Seattle’s Potential Targets: Former Thunderbirds

Seattle’s expansion draft is still two seasons away but — through the process of conducting three mocks this month — several potential targets have emerged in the present as players of interest for 2021.

These players fall into one or more of the following categories: Familiarity With Francis, Former Thunderbirds, Homegrown Talent, Vegas Veterans, and Projected UFAs.

By analyzing the current NHL rosters — as well as the protected and exposed lists from those aforementioned mocks — Seattle can start to identify their potential targets two years in advance of the actual expansion draft.

In the second of a five-part series, the focus will be on former Thunderbirds and other junior alums that starred in Washington State.

Who are the Thunderbirds?

First, a quick background on the Seattle Thunderbirds, who have played in the Western Hockey League since 1985 after formerly being known as the Breakers dating back to 1977.

As the Thunderbirds, that franchise won their first WHL championship in 2017 after previously losing in two league finals (2016, 1997).

The Thunderbirds also hosted the 1992 Memorial Cup tournament at the Coliseum, which transformed into KeyArena and is now undergoing another $900-million renovation in becoming home to the NHL franchise.

KeyArena Seattle NHL
Artist rendering of the renovated Seattle Center Arena, formerly known as KeyArena, which is slated to reopen in June 2021. (Photo courtesy Office of the Mayor, Seattle, Wash.)

The Thunderbirds relocated in 2009 from KeyArena to the ShoWare Center in Kent, Wash., about 20 miles south of Seattle. There, the T-Birds have developed a large fan base and continually draw some of the highest attendance numbers in the WHL on a yearly basis while sending several players on to NHL careers.

Former Thunderbirds

Patrick Marleau will turn 42 years old prior to the expansion season, but his career could come full circle as Seattle’s first captain if he doesn’t retire following the next two campaigns.

Marleau is expected to sign back in San Jose for this coming season and it has been reported that his family prefers to call California home — thus his trade from Toronto and subsequent buyout by Carolina — so Seattle may not be a serious consideration even if he’s still playing at that time.

Matt Barzal is a lock to be protected by the New York Islanders and, with Vegas exempt from this expansion draft, Shea Theodore will also be off limits to Seattle assuming he’s still with the Golden Knights in June 2021.

Ethan Bear, Thomas Hickey and Brenden Dillon are former Thunderbirds defencemen that will likely be exposed and could be of significant interest to Seattle. 

Ethan Bear
Ethan Bear of the Edmonton Oilers. (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nate Thompson is the only established NHL forward — besides Barzal and Marleau — that could be on Seattle’s radar, but he would likely be a low-priority free-agent signing rather than an expansion draft selection.

Calvin Pickard is the top goaltender to consider among former T-Birds, though Landon Bow could be pushing Pickard in two years’ time. Neither will be high on Seattle’s list — barring a Jordan Binnington-type breakout — since there will be tons of higher-calibre goalies exposed in the expansion draft.

There are also four prospects who played on the T-Birds’ 2017 championship team that would be exposed as of today and probably won’t play their way onto protected lists over the next two seasons. Those being forwards Alex True (San Jose), Scott Eansor (Islanders) and Ryan Gropp (Rangers), along with defenceman Austin Strand (Los Angeles).

San Jose Sharks Alexander True
Alex True (70) in preseason action with the San Jose Sharks. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY)

Keegan Kolesar (Vegas) was also on that team, but he’ll be a restricted free agent for the Golden Knights in 2020, so unless he’s traded or not qualified, Kolesar won’t be an option for the expansion draft.

Other former and current Thunderbirds that could suit up for Seattle’s NHL team in the future include Jim O’Brien, Marcel Noebels, Justin Hickman, Dillon Hamaliuk, Henry Rybinski, Matthew Wedman, Jake Lee, Jarret Tyszka, Andrej Kukuca, Simon Kubicek, Roddy Ross and Carl Stankowski.

If Seattle were to sign a junior free agent ahead of the expansion draft to become the first player in franchise history — like Vegas did with Reid Duke — it could be a Thunderbird, but that is too far off to make any predictions.

Ron Francis could also consider ties to the junior team when it comes to filling out Seattle’s coaching staff. 

Steve Konowalchuk, the T-Birds’ bench boss from 2011 through the 2017 championship season, immediately comes to mind. He left Seattle to be an NHL assistant with Anaheim, but that stint only lasted one season and Konowalchuk spent this past campaign scouting for the New York Rangers.

The other name to keep in mind is Tim Hunter, who coached Canada at this year’s World Juniors and has had a good run with WHL Moose Jaw. Hunter played two-plus seasons for the Seattle Breakers back in the day (1977-1980). But there will be tons of coaching candidates and those hires are likely more than a year away — perhaps not until after the 2020-21 season.

Tim Hunter Team Canada 2019
Tim Hunter behind the bench for Team Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The Thunderbirds play in the U.S. Division with a couple nearby neighbours in the Everett Silvertips and the Tri-City Americans of Kennewick, Wash., along with the Spokane Chiefs and the Portland Winterhawks of Oregon, the lone team located outside Washington State. NHL alums from those WHL clubs would also be familiar to Seattle junior hockey fans.

Everett Silvertips

Carter Hart is Philadelphia’s goaltender of the present and the future, so he’ll certainly be protected by the Flyers.

Ryan Murray has struggled to stay healthy and live up to draft expectations as the second overall pick from 2012 but likely played his way onto Columbus’ protected list with a strong performance this past season. However, Murray would be an unrestricted free agent in 2021 — the summer of the expansion draft — and thus would be exposed if not extended between now and then.

Mirco Mueller (New Jersey) and Noah Juulsen (Montreal) will be restricted free agents in 2020. Mueller wouldn’t be protected by the Devils as of today and Juulsen would be on the bubble for the Canadiens — behind Shea Weber and competing for two or three spots on the protected list with Victor Mete, Jeff Petry, Brett Kulak and Mike Reilly over the next two seasons. Montreal would likely protect seven forwards rather than four defencemen, so that would only leave two spots for those five blueliners.

Mirco Mueller New Jersey Devils
Mirco Mueller of the New Jersey Devils. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Jujhar Khaira could be exposed by Edmonton — he will be a restricted free agent again in 2021, the summer of the expansion draft — while Radko Gudas will be an unrestricted free agent in 2020 but is a good bet to be exposed by whichever team employs him.

Byron Froese is a fringe NHLer that may or may not be in the league at the time of the expansion draft, but he wouldn’t be high on Seattle’s list regardless.

Exempt prospects from Everett’s pipeline include forwards Connor Dewar and Riley Sutter, defencemen Wyatte Wylie and Gianni Fairbrother, and goaltender Dustin Wolf.

Tri-City Americans

Carey Price is locked in as Montreal’s goalie — at least in the present — and a couple former Tri-City defenders are also likely to be protected in Calgary’s Juuso Valimaki and Boston’s Brandon Carlo.

As for forwards, Detroit’s Michael Rasmussen and Carolina’s Morgan Geekie are trending towards being protected. Geekie might be exposed, however, if the Hurricanes protect four defencemen and thus only four forwards.

Parker Wotherspoon, a defence prospect for the Islanders, and Eric Comrie, a near NHL-ready goaltender for Winnipeg, are the two former Tri-City players that could make the most sense for Seattle when the expansion draft rolls around in two years.

Eric Comrie Winnipeg Jets
Eric Comrie of the Winnipeg Jets. (Aaron Doster/USA TODAY)

Dylan Coghlan is progressing well as an undrafted prospect but is property of Vegas and therefore exempt. 

Brooks Macek is also coming off a big season for Vegas’ AHL affiliate but remains an unrestricted free agent — presumably holding out hope for a one-way contract at 27 years old. He appears to be a late-bloomer, but Seattle probably won’t have much interest in Macek at 29.

Ditto for Chris Driedger, a late-blooming goalie at 25 that started his WHL career with Tri-City and will be 27 at the time of the expansion draft. Strangely, Driedger is listed as being exempt for Florida.

Sasha Mutala is a forward prospect with a high floor, but he’ll be exempt as a 2019 draft pick for Colorado.

Spokane Chiefs

Tyler Johnson tops the lists of former Chiefs as the top talent but more so because he hails from Spokane. As a Washington State product, Johnson could very well become one of the faces of Seattle’s franchise for their inaugural season.

Tyler Johnson #9, Tampa Bay Lightning
Tyler Johnson of the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kailer Yamamoto is appealing for the same reasons — he is also from Spokane — but Yamamoto is likely to be protected by Edmonton unless the Oilers opt to protect four defencemen. In that case, assuming Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are locks for three of the four forward spots, Yamamoto would likely be competing with Tyler Benson to round out that list.

As for older forwards, Derek Ryan and Michael Grabner will both be unrestricted free agents in 2021. Francis gave Ryan a chance in Carolina as a late-bloomer and he’s become quite serviceable as an NHLer, so he could be of interest to Seattle when that time comes. So could Grabner, providing he doesn’t lose a step as one of the league’s fastest skaters with decent finishing ability.

Jared Spurgeon is the top defenceman among former Chiefs, but he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2020 and will probably be protected for the expansion draft — by Minnesota, if re-signed, or by his new team.

Ty Smith, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Jake McGrew, Adam Beckman and Filip Kral are exempt prospects as recent draft picks, while Dustin Tokarski, Justin Falk, Hudson Elynuik, Adam Helewka and Brenden Kichton are journeymen that appear to be minor-leaguers at this point of their careers.

Portland Winterhawks

Seth Jones, Ryan Johansen and Matt Dumba are Portland alums that will surely be protected, with Henri Jokiharju likely joining that group over the next two seasons providing he continues to develop after being traded to Buffalo.

Cody Glass will be off limits for Seattle — he is exempt in Vegas and would be regardless — but a handful of former Winterhawks forwards could be exposed in Nino Niederreiter, Sven Baertschi, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan.

The first three were imports in the WHL, with Niederreiter now fitting in well for Carolina, but he could be the odd-man out there if the Hurricanes protect four defencemen. Baertschi will be an unrestricted free agent in 2021, while Bjorkstrand will be a restricted free agent that summer. Bjorkstrand would be protected by Columbus as of today, but he’s not yet a lock there.

Carolina Hurricanes Nino Niederreiter Sebastian Aho
Nino Niederreiter (21) of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates a goal. (James Guillory/USA TODAY)

Leipsic is already on his sixth NHL team in Washington, with previous stints in Nashville, Toronto, Vegas, Vancouver and Los Angeles. Seattle could be lucky No. 7 for him.

Petan couldn’t become a regular for Winnipeg and will be in tough to crack Toronto’s lineup too, but he could be a decent depth player for Seattle.

There are a few defencemen of interest too, with Caleb Jones being the most intriguing. Big brother Seth Jones won’t be exposed, but Caleb could be on the bubble for Edmonton and needs to continue playing his way onto the Oilers’ protected list over the next two seasons. Seattle could be torn between Caleb Jones and the aforementioned Bear, who would be the sentimental favourite but both were dominant in their Dub days and are progressing as pros.

Caleb Jones Oilers
Caleb Jones of the Edmonton Oilers. (Photo Credit: Connor Mah/Flickr)

The other two defencemen of note are Joe Morrow and Derrick Pouliot, who are still working to establish themselves as NHL regulars, but there is no telling where they will be in 2021.

Adin Hill could play himself into the goaltending conversation over the next two seasons, but he wouldn’t be on Seattle’s short-list as of today.

Portland has also produced a handful of veterans that warrant mention in Braydon Coburn, Brandon Dubinsky, Luca Sbisa, Colton Sceviour and Cody McLeod, along with several fringe NHLers in Ty Rattie, Taylor Leier, Dominic Turgeon, Chase De Leo, Skyler McKenzie, Paul Bittner, Rodrigo Abols and Tyler Wotherspoon, plus two exempt prospects from the 2019 draft in John Ludvig and Reece Newkirk.

Wenatchee Wild (BCHL)

There is another tier-two junior team in Washington State that has been developing some decent prospects in recent years, and Wenatchee already has one NHLer among their alumni in Nic Dowd.

Dowd is currently with Washington — as in the Capitals — and has a cheap contract ($750,000) that runs through 2021-22, which is Seattle’s debut season. Dowd will definitely be exposed but wouldn’t be overly enticing as of today.

Nic Dowd Washington Capitals
Nic Dowd of the Washington Capitals. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Wenatchee’s other prospects of note are Slava Demin (Vegas), Jasper Weatherby (San Jose) and Cooper Zech (Boston), but all three will be exempt from the expansion draft.

Lucas Sowder and Murphy Stratton went undrafted from Wenatchee but could become college free-agent signings down the road.

Likeliest Targets

Of all the former Thunderbirds and those who have starred in Washington State, these 32 players stand out as the likeliest targets for Seattle’s inaugural roster — a fitting number since Seattle will be the NHL’s 32nd franchise:

Seattle Thunderbirds

Ethan Bear

Thomas Hickey

Brenden Dillon

Calvin Pickard

Alex True

Scott Eansor

Ryan Gropp

Austin Strand

Everett Silvertips

Mirco Mueller

Noah Juulsen

Jujhar Khaira

Tri-City Americans

Morgan Geekie

Parker Wotherspoon

Eric Comrie

Spokane Chiefs

Tyler Johnson

Kailer Yamamoto

Derek Ryan

Michael Grabner

Portland Winterhawks

Nino Niederreiter

Sven Baertschi

Oliver Bjorkstrand

Brendan Leipsic

Nic Petan

Joe Morrow

Derrick Pouliot

Caleb Jones 

Adin Hill

Braydon Coburn

Brandon Dubinsky

Ty Rattie

Taylor Leier

Wenatchee Wild

Nic Dowd