As the 2018-19 Western Hockey League’s regular season approaches, the WHL is previewing each Team and Division leading up to the first day of the regular season Friday Sept. 21. Team capsules in the Division Previews are presented in order of 2017-18 finish within their own division.
General Manager: Bil La Forge
Head coach: Matt O’Dette
Pre-season record: 4-3-0-0
2017-18 record: 34-28-8-2, Fifth in U.S. Division
2018 Playoffs: 1-4-0-0, Eliminated in Round One of 2018 WHL Playoffs by Everett Silvertips (4-1)
Top scorers: LW Nolan Volcan (32-44-76), C Donovan Neuls (22-54-76), Zack Andrusiak (36-38-74)
20-year-olds: LW Nolan Volcan (32-44-76), LW Zack Andrusiak (36-38-74), C Noah Philp (14-36-50)
Imports: RW Andrej Kukuca (Slovakia), RD Simon Kubicek (Czech Republic)
Forwards: The ago-old adage about developing from within is perhaps best exhibited by the Seattle Thunderbirds and their group of forwards. With names like Barzal, Easnor, and Kolesar making good on that statement in recent years, those responsibilities have now fallen onto the shoulders of those named Volcan, Andrusiak, and Wedman among others.
Returning two 30-goal-plus scorers in Volcan and Andrusiak is a big boost for the club, who will depend on the duo for steady offence after learning the ropes of those duties last season. Secondary scoring from the likes of Noah Philp and Matthew Wedman will also be counted upon as the team looks to replace three of the players who surpassed the 20-goal plateau for them last season.
After a six-game audition last season, Payton Mount will be looking to impress in his rookie campaign. The 19th overall selection from the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft was a point-per-game player while helping his home province of British Columbia win gold at the 2017 WHL Cup. The Thunderbirds will appreciate watching his talents grow over the coming season and beyond as will scouts ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft.
Import forward Andrej Kukuca has already made an impact with the club, leading them with nine points (4G-5A) in pre-season play.
Defense: This year’s blue line will be led by a pair of 1999-born talents in Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch. The Montreal Canadiens prospect Tyszka showed promising development last season and should figure to take another step forward this season as the Thunderbirds look to climb back up the standings in the U.S. Division.
Harsch has attracted interest from NHL clubs, attending camp with the Vegas Golden Knights and the right mix of opportunity and talent have Harsch poised for a career year that could very well put him on the radar for the 2019 NHL Draft.
The T-Birds will also look to the likes of 2016 first round WHL Bantam Draft selection Jake Lee to take a step forward, especially in his first year of eligibility for the NHL Draft.
Goaltending: The 2017-18 year was one of transition in net for the Thunderbirds, one they’ve appeared to stabilize for at least the next two seasons with Liam Hughes. In the 2017-18 campaign, Hughes was an early-season addition to the T-Birds and posted a respectable 16-12-5-1 record with a 3.15 goals-against-average and a 0.909 save percentage in 36 games.
The thing about last year though is that there were times where Matt Berlin and Dorrin Luding picked up the slack. Now, the T-Birds appear to have full confidence in Hughes and for good reason, but where the team may be challenged is in the use of their backup as Hughes will inevitably need time off. Right now, that backup position lies with either Cole Schwebius and Eric Ward, a pair of 2001-born talents who have put up fairly good numbers in their limited pre-season action. While both are young, the decision will play a big part in terms of the team’s success every night and not just when one goaltender is in net.
Prognosis: Now a full season removed from their Ed Chynoweth Cup victory, the Seattle Thunderbirds have already turned over the majority of their key players from that championship victory, but remain strong at all three positions. The question looming for the T-Birds is how big the gap this year is between great and elite. The Thunderbirds should have no problem filling the net and returning to the WHL Playoffs, but with other clubs looking to take a better shot, the Thunderbirds may need to find another gear in their play in order to challenge those at the top.