Sunday, October 19, 2014

Frustration Nation

The "Word of the Week" in Thunderbird Nation is "frustration". In large chunks there was much good that happened for the T-birds this past week, but none of that good ended up in the win column as the T-birds went 0-2-1-1. They were four winnable games for Seattle but all they got out of it was two of a possible eight points. Over the course of the four games Seattle probably generated 20-24 good scoring chances but could muster only eight goals and most came after they had fallen behind.

In a nutshell, Seattle's misfortune this past week started with an unfortunate and incorrectly called penalty on T-birds defenseman Jared Hauf late in the first period of Tuesday's home game versus Spokane. Hauf was assessed a five-minute major (and the automatic game misconduct that comes with it) for a clean hit on the Chiefs Liam Stewart. To me, this was a case of a referee erring too far on the side of caution, to the point he overreacted to a hit by a big player on a smaller player. It completely changed the complexion of the game.

Bad hits that lead to penalties are learning moments for players. This should be a learning moment for the official. They have a tough job and we ask perfection from them. We have to leave room for them to make and learn from mistakes.

Less then 24 hours later the WHL rescinded the penalty but it was too little too late. Hauf missed the rest of the Spokane game. Evan Wardley was already out of the lineup serving the first game of his suspension, and when Seattle lost two more d-men in that first period to injury, they were in dire straits. To their credit the depleted Seattle roster played valiantly, getting the game to the end of regulation tied at 2-2 before losing in the shootout.

All that ice time logged by what healthy defensemen Seattle had left had them skating on fumes in the rematch over in Spokane less then 24 hours later. Still absent three of their top six defensemen, they had no legs and it looked like they were skating in mud. They hung around as long as they could before falling, 4-1.

With only a day off Seattle returned home for a pair of games this weekend. Both nights, Friday against Prince George and Saturday against Kamloops, the T-birds came out with dominating first periods. So it may seem odd when I say despite the effort, I believe Seattle lost both games in the first period. The reason? They didn't reward their terrific first period play either night as they couldn't finish some excellent scoring chances. As a result they let their opponents hang around, gain confidence and get on the scoreboard first.

Saturday the Thunderbirds once again showed their resiliency as they battled back twice in the second period from a two-goal deficit and then again from a goal down in the third period. I really liked the fore check both nights and for good portions of each game they had strong puck possession. I was surprised though that each night this weekend their play fell off in the third period because through much of the early part of the season, the third period has been one of their best periods of hockey.

Fatigue may have been a factor, maybe frustration with seeing so many scoring chances go by the board. Whatever the case is, it is something they'll need to correct going forward. But, let's remember this is not yet a complete team. It's not just the fact they are missing Shea Theodore, Evan Wardley and now Ethan Bear or that Justin Hickman is not yet playing at 100 percent coming off the long layoff due to injury to start the season.

It's also the fact that Seattle is indoctrinating 11 rookies into the WHL. And they've all played. Outside of back-up goalie Logan Flodell, who has one start, not one of the rookies on the roster has played in fewer then four of the first 11 games. Luke Osterman, in his first season, has played both right wing and, out of necessity, defense and while there have been a few blemishes, he has held his own.

And yet the T-birds have had a chance to win all but maybe one of those 11 games. Saturday many of those young players may have turned a corner as Lane Pederson had an assist for his first WHL point, Nolan Volcan scored his first WHL goal and Donovan Neuls had his first multiple point night with a goal and an assist. I'm still appreciating the play of young defenseman Turner Ottenbreit who, in the absence of Theodore, Bear and Wardley, is getting top four minutes and power play time as well.

My T-birds three stars for the week:

Third Star: Ryan Gropp. Gropp had his seven game point streak snapped in the overtime loss Saturday against the Blazers but for most of the week, he was Seattle's offense. He has great hands and a quick release that will garner him 30-plus goals.

Second Star: Keegan Kolesar. A season ago in 60 games, the Winnipeg native tallied eight points (2g, 6a). Already this season he has four goals and three assists in the first 11 games and his shorthanded goal Saturday earned the T-birds a point. And while meaningless as far as the final result is concerned his last second goal Friday avoided the shutout against Prince George. When Bear and Theodore return his presence in front of the net should make the T-birds power play deadly. Far from a finished product, Kolesar is only scratching the surface of his ability.

First Star: Jerret Smith. No one stepped up more this week, after Seattle's D-corps got hit with suspension, ill-called penalties and injuries, then Smith. He logged major minutes back on the blue line this past week and earned a couple of assists in the process. And with so many defensemen down, you need those you still have to be available and on the ice. Smith has yet to be penalized this season, doing a terrific job of staying out of the box.

Saturday against Kamloops he took two bad hits along the boards, drawing penalties against the Blazers in the process. Yet he popped right back up each time showing he's one tough hombre. I've heard some say he has benefitted in the past from being paired with Shea Theodore, but that goes both ways. Having the steady Smith as a defensive partner allows Theodore to take chances up ice and to be more of an offensive player. Can't wait until those two get back together.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Road Warriors

The Seattle Thunderbirds have only played seven games so far this new season but the majority, five, have been on the road. Seattle's record in those games? 4-1-0-0. That includes back-to-back road wins this weekend after the T-birds came from behind to beat Spokane Friday night 2-1 in overtime and followed that with a 3-2 shootout win Saturday in Portland. Until they start awarding style points, you can't do better on a two-game road trip then earning four points and Seattle grabbed all four.

Young teams can either be intimidated on the road or they can just go out and play hockey and not worry about the surroundings, the road atmosphere or the opponent. The Thunderbirds take on the characteristics of the latter; they just play their game.

It helps to have a Taran Kozun in goal. While the rest of the team has had slow road starts, Kozun seems the one player who is on his game from the opening face-off. His stellar play, in particular in the first period of away games, keeps the team in those games while they get the bugs worked out. The T-birds have surrendered the first goal in each of their first five road games yet have come back to win four of them. They have gotten better as the game moves along but if not for Kozun's strong work between the pipes, they'd be chasing two or three goals deficits rather than the 1-0 holes they are climbing out from.

Friday night in Spokane was shaping up to be a frustrating loss as Seattle dominated play territorially for all but a 7 to 8 minute stretch in the second period. Despite most of the puck possession, they couldn't find the back of the net then fell behind late in that second period. But they persevered and eventually tied the game late in the third on the power play and won it in overtime.

Saturday they faced a Portland team at the Moda Center desparate for a win, especially on home ice. Sure enough the Winterhawks came out with early pressure, outshooting Seattle 11-2 over the first ten minutes and grabbing an early lead. But the T-birds weathered the storm and for most of the final two periods were the better team. They grabbed a 2-1 advantage before a late, flukish goal by Portland tied things up, then Matt Barzal and Kozun combined to win it for Seattle in the shootout. Again, like Spokane the night before, Portland's time on the puck was limited once Seattle found it's rhythm.

The keys for Seattle? Good defensive zone coverage, the ability to move the puck up ice by limiting neutral zone turnovers and a strong forecheck.

Seattle played just over two periods of the game in Portland with only five defensemen. They lost Evan Wardley to a five minute major and game misconduct for his hit on Nic Petan late in the first period. It was initially announced as a charging major but the scoresheet after the game listed it as a checking to the head penalty. It definitely wasn't a charge. I thought Wardley did everything right on the play until the last second when it appeared he lunged upward, making contact high with Petan's head. It should also be noted that Petan's natural instinct appears to be to duck and spin away from the hit. As a result the side of his head contacts Wardley's hands as Wardley was preparing to deliver the check to Petan's mid-section and that sends Petan sprawling to the ice. There is no shoulder to head contact. The league will now review the play for possible suspension.

I certainly also hope the league reviews Oliver Bjorkstrand's hit on Ethan Bear that occurred after time ran out at the end of overtime. I'm not sure how you can argue that was anything but intent to injure. The puck was dumped to the corner from center ice with just a couple of seconds left. By the time Bear got to the puck, time expired and the horn sounded but Bjorkstrand never let up. He continued at full speed and delivered a high hit on Bear.

Can I change my assessment of the Adam Henry-to-Saskatoon trade from a steal to highway robbery? Again, I keep being overly impressed with defenseman Turner Ottenbreit, the player the T-birds got back in return. With Wardley unavailable the last two periods Saturday night, Seattle leaned on it's two rookie defensemen, Ottenbreit and Sahvan Khaira, to pick up the slack, and Ottenbreit in particular made the team's necessary transition from a six man to a five man defensive group seamless.

There were lots of heroes for Seattle over the weekend. Scott Eansor and Florian Baltram were monsters in overtime both nights. Jared Hauf had the big game winning OT goal against the Chiefs. Justin Hickman's return to the lineup has solidified Seattle's four lines. But here are my three T-birds stars for the just concluded weekend road sweep:

Third Star: Defenseman Jerret Smith. Smitty has quietly gone about his business and is having a strong start to his season. He has been very good in the defensive zone but he has also been quite adept at moving the puck up ice. He's logging major minutes and is one of the team's best penalty killers early on, not to mention his work on the power play. Remember, he's doing all this with his usual defensive partner, Shea Theodore still on the shelf with injury.

Second Star: Center Matt Barzal. Barzal ended the weekend on a four game point streak and a three game goal scoring streak. His goal in Spokane late in the third period tied the game and gave Seattle a chance to win it in overtime. In Portland he scored another power play goal to give Seattle the lead. The goal almost stood up as the game winner, but when it didn't, he calmly potted the game winning shootout marker. For sure, he's a dangerous offensive player, but he's becoming a complete package as more then once on the back check he's created a turnover that negated an opposition's scoring chance.

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. While the rest of the team seems to come out of the gates slowly, Kozun has been the one T-bird ready to go from the moment his skates hit the ice. He faced 54 shots this weekend and stopped 51, plus three more big saves in the shootout versus Portland. His play I'm sure has inspired the team in front of him. He's covering for some of their mistakes with his stellar play and he's a prime reason the T-birds have had a chance to win each of his six starts. And the way he handles the puck, it's like having a third defenseman out on the ice. With three on the roster, he has clearly established himself as the team's number one netminder.

Seattle just finished a game against Spokane Friday night in exciting fashion with that overtime road win. So you think they've put the Chiefs in their rear view mirror? Think again. Three of their next five games will be versus Spokane including a mid-week home and home. It starts Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center with the first Director's Mortgage Two-for-Tuesday of the season.

The big question is, who will be Seattle's sixth defenseman? With Wardley most likely suspended Seattle has only five d-man on the roster. One solution is to put Luke Osterman back on the blue line until Wardley's return. Osterman was drafted out of Stillwater, Minnesota a few years back as a defenseman but the team has spent the last year converting him to a forward. His first two training camps with the Thunderbirds he was still a defenseman, and a good one at that, and I think the team would feel comfortable putting him back their again. We'll wait and see.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Young, Fun, Win Some, Lose Some

It is disappointing to take a game down to its final minutes before falling as the Thunderbirds did Saturday night in that 6-4 loss to Kelowna. It is usually in those close, last minute defeats that you have a much more critical eye when reassessing every aspect of the game and possibly over magnifying the mistakes made or chances missed.

But you know what? I'm gonna leave that, fine-tooth comb critiquing, to the coaches. After all, that's there job. Yes, the loss was disappointing but putting that aside for the moment, I'm really enjoying watching this young team compete. We are five games in to a long 72-game season and Seattle is routinely putting nine rookies, and five second year players, out on the ice each game and they are competing to the point they have had a legitimate chance to win each of those five games. That's essentially 70 percent of your roster each night with well under two years of experience at the WHL level but they just don't seem intimidated by the situation.

The T-birds are playing good, competitive hockey and two of their better players, Justin Hickman and Shea Theodore, have yet to see a second of ice time. Seattle already has the youngest roster in the league and with those two WHL veterans unavailable because of injury, their game night roster is even younger. But it hasn't mattered because these young players all seem to have the same high compete level. Are they making mistakes? Sure, but early in their Major Junior careers they are doing more right then wrong out on the ice.

There is still a lot of hockey to play but if I was handicapping the race I would say the Western Conference is the Kelowna Rockets to lose. There's a lot of very good talent on that roster, a roster that includes a lot of players who have experienced back-to-back 50 plus win seasons and deep playoff runs the past two years. And yet Seattle hung right with them, basically until the final minute of the game.

If you are wondering, the referee did not miss the high stick that caught Seattle's Lane Pederson right before Kelowna's game winning goal. He just ruled it was on the follow though of a shot/play of the puck. If that was the case then, by rule, that is not a penalty. In real time, it didn't appear that way to me but it happened so quick it's very possible. I think after the game I was more frustrated with the charging call levied against Evan Wardley early in the third period that led to the Rockets game-tying 4th goal. I just think Wardley's reputation as a big hitter drew that penalty more then the actual play.

Two games into his T-birds career and I think Seattle got an absolute steal in Turner Ottenbreit in that deal with Saskatoon for Adam Henry. I really love the way he attacks the game. Meanwhile, watching him in his first two training camps with Seattle in 2013 and 2014, Donovan Neuls was just another face in the crowd, an 8th round bantam pick who really didn't stand apart from other prospects I was watching. But somewhere over the past 12 months, he has elevated his game to where you have to take notice of him out on the ice every shift.

The T-birds stay at home was a brief one. They're back on the road for two games next weekend beginning Friday in Spokane before another trip down to Portland Saturday.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ealry Season Minutia

In the game of baseball you'll often hear them say this about an ace pitcher, "You'd better get to him early." In other words some of the best pitchers take an inning or two to find their mojo and if you are aggressive early, you might be able to jump on a couple of mistakes before he settles in.

Through four games of the new WHL season, the T-birds are a bit like that ace pitcher. They have started slow in every one of their four games and opponents are jumping on them early, but by the third period they are dominating the action. And while statistics don't tell the whole story and a quartet of games is a small sample size, here are some pertinent numbers to back up that thought.

In the first period so far this season, Seattle has been outscored, 3-0. In fact the T-birds have surrendered the first goal in every game. It's like giving Usain Bolt a two meter head start in a 100 meter dash. They're always chasing the play. Meanwhile, through four games the Thunderbirds are being outshot in the first period 43-30 or, on average, outshot 10.75 to 7.5 in the first each night.

Those numbers are certainly the bad news. Now, the good news. By the third period Seattle is completely turning those numbers around. So far this season the T-birds are outscoring the opposition 5-1 in the third period and they are outshooting them 41-16, or, on average, 10.25 to 4.

Last night in Portland, thanks to a 13-2 first period shot disparity in Portland's favor, Seattle was outshot in a game for the first time this season, 29-24. The 29 shots allowed was a season high but it took the Winterhawks 65 minutes to reach that total after recording three shots in overtime. The T-birds have yet to give up 30 or more shots in game. Remember, they are doing this without Justin Hickman and Shea Theodore in the lineup.

The task now is for the T-birds to start the game the way they've been finishing them. There is no reason they can't play the first period the way they're playing the third. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk calls it playing with desperation. Maybe that's one of the tougher lessons to teach a team of young players; that you should play from the opening whistle like you're already behind on the scoreboard. Instead, the T-birds are playing the first period as though they are waiting to fall behind and then have the desperation kick in. But starting games like that is why they are 2-2 instead of 3-1 or 4-0.

It's just one game and he may have been playing on adrenaline to impress his new coaches and teammates, but I liked what I saw from newcomer Turner Ottenbreit. He's not a finished product and will need to fill out that 6'4" 180lb frame, but the lanky defenseman competes to the end of every shift. I really liked how physical he played and, like a lot of these young T-birds, seems to have good hockey sense. He was paired with 16 year old Sahvan Khaira, who himself goes 6'3", 213lb, and while green around the gills, these two raw rookies present a huge upside as they grow in the system together.

Kudos to Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell and his scouts for asking for Ottenbreit in return for 20 year old Adam Henry in the trade earlier this week with Saskatoon. I get that the Blades needed a veteran presence like Henry back on their blueline and in their lockerroom, but if Ottenbreit's progression continues on its current path, that may have been an expensive price to pay, for a one year rental, by a team that may not even make the postseason.

So, in return for trading three good but surplus 20 year old players in Jaimen Yakubowski, Sam McKechnie and Henry, the 'Birds have received a 3rd and 6th round bantam draft pick and what is currently a top six defenseman who has the potential to be a top four.

Keegan Kolesar seems to always be in the middle of the action when the Thunderbirds play Portland. I recall when he came up for a game as a 15 year old two years ago, he was the best T-bird player on the ice in a loss down in the Rose City. You may also recall last season Kolesar was the recipient of a hit by the Winterhawks Brendan Leipsic that led to a seven game suspension for the Portland forward. Now in two games this season against the longtime rivals, Kolesar has registered five points (2g, 3a). If not for getting assessed a double minor, instead of a fighting major, in the season opening win, Kolesar would also have two Gordie Howe hat tricks against Portland as last night he scored a goal, earned as assist and drew a fighting major in a scuffle with Winterhawks defenseman Anton Cederholm.

Seattle has been at the top of their game so far this year when it comes to killing penalties. First, they've been fairly disciplined and are staying out of the box. But in four games the T-birds have surrendered just one power play goal and that came opening night. Overall, they've killed off 16 of 17 penalties with goaltender Taran Kozun leading the way. That penalty killing unit will get a stern test tonight with Kelowna in town. The Rockets are 13-of-35 on the power play in five games and are adept at drawing penalties.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Capable and Culpable

There is no hiding when you make a mistake on the ice and Friday night in Kennewick the Thunderbirds made a couple of egregious errors and those ended up in the back of their net in a 3-1 loss to the Tri-City Americans. It just turns out that a couple of mistakes by Seattle was all it took to provide the Americans with the margin of victory. We talk about how young this Seattle team is but in the loss, it wasn't the youth, but the older players who committed the gaffes.

I don't think veteran players make excuses when they make a mistake, in fact, most will own up to it. But being an older player at this level doesn't mean you still don't have things to learn. This is a developmental league and as a player you are always learning so that you can be prepared for the next level. Sometimes you learn the same lesson more then once. The key now is for those players to learn from the mistakes so that they can be eliminated going forward.

In years past if the T-birds were missing players the caliber of Justin Hickman, Shea Theodore and Evan Wardley from the lineup, you might start playing the "what if" game or using their absence as an excuse for a loss. The reality is the T-birds have had enough talent on hand to win each game they've played so far this season. Through three games they've outshot their opponents by a combined 86-64 and without reviewing the video of each game, I'd still feel comfortable saying the T-birds have comfortably outchanced the opposition as well.

If you've watched all three games you'd probably be as excited as I am then, about the level of skill and talent on this roster, in particular among the large contingent of young players who will form the nucleus of this team for the next two to three seasons. This is my fourteenth season calling T-birds games and there has never been a young group of skilled players all coming into the system at the same time like there is this year. It started with last year's rookie class and when you add in this season's newcomers you can see reason for optimism.

But talent is just one part of the equation. The next step is to get all that talent on the same page. And once you have that chemistry, you have to maintain it and get that talent and skill working together each game, each period, each shift. Hockey is a team sport and you can't play it as an individual. With this team I think they'll get all those parts meshing together into a cohesive unit sooner then later. It might be a little slow out of the gate, but I believe at some point they'll shift gears and get humming. Maybe it does take getting A Hickman, Theodore or Wardley back in the lineup but not once so far this young season have I thought they needed those players in the lineup to win. They can win without them, having them in the lineup will just make them that much better.

He hasn't scored a goal yet this season but no question in my mind Mathew Barzal has been the best player on the ice every night so far. He should end up this season with a ton of assists and when they start coming I predict they'll come in bunches. Second best player? I'd say 16 year old Nolan Volcan. He's the Energizer Bunny out there. In most cases if you say your two best players are a 17 year old and a 16 year old, you'd probably say that's a problem. Not with this least not yet.

I'm not dismissing the sluggish start of the offense. Obviously you can't win if you don't score. I think though, it is a matter of tweaking a few things such as getting better shots and more traffic in front of goal. The chances have been there in the early going for guys like Barzal, Gropp, Eansor and Kolesar. It's just a matter of finishing them.

One of the thoughts I heard from diehard fans through training camp and preseason was whether the T-birds will need to make a trade for a proven, veteran WHL goal scorer. GM Russ Farwell didn't necessarily dismiss the idea when I spoke to him prior to the season opener down in Portland. He's always going to look for ways to improve his team. If they do decide to make such a deal I personally would prefer it be done using just draft picks rather then surrendering any of the young talent currently on the roster.

Can it be done? Well, Everett just acquired Nikita Sherbak, a high end offensive player from Saskatoon for a first and second round pick and a third string, seldom used goalie. So it can be done. Of course that may be impractical. If you trade for someone, a young player currently on the team is going to lose ice time which is not good for that players development. But I can see a role for every current young player on this roster going forward and I don't mind suffering short term knowing the long term gain is high end if you can keep this group together.

With his WHL debut last night, Luke Osterman becomes the latest member of the 2012 draft to see ice time. Seattle's top seven picks from that bantam draft have now all played for the Thunderbirds just three years after being drafted as 14 year old. Osterman didn't see a lot of ice time but the few shifts he did have were productive. Remember, he's still transitioning not just to the WHL level of play but from his natural position as a defenseman to playing right wing.

How much stock should be put into the early going this season? Seattle, along with Portland and Victoria, have been picked by most prognosticators to be three of the top four teams in the Western Conference. Combined though, they are off to a 1-8-0-0 start with Seattle recording the only win and the three teams have been outscored 37-18 in the process.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An "If Only" Game

Saturday night's home opener was another one of those frustrating games where you think the better team probably didn't win. It wasn't a "we're head and shoulder better" type effort because it was a very tightly contested, close to the vest, sixty minutes of hockey. But in the end Seattle probably outchanced the Silvertips. I know the coaches track quality scoring chances and they look at that statistic more so then shots on goal and I'd conservatively say the T-birds outchanced Everett, especially in the third period where I was hard pressed to remember even one scoring opportunity for the opposition as the 'Tips mustered just two shots on goal.

In the end Seattle missed too many of those opportunities and there were three basic reasons why. One, was Everett goalie Carter Hart. He made the key saves when the T-birds threatened. One of the reasons for that though is two, the T-birds didn't get a lot of traffic in front of the Everett net. A lot of the T-birds shots on goal were right into the center of his jersey, a pretty routine save for any goalie. But put a body in front of the goal and you get a chance to redirect those type of shots and generate a better scoring opportunity. A prime example of that is the only goal in the game scored by Everett early in the first period, a shot redirected by traffic in front of Seattle's goal. Reason number three? Far too many shots Seattle unleashed didn't hit the target. They were wide, high or blocked.

How many times in the third period did a Seattle forward, usually Matt Barzal, skate the puck up ice, gain the zone then hit the trailing defenseman, only to see the resulting one-timer end up somewhere in Auburn? You can think to yourself, "Boy if we had Shea Theodore in the lineup,that wouldn't happen." But the reality is that Seattle didn't need Theo last night. They have other defensemen very capable of putting that shot on net in Bear, Henry and Smith. Last night it didn't happen. A good week of practice can help that, heading into Friday's road game in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans.

Friday night down in Portland the T-birds started a little jittery out of the gate but recovered quickly to the point it didn't hurt them. Last night against Everett they had a very slow start and that was the difference in the game. The 'Tips got the games only goal two minutes in, and Seattle spent almost the entire first half of the first period hemmed in their own end. Seattle needs better starts.

I was not surprised to see the T-birds carrying the puck up ice and into the offensive zone as opposed to dump and chase hockey, especially in that third period. Unlike the recent past Seattle now has forwards, such as Barzal and Ryan Gropp, who are capable of beating the neutral zone trap. It doesn't mean we won't see dump and chase. It will depend on the opponent but I fully expect to see more of what we witnessed in the third period Saturday night.

It was encouraging to see Scott Eansor score four goals in last spring's playoffs and hopefully it carries over to this season. He's had chances already in the first two games of the new season. Last night he kissed the crossbar on a shorthanded breakaway late in the second period. It is a game of inches, isn't it?

Like most fans I get frustrated when I see a missed opportunity like last night's game. It was certainly winnable from a Seattle standpoint. But in the end, despite the loss, I would still grade out that game as a positive. Effort was not an issue, maybe execution, but certainly not effort. When I talk about Seattle's youth and the fact they are going to probably be the youngest team in the WHL this season, I'm not throwing it up as an excuse or alibi for losing games like last night. Rather, I'm encouraged that in a close game like last night against Everett, the T-birds young inexperienced players didn't play like young inexperienced players. It tells me this team, with so many 16 and 17 year olds and so many first or second year players, can still compete night in and night out. There just seems to be a lot of hockey smarts among that youth.

I loved the grit from rookie Nick Holowko on his shifts in the third period. He was bangin' bodies, battling along the boards and scrapping for pucks. And I know rookie Donovan Neuls got penalized for that fraction-of-a-second after the whistle hit in the second period, but no way would I discourage him from that type of play-to-the-whistle (or slightly beyond) effort. To think Holowko went undrafted and Neuls was an 8th round pick. Could turn out to be a couple of steals. Just a few examples that Seattle's changes in their scouting staff a few years back is paying dividends.

Can we check the birth certificate of Nolan Volcan? Is he really just 16? The young man plays with his hair on fire. There may not be another T-birds with better straight line speed and like Holowko and Neuls, he doesn't shy away from physical contact. In fact, he's often the aggressor. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk wouldn't throw his three 16 year olds out their in close games if he wasn't confident in their abilities and Volcan, fellow forward Kaden Elder and defenseman Sahvan Khaira were all seeing the ice in the third period. They're going to make their mistakes along the way but I love how all of these young guys play with confidence in their abilitiy to execute the game plan. It can only benefit them down the road and my that I mean later this season, not two or three years from now.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Young and the Restless

Opening night games are a funny thing. Win and you start dreaming you'll never drop another game, lose and you think, "oh well, it's just one game in a long season."

The Thunderbirds opened the new season Friday night in Portland with a solid 4-1 win over their longtime rivals. Now, I'm not trying to be Dougie Downer here, but let's remember that Seattle started each of the past two seasons with an opening night win over the Winterhawks as well, and when the season ended five months later the T-birds were firmly in Portland's rearview mirror in the U.S. Division standings. Let's also realize that Portland was missing some pretty key components to their roster with 7 to 8 top end players away at NHL camps and a few others sideline with injury.

That being said, there is no need to put an asterisk by this win. As one coach I used to work with would say, control the controllables. The Thunderbirds have no say in who their opponent puts on the ice but they do control the effort they themselves bring to each contest. Much is being made of Portland having nine rookies in the lineup last night. Well, the T-birds had eight and a ninth rookie was a healthy scratch. Don't forget, the T-birds are absent a couple of key players too and even if they had those missing players in the lineup, they still field one of the youngest, if not the youngest rosters in the WHL. Friday night, in addition to the eight rookies taking to the ice, the T-birds had four second year players in the lineup as well.

It was their young players doing most of the damage. Second year player and 2011 first round draft pick Ryan Gropp paced the attack with two goals. The T-birds two first round selections from the 2012 draft, Matt Barzal and Keegan Kolesar, began their second year in the league by contributing four points (1g, 3a). 2013 second round selection Nolan Volcan probably had the assist of the night, setting up 2014 first round Import Draft selection Alexander True's first WHL goal.

If you wanted to bill this opening night game as a battle between Seattle's future and Portland's future, the T-birds not only won the battle, they dominated. The final score was actually flattering to the Winterhawks. If not for the stellar play in goal by Portland goalie Adin Hill, the final numbers on the scoreboard would have been more lopsided in Seattle's favor. Again, its just one game but it might have been a good glimpse into the future.

Sometimes the scoresheet doesn't tell the whole story. If you look beside the name of Seattle's Austrian import Florian Baltram, you'll see nothing but zeros but I thought he was one of the best players on the ice for the Thunderbirds. If not for a couple of acrobatic saves by Hill, Baltram would have easily had a multiple goal WHL debut.

The last thing to come around for a young team such as the T-birds are, is consistency or the ability to bring that type of effort to the ice each game. The good news is Seattle gets a chance to show they can be consistent when they hit the ice again tonight in their home opener against Everett. So this becomes a very good early season test of that ability to bring a consistent effort from game to game, not to mention that a good opening weekend could go along way in setting the tone for the rest of the season.

There is some thought that the injury to defenseman Shea Theodore's elbow would affect which three 20 year old players the T-birds will eventually keep once we reach the 20 year old cut down date in Mid-October. Theodore will be sidelined 4-to-6 weeks after suffering the injury while at camp last weekend with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks. The T-birds are currently carrying two 20 year old defensemen on their roster in Adam Henry and Evan Wardley. Henry had a key assist in the win over Portland while Wardley is currently in camp with the NHL's Montreal Canadians.

I posed that question to Seattle G.M. Russ Farwell last night in Portland and essentially he said since Theodore will eventually return from the injury, it should have no bearing on their 20 year old decision but he does want to resolve the issue as soon as possible so that which ever players end up on the outside, get a chance to hook on with another team.