Who’s been the WHL’s biggest mover and shaker this season? It has to be Bil La Forge.
The general manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds, who the Everett Silvertips face in a home-and-home set on Friday and Saturday nights, was more active in the trade market than Richard Simmons prodding his charges into sweating to the oldies. La Forge slung first-round WHL prospects draft picks around like a baseball infield following a strikeout, making move after move to build Seattle into a WHL championship favorite.
But one thing you may not know is that the seeds of La Forge’s wheeling and dealing were planted during his days with the Tips.
La Forge spent a decade as a member of Everett’s scouting staff, rising as high as director of player personnel before he was hired as Seattle’s GM in 2018. In his time with the Tips he watched his boss, former Everett general manager Garry Davidson, make big moves every year as the Tips piled up U.S. Division banners. He saw Everett advance to the WHL final in 2018, only for the Tips to fall to Swift Current.
“I’ve been to two finals in the last six years and both times we lost in six games,” La Forge said when I caught up with him this week, noting Seattle’s trip to the championship series last year. “It’s not something I want to do again.”
Ergo La Forge’s machinations. Indeed, no one can say La Forge didn’t do everything within his power to get the T-birds over the hump.
This season La Forge embarked on a spending spree unlike anything ever seen in WHL history. Despite having the bulk of the team that won last year’s Western Conference title returning, La Forge bolstered the roster by collecting elite pieces like a Funko enthusiast snatching up Pops. It began with the summer acquisition of the rights to first-round NHL draft pick Brad Lambert, a deal that paid off when the Winnipeg Jets reassigned the Finnish forward from the AHL to the WHL just before the Jan. 10 trade deadline. Defensemen Luke Prokop (third-round NHL pick) and Nolan Allan (first round) were added during the fall, while forward Colton Dach (second round) arrived in early January. To top it off, La Forge secured the rights to NHL forward Dylan Guenther (first round) on deadline day, just in case the Arizona Coyotes decided to send him back to the WHL for further seasoning.
In total, La Forge spent five first-round, three second-round, three third-round, three fourth-round and two sixth-round draft picks (plus players) to acquire Lambert, Prokop, Allan, Dach and the rights to Guenther. If Guenther ever arrives, that adds another six picks, including first- and second-rounders, to the pile. According to research done by ace WHL observer Alan Caldwell, Seattle could potentially have only one pick in the first three rounds and six picks in the first five rounds in the next four prospects drafts combined.
Why would La Forge mortgage the franchise’s future like that? Because of what happened in the past.
“The year Everett went to the finals when I was there, we brought in a number of guys,” La Forge recalled. “Then we ran up against Swift Current in the finals and they just had unit after unit that could go out there. It’s a long, long run to the finals, and you’re depleted by the time you get there. So you can never have too much depth.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” La Forge added. “You have to know your room well enough that you can afford to bring in X number of players because the room is strong enough that everyone buys in. We’re fortunate that our leadership group is so strong, and we’re so deep in home-grown guys who have been here for years and know what we’re all about.”
One of the narratives around La Forge’s trade activity is that while he’s built a team of superstars for a championship run this season, he’s doomed the franchise’s future. However, La Forge disputes this. Seattle has three players who played in this year’s CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in forwards Gracyn Sawchyn and Nico Myatovic and goaltender Scott Ratzlaff, who will still be around for at least a couple more seasons. The T-birds have three quality 16-year-olds in forward Tij Iginla and defensemen Bryce Pickford and Hyde Davidson, who La Forge believes will be playing in the Top Prospects Game next year. And if there’s something La Forge was known for during his time as Everett’s head scout, it was finding gems in the middle rounds of the prospects draft.
“We wouldn’t have been able to make these moves if we didn’t feel our cupboards were full enough in terms of our prospect pool to be competitive going forward,” La Forge said. “I’ve never been a guy to make a move without looking into the future, and I think we’re still set up well regardless of the moves we made.”
During our conversation I asked La Forge if, when he first took the Seattle job, he ever imagined being the general manager who made the entire league gasp because of the trades he made. He chuckled before answering:
“No, definitely not. It’s just the way things have played out. It’s kind of the temperature in the league right now, deals are big and expensive, so if you want to swim in that market you have to be willing to do some things. I’m not scared by any means, I believe in our group. We want to get back to where we were last year and win two more games to get to the Memorial Cup.”
And La Forge has taken his best shot at making it happen.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.
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