The Seattle Thunderbirds were locked in a 5-5 tie this past Friday at the accesso ShoWare Center with the Everett Silvertips and headed into overtime. Winnipeg Jets prospect Brad Lambert, who had recently joined the team, did not start the overtime period but finished it with a flurry. He hopped over the boards a minute into the period and took a pass at his own blue line from defenseman Kevin Korchinski. Lambert then turned on the jets and raced up ice, seemingly mesmerizing the Everett defenders. He blew past the last defender and took a quick shot that found the net and won the game.
“There’s fast and then there’s Lambert fast,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette said at practice the day before.
Lambert, who turned 19 in December, has been one of the more intriguing NHL prospects for a couple of years and his journey to Seattle was circuitous. Born in Finland to a Canadian father and Finnish mother, Lambert had the spotlight thrust on him when he was 16, playing for Finland in the World Junior Championship. He was impressive enough that pundits and scouts started wondering if he would be the first overall pick in 2023.
“You’re doing good if they’re talking about you,” he said. “But I thought I could do a pretty good job about blocking that stuff out. Obviously, the expectations are high. You can go and have a good game, that’s just not good enough for the expectations that there were.”
Low numbers in Liga for Lambert
His numbers in Liga were low and draft prognosticators started to worry. Was he really a top prospect? Split between JVP and the Pelicans in Finland he only had four goals and 10 points in 49 games. Reading scouting reports, it was clear the speed and skill were still there but the numbers weren’t showing.
It turns out that playing in a tough pro league with adults meant getting playing time was hard to come by and the league is one where defense comes first, making points hard to pile up.
“They play very tight defense and most teams use the trap so you have five guys to beat,” Lambert said. “But in its own way, it was a really good experience for me, just learning how to play in my own end and defensive responsibility. You want to go to the next level and get coaches to trust you, you have to be good on both sides of the puck and that’s something that I thought I worked on a lot there and obviously still have to work on. But I’ve improved during the last two years.”
Lambert didn’t go first overall, rather slipped to 30th when the Jets selected him, but it was still a big day for Lambert and his family.
“[Draft day is] a big day,” he said. “If someone told me when I was five, six years old that I would be a first-round draft pick, I think I would have took it, and to be honest with you, it doesn’t matter where you go, first or 210, it’s a big day… I got a buddy playing right now in Nashville and doing great, Juuso Parssinen. He was drafted like 210. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about what you do after that.”
Just before the draft, Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge swung a deal with the Saskatoon Blades who held Lambert’s rights in the Western Hockey League. He was gambling that the Jets would eventually send him to junior for more opportunities to play and further develop his skills.
The hope was that Lambert would be sent to Seattle during training camp, but Lambert played well at rookie tournaments in the summer and had a strong fall training camp. He signed his entry-level contract and was given a shot in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose.
With Manitoba, he appeared in 14 games, scored twice with an assist, and once again struggled for consistent playing time with and against older professionals.
Winnipeg then loaned Lambert to Finland for this winter’s World Junior Championship. It wasn’t the best outing for Finland and was ‘disappointing’ according to Lambert with Finland failing to medal. It was at that time that the Jets decided rather than have Lambert ride the pine in the AHL, they would send him somewhere where he would get playing time.
Lambert heads to Seattle
That somewhere was Seattle and the Thunderbirds.
“At the time I was looking forward to going back to Manitoba and so I was a little disappointed,” Lambert said. “Now that I’ve got here, I’ve got to know the guys and it’s a great group of guys, and happy to be here. I think it’s an opportunity for me to show what I can do here. Obviously having never played Canadian junior it’s a new experience for me and a good opportunity to show what I can do.
“It’s still good hockey and there’s some really, really skilled guys in this league and on our team. It’s been good, and it’s a good opportunity for me to work on my own skills and at the same time, our team goal is to win, win as many games as we can and obviously win the big one at the end. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
So far, it’s been a win-win for both parties.
The overtime winner against Everett was Lambert’s second of the night to go with an assist. In his first six games with Seattle, he has four goals and three assists and is getting the ice time he couldn’t get in Finland or the AHL.
“Just does everything at a high pace even when he’s on the power play running in his end zone,” O’Dette said. “Everything is done quickly. It’s done with pace and you can never have enough guys like that that can push the pace and put the defense on their heels.”
Lambert’s confidence is high
When he was sent back it was assumed by many that it would be a chance for him to regain the confidence lost by playing in a defense-first league in Finland.
Was his confidence shaken?
“My confidence has never been better, anywhere,” Lamberts said with a chuckle. “It’s all about the opportunity, whenever I’ve got the opportunity to play with top-six guys, play power-play minutes, I think I’ve produced, and I know I can at the American League level as well. You have to be put out there, you have to be put in a position to succeed. It looks like you’re confident because you’re doing things because you’re getting out there all the time.”
Lambert joins a stacked team that has five NHL first-rounders on it, with the addition of Arizona’s Dylan Guenther earlier in the week.
During Friday’s overtime win, Korchinski, who was Chicago’s seventh overall pick during the 2022 NHL Draft had three assists, to go with a goal. He had the primary assist on both of Lambert’s goals. Could that chemistry be due to them once being teammates in Saskatoon where Lambert spent a couple of years as a youth?
“We were kids,” Lambert said with a grin. “In peewee, we played for the Kodiaks which is actually funny. We were talking about it, they wore the same colors as Seattle, and he was number 14 and I was number 11. We won the city-wide championship and now we’re going for another one so it’s pretty cool. I never thought after that I’d run into a spot on the same team as him in hockey again.”
Lambert, Korchinski, and the rest of the loaded Thunderbirds will next be in action Friday night against the Red Deer Rebels and former coach Steve Konowalchuk.