I wouldn’t expect much more than a modest bump in production, but Lee’s defensive abilities more than makeup for that, and he’s poised to become a top shutdown threat in the coming years. Should Tyzska’s concussion recovery take longer than expected, it wouldn’t be all that shocking if Lee was the guy O’Dette turns to as his replacement on the top pair early on.
There’s a case to be made that Dillon Hamaliuk wasn’t truly a rookie last season, but in the eyes of the WHL, he was. After being limited to just 17 games in his sixteen-year-old season, Hamaliuk just barely retained his rookie status as a seventeen-year-old by three games. Thanks to this technicality, Hamaliuk was quietly the sixth highest scoring rookie scorer in the WHL in 2018, and fourth if you were to exclude Imports. Hamaliuk skated regularly in Seattle’s top six last season, and it’s expected that he’ll find his way back there again this season, likely on Noah Philp’s left side on the second line. Despite only putting up four power-play points last season, Hamaliuk has a decent frame that could be effectively used as the net-front presence on either the first or second power-play unit. He has also shown a willingness to use that size when battling for the puck along the boards, so he could also pair nicely on the off wing of a smaller winger like Andrusiak or Volcan. Hamaliuk just barely missed 40 points last season, but with a little more luck on the power play, a 20 goal/50 point season isn’t unimaginable.
Despite the near certainty that he will be finding himself on the third pairing most nights, there is a lot about Owen Williams’ game to like. As an eighteen-year-old, this could be a real make or break year in terms of development, but Williams has all the tools to be a very effective defender in the WHL. He is a very smooth skater, has decent size, and has all the tools of an effective puck mover. While he could absolutely thrive facing lower quality competition, the real test will be showing that he’s also capable of holding his own in a second pairing role in case of an injury to someone like Tyszka or Lee. Much like with Lee, Williams having a breakout season isn’t so much dependent on his offensive scoring (especially given his spot in the lineup), but with the likelihood of Tyszka leaving for the AHL following this season, it’s on Williams to put it all together and show that he is capable of taking that next step towards being a capable middle pairing player going forward.
Whoever wins the backup job
Okay. Kind of cheating here a little bit, but even though we don’t know exactly who the backup is going to be just yet, Seattle’s goaltending situation is a fascinating one this year. Liam Hughes is obviously locked in at starter, but he’s entering his nineteen-year-old season, and Seattle would have to use an overage slot to retain his services next year. Despite Reece Harsch and the aforementioned Matthew Wedman appearing to be the only locks to return as overage player next season, there are better options for the third slot than a league average starting goaltender. Eric Ward and Cole Schwebius have both had solid preseasons for the Thunderbirds this year, and although I’m leaning more towards Ward as being the more impressive of the two, we don’t know what the coaching staff is thinking, or even if what they’re thinking now will be what they’re thinking following Saturday’s game up in Everett. Whoever wins the backup spot could potentially get extended looks during the regular season if the team is already planning on moving on from Hughes following this year.
Obviously, there are more players to be excited about this season. Mount, Kukucka, and Kubicek all carry a certain amount of hype behind them as well, but they’re all on hype trains that have been better documented. While many are expecting big things from them, we often fall into a spot with unknown players where we view the sky as the limit. We haven’t seen them play before, so the possibilities are endless. Conversely, we take more established players and overlook the limits that they have yet to reach.