Wednesday, July 12, 2017

You Bet, it's O'Dette

I don't know if it was the worst kept secret in Thunderbirds history, but I would suspect very few are surprised that Seattle General Manager Russ Farwell has tapped Matt O'Dette to succeed Steve Konowalchuk as the team's head coach.

O'Dette spent the past four seasons as the Thunderbirds primary assistant coach, Konowalchuk's right hand man.  Along with assistant coach Tyler Alos and goaltending coach Ian Gordon they formed a coaching staff that took the franchise to heights they've never experienced.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and by promoting O'Dette the T-Birds franchise will have as much coaching continuity as is possible, after you lose the main man, as they transition off their championship season.

O'Dette has head coaching experience on his resume, having served as a head coach in the ECHL prior to joining Konowalchuk's staff.  He won't be overwhelmed by the increased responsibilities. But the reality is, it is his experience as a T-Birds assistant coach that put him above the pack in the coaching search.  It was his time working with the players he inherits on this team, and the familiarity he has with the younger players coming into the fold this next season, and the next few season's beyond this one, that made him such an attractive candidate to follow Konowalchuk as the main man behind the bench.

One of O'Dette's main roles the past four seasons has been to handle the defensive corps.  Since his arrival in the South Sound, the T-Birds have been one of the top penalty killing teams in the WHL as well and that too was an area he handled in the Konowalchuk regime.

He was a defenseman in his playing days in the OHL, AHL and ECHL.  In 1994 he was drafted into the NHL by the Florida Panthers.  During his time with the T-Birds he's helped mold two WHL Defenseman of the Year Award winners in Shea Theodore and Ethan Bear.  Since arriving in Kent, he helped those two, and now Jarret Tyszka get drafted into the NHL, while another, Turner Ottenbreit, has attended three NHL development camps.

There is a tendency to read into that then, that O'Dette would then be a "defensive-minded" coach.  But remember, all three of those NHL drafted players mentioned are 200-foot players. Theodore and Bear are the two highest scoring defensemen in franchise history and were among the top scoring defensemen in the league throughout their WHL careers.

I would not expect there to be too much change in the way the Thunderbirds play under O'Dette, compared to how they played with Konowalchuk at the helm. O'Dette played a significant role in shaping the T-Birds style of play the past four years and he learned a good deal working with Kono.  The key will be finding  a couple of assistants to add to O'Dette's staff who fit the T-Birds style.

O'Dette begins his head coaching tenure with the T-Birds in a similar fashion to how Konowalchuk began his, with a roster in transition.  Like Konowalchuk, O'Dette will have some solid WHL veterans to work with but will get the opportunity to develop a roster over the next two seasons that will feature a lot of fresh faces.  Gone is the core group of Barzal, Eansor, Gropp, Kolesar and Bear that led this team the last four seasons.  O'Dette will get to build a new core group to carry this club.  The one major difference for O'Dette is those veterans and even some of those younger players he inherits, know what it takes to earn the title "Champions".

Another bit of history was made with the O'Dette hire.  He becomes the first head coach in franchise history to have a Twitter account.  Don't expect a lot of tweets though.  Even before being named head coach, his tweets were few and far between.  No surprise that his tweets are all team or hockey related.  His last one?  Congrats to ! Absolute steal of a pick by the .   That was after Tyszka was drafted by the Canadiens back in June.








Thursday, June 29, 2017

Who's Next?

For the second time in less then a decade, the Seattle Thunderbirds franchise is at a crossroads.  The team is in search of a head coach to lead them going forward. The situation today is both eerily similar and vastly different then it was in the spring of 2011.

In the spring of 2011, the T-bird had just finished up their second consecutive non-playoff season.  As a result General Manager Russ Farwell parted company with head coach Rob Sumner after seven years behind the bench.  They were an older team that year but lacked more then a few top end players.  The team knew that they would still have some veterans back the next season but would be transitioning over the course of the next couple of years and becoming younger and more reliant on that young talent.

And now, here we are today in another transition period, after the man who replaced Sumner, Steve Konowalchuk leaves for a job in the NHL.  Instead of coming off back-to-back non playoff years though, the T-birds are coming off consecutive appearances in the league's championship series, including winning it all this spring.  But like 2011, while the team still has some quality veterans returning for next season, over the next couple of years they will be transitioning, becoming younger and more reliant on that young talent.

In the spring of 2011 they captured lightning in a bottle and found the perfect marriage between coach and roster when they chose Konowalchuk to lead them from the bottom of the WHL standings to the top.  Each season under his leadership they got better and as we noted above, it culminated in the franchise's first ever Chynoweth Cup.

The question becomes, can they capture lightning a second time because this next hire is just as important as the last.  The core group of players who helped lead the franchise to its greatest successes is now gone.  Younger players are standing by ready to take their place.  The S.S. Thunderbird needs a captain to get them all rowing in unison and in the right direction.

Over the course of his coaching tenure with the T-birds it seemed that the organization brought in players who fit what Konowalchuk wanted for his roster. While that may have some truth to it, let's give the players credit for adapting to his coaching style and the coach credit for adapting his systems to the talent he had on his roster.  He convinced his players they could succeed with his style.  That's the trick isn't it?  To find that perfect balance between player talent and coaching acumen.  Konowalchuk was able to find that balance.

My memory is a bit sketchy but what I seem to recall from the Konowalchuk hire back in the spring of 2011 is that he wasn't necessarily aggressively seeking the job.  That instead Farwell identified him as someone who would fit well as a head coach at the WHL level and he convinced him to take the position.  Farwell, to use a word you here a lot in politics when political parties are seeking out candidates, "vetted" Kono.

I like that word, "vetted".  It means to investigate someone thoroughly, especially in order to ensure that they are suitable for a job.  I'm guessing Farwell has already received dozens and dozens of inquiries into the T-birds coaching vacancy. Once again, he must do some vetting of those candidates.  Once again he has to find the perfect match between roster and coach.  Once again he has to find that one candidate out their who has that "it" factor that separates the also-rans, the run-of-the-mill coach, the average coach from the great one who can lead a roster of young men to be their best.  He doesn't have to find a Konowalchuk clone, just someone with the same Konowalchuk qualities.

The time frame to make the hire is much smaller then it was in 2011.  Konowalchuk's decision to move on came well into the offseason.  Most teams, at all levels, have completed their hires for next season. T-birds training camp is just two months away. So yes, there is a sense of urgency but Farwell has been around the block a few times.  He knows he can't rush to make this hire just for the sake of hiring someone.  Getting it right is more important than getting it done.

For the second time in less then a decade the T-birds franchise is at a crossroads.  Which path will they choose as they move forward?



Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Kono is Gono

You know the old expression, "Time flies when you're having fun?"  Well the last six seasons of Seattle Thunderbirds hockey have seemingly flown by in an instant.  They've been six fun years.  I had a front row seat watching this team come out of a couple of seasons of a non-playoff funk and build towards a championship caliber team.  Winning hockey is fun hockey and it's a lot more fun to be around a winning atmosphere.

Steve Konowalchuk made it that way. Oh, it wasn't all fun and games with Kono at the helm.  He demanded a lot from his players.  He ran tough, grueling practices.  At times he was matter-of-fact brutally honest with his players and that included high NHL draft picks.  But he did it without throwing any one player under the bus.  In the locker room, on the bench or on the team bus was as far as it went.  Never in a radio interview, never in the newspaper or on any blog on the internet.

He stressed that to be a champion you had to practice like a champion, you had to train like a champion.  It wasn't just about the sixty minutes on game nights.  It was also about what you did leading up to game nights to prepare yourself.  He constantly emphasized to his team you can't take shortcuts.  That was something he never did as a player, and never did during his T-birds coaching tenure.

He took losses hard but instead of letting a defeat eat away at him, he used it as motivation, as fuel to make himself a better coach and make his players a better team.  He passed that along to his players. That's a big reason why, in his final season behind the T-birds bench, his team captured the franchise's first ever WHL Championship.   Individually he may not have had the deepest, or most talented roster, but he had the best team.  He got players to buy into their roles.

Not a lot of coaches get to leave on their own terms.  What's the adage?   Coaches are hired to be fired.  But Konowalchuk leaves the T-birds as a champion, heading back to the NHL as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks after six seasons in Kent.  He leaves with a resume filled with more accomplishments then any previous coach in Thunderbirds history.  If you ask those who've been around the team the past six years for one word to describe him I think 10 out of 10 would say "competitor".   He has a drive to succeed at whatever he does.  He has set the bar high for who ever takes over.

But there is nothing left for him to prove at this level, he's reached the mountain top of the WHL.  By next October, seven banners will hang from the ShoWare Center rafters.  It took well over 30 years to earn the first three.  Konowalchuk brought the next four into the building in just six years.  He helped create a winning culture.

It seems it was just yesterday that I was interviewing Kono up in the Heritage Bank Lounge at the ShoWare Center after he had been announced as the T-birds new head coach shortly after the 2010-11 season had ended.  A lot of ice has melted since then, and there were hundreds of off mic chats and on the record interviews along with countless bus rides and team meals along the way.  Yep, time flies when you're having fun.

A Real True-per

The annual CHL Import Draft took place Wednesday morning and as expected, Seattle used one of their two allotted picks. The T-birds, selecting 56th overall in the first round of the two round draft, chose Russian winger Nikita Malukhin.  Malukhin is a 2000-born player, listed at 6'2" and 202 lbs., going into his 17 year old season. With Sami Moilanen in the fold, the T-birds passed on their second pick.

Statistical information on Malukhin is limited.  He apparently played for Kazan Irbis in the Russian Junior League last season, tallying six points (2g, 4a) and was a +4 in just 28 games played.  It would appear Kazan is the name of the town and Irbis is a trucking company that sponsored the team.  Kazan is located approximately 11 hours east of Moscow on the Volga river. 

According to Google,  "Kazan is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. With a population of 1.2 million, it is the eighth most populous city in Russia. Kazan lies at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers in European Russia.".  So, now you know.

Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell indicated in comments made after the draft that Malukhan will report to the T-birds saying "He is excited to be coming to the WHL".  Farwell described Malukhan as a skilled forward with good size and that he has real potential to be an exciting forward in the WHL.

To get a better sense of the kind of player the T-birds latest Import selection is, you can watch this video clip of him scoring a goal:  http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x59ibgk.  But to get a better idea, we'll have to wait for training camp in late August.

What does this mean for the big picture?  Well, as we've suspected ever since the T-birds season ended at the Memorial Cup in Windsor back in late May, Alexander True will not be returning for his 20 year old season with Seattle.  In fact Farwell told mynorthwest.com blogger, and my partner on the radio broadcasts, Tim Pigulski, that True's agent informed him that he was close to signing a pro contract.  So, instead, the T-birds two imports will be the 17 year old Malukhan and 18 year old Moilanen, who will return for his second season. 

It makes since. The T-birds are going into a reload/rebuild process and will be much younger next season.  Drafting Malukhan gives them a player they can add to the rebuild, someone who could potentially be with the organization for three seasons much like True was after they selected him in the 2014 Import Draft out of Denmark.  

Malukhan will be added into the mix of 2000 and 2001 born players who will make up the bulk of the roster for the next three years. And there will be plenty of "bulk" among those 2000-born forwards with Malukhan, 6'3" 202 lb. center Tyler Carpendale and 6'1", 201 lb. left wing Dillon Hamaliuk.  Remember, those are their current heights and weights.  I'm sure all three have yet to finish growing.  Heck, that trio of 17 year olds just might be your third line.

So we can now officially say goodbye to True.  It's still possible he could play another year for the T-birds.  Think back to the Roberts Lipsbergs situation a couple of seasons ago when he was brought back from the pro ranks as a 20 year old to replace the injured Justin Hickman for the second half of the 2014-15 season.  But for that to happen the T-birds would have to suffer a significant injury to one of their 20s plus jettison one of either Malukhan or Moilanen.  That's what you call the worst-case-scenario.

We've mentioned on this blog recently the Fab Five who led the T-birds the past four years (Barzal, Bear, Eansor, Gropp and Kolesar).  True was also a big part of that core group, though he only played three seasons in Kent.  He deserves similar recognition as those five for bringing the T-birds their first ever WHL Championship.

In his three seasons with the T-birds True registered 84 points (45g, 39a) in 169 regular season games.  He was at his best though in the playoffs.  In 44 postseason games he produced 34 points (20g, 14a).  In 11 Championship Series games, going back to the Final last spring against Brandon, True scored eight goals and none were bigger then his game winning overtime goal in Game 6 of the 2017 WHL Championship Series versus Regina.  It is the biggest goal in franchise history, earning Seattle their first Chynoweth Cup.  Additionally, three times while a Thunderbird True also represented Denmark at the World Junior Championships.

I'd still like to see True get a crack at an NHL training camp.  Maybe he will this fall.  He's attending the San Jose Sharks Development Camp the first week of July.  He's certainly more then capable of playing professionally in Europe but I think he has the frame and skill for a pro career here in North America.  He's a solid face-off guy and strong on the penalty kill.

The big Dane gave the T-birds three tremendous seasons and his last goal as a T-bird gave Seattle fans a first ever championship.  The image of him standing and watching his game winner hit the back of the net while Regina players are sprawled down on the ice all around him, will be etched in our memories forever.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Tyszka Takes the Fifth

Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Jarret Tyszka becomes the latest member of the organization to hear his name called at the NHL Entry Draft.  The Langley, B.C. native went in the fifth round, 149th overall, to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday in Chicago.

Tyszka, of course, will attend the Canadiens development/rookie camp this summer then will be off to main camp in September.  After that, it is back to Kent for his third season and a bigger role with the Thunderbirds.

Tyszka's selection continues a recent trend.  Seattle has had a defenseman chosen by an NHL team every other year over the past five years. In 2013 it was Shea Theodore going in Round One to Anaheim. Two years later, 2015, it was Ethan Bear being selected in the fifth round by Edmonton and now here in 2017 Tyszka is picked by the Canadiens. 

So, with that in mind, now that Las Vegas has a team in the NHL, I might go down to catch a game and while there, put a few dollars down on, oh, maybe Jake Lee to be selected in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. 

Speaking of Las Vegas, the Golden Knights have a bit of a Thunderbirds flavor to their roster.  Former T-bird goalie Calvin Pickard was selected in the expansion draft off the Colorado Avalanche roster, the aforementioned Theodore was picked up by the Knights in a trade with the Ducks and on Day Two of the NHL draft, Las Vegas traded a second round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Keegan Kolesar.

Along with Tyszka, 216 other players were chosen in this weekend's NHL Draft.  That seems like a lot but in reality it's not, when you consider their are now 31 NHL teams.  Among those eligible to be drafted more probably didn't hear their name called then did with each team having, on average, just seven selections

Among those not chosen was draft eligible T-birds Finnish winger Sami Moilanen.  I saw a number of mock drafts that projected him as a sixth round pick but in the end, he was passed over. His size probably worked against him.  I would not be surprised though to hear he gets invited to some team's rookie camp this summer.   Moilanen was a bit of an unkown coming into this season, his first in North America, but with an extended playoff run with Seattle he should have gotten enough scouts' eyes on him that one team will give him an invite.  NHL teams are always looking for that diamond in the rough.

I saw a stat that says only 12 percent of players drafted in rounds 3 through 7 ever have a meaningful NHL career, which for the sake of their study was considered to be 200-plus games.  Even being a first round pick is no guarantee of success at the NHL level.  In some draft year's less then 50-percent of first round picks have made a career at the NHL level.

Seattle's Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson was among the members of the T-birds staff who were in Chicago this weekend for the NHL Draft.  No doubt he was there to talk with players and/or their agents ahead of next week's CHL Import Draft.  The Import draft is slated for Wednesday at 8 a.m. Seattle time.  The T-birds have the 56th pick in Round One. 

Both of Seattle's current Import players are eligible to return for next season but the prevailing thought is that Alexander True, who would occupy both a 20 year old roster spot and an Import roster spot, is ready to move on to the pro ranks.  If Seattle makes a selection with that 56th pick Wednesday, that would certainly mean True will not be returning to Kent.

There is also no indication that Moilanen won't return for another season with the T-birds, so I wouldn't anticipate Seattle using their second round pick Tuesday which is 116th overall.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The X(s and Os) Factor

Before I put the Thunderbirds 2016-17 championship season behind and look to the future, one final commentary on how this team got to the peak of the WHL mountain. 

To do that I do need to look at the T-birds just completed less then stellar showing in the Memorial Cup.  Well, not so much a look at how they fared in Windsor, but who they were up against.  First, let me acknowledge that I just didn't see a lot of the fire in the T-birds in their three Memorial Cup losses that I saw from this team all season, and especially in the 2017 WHL playoffs.  The team was physically present at the WFCU Centre, but mentally, I think they were absent.

But you also have to acknowledge that in Windsor, Seattle faced three teams with better, deeper rosters and that is getting to the heart of what I'm about to write; that the Thunderbirds won the 2017 WHL Championship because their coaching staff, specifically head coach Steve Konowalchuk, got the most out of what he had to work with.  It's a whole lot easier working with a team full of the most talented players.  They can cover up for a lack of top end skill further down the roster.  It takes some strong coaching to mold together a team of hard workers and grinders into championship material. 

Let's look at the eventual Memorial Cup winners, the Windsor Spitfires.  Despite not advancing out of the first round of the OHL playoffs (beaten in a seven game series by the defending OHL and Memorial Cup Champion London Knights), the Spitfires brought to the Memorial Cup a roster that featured ten NHL drafted players, including three first rounders and another in Gabriel Vilardi, who could go top five in the upcoming NHL draft and a goaltender in Michael DiPietro who could be the first goalie taken in the 2017 NHL draft.  Their rosters also included three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders.  Of those ten NHL draft picks on the Spitfires roster, six of them were acquired at some point via trade.  In other words, the host team loaded up for this Memorial Cup run.

After a 68 game regular season, Windsor played just seven playoff games and had a six week layoff to get healthy and rested for the Memorial Cup.  One of the reasons given for the Spitfires fifth place finish in their conference and early playoff exit was injuries.  Apparently Windsor couldn't play through them.  Seattle played a 72 game regular season plus 20 playoff games, had top players out of the lineup for long stretches and had less then a week between winning the WHL and their first game in Windsor.  

Now, let's take a look at the runner up at the Memorial Cup, the OHL Champion Erie Otters.  The roster the Otters brought to Windsor only featured eight NHL drafted players, and only one, Dylan Strome (the Memorial Cup MVP), was a first round pick, albeit third overall in 2015 by the Arizona Coyotes.  Erie did have three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders.  Of those eight NHL draft picks, two were acquired via trade. 

Finally, the team that eliminated Seattle from the Memorial Cup, the Saint John Sea Dogs, topped them all with 10 NHL drafted players and one NHL signed free agent on their roster and like Windsor, three of them were first round picks.  Four of them were 4th rounders.  Also like Windsor, nearly half of those NHL drafted players were brought in via trade as the Sea Dogs loaded up for their championship run. 

Now, let's take a look at the Thunderbirds roster.  Seattle featured just four players drafted into the NHL, all taken in the same 2015 draft.  Every one of them drafted and developed by Seattle.  Not one picked up in a trade.  They include a first round pick in Mat Barzal, a 2nd round selection in Ryan Gropp, a 3rd rounder in Keegan Kolesar and 5th round pick Ethan Bear.  They had a few players in Scott Eansor, Turner Ottenbreit and Aaron Hyman who have been invited to one or two NHL rookie/development camps, but none are signed.  They have a couple of players in Jarret Tyszka and Sami Moilanen who could have their names called in this next NHL draft but most likely not in the top half of the draft. 

When it came to strengthening this team for the run to the Chynoweth Cup, and the subsequent trip to the Memorial Cup, T-birds General Manager Russ Farwell certainly didn't "load up" in the manner of his cohorts in Windsor, Erie and Saint John.  Seattle didn't acquire any NHL first rounders prior to the trade deadline.  In fact Farwell didn't add one NHL drafted player to his roster in either of the past two seasons as Seattle twice made a trip to the Chynoweth Cup Final. 

What did Seattle do to make themselves better at this year's trade deadline?  They sent a third round Bantam Draft pick to Calgary for Hyman and swapped out Brandon Schuldhaus for Austin Strand in a deal with Red Deer.  Before that it was picking up Tyler Adams from Swift Current.  That's it.  Nothing along the lines of a blockbuster deal.  No bringing in a Julius Nattinen or a Graham Knott as Windsor did, no acquiring a Warren Foegele or Anthony Cirelli as Erie did and unlike Saint John, no trading for a Julien Gauthier.

Okay, so that's the Memorial Cup opposition.  What about in the WHL?  Well again Seattle's moves to get them the Ed Chynoweth Cup certainly weren't on the scale of Prince George which added a second round NHL pick in Brendan Guhle, a 5th round NHL selection in Radovan Bondra and a potential first rounder in Nikita Popugaev.  They didn't trade for a 40+ goal scorer in Reid Gardiner or a 3rd round NHL pick in Carsen Twarynski like Kelowna did.  And their roster couldn't match the seven NHL drafted players that Regina featured including a third rounder, Josh Mahura, acquired at the trade deadline. 

Unlike Portland did a few years back, there was no bringing in big guns like a Matt Dumba or a Seth Jones to strengthen the team for a championship run.   No trading away first round picks for a chance to win it all like Saskatoon.

Instead Farwell gave Konowalchuk and his staff role players.  Smaller pieces to finish the puzzle. It was up to Konowalchuk to make them champions. And he had to do it while some of those NHL drafted players missed games due to illness and injury.  He had to work them into a championship team while they combined to miss 309 games.  He had to do it while not having a full roster for nearly two dozen games.  He did it without either of the team's two 2013 first round bantam picks on the roster.   He did it by mixing and matching and using 4th liners on the 3rd line, 3rd line players on the 2nd line and sometimes 3rd liners on the 1st line. 

No one player epitomized what Konowalchuk and his staff could do with a player more then Reese Harsch.  The same Harsch who, in his only appearance as a 16 year old a season ago looked like he didn't belong at the WHL level, then was molded into a top six defenseman on a WHL Championship team a year later.    The T-birds didn't "load up" to win their first ever championship, they were "coached up".  It wasn't about who they were as individual players but about what they were together as a team.  No weak links.

And that chain of 25 players, that looked like it could break so many times during the course of the season and the playoffs, was held together by a coach and a coaching staff that wouldn't allow them to be pulled apart. 

You know what question it seems I got asked more then any other this postseason and during the Memorial Cup?  There were plenty about Carl Stankowski and his amazing postseason run.  Quite a few times I was asked about that "got-to-see-him-to-believe-him" player Scott Eansor.  But the question I seemed to get asked the most?  How is it Steve Konowalchuk isn't the WHL Coach of the Year? 

I don't have an answer to that question.  And Konowalchuk probably doesn't care he was overlooked.  Afterall, he may not have a voted-upon award but he does have a well earned championship. 




Sunday, May 28, 2017

Detours to a Championship

I was asked an interesting question the other day.  Which player on this roster was I most happy to see win a WHL Championship?  Heck, I'm happy for all of them.  Every player put in the hard work to get the chance to lift the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Everyone of them, at some point this season, did something to help win a regular season game or a playoff series. 

There are a couple of obvious answers such as every player on this year's roster who was on last season's club and felt the sting of the loss in the 2016 Championship Series to Brandon.  You never know if you'll get another chance and for many of them, another chance would be their last chance at the Cup.   So, I'm happy for those players who got a second opportunity and reached the goal they fell just short of last season.

Scott Eansor would be another obvious answer.  For every highly ranked bantam pick that leads their team to glory, there are hundreds more like Eansor.  His junior hockey story is a tale many players endure, more the norm then the exception.  Overlooked in the Bantam Draft, overlooked because of his size and overlooked because he didn't play much as a 16 year old following hip surgery.  He was a player given a chance and he made the most of it.   He earned a roster spot with Seattle, he claimed a spot with Team USA at last year's World Juniors in Helsinki, winning a bronze medal and so far, has earned two NHL camp invites.  Back when I was growing up in the '70s, they would have turned his story into an Afternoon Special on TV. 

But then I got to thinking about four players who took a number of detours to arrive with the Thunderbirds, some unwanted or unneeded by other teams until fate stepped in and sent them our way. They all became integral parts of Seattle's road to the title, not necessarily driving the bus but certainly they all had a hand in keeping the wheels turning. 

First and foremost is Tyler Adams.  Late this past preseason, Seattle had acquired 19 year old Layne Bensmiller from Prince Albert in the Nic Holowko trade.  But just seven games into his Thunderbirds career Bensmiller came up lame and eventually had to shut it down.  Two months into the season and all of a sudden Seattle was missing an older depth player for their third or fourth line.

T-birds management felt that lack of a veteran player on that fourth line was holding them back, especially with Mat Barzal and Alexander True about to leave the team for World Juniors and Keegan Kolesar just returning after a six week layoff following surgery.

Meanwhile out in Saskatchewan, the Swift Current Broncos were under the direction of a new coach, Manny Viveiros.  Viveiros wanted to give more ice time to some of his younger players.  That meant less ice was available for the 19 year old Adams, who despite being an older player on the Broncos roster, was only in his second WHL season.  It's not a new phenomenon when a new coach comes in.  Sometimes returning role players just don't fit the new coach's system or the coach and player don't see eye to eye on how best the players should be used.   After a solid rookie season, Adams was on the outs in Speedy Creek. 

So, on December 14th, with two games left before the Christmas break,  T-birds General Manager Russ Farwell, looking for some seasoned depth,  sent little used 17 year old forward Mackenzie Wight to Swift Current in exchange for Adams, who just wanted a chance to play.  It ended up being one of those deals between player and team that becomes a perfect fit.  In his first game as a T-bird, Adams quickly ingratiated himself with his new teammates and the ShoWare Center crowd, dropping the gloves with Prince George's Kody McDonald.  The next night he was all over the ice, delivering big hits and winning battles along the boards and being named the game's third star as Seattle blanked Tri-City, 3-0. 

Because of all the second half injuries to Seattle's forward lines, Adams rarely played on the T-birds fourth line, which was the intention when they acquired him.  But even without those injuries, his hard work earned him a more permanent spot on the third line, though at times he saw action on both the second and first lines as well.  He topped it off by getting to hoist the Chynoweth Cup in his home town of Regina, in a building he had been to many times as a kid watching his hometown Pats. 

If you ask him he'll probably tell you coming to Seattle was meant to be.  As we waited for the team bus outside the WFCU Centre after Seattle's loss to Saint John that ended their Memorial Cup in Windsor he thanked me for all the good things I had said about him during the broadcasts.  He said he found his hockey home with the T-birds and you could see on his face how genuinely grateful he was for the opportunity.  He went from being in hockey limbo in Swift Current to being a WHL Champion with Seattle. 

For that to happen, so many things had to fall in place.  Nic Holowko, wanting more ice time in Seattle had to ask for a trade.  He did.  Seattle had to accommodate that request which they did, sending him to Prince Albert for Bensmiller.  Then Bensmiller had to suffer an injury, one that he couldn't heal from, ending his season, which happened.  If any of that never happens Adams most likely never becomes a T-bird.  Pretty nice that the hockey gods aligned perfectly for Adams.

From Regina, to Swift Current to Seattle to lifting the Cup in Regina because of a trade request, an injury and a coach who didn't need him.

Before Farwell made the move for Adams, he made another under-the-radar trade in October with the Spokane Chiefs.  Seattle knew they would be losing young, rookie goaltender Carl Stankowski for two weeks in early November to the U-17 Hockey Challenge.  Outside of Stankowski and Rylan Toth, the T-birds had no signed goalies in their system, having just dealt Ryan Gilchrist to Lethbridge.  In need of a goalie to back up Toth for a few weeks Farwell sent a conditional 9th round draft pick to Spokane for 18 year old Matt Berlin. 

Berlin, who had played in one game early in the season for the Chiefs and in six games for them the previous season, was at the time playing Junior A in Alberta for Sherwood Park.  The plan was to have him join the team while Stankowski was away then return to Alberta with the promise he'd get a chance to make the T-bird roster fulltime the next season. 

And initially that's what happened. Berlin got one start on the T-birds six game road trip through Saskatchewan in early November, debuting with a 5-1 win in Moose Jaw.  When the team returned to Kent, Berlin headed back to Sherwood Park. But an injury Stankowski sustained at the U-17 Challenge wasn't healing.  A few weeks later, Berlin was back with the Thunderbirds for good.  He would get into 13 games, post a 7-2-2-0 record, 2.82 GAA and a SVPCT of .902.  With Toth hurt at the end of the regular season, Berlin became the primary back up to Stankowski during Seattle's 20 game playoff run.  When Alexander True scored the game winning, cup clinching, overtime goal in Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series, Berlin shot off the T-birds bench so fast you would have thought he was on the ice at the time of the game winner. 

From Spokane, to Sherwood Park, to Kent to a WHL Champion all because of an injury suffered at an international tournament by a 16 year old rookie. 

Not too long after the Berlin acquisition, Farwell was forced to make another deal, again with Prince Albert, when the New York Rangers returned 20 year old Ryan Gropp to the T-birds from their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack.  It was an unexpected move, since Gropp was a signed prospect.  His return gave them one too many 20 year olds and someone would have to be traded or released. 

Meanwhile at some point this past offseason Zack Andrusiak had requested his release from the Tri-City Americans organization.  The 18 year old Andrusiak had been an Americans prospect but never suited up in a regular season game for them. Before the season began the Yorkton, SK native hooked up with Prince Albert and made it onto the Raiders regular season roster, playing in eight games and scoring his first WHL goal. 

When Seattle determined that Cavin Leth was the odd man out in the 20 year old situation they sent him to PA for a 2018 3rd round Bantam pick and also got Andrusiak thrown into the deal.  So, once again Andrusiak was on the move, coming back to the U.S. Division.  In 52 regular season games for the T-birds "Andy"  would contribute nine points (5g, 4a) then add one big playoff goal in a win in Game 2 of Seattle's second round sweep of Everett. 

From Yorkton to Kennewick to Prince Albert to Seattle and a WHL Championship all because the New York Rangers decided to send one of their top prospects back for one final season in the WHL. If Gropp sticks with Harford, Andrusiak is still a Raider. 

Before any of the above deals were consummated, there was another move made just after training camp and during the preseason.  With Landon Bow having moved on from the team after last season, the number one goaltending job with the T-birds heading into training camp this year was thought to belong to 19 year old Logan Flodell.  After two season's backing up Bow and, before him, Taran Kozun, Flodell was the next in line to be the team's number one netminder.  But in Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk's system, nothing is just handed to any player.  You have to earn it through competition.

Maybe not being named the team's starter before camp began weighing on Flodell, but for whatever reason he did not have a good camp with Seattle and then in two preseason starts, allowed eight goals.  The T-birds brain trust, knowing they had a team that could compete again for a league title, knew goaltending was crucial to that effort.  With their uncertainty about Flodell they made the decision to acquire 20 year old Rylan Toth from Red Deer, a playoff veteran who also had Memorial Cup experience. 

With an up and coming Carl Stankowski in the fold, there was no need for a 19 year old back up so Seattle dealt Flodell to Saskatoon. To his credit, Flodell had a solid season with the Blades. In return the T-birds received 18 year old defenseman Anthony Bishop.  Again, primarily because of injuries Bishop would split time with Seattle between playing wing and defense.  In 66 games he registered seven points (2g, 7a), then suited up for 11 of the 20 playoff games.

All because T-birds brass wasn't convinced Flodell could carry the load in goal Anthony Bishop went from the roster of a non-playoff team to having his name engraved on the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Four players and four different, unexpected paths traveled to become part of a championship team.

Of course the opposite is true for some of those players who missed out on the chance to be a WHL Champion this season.  The players who were dealt away in those deals.  If I'm disappointed for any of those players it would be Cavin Leth.  In his short time with Seattle he was instrumental in helping them get to the WHL Championship Series against Brandon a year ago.  Like Adams, he seemed a perfect fit for a Steve Konowalchuk coached team.  It was nothing he did or didn't do that forced Seattle to ship him out.  He did play three games with Seattle this season before the trade that sent him to Prince Albert, so I feel a small part of that win in Regina should be shared with him. 

In the end, that's just part of the game.  You never know where a detour will take you. For these four players, it took them to the pinnacle of success, a WHL title.