Sunday, September 22, 2019

In Rod(dy) We Trust

No matter how many home openers a player participates in, they always look forward to the pomp and circumstance and the reconnection with the home crowd. When I went down into the T-birds room before the game to record an interview with defenseman Ty Bauer, he told me every player was pumped to get going. There was a lot of anticipation in his voice. He said they were trying to expend some of that pent up energy by talking about what to expect (player introductions, etc.). They were trying to stick to their usual pregame routines. Try as they might to burn some of it off, they were too jacked.

Now, the one player I didn't see was goalie Roddy Ross. I like to think he was off somewhere by himself, calm, cool and relaxed and getting himself focused. Ever since he joined the team back in January that's been Ross' demeanor. Ice in his veins, never rattled. Nothing, it seems, gets him off his game. So while his teammates were using that opening night adrenaline to build a three goal first period lead, Ross was steadying himself for the storm to come. A 44 shot Kamloops barrage over the final two periods. With apologies to MC Hammer, Ross was "dope in the crease and magic on the ice". His glove hand was like an Acme magnet, drawing every sure Blazer scoring chance, but one, into it's clutches. His paddle and pads were steering pucks expertly out of harms ways. On this night, Ross was Boss.

Let's break down this opening night contest. The T-birds roster introduced to the crowd before puck drop featured 12 new faces. Nine of them are essentially WHL rookies. Nine of those new players were in the lineup for Game One. Of those I believe six still technically qualify as rookies. Eleven of the 20 players dressed against Kamloops were either in their first or second year in the league. yeah, this is a young team. The T-birds registered 12 points (goals plus assists) on their four goals. In a carryover from the preseason six of those points (2 goals, 4 assists) were registered by first or second year players. Eight of the 12 points came from new faces on the roster.

The T-birds were absent seven of their top 10 scorers, or 145 goals, from a season ago. By contrast, Kamloops retains nine of their top 10 scorers, or 125 goals, from the 2018-19 campaign. Despite this, Seattle found a way to put up four goals while holding those nine top scoring, returning Blazers to just one. Yes, that was mostly due to Ross and his 50 saves but let's give the young T-birds credit for keeping a vast majority of those 51 Kamloops shots to the outside and limiting second chance opportunities.

Special teams are probably the last aspect of the game plan that gets worked on in training camp and in preseason games but the Seattle penalty kill was another key to the win. Of the Blazers 51 shots, very few came on their five power plays. Only a Blazer goal, on the always dreaded 4-on-3 man advantage, early in the third period, put a dent into the T-birds solid work on the penalty kill as they committed to shot blocking when shorthanded. Seattle will have to clean up those hooking calls. The stick infractions are the bane of a coach's existence. The T-birds only had one brief (60 second) power play of their own so we don't know yet if their success with the man advantage in the preseason (37.5%) will carry over into the regular season.

With all the talk about the crop of young players on the team this season, let's not dismiss some of the new veteran faces who made their regular season T-birds debuts Saturday night. Two ex-Red Deer Rebels, both acquired late in preseason by General Manager Bil LaForge, put their mark on this win. 18 year old center Alex Morozoff scored Seattle's third goal and was solid in the faceoff circle while 19 year old defenseman Hunter Donohoe logged lots of minutes on the back end and earned an assist on the Morozoff goal. Meanwhile 20 year old Conner Bruggen-Cate, who came over in the bantam draft day trade with Kelowna back in May, led the team with eight shots on goal and was also a key penalty killer.

The story for this team though, as the season goes forward, will be the development of the young corps. And for an opening night, filled with a lot of anxious energy, they did not disappoint. Four of the six defensemen Seattle dressed are currently age 17. Three are just starting their second season while one is a true rookie. That true rookie is 6'6" Kamloops native Luke Bateman and he may just possess the biggest improvement I've seen in a player from his first training camp two year ago to today. He's still going to experience growing pains as he adjusts to this level of competition but the 2017 fourth round Bantam selection is on a great trajectory. He ended opening night with a +1 rating and lots of time on the PK.

The real youth is in the forward group with half of those dressed Saturday in either their first or second season. The Seattle brass expect those second year players such as Payton Mount and Jared Davidson, to take a big step forward and each delivered a key goal in the win over Kamloops. 18 year old rookie Michael Horon came up clutch with two assists and put his speed on display on numerous occasions throughout the game. Then there were the "true" rookies, a pair of fresh-faced 16 year olds in Conner Roulette and Lucas Ciona, and boy were they eye-catching.

Playing together on a line centered by Davidson, they were buzzing all over the ice. Ciona sprung Roulette on a breakaway, only to be denied by the post. Ciona has already learned to use his size and strength to win puck battles along the boards. Roulette has the ability to create havoc on the forecheck. He is like Henrik Rybinski in that way, in that he's going to create turnovers that lead to scoring chances. He was constantly stripping pucks free behind the Blazers goal. His hands are so good they should be insured by Lloyds of London.

Let's not forget the other 16 year old rookie forward who missed the game as he nurses through a minor injury. But Kai Uchacz, who hopefully makes his season debut next Friday, has the ability to have the same impact as Ciona and Roulette. A couple of other rookie forwards, Mekai Sanders and Matthew Rempe, are nursing injuries of their own but are waiting in the wings for their chance.

Saturday's game wasn't a perfect effort. It came with the expected inconsistency of such a young group. But it was the perfect result, an opening night win on home ice. There are lessons to be learned and areas where they can get better, but winning is a learned habit and knowing what it takes to win through the good and the bad is a great tool to have in your arsenal.

T-birds opening Night Three Stars:

Third Star: Rookie LW Michael Horon. Horon has scored at every level he's played. He can skate like the wind. But at age 18, this was a big training camp and preseason for him. Does he have the all-around game for the WHL level? With so many younger rookies looking for ice time he had to show the T-birds organization he could play in their top nine, if not their top six, forward group. So far, he's answered the bell. After a terrific training camp and preseason he contributed two assists opening night. His head man pass to Mount in the third period was a "thread-the-needle" type play that helped ice the game for the T-birds when Mount buried his shot to give Seattle the final margin of victory. He'll be a key component to any success the T-birds have on the power play this season.

Second Star: RW Andrej Kukuca. No Matthew Wedman, at least for now, and his 40 goals, no Nolan Volcan and his 27 goals and no Noah Philp and his 26 goals. No Sean Richards/Zach Andrusiak combo and their 33 goals, no Dillon Hamaliuk and his potential for a 30+ goal season. Kukuca is Seattle's top returning goal scorer from last season when he potted 25 to go along with 32 assists. This is why you retain the Slovakian sniper as a two-spotter (Import and 20 year old). You need his offense while the young guns are developing. Opening night he pots the game winner, from such a severe angle by the way, the officials felt it needed video review. He finishes the game with two points (1g, 1a) and a +2 rating. Ku-Ku-Kachoo, we need you!

First Star: Let me contemplate this one, so many to choose from... who am I kidding. Goalie Roddy Ross. Just your average, run of the mill, opening night 50 save performance. Kamloops first round draft pick Mats Lindgren is probably still trying to figure out how he didn't score his first career WHL goal into what seemed a wide open net in period two. Mats, the answer to that question would be Goal Robbin' Roddy Ross. As Seattle assistant coach Kyle Hagel told me after the game, Ross was very focused last season. This season he is laser focused. He came back from NHL training camp with the Philadelphia Flyers with a sense of purpose. With a young team around him, Ross is going to be in for more games like the one he had opening night. Anyone doubt he's up to the task?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Convoluted Conundrum

With another training camp behind them, the Thunderbirds head into the 2019 preseason with lots of questions still to be answered. They have a bevy of eligible forwards but not enough roster spots for everyone. They are one short in their defensive group and are on the hunt for another d-man. Their goaltending, for the first time in a while is settled, but maybe the biggest question mark, and the one that may take longest to solve, is their 20 year old situation.

Maybe my memory is fading as I get older but I don't remember the team having such an unsettled 20 year old situation. usually the team is short of candidates, necessitating a trade or the roster is already set. Per league rules, Seattle must get down to the mandated three 20 year old players by early October. Heading into the Everett preseason tournament the T-birds currently have five such players on the roster. Picking the final three may come right down to that October deadline. There are just too many scenarios that can play out for the team to know today who those final three will be.

If you had asked me last January, following the trade deadline, who Seattle's three 20 year olds would be for this season, I would have said that's an easy question to answer. The T-birds had just dealt defenseman Reece Harsch to Saskatoon, leaving them with Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Jaxan Kaluski and Andrej Kukuca as the candidates. The simplest solution would be to keep the first three, release Kukuca and draft his replacement in the Import Draft.

You might wonder how I could be so quick to put Kaluski, who contributed all of 19 points (6g, 13a) a year ago, into one of those spots. Well, I know that he played through a nagging wrist injury all of last season, which affected his ability to shoot. Despite that he still contributed, playing wing and center and was a staunch penalty killer. He also has one of those intangibles that, while not necessarily at the top of the check list, is still important in a veteran player, leadership. So at that point, it seemed fairly cut and dried who the three 20 year olds for the 2019-20 season would be. But things have a way of changing, and changing rapidly.

First, Kukuca, who had returned to the team from representing Slovakia at World Juniors over the holidays, adjusted to the North American game and caught fire. Over the last 30 games he registered 33 points (18g,15a). With the T-birds graduating out a pair of top scorers in Nolan Volcan and Noah Philp, Kukuca put himself back in the picture for one of those 20 year old spots, at least until the Import Draft. The T-birds may need his offense.

So it appeared it was now a four player race. Then the WHL Bantam Draft rolled around in early May and the field got a little more crowded. Seattle made a draft day deal with Kelowna and one of the assets coming back was 20 year old forward Conner Bruggen-Cate. The situation took another turn in June at the NHL Draft when Wedman was selected in the seventh round by the Florida Panthers. That made Wedman, last season's leading scorer, eligible to play in the AHL if he were to sign a pro contract.

A week later the T-birds participated in the CHL Import Draft and made one selection. Surely that meant the end of Kukuca, right? Except Seattle didn't play it safe. Instead of choosing a younger player who they knew would come over to North America to play and replace Kukuca, they picked uber-talended German winger Tim Stutzle. Stutzle is considered a first round pick for the 2020 NHL Draft. He also has a contract that pays him to play for Mannheim in the professional German Elite League. The odds of Stutzle coming over to play with the T-birds are on the low side, but the door hasn't been shut. Because of the uncertainty though, Kukuca remains a high probability to play in Seattle for a second season.

To increase the competition for the crowded 20 year old field this summer, the T-birds added 20 year old Baron Thompson, a former Brandon Wheat King, to their protected list and invited him to training camp. Now there were six candidates for three spots. The field narrowed to five just before the start of camp when Tyszka announced he would forego his 20 year old season in the WHL and head to the University of British Columbia instead. You would think that would alleviate some of the decision making for the T-birds front office but actually, it may have further complicated it. Tyszka's departure left Seattle with just six signed defenseman. Teams traditionally carry seven, and sometimes eight.

The T-birds could rectify that situation by signing a young defenseman and still may, but the loss of Tyszka left the team with a young defensive corps. One matter complicating the issue is Seattle only drafted two defensemen at the 2018 bantam draft. One of those, Aiden Brook, was subsequently sent to Medicine Hat in the Henrik Rybinski deal in January while the other, Noah Barlage, chose not to attend training camp this summer. Tyszka's four years with the club provided a steadying hand and invaluable experience on the back end. It may mean Seattle management looks to fill that experience void by adding a 20 year old defenseman either through trade or waiting to see if any get released at the 20 year old cutdown deadline in October. Seattle might opt to trade for a 19 year old defenseman but I'm not sure they want to expend current draft or prospect capital for a one year rental.

Here's what we know about the 20 year old situation. even if he signs a pro deal with the Florida Panthers, Wedman can still be returned to Seattle for one more season. If that happens, he is a lock for a roster spot. Secondly, if the T-birds can't lure Stutzle away from Mannheim you can probably count on Kukuca taking the second of those three 20 year old spots. That leaves one spot to be filled by one of either Kaluski, Bruggen-Cate, Thompson or a 20 year old defenseman they deem necessary to replace Tyszka. But what happens if Wedman ends up in the AHL? What do they do if that need for a 20 year old d-man arises or if Stutzle decides playing in North America in his draft year is his best option and suddenly Kukuca is gone? What if all three of those things happen? Then the field is wide open.

That's why the final answer to the 20 year old question may be more then a month away. It's decisions like this that earn GMs and head coaches the big bucks and why I am sitting behind a keyboard musing over it all.

++++UPDATE+++ Monday afternoon the Thunderbirds addressed their need on the back end for another veteran defenseman by acquiring 19 year old Hunter Donohoe from the Red Deer Rebels. A native of Surrey, B.C., Donohoe has played 79 games in the WHL over the past two seasons. Seattle sent a conditional 2020 7th round Bantam pick to Red Deer along with the rights to list goalie Louden Hogg in exchange for Donohoe. Hogg is a 17 year old from Wyoming who turned down an invite to T-birds training camp this year. He played high school hockey last season in Minnesota but was also one of four goalies in World Junior camp with Team USA this summer. So, in reality, T-birds GM Bil LaForge spent very little in draft or prospect capital to acquire his new blue liner. This is reminiscent of the Loeden Schaufler trade last fall. LaForge paid a small price to acquired Schaufler from Kootenay when Seattle's D-corps was a bit thin due to injury. You may recall the first half of last season when Tyszka was out rehabbing from a long term upper body injury and Harsch was dealing with his own ailments.

Does this mean Seattle's D-group is settled? Well, at the very least it lessens the odds they look for a 20 year old defenseman via trade, but LaForge will probably still check the waiver wire at the 20 year old cutdown date in October to see who comes up available. +++UPDATE+++

Friday, June 28, 2019

This Offseason, the T-Birds play Baseball

The annual Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, as most CHL General Managers and scouts will tell you, is a different ball game compared to the Midget or Bantam drafts, so when it was Seattle's turn on the clock this past Thursday the T-Birds decided to play a little baseball and swing for the fences. Seattle, able to utilize just one of the two picks they were allotted, chose German Right Winger Tim Stutzle, regarded in some circles as a potential Top 10 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

Playing last season in his native country for Jungadler Mannheim U20, the 17-year old put up 55 points (23g, 32a)in just 21 games. Remember, he started the season as a 16-year old. He didn't celebrate his 17th birthday until January 15th. He's currently listed as 5'11", 165lbs, but he was playing with guys three years older then he was and, it would appear, dominating. So why would he be available to Seattle with the 19th pick? Well, he's signed to play in the German Elite League (DEL) next season where he'll be playing against men. The T-Birds will have to present a really strong pitch to recruit him. It's not unheard of for a young Import, under those circumstances, to still head across the Atlantic to play in the Western Hockey League, despite that pro contract. Two recent Finns, Julius Honka with Swift Current and Lassi Thomson with Kelowna, were essentially "loaned" by their pro teams in Finland to play in one of the world's top Junior leagues.

So, if Stutzle's selection was not a sure thing, why would Seattle swing for the fences, knowing they only had one pick to use, rather then playing it safe and making a selection they were sure would come over? Because Seattle has a batter in the on deck circle they already know can handle WHL pitching. They know they too have some young hitters they want to get in the lineup to get some at bats. They essentially went up to the plate Thursday with a five-run lead in the top of the ninth inning. They were just looking to tack on some runs.

Let's explain. First, the guy in the on deck circle is Andrej Kukuca, the Slovakian winger, who as a 19-year old last season registered 57 points (25g, 32a) for the T-Birds in 59 games. Now based on that alone, it would seem a no-brainer to bring him back for the 2019-20 campaign, especially when you have lost two of your top four goal scorers (Volcan and Philp) to graduation. The issue is Kukuca would be a "two-spotter". He would occupy both a 20-year old spot and an Import slot and you are only allowed to have three of the former and two of the latter on your roster. Seattle has 17-year old Czech defenseman Simon Kubicek locked in to one Import spot. Meanwhile, they potentially have five players (Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Jaxan Kuluski, Conner Bruggen-Cate and Kukuca) fighting for the three 20-year old positions. The simplest solution to the puzzle is to sign Stutzle for the second Import spot, thus dropping Kukuca which leaves just four players fighting for the three 20-year old roster spots.

Here's where it gets complicated in trying to fill out the batting order for that lineup card. Wedman was just drafted by the NHL's Florida Panthers. At age 20, he could ink a pro deal with the Panthers and take his projected 40-plus goals to the American Hockey League. All of a sudden three of your top four scorers from a year ago, are gone. Even the 20-year old Tyszka, a free agent attending development camp with the NHL's Dallas Stars, could be signed to a professional contract and be put on an AHL roster. All of a sudden you're now down to just three 20-year old candidates, and only one of them, Kukuca, has been a prolific offensive player. If Wedman does not return and you can't convince Stutzle to come over, where will the offense come from? Kukuca becomes very important then. He becomes your designated hitter.

If you read between the lines, T-Birds General Manager Bil La Forge has made it clear the organization is more then happy with Kukuca back as a two-spotter. He's already proven himself in the WHL. And Kukuca wants to be back. They may need his offense should Wedman not return. He's been participating in the team's offseason program. He's coming to camp in August. So why then you ask, did the T-Birds even bother with making a selection in the Import Draft? To that, there is a simple answer. Because you are always trying to make your team better. Stutzle is a tremendous talent, a projected NHL first rounder for next spring. It's the same reason Seattle chose Mat Barzal at the top of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft and the same reason they used a first round pick on Dante Fabbro in 2013. You can't hit a home run if you don't take the bat off your shoulder. You usually won't drive in the runner from first base with two outs if you bunt. Sometimes you gotta swing for the fences. Seattle was upfront with Kukuca throughout the process. They told him they would be making one selection at the Import Draft but they were also willing to give him the chance to be that second Import again.

What other scenarios are in play here? Well, if the T-Birds are successful in getting Stutzle to play for them next season, they can't keep Kukuca. The Import slots would belong to Stutzle and Kubicek and there is no room for Andrej in the dugout. If you don't convince Stutzle to come across the pond, you keep Kukuca and have to drop two of your other 20-year olds if all those mentioned above, Wedman, Tyszka, Kaluski and the recently acquired Bruggen-Cate, return. You could also still drop Kukuca, keep a variation of the Wedman,Tyszka, Kaluski, Bruggen-Cate group and pick up a non 20-year old Import player recently dropped from another CHL roster.

You could also go with just one Import player on your roster. There is no hard set rule that says you have to have two. Two is just the maximum. Same applies to 20-year olds. No edict that compels you to carry three. Back in 2013-14, Seattle played with just one 20-year old, Mitch Elliot, on the roster for half a season. The reason? They wanted to give all their young players as much ice time as possible, to hasten their development and build their chemistry. Those young players were named Barzal, Gropp, Bear, Kolesar and Eansor. That experiment turned out well. The T-Birds could be in a similar situation this coming season with young talent like Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Mekai Sanders, Brendan Williamson, Michael Horon and Matthew Rempe all looking for roster spots. If you keep them all, you have to play them. You can't sit them in the bullpen. Odds are Seattle will have some variation of three 20-year olds on the roster, but the competition for those spots is going to be intense.

Which brings me back to something La Forge told's Andy Eide regarding the Stutzle selection in the Import Draft. “We knew we weren’t going to bring someone over just to play in our bottom six,” La Forge added. “If we bring someone over, they’re going to be a big-time talent and that’s what we acquired today.” That statement applies to those other young players. La Forge and head coach Matt O'Dette aren't keeping 16-year olds around to shag fly balls in the outfield at practice. IF they're on the roster, they're going to play, because their talent has earned that right.

Thursday Seattle swung for the fences. Did they hit a grand slam, or did they strike out? Either way, they stepped up to the plate.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Into the Petri Dish

So, if I have this right, going off players who were on their roster at the end of the 2018-19 season, the Seattle Thunderbirds had four players selected at the 2019 NHL Draft this past weekend in Vancouver. That was the most of any WHL team. Let me say that again, that was the most of any WHL team. In a draft that was one of the best for the WHL in recent memory, Seattle led the way. Yes, technically, at the time of the draft, Dillon Hamaliuk was officially a member of the Kelowna Rockets, after being traded there by the T-birds back in early May. But let's not kid ourselves, he hasn't played a game for Kelowna and won't for another three months. He was drafted off of his body of work as a Thunderbird.

What does this mean for the team going forward? Well, don't look at those draft results and start thinking the team is ready for a Chynoweth Cup run this coming season. Again, Hamaliuk, the highest of those to be drafted, going in the second round, 55th overall to San Jose, has been dealt away. Goalie Roddy Ross, chosen by Philadelphia in Round Six, is going into his 19 year old season while Florida Panthers seventh rounder Matthew Wedman, as a 20 year old, is entering his final year in the league. Only Panthers fifth round pick, 18 year old Henrik Rybinski was drafted in his first year of draft eligibility. Those older players will be surrounded by a fairly green squad.

Instead, go back to comments made by the organization after their 2017 Championship season and the idea of building a culture around the team that will attract players to Kent. Developing players for the next level is part of that attraction. Having players drafted into the NHL boosts your stock while recruiting players to be T-birds. Seattle wants the "T-bird way" to be both competing for Chynoweth Cups and producing talent for the next level. The movers and shakers at the top of the organizational chart, from the owners to the coaching staff, are committed to that goal.

Over the past five years the T-birds have reached two league championship series, winning one, AND have had 16 players either drafted or signed to pro contracts. They've drafted other players, like Dante Fabbro and Layton Ahac, who chose a different path, but ended up as high NHL picks. They'll miss on a few, but the choise is still the right one because they want the best players to help build that culture. More are coming.

Franchise brass like owners Dan and Lindsay Leckelt, Vice President of Hockey Operations Russ Farwell and General Manager Bil LaForge have a plan in place to keep the T-birds competitive. Others like Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson, Director of Scouting Mark Romas and head coach Matt O'Dette are helping to execute that plan.

They turned a player unhappy with his playing situation at his last stop (Rybinski) into an NHL draft pick in four months time. They took an off-the-radar goalie and helped him hear his name called from the podium in Vancouver. They brought out enough in a player (Hamaliuk) so that despite missing half a season to serious injury, he still got picked in the second round. And they brought along another player (Wedman), nurtured him, were patient with him, gave him more responsibility over the course of four seasons and turned him into a NHL draft pick as well.

Now, think about what the T-birds have done over the past two Bantam Drafts. They had a lot of picks at the top of the draft. Three first rounders and four second rounders. They've already signed 11 of their 22 picks from those two drafts, including six of the seven they chose near the top of those drafts. That's not by accident. Winning and developing players drives other players to your organization.

What happened this weekend in Vancouver means something, not necessarily now or next season, but down the road. It's another building block in constructing that winning culture. It's as important as winning a championship or having an uber-talent come through your organization on the way to winning a Calder Trophy at the highest level. It's another page in the recruitment brochure. When young players like Kai Uchacz and Mekai Sanders, or Jordan Gustafson and Conner Gourley, arrive at training camp at the end of August they'll see Rybinski, Ross and Wedman. They'll see the fruits of doing things the "T-birds Way". They'll see that coming here can lead them to an opportunity to reach the same goal.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

New Sheriff in Town

Bil La Forge was named General Manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds last spring. The announcement that he would take over from Russ Farwell, who would become Vice President of Hockey Operations, came in a press release June 6th of 2018. In his first season in that role, La Forge helped guide the team into the playoffs, using a couple of midseason trades to bolster the team's second half push to the postseason. But it may be May 2nd of 2019, at the WHL's annual Bantam Draft, where La Forge really grabbed the reins and stamped the T-birds as "his team".

La Forge dealt three veteran players, a couple of presumed NHL Draftees among them, to the Kelowna Rockets, in exchange for three high draft picks, including two first rounders. The T-Birds used one of those Thursday and tapped defenseman Kevin Korchinski out of Saskatoon to go along with their own first round pick, center Jordan Gustafson from Ardrossan, Alberta. The other first round pick they got from the Rockets will have to wait until 2022, while a 2021 second round selection has been put in the vault as well.

Throw into that mix two 2019 second round draft picks. Seattle used their own second round pick on defenseman Spencer Penner out of Blumenort, Manitoba. With a second round pick acquired from Everett in the Zack Andrusiak deal from this past January, the T-Birds went north to Alaska for winger Gabe Ludwig. Through La Forge's wheeling and dealing, the T-Birds ended up with four of the top 42 selections, two in the top ten. Meanwhile, they still have all their 2020 picks.

Seattle also got back from the Rockets forward Conner Bruggen-Cate, who two seasons ago, was an 18-goal scorer during his 18-year old campaign. His offensive numbers did dip this past season, so maybe a change of scenery is what's best for him. At the very least he's competition for one of the three 20-year old spots on the roster for the upcoming season.

Did the T-Birds pay a hefty price to acquire the draft capital? Sure they did, dealing away a former number one Bantam pick in Jake Lee who is going into just his 18-year old season, a top six forward in 19-year old Dillon Hamaliuk and a promising young goalie in 18-year old Cole Schwebius. But La Forge saw a chance to build a strong, deep team that should be able to compete for a championship in a couple of years, rather then waiting four or five. It's similar to the last time Seattle made a trade that got them two first round bantam picks in return. Back in 2011 Farwell sent Marcel Noebels to Portland for two top picks. At the time he said it was an offer he couldn't refuse. One of those picks turned into Keegan Kolesar, a key component of Seattle's 2017 Championship team.

I'm guessing La Forge had the same sentiment when Kelowna offered up two first round selections in this deal. It was an offer he couldn't say no to. In that Noebels deal with Portland, the picks coming back from the Winterhawks were at the bottom of the first round. In this instance, Seattle ended up with at least one top ten pick.

What made the deal easier for La Forge to pull the trigger on, was the T-Birds Bantam Draft from the previous spring. It's this core that he is building around, the 2018 selections. We've already caught glimpses of some of that talented young group. Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, all selected in the first two rounds, have already made their T-Bird debuts. Still to come are at least four other signed prospects from that draft; goalie Thomas Milic along with forwards Sam Popowich, Reid Schaeffer and Mekai Sanders. Add in just the players from the top half of the 2019 draft in Gustafson, Korchinski, Penner, Ludwig and fourth round left winger Conner Gourley and you have at minimum, 12 players to build around. The T-Birds though, had eight other selections from this year's draft, including three high end Americans. If they can hit on even just two more from that baker's dozen group of 2019 draftees, the trade of those three veterans was well worth it.

How does Seattle make up for the absence of those three traded players going into the upcoming season? Well, they're going forward up front with a youth movement. They'll have solid leadership from veterans like Matthew Wedman and Tyler Carpendale among others. A couple of second year players, Payton Mount and Jared Davidson, will be expected to take big steps. But now the battle for roster spots will open up for guys like Brendan Williamson, Michael Horon and Matthew Rempe as well.

Remember, Seattle's second half charge this past winter was done without the injured Hamaliuk, his void filled remarkably well by Henrik Rybinski. When Hamaliuk went down with injury, the T-Birds were seven games below .500. By the end of the regular season they were two games above. Of course Seattle would have loved to have had a player of Hamaliuk's caliber available for that second half run. They would have loved to have had him for their playoff matchup with Vancouver. Circumstances dictated he wasn't available. They learned how to play well without him, so just think of next season as an extension of that.

And remember, Hamaliuk is a late birthday. It's anticipated he'll be drafted by an NHL team in June but this upcoming season is most likely his last in the WHL. Even if he hadn't been traded this week, I would have laid good odds he would have been dealt at next January's trade deadline. Trading him now, gives the Rockets a full season of him on their roster, rather then a half season rental. It also probably led to a bigger return for the T-Birds.

Meanwhile, even with the trade of Lee Seattle will return seven defensemen with WHL experience next season in Jarett Tyszka, Tyrel Bauer, Cade McNelly, Simon Kubicek, Owen Williams, Zac Ashton and Luke Bateman. Trading away a former first round selection just as he enters his junior hockey prime is a big decision. But if Seattle was going to trade out one of those defenseman, why not the one with the most value? The T-Birds watched the progression of the others in that group and are confident they are all on the right development path. Bauer and Kubicek are on pace to be 2020 NHL draft picks. For all the fan excitement over McNelly's rough and tumble play, if you watched closely you could see the tremendous strides he's taken in his overall game. In Lee's absence, Ashton showed his worth in the playoffs.

Soon after that deal sent Schwebius to the Rockets, La Forge acquired Blake Lyda from Everett to back up Roddy Ross in goal. All it cost was a 2021 third round pick Seattle had received from Everett in January. Lyda will fill the same role Schwebius had with the T-Birds, the number two goalie behind Ross.

The T-Birds still have a conundrum at the 20 year old spots. Wedman and Tyszka are locks, if they don't go pro. The final spot is up for grabs between Bruggen-Cate, Jaxan Kaluski and Andrej Kukuca. While it doesn't preclude Kukuca from returning, Seattle will make a selection in the upcoming CHL Import Draft, making his return less likely. If the youth movement is the team's direction, it would make more sense to go with a younger import who can develop with this young group.

After this trade is it going to be easy to replicate the team's second half performance from this past season, next year? No. But that may have more to do with the loss of graduating players Nolan Volcan and Noah Phlip, then the trade of this trio. Seattle will miss the experience Lee, Hamaliuk and Schwebius brought to the table. They are going to have to do more scoring by committee while tightening up in the defensive zone, but this team is going to be young, fast and energetic. Above all they should be fun to watch as the bulk of the roster begins their growth and development together. It may be like taking one small step back to prepare for a couple giant leaps forward. I trust Matt O'Dette and his coaching staff to get them playing the right way. I don't think I've seen a coach do so much, with a roster not considered to be elite, as I saw O'Dette and his staff do with the T-Birds the second half of the 2018-19 season.

I do think the T-Birds are a year, possibly two, ahead of where they were when they started their climb to the 2017 championship. That team was built primarily around one very good 2012 Bantam draft. The team has had two solid back-to-back drafts now. Yes, there is no Mat Barzal, uber talent in this group, but top to bottom these two drafts appear to be deeper. Nothing is guaranteed from all this roster movement. Assembling a roster you think is championship worthy is just the start. It's up to the players and coaches to bring it all together and, oh by the way, 21 other teams have the same plan. It's also hard to be patient and think long term instead of grabbing for instant gratification but even when Seattle drafted Barzal and the rest of that group, success didn't come overnight, but both the wait and the journey was worth it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Inevitable Goodbyes

At the end of every season we say goodbye to at minimum, three players from the roster. Every spring three players on every WHL team are finishing up their Junior careers. They are the three 20 year olds, the overage players whose eligibility has run out. It doesn't happen often, but occasionally that 20 year old is a player who spent an entire five year WHL career with one team. For the T-birds this season, that player is Nolan Volcan.

When the final horn sounded on Seattle's season at the end of Game Six against Vancouver, I thought, as I looked down at the ice and saw Volcan leading his teammates into the handshake line, what a remarkable T-birds career he had. And then I found myself thinking, you know, he may have just completed one of the best careers in the franchise's 42 year history. He's a former 2013 second round Bantam pick out of Edmonton, so big things were expected. He did not disappoint. In the end, over three hundred regular season games played, 100 goals scored and over 230 points earned. He added a franchise record for most playoff games played at 55. Some big postseason moments too, like a playoff series clinching overtime goal in 2016 against Prince George.

Of course the most important parts of that five year run as a T-bird include wearing the "C" as team captain this past season, winning a 2016 U.S. Division banner, back-to-back Western Conference Championships in 2016 and 2017 and the 2017 Ed Chynoweth Cup. That's going to be hard to top, so it was nice to see head coach Matt O'Dette, who had been on the T-birds bench for the entirety of Volcan's time in Kent, echo that same thought in postgame comments to's Andy Eide. “He’ll be a standard of where you measure T-Birds and the type of player you’re looking for,” O’Dette told Eide. “He exemplifies our identity and just an unbelievable career, he’s done everything. In my opinion, one of the greatest T-Birds to ever put on the jersey. Tons of him to be proud of and great legacy to pass on to younger guys.”

It's funny how there are some players who come through and you definitely remember their T-birds debut while with others it's all a blur. I remember Volcan's first game. When a rash of injuries struck the team, Volcan was called up to join the T-birds on their eastern road trip through the Central Division back in early January 2013. He suited up for the first time as a 15 year old for a game in Red Deer. Seattle lost in his first game and he didn't register a point, ending the game a dash two. I remember it because he played that night the way he played the rest of his Seattle career, with a tough-as-nails, leave-it-all-on-the-line, give-one-hundred-percent-effort-all-the-time attitude. He didn't know any other way to play and because of that, even as a 15 year old, you noticed him on the ice. For a couple of seasons he logged a lot of ice with Scott Eansor and Donovan Neuls and they formed a terrific shutdown line because all three played with that high end, non stop motor. But even after, first Scott and then Donny, finished their time with Seattle, Volcan continued to be a shutdown player while elevating his offensive production.

Volcan loves the game but he also embraced the WHL life. He enjoyed being with his teammates, on the road, on the bus, at practice and morning skates, he just seemed to relish it all. I'm sure he gets that from his dad Marty, a former Seattle Breaker and obviously his son's biggest influence. But mom Kathy was there too, probably to keep them both grounded. I'm not sure who will be next to wear #26 for the T-birds but the first time they don't deliver a big hit is when it will probably sink in that Volcan is gone, another big piece of the championship team putting Seattle in his rear view mirror...hopefully off to bigger and better things in his hockey career.

I think I heard Matt O'Dette once call Noah Philp the hockey whisperer, or something to that affect. He was alluding to the fact that he could put Philp on a line centering two younger players and it would always elevate the younger player's game. Philp would help bring something out of those younger players we hadn't seen before. Sort of like Noah's Ark as he led them in pairs.

Lost in that though is how Philp elevated his own game since arriving in Kent from the Kootenay ICE just prior to the start of the 2017-18 season. This past February, when Volcan missed time with his arm injury, it was Philp who picked up a good chunk of the slack. When Seattle's power play suffered, it was Philp who keyed its resurgence.

There's not a lot of separation between a 16 year old and a 20 year old but that extra maturity found in the older player is important. Philp had it and used it to help his younger teammates. Maybe it comes from being a younger sibling. His older brother Luke played in this league as well and I'm sure he imparted some wisdom to Noah. Philp reminds me a bit of former T-bird Tyler Metcalfe. They are two of the most unselfish, upbeat, positive players I've been around.

Sean Richards wasn't a T-birds very long, just three months. Having left a team at the top of the standings for one at the bottom, he could have sulked. He didn't. He came over with a reputation for dangerous hits, especially against Seattle. He stayed away from that until his very last shift, which was unfortunate, because I think with him in the lineup they could have pushed Vancouver to a seventh game. He wasn't a dirty player out to hurt his opponents, he just played the game with an aggressive, emotional style that led to penalties. He knew he had to change after his trade from Everett and for the most part he did, at least long enough to help this team get to the postseason. Seattle didn't need him to replace Zack Andrusiak's production. They're not the same type of player. They needed him to contribute in all facets and he did. Seattle doesn't make the postseason, doesn't have their second half success, without Sean Richards.

So three more players, three players with their own style, who all brought something unique to the table, finish their WHL careers. Three different players but all with a common goal, to become the best player they can be. We wish them the best as they continue on that path because it's not the end of their journey. Instead, it's time to take the fork in the road.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Getting Benched

The clock on the Seattle Thunderbirds rebuild really began to tick the moment Scott Eansor lifted the Ed Chynoweth Cup over his head on that Mother's Day in Regina two springs ago. Seattle had reached the crescendo with that roster. Eight key components of that club, and nearly 400 points, were moving on. It was a group of players that had played together for the greater part of four seasons and had brought the organization up from the bottom to the top of the league. They would get three more games together in the Memorial Cup but the real task, the hard part, was winning the organization's first ever WHL title. Their goal reached, their work was done.

Over the next season another six significant members of the championship team would play their final game with the T-Birds and now with the end of this season, three more parts of that Cup winning team have taken off the T-Birds jersey for the last time. That's how fast things happen in the WHL. In the span of 24 months 17 players who formed the nucleus of a championship roster, are removed from that roster in what seems like the blink of an eye. Just as we're getting to know them they're gone. Just two players remain, Matthew Wedman and Jarret Tyszka and their status for next season remains unclear.

In the WHL, dismantled championship teams don't get rebuilt over night. Just like putting that team together took three to four seasons, so will the process of building another one. Four years removed from their 2015 Cup win, the Kelowna Rockets missed the postseason this spring. So did the 2016 champs, the Brandon Wheat Kings, three years after their title run. The 2018 winners, Swift Current, didn't take that long to miss the postseason party, going from first to worst in 12 months.

So a coach winning a championship has to know that patience must be a virtue when trying to get back to the top. Maybe that's why all four of the most recent WHL Chynoweth Cup winners have different head coaches now. That patience only lasts so long. That includes Seattle. Steve Konowalchuk grew that 2017 championship team from the ground up and had nothing left to prove and thus moved on. So the task of rebuilding the team would fall to his former assistant, Matt O'Dette.

O'Dette inherited a team in the fall of 2017 void of superstars. He had to build a new coaching staff. Prognosticators said without Barzal, Bear and the others, the T-Birds were going to tumble quickly from the top and have a hard landing out of the playoff picture. The roster got even thinner for this past season's run with the likes of Neuls, Moilanen, Strand and Ottenbreit gone. Again the prediction was for a long, dreary non playoff season.

How did O'Dette do with what he was handed? With only one NHL drafted player on his roster the past two seasons, Montreal Canadiens 2017 5th rounder Tyszka, he got his team to a winning record each time and he got them into the postseason twice. Along the way he helped a couple of players, Strand and Ottenbreit, earn pro deals and he may have done the same for Wedman this year. With the help of new General Manager Bil La Forge and his assistant coaches Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer, he took a team dead last in the Western Conference standings as late as January 19th and pushed them through an imposing schedule to an improbable playoff berth. When the team showed cracks in the second half surge that threatened to derail them, he juggled his lines and d-pairing combos and got them back on track. He showed a knack for pushing the right button at the right time. He always seems acutely aware of his players, and his team's, strengths and weaknesses and put the team in the best possible position to succeed.

The two year regular season coaching record of 65-57-14-4 may not seem like something to make headlines over but when you step back and look at the big picture, look at the roster, look at the competition he was facing, it is, in reality, a testament to the focus O'Dette has for his job. After the trade deadline moves this past January, everyone looked at Seattle as having given up on the season. Nobody would have been shocked if Seattle's season ended March 17th down in Portland rather then two weeks later in a Game 6 playoff matchup with the Western Conference's top team. But that's not in O'Dette's makeup. His goal going into the first game of the second half of the season in Brandon was the same as it was opening night back in late September at the accesso ShoWare Center, playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. 20 wins later, the T-Birds were a playoff team.

Now, you can be disappointed in the results in the postseason, I know O'Dette is. But remember, both last year and this year, the T-Birds were a decided underdog in both series. They were the 8th seed going up against the one seed. The team they lost to last spring, Everett, went on to play in the WHL Championship Series. The team they lost to this year, Vancouver, could well do the same. If Seattle had won either series, it would have been described as a monumental upset. What O'Dette's teams did both times was make those higher seeded clubs earn their series wins. He played half that series last year against the Silvertips without Sami Moilanen. He played the second half of this season without the leading goal scorer from the first half after Zack Andrusiak was traded away. He played the second half of the series against the Giants with just two 20-year olds, after Sean Richards was suspended early in Game 4. He played nearly half the series against Vancouver without a top four d-man in Jake Lee. He made that second half run and played the entire series against the Giants without top six forward Dillon Hamaliuk who was lost to injury in late December.

Like a cook, he took the ingredients he was given and made a meal out of it. It may have only been stew but it fed the masses.

Now he gets to develop a young roster. With just a few players potentially left from that Cup winning team, the roster has been almost completely turned over. The youth movement is here. This should be a very young, green team next season. Getting Wedman and Tyszka back for another season would certainly help as would a healthy Hamaliuk. The entire D-group should return along with Roddy Ross in goal. But next year's club could feature as many as 12 players in either their first or second season of WHL play. You should expect the T-Birds top three picks from the 2018 Bantam Draft, Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, to be here full-time. Local product Mekai Sanders could be in the mix. Payton Mount, Jared Davidson and Tyrel Bauer will be counted on for more big minutes next season as 17-year olds and could be joined by fellow 17-year olds Brendan Williamson and Matthew Rempe. 18-year old Michael Horon, whose rights were acquired from Lethbridge in January, will be given a chance to make the roster as well.

With so many young players signed to WHL Player Agreements I doubt we see a huge group of invitees next August for training camp but I would anticipate that GM La Forge will scour Western Canada and the U.S. for a young player or two who fit into his and the coach's style and bring them in to add to the camp competition. A player or two from last year's camp who impressed, but are not yet signed, should return to add to that competition. Could such a young roster jeopardize Seattle's chances of making it back to the postseason? Possibly, but with O'Dette behind the bench I wouldn't bet against it.