WHL Season Previews
The Seattle Thunderbirds 2011-12 Western Hockey League flight plans rest on the wings of puck-stopping Calvin Pickard.
Arguably the best goaltender in the WHL, Pickard a native of Winnipeg, MB, is the lone bright spot on a Thunderbirds team that finished bottom of the barrel in the Western Conference last season, and 20th out of the league’s 22 clubs.
Last season Pickard tied for third among starting netminders with a .916 save percentage despite facing a league high 2668 shots (second highest was Chilliwack’s Lucas Gore with 2185). With a relatively inexperienced defence corps, the heavy load will once again be his to burden most nights.
Up front, Seattle’s top three forwards will muster the majority of much-needed offensive magic. 20-year-old veteran Burke Gallimore (34 goals, 70 points) returns alongside the towering German right winger Marcel Noebels (6’3″, 201 lbs).
Luke Lockhart enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2009-10 notching 48 points in 70 games and will likely centre the No. 1 line between Gallimore and Noebels. Unfortunately, the talent-pool plummets precipitously from there. If the T-Birds are to ditch their dubious status as basement dwellers a supporting cast needs to emerge on the other forward lines.
The underdog list includes team captain Travis Toomey, Colin Jacobs and Brendan Rouse who all hovered around the 30- to 40-point mark last season, and if one or all breakout for career highs Seattle may surprise a few pundits.
On defence, the Thunderbirds part ways with Brenden Dillon, who finished second on the team in scoring with 59 points, and Erik Bonsor who chose to forego his final season in the WHL to pursue academic ventures.
Veteran defenceman Ryan Button came over from Prince Albert last season (5 goals, 35 points), but signed with the Boston Bruins in the summer, meaning there’s plenty of question marks surrounding the 2011-12 T-Birds blueline should he stick with AHL affiliate Providence.
Rugged blueliner Cason Machacek, acquired from Lethbridge this summer for a sixth-round pick in the Bantam draft, and Kyle Verdino (20 points , 67 games, 156 PIMs) take over as elder statesmen on a relatively young blueline. Both Machacek and Verdino are considered overagers – the WHL caps overagers at three per team – and should Button come back, Seattle will have to decide which 20-year-old to trade or release come October.
However, the team will be more concerned about filling the bottom pairings.
Candidates include 16-year-old rookies Shea Theodore and the intriguing Taylor Green who stands a towering 6’6” in sneakers. Steady, yet offensively limited, Erik Fleming will suit up for another campaign. The 19-year-old Calgarian has played in 50 or more games the past three seasons.
In goal Pickard, who will try and secure a spot on Canada’s U-20 squad for the 2012 World Junior Championships after narrowly missing the cut last year, takes the reins for his fourth season in a T-Birds jersey and should play somewhere between 60-70 games.
Fellow 19-year-old Michael Salmon should win the battle of the backups.
The Seattle Thunderbirds home opener is on Saturday, Sept. 24 against the Portland Winterhawks.
Puck drops at 7:05 p.m.