Jaimen Yakubowski scored 32 goals and added 18 assists last season for Lethbridge (WHL.ca photo)
By Tim Pigulski
The Thunderbirds announced another blockbuster move on Thursday evening, acquiring 19-year-old forwards Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam Mckechnie from the Lethbridge Hurricanes in exchange for 19-year old forward Riley Sheen, 17-year-old forward Carter Folk, and a third-round draft choice.
Reports are that Lethbridge General Manager Brad Robson had spoken to at least 15 teams regarding his two forwards and had narrowed that list down to five earlier in the week, including the Thunderbirds.
"The advantage we had [over other teams] is that we had a [19-year-old] and they wanted players to play right now," said Seattle GM Russ Farwell. "They didn't want just futures. There's not a lot of depth in the league so it's hard to give up players who can play right now. If you want to add a 19, you have to give one up, which put a lot of teams out of the running. I think we had a little more that Lethbridge was looking for. We were maybe a little more motivated to do it and we got on it right away."
Yakubowski and Mckechnie had both been sent home last week after requesting trades from the Hurricanes. Neither had been able to get their offensive games going for a Lethbridge team that currently sits in last place in the Eastern Conference with a 2-11-0-1 record, which included a 6-2 defeat at the hands of the Thunderbirds on Oct. 5.
"Both of these guys have real solid reputations, character-wise," said Farwell of the two newest T-Birds. "[Being sent home] in this case didn't influence our decision much, although it usually does. Guys often ask for trades and walk out on their team, and that's not usually something that makes them more attractive. I thought things transpired differently here though. They asked for a trade and their coach chose to send them home; they didn't try and force it. We have scouts who knew their history and we felt we knew enough that it wasn't going to be an issue."
Last season Yakubowski, a 5 feet 11, 202 pound left wing, scored 50 points in 66 games, including 32 goals, to go along with 126 penalty minutes.
"We just didn't think we were deep enough in some areas, on our special teams and in some other areas," acknowledged Farwell. "Yakubowski is a 30-goal scorer and also had 14 fighting majors. He plays with a real grit and his style will fit in and be good for us."
Mckechnie tallied 43 points on 26 goals and 17 assists while playing in all 72 games. Before this year, the Airdrie, Alberta native had not missed a single game while playing two full seasons with the Hurricanes.
"He's a real worker and responsible guy on both sides of the puck," said Farwell of Mckechnie. "He'll fit in real well and add to our special teams. Both guys will fill out our roster and give it a more complete feel. We can put together four very solid lines now."
Sheen, a talented left wing acquired prior to last season from Medicine Hat, arrived in Seattle with an offensive pedigree but this season displayed not only a strong defensive acumen, but the willingness to accept any he was assigned.
"Sheen had been good and he was a hard guy for us to give up," said Farwell. "He was a key guy for us to trade to get these two guys, and it's hard to get something without giving something up."
Folk, on the other hand, hadn't seen much playing time this year but displayed a fearlessness that any team would be glad to have.
"I think he's going to develop and be a very hard guy to play against, but he wasn't playing here and had we added anyone he just wasn't going to get an opportunity. He's been a good soldier here, but just because of where we're at as a team, it didn't look like there was going to be much playing time for him."
The trade shows that the Thunderbirds are planning on making a big run this year, likely fueled by a fast start and the recent addition of Ryan Gropp, as well as defenseman Adam Henry, a former teammate of Yakubowski and Mckechnie's in Lethbridge. Sitting at 9-3-0-1 and tied for fourth place in the Western Conference, the acquisition of two more players with two-way potential will put Seattle in an even better position to dethrone the Portland Winterhawks as the class of the U.S. Division.
"[The trade] says we think our team is competitive and has a chance," said Farwell when asked of his expectations. "But we didn't think we were quite there yet. This just looked like a good move for us to give us a chance and keep us in the race. We have to grow and we haven't won anything yet, and these guys didn't come from a winning situation so we're not expecting them to lead us, but the character is strong enough that we think they can grow with us and we felt they were good additions. We've shown we're competitive and I don't know if there's a more physical team in our division, and I think that's how we're going to be successful."
The main concern with this trade seems to be that the Thunderbirds have further cluttered their 19-year-old age class, currently occupied by forwards Justin Hickman, Connor Honey, Branden Troock, and defensemen Henry and Evan Wardley. Import picks Alex Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs, both 19 as well, appear unlikely to be with the team during their overage seasons. As the league only allows a team to carry three 20-year-olds, the roster will look very different next season than it does now.
"The last couple of years, the prices have gotten so expensive at the deadline that we just thought that now might be the time to act and fill out or team rather than later. We originally inquired for one player, and then eventually asked what it'd take to get both." said Farwell of the package he received. "They weren't offered as a package deal, but Carter was really attractive to them and this trade really fills out our team in a way that gives us real balance and allows us to come at you from a number of different ways."
Having missed a bit of time due to being sent home, it's unlikely that we'll see either player suit up. Certainly not Friday, according to Farwell, but Saturday remains a slim possibility, with Tuesday remaining the goal.
"They haven't been practicing so we'd like to see them practice and get out there with the team. Depends how quickly they get going. Saturday isn't impossible, but definitely not Friday."
The Thunderbirds now feature a roster laden with veterans and four lines that should be able to match up against any team's best. After a stronger start than most expected, Seattle continues to build on a foundation that looks like it's ready to compete sooner rather than later.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.