Sunday, January 26, 2020

Tie-ing the Knot

Two games, two ties at the end of regulation, one shootout loss and one overtime loss. Sounds a little unsatisfying, and to be clear the team was disappointed that they couldn't pull out the wins, but earning two very meaningful points on the weekend keeps this team in the driver's seat for a playoff spot. Seattle's record over their last five games reads 1-2-2-0. Reality is they had just one non-competitive game in that stretch, the 8-0 loss in Everett. Otherwise, they were in every game until late in the third period or beyond. That's what you play for, a chance to be in there at the end of the game.

One of the reasons shootouts were introduced into the North American game was because a lot of folks were left with an unfulfilled feeling when games ended in a tie. If you were at the game Saturday night against Portland, a tie was probably the best result. That game had everything. Most of all it had lots of drama and high entertainment value. It was what a rivalry game should be. It was back and forth. there were big hits, highlight reel goals, plenty of offense and big saves by two NHL drafted goalies. If you had walked out of that building with a 5-5 tie would you have been disappointed?

What left me feeling "meh" after the game was the shootout to decide the winner. You wait seven or eight minutes while the Zamboni does a scrape then sit back while shooters line up to take their chance. It's sort of like being at one of those games of chance on the Midway at the State Fair. Sure, I guess there is drama in a shootout but it's not the same as the action we witnessed for 65 minutes. The game that was action packed for over an hour, ended with a one-on-one skills competition that, and this is just my opinion, sucked some of the air out of the arena. I'm fine with games that end in ties.

I'm also more then fine that the coaches weren't going to give the team a complete pass for coming from behind against Portland to forge that 5-5 tie. Young team or not, the coaches expect to win every night. I like how they let the team know that straying from the game plan is not okay. Seattle built their two goal lead by playing the T-bird way. they lost their two goal lead because they tried to force things that weren't there. They got caught up trying to out-Portland, Portland.

If this weekend proved anything, it proved that Matt O'Dette's systems work against any team in the league. When the T-birds played their heavy game, whether it was against the Winterhawks or up in Kelowna Friday, when they got pucks in deep and forced the opposing team to play below their own goal line Seattle got the advantage territorially. When they manage the puck properly leaving their defensive zone, they won the puck possession battle. O'Dette and staff drum that into the players at every practice, at every pregame meeting, in between periods. But, teenagers. If you're a parent, you understand. I'm always reminding my kids about putting things away or cleaning their rooms. Once is never enough.

Eighty-five percent of the time this weekend the coaches believed their team did things the right way. It was the other 15-percent that was the difference between a 2-0 weekend record and an 0-0-1-1 mark. That 15 percent was the difference between earning four points and settling for two.

The T-birds are halfway through their season series with Portland and are 2-3-1 against their long time rivals. Against the team that currently holds the top record in the WHL and hasn't lost in regulation in 21 games, the T-birds have earned five points. Half the games have gone past regulation to decide. Another was a 2-1 nail biter. Another six games to go with the Winterhawks and there is no reason Seattle can't earn another five or more points in the series.

Three of the T-birds next four games are against two teams behind them in the standings. Tuesday they host Tri-City. After a game next weekend down in Portland, Seattle travels up to Prince George for two against the Cougars. There are no easy games in the WHL. Fighting for a playoff spot with PG and the Ams, the T-birds have a chance to solidify their hold on the eighth seed. You know both the Americans and Cougars are looking at those Seattle games as "must wins". Seattle has to have the same approach. In fact, three of Seattle's next six games will be against Prince George. It's a stretch of games that could decide who goes into the postseason and who stays home.

Want to win the puck possession battle? Win your faceoffs. This weekend Max Patterson won 30 of 47 draws including 20 of 28 Saturday against Portland. A good chunk of those were in the third period, in the defensive zone while Seattle was shorthanded. That's an underrated stat that helped Seattle earn two points on the weekend.

Just my take, but Lucas Ciona has been Seattle's best rookie over the course of the season. It's not head and shoulders better then the rest of them but he displays a consistency from game to game that I like. It's like picking your favorite puppy from the litter when in reality, you want them all.

My T-bird Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star: D Cade McNelly. McNelly had his first two-point game of his T-birds career. His second period goal Saturday sparked the three goal comeback. He is showing off his skill with the puck. He is becoming more adept at getting pucks up ice. I'll say this about his penalty that led to Portland's first power play goal; he delivered a clean hit but officiating in this league has him a marked man such that even when he delivers a clean hit, he expects a penalty or a challenge from an opposing player. Yes, part of that reputation has been earned but when he plays the game the right way, which he's been doing recently, he's a force. Credit the officials for not calling a penalty that last two times he delivered booming clean hits, but lets give Cade time to adjust to that as well.

Second Star: G Roddy Ross. Not often a goalie surrenders five goals in a game and you still point to him as a reason you got a point out of the contest. But Ross made some huge saves to deny Portland a sixth goal in regulation, particularly in the third period when the Winterhawks had two power play chances to break the tie. Ross was also one of Seattle's best players on the ice Friday in Kelowna and has strung together three solid starts going back to last Sunday vs. Everett.

First Star: D Simon Kubicek. Goals in back to back games. Heady play to keep driving the net late in the second period Saturday on a Seattle dump in that Portland goalie Joel Hofer misplayed. Kubi turned a nothing burger into a game tying goal that led to Seattle earning a crucial point in the standings. He has six points (2g,4a) and is +3 since returning from World Juniors including a two goal, +4 weekend.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Footing The Bill

As well as the Thunderbirds have been playing recently, and they have been playing quite will since early December, we knew the young squad would still stub their toe a time or two the second half of the season. Well, this past weekend they did just that. Not Friday in the 4-2 come-from-behind win over Regina, or even Sunday in the 2-0 loss to Everett. The "toe stub" came Saturday on the road to the Silvertips in the 8-0 loss.

Even though they ended up dropping two of the three games, I actually liked their effort Friday in the third period and Sunday from the start to the finish. Notice I said the effort and not the result. You can't control the result. The only thing you have control of on the ice is the effort and energy you play with. It was an effort and level of energy that was lacking up at Angel of the Winds Arena Saturday night. It was a flat 60 minutes of hockey made all the more stunning because it was so out of character from what the team had been doing on the ice over the last month and a half.

Adversity can reveal character and after such a subpar performance you naturally wonder if they would have the right response the next time out. They did. They got back to playing the right way Sunday. It wasn't the perfect performance but they battled. The way the game was going, you knew it would come to one goal. And though Everett would score twice over the final half of the third period, it was the first goal, the penalty shot goal, that decided this one.

Seattle scored just four times on the weekend and all four goals came in one game. When you dress as many as six rookie forwards each night, the offense can be a struggle at times. You're asking your veteran forwards to produce each and every night and that's just not possible. They will have nights off. Goal scorers go through scoring streaks and scoring droughts. Among Seattle's older forwards, only Andrej Kukuca has had a 20-plus goal season in the WHL when he potted 25 last season. He's gone without a goal in his last four games. Conner Bruggen-Cate, who two season's ago had an 18-goal campaign with Kelowna, put together a nice 8-game point streak coming out of the break. He's gone scoreless in his last three. That's just the nature of the game.

Speaking of scoring goals, I'll keep saying it until it happens but rookie winger Brendan Williamson will get that first WHL goal. It's coming. He certainly hasn't had any puck luck yet. But I like his tenacity. When he gets that goal it will probably be a result of his speed and taking a puck hard to the net. I thought he was one player who had energy all three nights. And it might just be when the first one goes in, the goals start coming more regularly. Sunday he and Mekai Sanders displayed the same type of game. They are fast and physical and play the game like linebackers, hunting down opposing puck carriers. They're going to be fun to watch the rest of this season and over the next few seasons with that style of play.

Again, playing .500 hockey over their last 10 games may not seem like much. In actuality, until the back-to-back-losses on the weekend the T-Birds had a stretch where they won seven of ten. But even just going 5-5 has allowed them to stretch their lead for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Seattle gained six points on Tri-City and four on Prince George. Seattle is still just three back of the Vancouver Giants for the seventh seed.

None of those teams has an easy schedule going forward. Seattle still has 13 games remaining against the top three teams in the U.S. Division (Portland, Everett and Spokane). Tri-City plays those three teams 15 times and still has two left against the Kamloops Blazers as well as a trip east to face the high flying Medicine Hat Tigers. Prince George and Seattle still have four games head-to-head remaining on the schedule but the Cougars also play nine games against Kamloops, Everett and Victoria.

My T-Bird three stars for the weekend:

Third Star: W Brendan Williamson. He may have gone the weekend without a point but his effort level was possibly the highest over the course of the three games. I thought the penalty he was assessed late in the second period Saturday in Everett was, let's just say, a little suspect. But he was still playing hard in a game that was all but decided at that point. Sunday Seattle's bottom six forwards were much more effective than Everett's and Williamson was the leader of the pack. It may feel like a lost weekend, but big picture, the play of the rookie forwards gave a glimpse into the future and Williamson is a big part of that.

Second Star: W Keltie Jeri-Leon. Keltie gave himself an early 20th birthday present (by two days) when he scored twice Friday night in the comeback win over Regina. It included the tying and winning goal. Raise your hand if you had the Kelowna native leading the team in goals scored in late January. I see Keltie's hand is the only one up! He now has 19 on the season well past his previous season best of eight scored last season. A very underrated pick up by GM Bil LaForge.

First Star: G Thomas Milic. A last second phone call brought him here at the start of the weekend after Blake Lyda was injured in practice. Less then 24 hours after arriving he is in net for his WHL debut Friday night against the Regina Pats. 23 saves later he has his first WHL win. Got some mop up duty Saturday in Everett as well. Another piece of the future he is the seventh member of the T-Birds 2018 Bantam Draft class to make his Seattle debut less then two years after being selected in the third round.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Conner-ing the Market

It was a good weekend to be a player named Conner and wearing a Seattle Thunderbirds jersey. The T-Birds two Conners, Bruggen-Cate and Roulette, finished the weekend with a combined seven points (5g, 2a) and a plus four rating. I like the symmetry of it too. One Conner, Bruggen-Cate, is a 20-year old in his last season in the WHL, a leader showing a young team the way before he goes off in pursuit of the next step in his hockey journey. The other Conner, Roulette, is a 16-year old rookie, just beginning his WHL career, playing the game he loves with an infectious brand of enthusiasm. Both players, with their contrasting personalities and styles, are combining with their teammates, both old and young, to make T-Birds hockey a compelling, must watch to start the second half of the season.

In eight games since returning from the Christmas break the Thunderbirds are 5-3 and have won three in a row. Over their past ten games the T-birds are 7-3. They've caught and surpassed the Tri-City Americans for the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference and they ended the weekend just a point back of the Vancouver Giants for the seventh seed. All this after they traded away their captain back in early December. I saw it written back in November by one "pundit" that this team was one of six in the league that had folded shop and was assuredly going to miss the playoffs. According to that opinion, their season was over before it began. That so called "expert" must not have noticed what this team did last season. Rising from the ashes, they won 21 second half games and leapt into the postseason. Well, they're at it again.

There is a difference this time around. It's a different formula to the one General Manager Bil LaForge and Head Coach Matt O'Dette used a year ago. There was no January trade deadline roster reset as was the case last season when the club brought in fresh faces and a new attitude. This time around LaForge and O'Dette have employed patience. They waited for this version to get healthy. They waited for the veterans to get going. They waited for the plethora of young first and second year players to get comfortable and confident and up to speed with the level of play in the WHL. O'Dette and his staff tinkered with the lineup to find the right line combinations and chemistry. They'll continue that work. It's called coaching.

There is still a long way to go to the postseason and a playoff berth hasn't been won. A team featuring one of the youngest rosters in the league will probably still stub their toe a time or two going forward. Like a season ago, they still face one of the toughest second half schedules. But this version of the T-Birds, like last year's version, has climbed up into a position to make the second half matter. They didn't fold their tent. They unfolded their sail. They didn't raise the white flag of surrender. They hoisted the battle flag and are ready to face the rough seas with all hands on deck.

It was a strange weekend. Because of weather and road conditions up on Snoqualmie Pass, the team treated both contests like road games even though the Saturday tilt was at home. They left earlier than usual for the Friday trip in Eastern Washington. After the 8-5 win Friday over Tri-City the team made the decision to stay overnight in Kennewick. They bussed back to Kent for Saturday's game at the accesso ShoWare Center against Everett. They arrived for the game against the Silvertips as they would for an away game, two and a half hours before puck drop. I do think it took them a period to shake off those bus legs. Feeding off the energy of the sold out building on Fred Meyer Teddy Bear Toss Night, the T-Birds were the better team the final two periods. It amazes me that after a long two days of travel the team could be stronger at the end of the night then they were at the beginning, especially against a well rested team that didn't play the night before. That's a hallmark of T-Birds hockey the past decade though. It started in the Steve Konowalchuk era and continues under the O'Dette regime.

Sixteen year old rookie winger Lucas Ciona didn't register a point this weekend. He was credited with three shots over the two games and finished with a plus one rating. There is an old phrase in sports that says statistics are for losers. It's an exaggeration to make a point. Of course statistics matter. Goals are statistics and you don't win without them. The same with saves. The point is, you can be a winner, help your team to win, without scoring a goal or getting an assist. This weekend Ciona was a prime example of that. He affected the game with his physical play, his hustle and his willingness to engage. If there was a vote for the unsung hero on the weekend, mine would go to him. He, Max Patterson and Payton Mount have come together to form a solid checking line.

With his first WHL goal and first WHL assist Friday in Kennewick, Mekai Sanders became the sixth 16-year old to register a point for Seattle this season. He joins Ciona, Roulette, Kai Uchacz, Sam Popowich and Reid Schaefer in doing so. Through a combined 111 games that group has compiled 41 points (17g, 24a). Playing in the present, working toward the future.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend.

Third Star: C Jared Davidson. Centering the team's fourth line, Davidson lit the fuse for the team's offensive explosion in Kennewick, registering three points (2g, 1a) in the first period of an eventual 8-5 win over Tri-City. For his effort he was named the game's first star. Over the course of both games the 17-year old second year player showed an ability to win faceoffs as well, taking 11 of 18 draws in the two games.

Second Star: W Conner Roulette. He got the Teddy Bear Toss goal Saturday against Everett and then assisted on the eventual game winner. He almost scored again, coming a pad save away from possibly the goal of the week in the third period. He scored Friday night in Kennewick as well. He finished the weekend with three points (2g, 1a) and a +2. The topper? He was the star of the Kiss Cam Friday night in Kennewick.

First Star: W Conner Bruggen-Cate. Yes, you probably smell smoke and see flames but don't call the fire department. It's just The Network and he is on fire. He's riding a hot hand with points in all eight games since the Christmas break, including three goals, a game winner, an assist and a +2 rating over the weekend. In those eight games he has compiled 15 points (7g, 8a) and is a +6. That doesn't even account for his leadership both on and off the ice. What seemed like a throw in piece in last spring's Draft Day deal with Kelowna has become one of the most important pieces on the roster.

Monday, January 6, 2020

2020 Vision

The Thunderbirds are going to miss playing the Central Division. In two separate trips out there this season, the T-birds posted four wins in six games. In late October they beat Red Deer and Calgary with a lone loss to Edmonton. To start off the New Year Seattle took two of three this past weekend, beating Lethbridge and Swift Current while losing to Medicine Hat. To take four of six on the road from a very competitive division was no easy task, but mission accomplished.

This most recent trip was made tougher by the fact it was three games in three nights, in three different arenas. Remember too, the trip east didn't start in Kent, but in Portland New Year's Eve, after a tough 3-2 loss to the Winterhawks. That was game one of five straight on the road. So far the T-birds are 2-2 with the remaining game of the five away contests coming up Friday in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans. A win would give them an above .500 mark for the five game road stretch. It would also keep them in eighth place, the second wild card spot, in the Western Conference standings. In fact, a win Friday would give Seattle a four-point cushion over the Americans. Tri-City does have a couple of games in hand on Seattle so winning the head-to-head matchups are critical.

The T-birds will look both up and down at the standings going the rest of the way. While, for the moment, they have caught and passed Tri-City in the standings, they are also just five points back of the Vancouver Giants for the first wild card spot but the Prince George Cougars (as well as Tri-City) will be looking to make up ground on Seattle. The T-birds have ten games remaining against those three teams. Friday's game and a January 28th game remain against the Ams while the T-birds still have four games left on the schedule against both the Giants and Cougars.

It was great to finally see Mekai Sanders get into a regular season game. After missing the entire first half rehabbing an injury suffered in preseason, he made his debut down in Portland New Year's Eve. The Gig Harbor native got into three of the four games last week. Some rust was expected after not seeing game action since early September but you could see him get more comfortable with the speed of the game with each shift. It's hard to judge off just three games the total Sanders hockey package, but you can see he is a hustle player. Now that he's healthy he'll battle to get into the lineup with the other young players on the roster the rest of the way. That competition for ice will make him and the other rookies, better players. He is the sixth 16 year old to play for this team. In fact, Seattle has utilized nine players age 16 or younger at various times this season.

It was nice to see the Thunderbirds offense break out with a 14 goal weekend. They also allowed 14 and that's the first thing head coach Matt O'Dette brought up when I asked him about the offensive explosion. Yes, the 14 goals over the three games was nice to see, but he said they have to limit chances at the other end. That's the reaction I'd expect from the coach. Your best defense is usually a good offense, but more specifically, the better you manage the puck, the more puck possession you have and the fewer chances the opponents get. Getting up ice is still an area the young T-birds are working on improving. With that being said, Seattle did face two of the more prolific offenses in the WHL when they took on Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

It may not necessarily show in the league rankings, but Seattle's special teams are improving as well. The utilization of five forwards seemed to give the power play some jump. I'll be curious to see if that continues especially with the return of defenseman Simon Kubicek from World Juniors competition. Kubi took advantage of lots of ice time representing the Czech Republic at that tournament. He was especially effective on the power play. Hopefully he can find the same success on the power play for Seattle going forward. The T-birds are still being assessed too many penalties, whether deserved or not. That skews their work on the penalty kill, but since returning from Christmas they have blocked a busload of shots when shorthanded.

I thought Seattle's three 16 year olds who have been in the lineup most games this season, all had solid weekends on the Central Division swing. Conner Roulette ended up with four points (2g, 2a) and was +4. Roulette now leads the team with a +9 rating. Lucas Ciona chipped in a couple of assists on the road, but his worth was really in his physical play and his penalty killing. And while Kai Uchacz didn't record a point, he too was excellent on the PK but also gave the coaches strong shifts on the fourth line.

Another rookie, 17 year old Matt Rempe, is quietly putting together a solid first season. He is nearly a point a game players with 18 points (5g, 13a) through 22 games. After serving out a one-game suspension, he returned to the lineup for the last two games out east and earned three assists and a +3. He was often part of the T-birds five forward power play unit as well, planting himself in front of the opponent's crease.

The WHLL trade deadline is Friday at 2 PM PST. I don't think Seattle is moving anyone in or out but if the right deal presents itself, General Manager Bil Laforge will not hesitate. Stay tuned!

My T-Birds three star for the weekend:

Third Star: Lots of different directions I could go with this choice but I'm going with Ciona. It wasn't just that he picked up two assists. I really liked his total game, playing with some sandpaper. He's fitting in well on a line with Max Patterson and Payton Mount.

Second Star: W Conner Bruggen-Cate. the 20 year old has a six game scoring streak going that included a four game goal scoring streak. Like Ciona though, it was The Network's complete game that stood out, especially his work on the PK. I don't know how vocal he is in the room, but on the ice the example he sets with his hustle should be easy for the young players to follow.

First Star: W Andrej Kukuca. It was a year ago at this time, when he returned to the team after representing Slovakia at the World Juniors, that Kukuca caught fire. Hopefully history is repeating itself. With 16 points in his last 11 games he now leads the club in both goals (15), assists (20) and points (35). In the four recent road games he earned seven points (4g, 3a) including his first WHL hat trick.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Steady Climb

The Thunderbirds went into the Christmas break playing .500 hockey, posting a 5-5 record in ten games between November 27th and December 17th. Back from Christmas they split a pair of home games. So, over the past month, Seattle is 6-6. .500 hockey over a month of play may not seem like much, but in the process of going 6-6, the T-birds erased a seven point gap in the standings and have tied the Tri-City Americans for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Seattle accomplished that 6-6 mark against some pretty tough competition too. Tri-City was the only team the T-birds played over that span that had a losing record and the T-birds beat them twice. But Seattle also posted wins over Everett, Portland, Spokane and Victoria. Those last four teams ended this past weekend with a combined 87-36-8-4 record. I mention this only because the T-birds need to get used to that brand of competition. A good chunk of their schedule the rest of the way will be against top tier teams. fifteen of the final 34 games will be against Portland and Everett. Those two teams boast the two best winning percentages in the WHL. Those two teams are tied for the top spot in the Western Conference. The good news is Seattle has shown they can skate with both those teams. Through seven games against the Winterhawks and Silvertips Seattle boasts a .500 record at 3-3-1-0.

If Seattle wants to earn a playoff spot, they are probably going to need to earn more wins, or at least more points against those two division rivals. But they also can't falter against some of the teams they face that have non-winning records. The T-birds have eight games on the schedule against teams with records currently below .500. A misstep against anyone of those teams could mean the difference between a playoff berth and sitting home in late March. There are no easy games in the WHL. Seattle has to be just as pumped to play the teams at the bottom of the standings as they are to play the teams at the top.

They'll also need to be consistent. Seattle played some fairly consistent hockey over the ten games pre-Christmas. They came back for their first game, post holiday break, and were energetic in beating Spokane 9-5. That energy and fire were lacking out of the gate Saturday night against Portland and they earned the result they got, a 4-1 loss. Seattle features a roster where 75 percent of the players are age 18 or younger. As a result inconsistent play shouldn't be too surprising. But halfway through the season, we should start seeing less and less of that inconsistency as the young player get more and more ice time under their belts. No nights off, no shifts off should be the battle cry.

The trade deadline is looming. It's my personal opinion, so don't read into it that I have any insider information because I don't. But I don't think there will be any more major roster movement by General Manager Bil LaForge. It would probably take one of those "offers-I-can't-refuse" type deals for LaForge to move a current player. He's never going to ignore a phone call from another GM. But teams around Seattle will be looking to bolster their rosters for the playoffs and that will both positively and negatively affect the level of competition the T-birds face going forward. We've already seen the Tri-City Americans make a couple of post Christmas deals, trading away two players for future draft picks. Prince George and Moose Jaw, a couple of other sub .500 teams left on the schedule, may also be sellers before the trade deadline in early January. You have to believe Everett, Portland, Kelowna and Vancouver, teams Seattle will face a combined 21 times between now and March 22nd, will be buyers, looking to bolster already strong rosters.

Buckle up, the second half playoff push is here.

My T-birds three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star: W Keltie Jeri-Leon. The 19 year old left for Christmas with the team goal scoring lead then promptly added two more to his total with a couple Friday in the win over Spokane. He ended the night against the Chiefs with a career best five points. He is three points away from tying his point total from last season. With 12 through the first 34 games he already has scored four more goals then he did in 74 games a season ago.

Second Star: W Conner Bruggen-Cate. Definitely one of Seattle's top skaters on the weekend, scoring in back to back games for the first time this season. He ended the weekend with five points (2g, 3a) and a plus 3 rating. He continues to play a physical game and was a key to Seattle killing off all nine opponents power plays on the weekend. I believe he is the de facto captain as the only 20 year old wearing a letter on his jersey since the trade of Matthew Wedman.

First Star: C Henrik Rybinski. With an assist Saturday against Portland Rybinski is on a mini three game scoring streak and finished the weekend with five points (2g,3a) and a +3 rating. His motor is non stop and as a result, he creates a lot of havoc for opposing d-men with his strong forecheck. Since the trade of Wedman, Rybinski has been the offensive leader with 10 points over that span of nine games with six goals and four assists. He is the lynchpin on the T-birds top line with Jeri-Leon and Conner Roulette. He was also a big part of Seattle's special team's success on the weekend.

Friday, December 20, 2019

In the Chase

When Seattle fell to Victoria at home on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, they were seven points and four wins behind the Tri-City Americans for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. At other times they've been double digits behind the Ams in the standings. Eight days After that Victoria loss the T-birds would trade their captain and leading scorer, Matthew Wedman, to the Kelowna Rockets for future draft picks. To many fans and outside observers, this appeared to be a signal the team was folding shop and throwing in the towel with ten games to go before the holiday break.

You know the old saying, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it? Well, when Seattle dealt away some veterans at the midpoint last season, ten points out of a playoff spot at the time, the same naysayers were singing the same tune. The team had given up. But GM Bil LaForge said then, and he said it again this season, he doesn't own a white flag. This team will not surrender. History just might be repeating itself.

Over the last ten games before the Christmas break, the T-birds went 5-5, at the same time, Tri-City was compiling a 1-7-2-1 record. In just over two weeks time, Seattle pulled within a point of the Americans and even in the win column. Entering the break, Seattle was trending upward. They won two in a row and three of four, including a pair of victories over Tri-City. As a result they are within in one point of that eighth and final playoff spot. They have put themselves in position to chase down a postseason spot with 36 games remaining. They are actually in a better spot then they were at this time a season ago.

They also told the young players, this is your team. It was a vote of confidence for a team that gives heavy minutes to 13 rookies or second year players. A playoff spot is not guaranteed, but they know if they get there, it will be because those baker's dozen youngsters are pulling the sleigh. Yes, they'll need their veterans to bring leadership the rest of the way too, but the young guns are the key to the second half playoff push.

Want proof? Just look at Seattle's newly constructed top line. It does feature a 19 year old in Keltie Jeri-Leon and 18 year old NHL drafted Henrik Rybinski, but it also includes 16 year old rookie Conner Roulette. In the last ten games, that line combo has garnered 25 points (11g, 14a). Guess which one of those three is leading that line in point production? It's the 16 year old. Meanwhile, another rookie, 17 year old Matt Rempe, picked up eight points (3g, 5a) since being given the job of third line center. But don't go off the stat sheet to see the impact these first and second year players are having. See it with your own eyes. Watch the impact players such as Brendan Williamson, Lucas Ciona and Payton Mount are having on the opposing team as they try to bring the puck up ice.

What can help Seattle over the course of the second half is to somehow fix the power play. Seattle has struggled with the man advantage, particularly on the road. The best they can do is keep trying. I doubt there is any help coming in that regard via a trade. They have been doing a better job setting up on the power play recently. A lack of finish is the culprit. Maybe a break is exactly what they need to reset their power play focus.

As it was a season ago, the second half is going to present a bear of a schedule. Getting to the playoffs won't be easy. If it happens, it will be earned.

My Three Stars for the final week of play, pre-holiday break:

Third Star: W Andrej Kukuca. Seattle won three of four heading into the break and Kukuca had points in all four games and he was a plus player each night. The 20 year old Slovakian earned six points (2g,4a) and was a +7 over the four contests.

Second Star: C Henrk Rybinski. The Florida Panthers draft pick didn't pile up the points with just three (2g,1a) but he is the one player who sets the tone for the team with his relentless energy. To play T-birds hockey, you have to commit to the forecheck and Rybinski does that in spades. Still think he needs to shoot more and pass less, but he is a creator in the offensive zone.

First Star: W Conner Roulette. Most times if you said your best player over the week was a 16 year old, you probably didn't play too well. This is not one of those times. His last four games garnered him seven points (3g, 4a), a shootout winning goal and a +7 rating. I'd take that every week from a 20 year old veteran, let alone a 16 year old rookie. Don't think he's just a one dimensional player either. He plays a 200-foot game and is a very strong back checker.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Fresh Ice

And just like that, the last piece of the Thunderbirds 2017 WHL Championship roster is gone. Thursday night Seattle traded Matthew Wedman to the Kelowna Rockets in exchange for a first, second and fifth round draft pick. The picks are spread out over three drafts, but don't be fooled, that is an impressive return for the 20 year old center in his last year in the league. It adds to a growing number of stockpiled high draft picks General Manager Bil La Forge has accumulated in the past 12 months. More on that later.

First, trading away the captain, the last piece of a championship team, and a player the team helped to develop into an NHL draft pick, is not an easy endeavor. I'm not normally around when these deals go down. But I'm glad I was for this one and the one last New Year's Eve that saw the T-birds trade away two other players from that Chynoweth Cup winning team, Zack Andrusiak and Reece Harsch. I had a chance to shake their hands and wish them well. They will always be remembered as not just T-birds, but T-birds champions. They were all part of a special group of young men. Wedman will always be celebrated for his overtime, conference championship, series clinching goal against the Rockets. It sent Seattle to the league championship in 2016, ending a 20 year absence. He was just 16 years old back then. Over the next three years we watched him grow into manhood, become a potent offensive weapon and a leader. Once a T-bird, always a T-birds.

With Wedman gone Seattle took the ice for a pair of games this past weekend in Victoria. With newcomer Max Patterson arriving just in time, the T-birds played a solid, physical sixty minutes Friday night and came out with a well earned 4-1 win. The follow up effort Saturday night was close but not as complete. Whistle happy officiating was partly responsible, taking any flow away from the game for either team. No hockey game should ever feature 18 power plays but this one did. Seattle's strength is 5-on-5 hockey and the penalties denied them that element much of the game. In the end the T-birds took a 3-1 loss. I think, beyond the parade to the box, Seattle's struggle to finish chances hurt them. You could probably count at least eight high quality scoring chances that went awry.

Overall Seattle was able to play the T-bird way in those two games on Vancouver Island. They played a heavy game where they were finishing all their checks. They did a good job of getting pucks in deep and making the Royals defenseman have to play the puck deep in their own zone and pay a physical price for doing it. They got under the skin of a few of those Royals players. It was interesting to read the comments of Victoria Head Coach Dan Price after the two game set, talking about how his players were battered and bruised and had the marks to show for it. the Thunderbirds left their calling card.

Now the team gets set for a five game schedule over an eight day stretch that will take them into the Christmas break, with all five games against U.S. Division opponents. Seattle currently sits six points out of a playoff spot. They'd like to close that gap before heading home for the holidays. Yes, despite that Wedman deal, this team is still aiming for the postseason. They don't care they're one of the youngest teams in the league, giving large minutes to seven rookies. The organization believes in their talent and believes they will continue to get better with each passing game. The trades may be more about the future, but the team is playing for today.

As for the trade, as we mentioned the T-birds have amassed a lot of top-of-the-draft picks. With the haul from the Wedman trade added in, they now currently have six first-round and six-second round selections in their arsenal for the next four drafts. That doesn't even take into account their other picks in the third round and beyond. For example, over that same span the T-birds are currently in possession of 13 picks combined in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. Most of those picks are going be in the 2021, '22 and '23 drafts, just as this current group of young players is maturing. The T-birds can make selections with those picks when the time comes, or trade them for top end established talent augmenting this current group when they are ready to challenge for a deep playoff run.

If you believe that a rebuild, or reload, whatever you want to call it, begins after one group reaches the apex, as did the 2017 team, then you have to take into account what began as that 2017 team was raising the Cup. Just a week or so earlier that spring, Seattle drafted Payton Mount, Ty Bauer and Luke Bateman. The next spring they selected Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Thomas Milic, Sam Popowich, Reid Schaefer and Mekai Sanders. In the most recent draft they used two first round picks on Jordan Gustafson and Kevin Korchinski and a second rounder on Spencer Penner. They chose nine other players in last spring's draft and some of those will end up signing a well. They've listed and signed players like Cade McNelly, Matt Rempe and Jared Davidson while trading for youngster like Brendan Williamson, Zach Ashton, Henrik Rybinski and Blake Lyda. They'll continue to list and recruit more players to supplement that group.

This is the core they are building around. From 2017 until the 2023 draft rolls around, Seattle will have used as many as 20 first and second round draft picks alone to build this roster up while also building for the future. They'll do that by using those draft picks to select players, or trade those picks to acquire players already in the league. The goal isn't to compete for one championship, but to compete for multiple titles. La Forge has a plan and that plan is to make this team a contender every year.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: C Max Patterson. Acquired from Everett to fill the 20 year old vacancy created by the Wedman trade, Patterson jumped off the plane and onto the ice and had a solid debut weekend as a T-bird. Without benefit of a practice with his new line mates, he made the transition seem effortless, creating instant chemistry with Andrej Kukuca and Payton Mount. In the two games he won 31 of his 48 faceoffs. He was a physical force, and according to head coach Matt O'Dette, a vocal leader.

Second Star: C Henrik Rybinski. Now centering Seattle's top line, with Keltie Jeri-Leon and Conner Roulette on his wings, he was not just the T-birds best skater both nights, he was the best skater for either team in the two games in Victoria. He potted a goal each night and set his wingers up for multiple scoring chances. When he came to Seattle last January he wanted to play center, but Seattle wasn't sure if he could win a faceoff, so he played on the wing. On the weekend he won 22 of his 28 draws. He's a center.

First Star: G Blake Lyda. That ten goals against game in Kamloops? It has to be looked at now as a fluke, an aberration, a total team collapse and not a goalie issue. In his four games surrounding that outing, he's surrendered just five goals against on 122 shots and earned his first two WHL wins. This weekend he stopped 35 of 36 shots Friday in the 4-1 win. He then stopped 11 of 11 in relief of Roddy Ross Saturday. For those counting at home, that is 46 saves on 47 shots up in Victoria. You can't erase that 10-goal game. It goes on his permanent record, but take it out of the equation and in the other four outings the past month, he has a 2-1-0-0 record, a 1.45 GAA and a SPCT of .959.