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. 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 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 from that group, 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 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 mynorthwest.com'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.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Don't Get Mad, Get Even

When does playoff experience matter? Does it even matter at all? In the end is it not skill, work ethic and attention to detail that wins the game? Some times fortune or good luck factors in but that is usually a byproduct of hard work. You get a bounce to go your way because you are playing the right way.

Friday night in Langley, in Game One of their opening round playoff series versus Vancouver, any previous playoff experience Seattle had didn't matter at all. They got outworked, outhustled and outplayed in a 7-1 loss. Vancouver was ready to go, the T-birds, save a few players, were not. Vancouver didn't win because of experience, they won because of superior effort.

But here's one situation where I think playoff experience can matter. When your career has taken you through the grind of a couple long playoff runs, and along the way you've experienced that bitter taste of losing in the postseason, that's when experience begins to play a role. Former T-bird head coach Steve Konowalchuk often talked about how he hated losing more then he loved winning, and it wasn't even close. He said you remember the missed goal you failed to score, more then the ones you put in the back of the net. Your job is to win and when you don't, you haven't done your job. You start asking yourself what could you have done better?

So after that 7-1 loss Friday, Seattle's captain, the player with the most playoff experience on the Seattle roster, was embarrassed. Nolan Volcan didn't like that feeling of losing. He'd tasted it before and it was a bite he didn't enjoy swallowing. Sure he had enjoyed the sweet taste of success when Seattle won it all in 2017, but he remembered that sour, empty feeling of losing a championship, when it was there for the taking, back in 2016. The experience of losing can be a great motivator. Losing 7-1 is a wake up call.

So Volcan was determined to do all he could Saturday in Game Two to make sure the team was playing playoff hockey. He didn't want to be asking those "what if" questions when that final horn sounded. He put his playoff experience to work and used it to his benefit. He finished every check he could, blocked every shot he was able to get in front of, hustled from one end of the ice to the other and set the example for the rest of his team.

In the end he compiled two assists and a goal and the T-birds earned a 4-1 victory to even the series at a game apiece.

Which brings us to the second area where playoff experience can matter, don't get too low with the loss, don't get too high from the win. After that drubbing Friday, Volcan wasn't happy but he also knew it was just one game in a best-of-seven-series. Losing 7-1 was the same as losing 2-1 in triple overtime. Put it behind you and move on to the next game. And now he and the T-bird must do the same after their win. Game Two is done, put it in the past and move on to Game Three. Seattle's goal isn't to win one game in the series, it's to win four. Don't dwell on the loss, don't savor the win. Again, as Konowalchuk used to remind me, if you're too busy looking behind and admiring past successes, you're gonna miss the obstacles that lay directly in your path and crash, head on. Right now the Vancouver Giants are still in Seattle's way. They are a formidable obstacle, trying to steer the T-birds into the ditch. The T-birds need to keep their eyes on the road.

Sean Richards is another WHL veteran with lots of playoff experience, including a trip to the WHL Championship Series last season with Everett. He too knows what it takes to make a long postseason run. Game One wasn't his best as he finished with a -3 rating. Richards put that opening game behind him and rebounded with a strong effort in Game Two. he opened the scoring with a sneaky good goal, then assisted on what turned out to be the game winner, Simon Kubicek's power play goal. he finished the night with two points and a +1 rating. The T-birds need that version of Richards to win the series.

Jaxan Kaluski almost quietly was one of Seattle's best players in Game Two. He ended the night with one assist but was +2. By going hard to the net on the T-birds first and third goals, he grabbed some of the goalie's attention, helping open up space for Richards and Andrej Kukuca to score.

The T-birds did a better job with their discipline in the second game, but still surrendered four power play chances to the Giants. Vancouver's power play, which finished the regular season fourth best in the league at nearly 25-percent success, is a dangerous weapon. They are 3-for-11 so far in the series. Seattle has to try and stay out of the box. Giving Vancouver an average of five and a half power plays per game is a recipe for disaster. Once the Giants get the man advantage, they spend an awful lot of time in the attacking zone. They move the puck well, led by highly touted defenseman Bowen Byram. Any time the puck is on his stick, it seems like a scoring chance.

Heroes don't always wear capes. With defenseman Jake Lee suspended for Game Two, Seattle inserted Zach Ashton into the lineup to fill his spot. Playing on a third pairing with rookie Cade McNelly, Ashton came up big, breaking up a Vancouver 4-on-1 rush by sliding into a pass, either getting just enough of the puck or forcing a bad pass to spoil a Giants chance to tie the game at two in the third period. He did it again on another shift later in the game. But what he and McNelly did was give the coach's quality minutes on the back end. They didn't overextend themselves. They kept it simple and played smart hockey. That saved Seattle's top two pairings for extra shifts at the end while Seattle protected a two goal lead.

Roddy Ross' stat line after Game One didn't look good with a goals against average over eight and a save percentage barely at 80. But Ross was not the problem in Game One. He wasn't pulled early in the third for playing poorly. he was lifted because his team was not playing well in front of him. Like pitchers in baseball and quarterbacks in football, goalies often are saddled with too much of the blame in a loss. Hockey is a team game. You win as a team, you lose as a team. Ross was just as calm, cool and collected in the Game One loss as he was in making 39 saves in the Game Two win. The difference in winning and losing was how his team played in front of him.

If there was a silver lining to that first game defeat it may have been that back up goalie Cole Schwebius got a chance to experience postseason play early on. Schwebius acquitted himself well, stopping nine of ten shots in just under 16-minutes of playing time.












Monday, March 18, 2019

The Surge

Back on January 14th, as Seattle came off their six game trip through the Eastern Division I wrote the following: "Of the 28 games left for the T-Birds to play, 25 will be against teams with winning records. 12 of those games will be against either Everett or Portland who have a combined record of 59-21-4-3. In 10 games against those two division rivals, the first half of the season, Seattle was just 2-8."

The key for Seattle's playoff hopes was going to be their success or failure against those two division rivals. How did the T-Birds do in those 12 games? It didn't start off well as the T-Birds went winless in the first four meetings, going 0-3-1-0. Through the first half dozen of those 12 games Seattle was just 1-4-1-0. But the final six games they compiled a 4-0-1-1 record. So overall in those dozen games the T-birds went 5-4-2-1, which may not seem all that impressive, but those were 13 crucial points earned in their playoff chase.

As I posted that story back on January 14th, a Monday, Seattle was still sitting in 10th place in the 10 team Western Conference standings. They were looking up at everybody. Their next game wasn't until the next weekend and they would drop a 3-2 shootout over in Kennewick to the Tri-City Americans on Friday, January 18th. That means Seattle was still sitting in last place in the conference as late as January 19th. With 27 games left, and still 12 head-to-head versus Everett and Portland, the T-Birds were still not in a playoff position.

Through the first 13 of those 27 games the T-Birds played .500 hockey at 6-6-1-0. Eleven of those 13 games were against teams with winning records. It would be the next 12 games, with 11 against teams with winning records, including six against Everett and Portland, where Seattle put the fate of their season in their own hands. The T-Birds would compile an 8-2-1-1 record, picking up 18 points and zipping by Kamloops into the second wild card spot, clinching their playoff berth with two games to spare.

Seattle's second half record, the final 34 games, saw them reverse their first half performance. The T-Birds won 20 of their final 34 games. The T-Birds earned points in four other games they lost in either overtime or shootouts. In the end Seattle got points in 24 of their final 34 games, compiling 44 second half points. They rendered the final two games of the regular season meaningless, but still went 2-0 for a second half record of 20-10-2-2.

After the 6-5 win in the regular season finale in Portland Sunday, I was reminded of a similar game in the T-Birds championship season. Seattle went down to Portland on February 19th of that year to play a third game in three nights. Like this past Sunday, that game too was in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. At the time, Seattle still had designs on the U.S. Division banner, so two points were critical. The T-Birds had opened that weekend with a 4-2 road win over Tri-City then followed up with a Saturday night 5-3 home win against the Winterhawks. But the weekend had exacted a price and by the time they got to Portland for that Sunday game they were minus Scott Eansor, Rylan Toth, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman, all out with injuries. Just before the game started, Keegan Kolesar was announced as a late scratch. The T-Birds dressed only 16 skaters and had no back up goalie.

You could forgive Seattle if they just didn't have it in them for a third win that weekend against a healthy Portland team. After Portland pulled on top 4-2 midway through the third period on three unanswered goals, you thought, good effort but the T-Birds are just too shorthanded to come back. But Seattle did come back, scoring the final two goals of regulation, the last with under a minute to play. Okay, nice, they've earned a point but no blame if they fall in overtime. You know where this is going, right? Seattle survived the overtime and when Mat Barzal and Sami Moilanen scored in the shootout, the shorthanded T-Birds had an improbable third win on the weekend.

Which brings us back to Sunday and the 68th and final game of the 2018-19 regular season. The T-Birds had nothing to play for. Their playoff spot was locked in. With no need for the win, Head Coach Matt O'Dette rested his top three scorers and his number one goalie. No Volcan, Wedman or Philp and no Ross between the pipes. Over 200 points out of the line up. On Saint Patrick's Day, Seattle inserted a lot of green players onto the bench. Portland, on the other hand, still had something to play for. They needed a win to earn home-ice advantage in their opening round playoff matchup with Spokane.

Portland quickly grabbed a 2-0 lead. Someone forgot to tell these young T-Birds they were supposed to lie down and roll over. 16-year old Jared Davidson, 15-year old Kai Uchacz and barely turned 17-year old Simon Kubicek turned the deficit into a 3-2 lead. Okay, Seattle had it's moment, right? The Winterhawks struck back with two quick goals to regain the lead, 4-3. Portland was back in control and headed to victory. A funny thing happened after that though. Seattle not only fought back, they took over the game. Led by rookie goalie Cole Schwebius, they closed the door on Portland's high powered offense. And when Sean Richards and Jarret Tyszka scored third period goals with still 12 minutes left, you sensed it was over. The Winterhawks got a cosmetic 6-on-4 power play goal with one second remaining but the win that Portland needed instead, belonged to Seattle.

Those two wins, two seasons apart, when you could excuse the T-Birds if they had dropped both of them, are instead prime examples of what O'Dette talks about when he mentions playing the T-Bird way. You give it your best effort for 60 minutes, no matter who's in the lineup and who is out. As long as there's time on the clock, there's time to win. Don't worry about the standings, the opponent, tomorrow or yesterday. Concern yourself with your effort and make sure you are giving it 100 percent and at the end of the game, win or lose, if you can say you did that, then you've played the T-Bird way.

Second half wins (final 34 games):

Vancouver 26
Everett 21
Portland 21
Seattle 20
Spokane 20
Victoria 16
Tri-City 16
Kamloops 14
Kelowna 12
Prince George 7

Vancouver leads the way in the second half with 26 wins but remember, they played 17 of their final 34 games against teams with losing records. Don't blame the Giants, they played the schedule they were given. Vancouver went 9-5-2-1 against those winning teams and 15-0-1-1 against those sub .500 teams the second half. They took care of business. By contrast though, Seattle played 29 of their final 34 games against teams with winning records. Seattle was 5-0 against their sub .500 opponents and 15-10-2-2 against the teams with winning records. The T-Birds also took care of business.

Does it mean anything for the upcoming playoff series? No. Heck, I think Seattle's best game against the Giants might have been the recent 5-1 loss to Vancouver on March 12th, but that's like saying except for the category four hurricane, my vacation to Key West was fabulous. Winning is all that matters. But after Seattle split the four game regular season series with the Giants and after their very successful second half, I'm looking forward to a competitive playoff series.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the last regular season weekend:

Third Star: C Kai Uchacz. The 15-year old, 2018 first round Bantam pick not only scored his first career WHL goal Sunday in Portland but he added an assist as well, finishing the game at +1. He also won 15 of 34 faceoffs in the two games versus Portland. A great start to a promising Thunderbirds career.

Second Star: C Noah Philp. Philp had five points in his last two regular season games. Wednesday he picked up two assists in Kennewick, including the primary assist on the overtime game winner that clinched Seattle's playoff spot. He then added two goals in Seattle's 5-2 win Saturday night in the regular season home finale. Philp finished the regular season with a career best 75 points.

First Star: LW Nolan Volcan. The captain made his last regular season home game memorable by recording his 100th career Thunderbirds goal Saturday night. That was just the follow up to his hat trick in Kennewick Wednesday. He had four goals and was +2 in his final two regular season WHL games. For his career, a five year span all with Seattle, he totaled 321 games played with 231 points and a +30 rating. Oh, and there is one U.S. Division banner, two Western Conference Championship banners and one Ed Chynoweth Cup Championship on his resume as well.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Spin-O-Rama

Time to go back to my early days of radio, as a disc jockey, spinning the hits. Here's Dead or Alive with a classic from 1984:

"All I know is that to me, you look like you're having fun...."

This team looks like they're having fun chasing down that final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Another strong weekend, in which Seattle took both wins and all four points, has trimmed their magic number to clinch a playoff spot down to a scant two points. One more win in their last four games or one more Kamloops loss in the Blazers last four, and the Thunderbirds are playoff bound. A couple of overtime or shootout losses will do the trick as well. Over the last 10 games with a playoff spot there for the taking, against some of the best competition in the WHL, Seattle has earned 16 of 20 points, compiling a 7-1-1-1 record.

"...You spin me right round, baby, right round like a record baby..."

11-19-4-0. That was Seattle's record after losing a 3-1 lead and falling 6-3 New Year's Eve to the Winterhawks down in Portland. That was the exact midway point of the season, 34 games into a 68 game schedule. They had just lost seven of eight, including six in a row and surrendering 40 goals in the process. The T-Birds sat dead last, 10th place, in a 10 team conference race.

General Manager Bil LaForge had seen enough. Top six forward Dillon Hamaliuk was out for the season and the team was reeling. It was immediately after that game down at the Moda Center that the first year GM set in motion the winds of change. It was not a roster purge but, instead, a roster reset. A New Year's resolution to turn this team's fortunes around. Out went number one goalie Liam Hughes, veteran defenseman Reese Harsch and leading scorer Zack Andrusiak. In came recently signed netminder Roddy Ross along with wingers Sean Richards, Kelti Jeri-Leon, Henrik Rybinski and d-man Zach Ashton.

"...you spin me right round baby..."

17-9-2-2. That's the T-birds record through 30 of 34 second half games. A complete one-eighty turnaround with their record the second half of the season. From eight games below .500 to eight games above with four games remaining and a bonafide chance to finish the regular season above the break even mark. More importantly they went from a non-playoff contender to the cusp of being a playoff team. It's only fitting that the 1984 pop hit was recorded by a band called Dead or Alive. Thanks to their remarkable second half about face, Seattle has gone from being dead in the water to very much alive for the postseason.

"...open up your lovin' arms, watch out, here I come"

This is a dangerous team as the playoffs approach. If they get into the postseason, no matter who their first round opponent is, win or lose, that team is going to have their hands full with a team brimming with confidence. That opponent will be facing a Seattle team that's battle tested, playing 20 of its final 21 games against teams with winning records. That first round opponent will be going up against a T-Birds team that will have played 19 of their final 34 games against teams either in first or second place in their respective divisions. That opponent will be going head-to-head against a Seattle team that played 15 of those 34 second half games against teams with winning percentages above .645.

"I've set my sights on you, and I've got to have my way now baby."

You want the playoffs? Go out and earn it. That's what this team is doing. They aren't relying on anyone to help them, they aren't backing their way in. Over the last month they've gone 8-1-1-1. 2-1, 1-0-1, 3-0-1 and now 2-0 over the last four weekends. You win as a team and with everyone contributing. Some of the bigger plays are those that don't end up in a box score. In a couple of recent games a couple of veteran players, Nolan Volcan and Jarret Tyszka have both blocked shots with their faces. Head coach Matt O'Dette pointed out the play of Jaxan Kaluski, who was a strong presence along the boards. You win with players stepping up when other players are absent. With Andrej Kukuca unavailable on the power play Saturday it was Keltie Jeri-Leon and Sean Richards filling in. Seattle scored on their only power play chance. When Tyszka had to leave early in the third period Saturday, rookie d-men Simon Kubicek picked up the slack and ended up with an assist on the game winning goal.

"...if I get to know your name..."

When the season started, Roddy Ross was toiling away between the pipes in the AJHL for Camrose. You couldn't have picked him out of a lineup. Roddy who? Now he's backstopping this team on a playoff quest. 14-4-1-2 since joining the team after the new year. In five second half games against division rival Everett, Ross has allowed 10 goals. Here's the kicker; half of those goals (5) came in one game, Ross's first game against the 'Tips back on February 1st, in a 5-2 loss. In the four starts subsequent to that first effort against the Silvertips his record is 3-0-1-0 with a 1.21 GAA and SVPCT of .971. Even with that five goal game Ross still has a 3-1-1-0 record against Everett with a GAA of 1.95 and a .953 SVPCT.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star(s): Wingers Tyler Carpendale and Payton Mount. Friday, when so many of the team decided to take the night off against an injury depleted Victoria squad, these two forwards stepped up and delivered shift after shift. They won puck battles, owned the half wall and earned key assists on the game winning goal. Carpendale continues to deliver big hits and always plays on his toes and never back on his heels. Mount's confidence is growing more and more with each game. The rookie, 2017 first round bantam selection, is showing the skill set that led to Seattle taking him with that top pick. With some better finish by his teammates, he could have easily had two or three more assists. Tip of the cap to Matt O'Dette and his coaching staff for adjusting their lines during the game and putting those two out there with Noah Philp Friday night. Late in the season and they're making the right adjustments to find a line combination that works. That forward trio continued their terrific play Saturday in the win over Everett.

Second Stars(s): Centers Noah Philp and Nolan Volcan. Two 20-year olds who have combined for 123 points (47g, 76a). Philp put the offense on his back Friday night and bailed the T-Birds out from what could have been a stunning loss to an undermanned Victoria team. He scored both goals in a 2-1 win. He continues to be the sage guru who helps younger players get better when they're on his line as was the case this weekend with Carpendale and Mount. His 24 goals is 10 more than he had a season ago and he's now averaging well over a point a game at 1.32. Volcan duplicated Philp's Friday effort with a two-goal night of his own Saturday in the 2-1 win over Everett. In both instances it was a case of the captain being around the front of the net and getting to a puck, either by redirecting in a shot or scooping up a loose puck and firing it in for a late game winner. While a nine game absence due to injury will keep his point totals down from a season ago, he is a career best +21 on the season.

First Star: G Roddy Ross. Calm, cool and collected. And that's not just on the ice, but off the ice too. He not only plays a game set on an ice surface, but he apparently has ice water running through his veins. 2-0 on the weekend with a 1.00 GAA and a .970 SVPCT with 65 saves on 67 shots. He was .1 second away from a shutout Friday and a flukey, off-the-opponent's-glove, barely off-the-opponent's-stick, goal away from a shutout Saturday. In his start previous to that he was .4 seconds away from a 65 minute shutout. The T-Birds have earned points in 17 of his 21 starts (31 pts.) since he joined the team back on January 4th. He now ranks fifth among WHL goalies with a 2.56 GAA and a .925 SVPCT. Whether you call him Rowdy Roddy, Rockin' Roddy, Goal Robbin' Roddy or Ross the Boss, at 14-4-1-2 just don't forget to call him a winner.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Weekend Warriors

Back on February 12th, Seattle faced Tri-City on a 2-For-Tuesday at the accesso ShoWare Center. They built up a 3-1 lead early in the second period. Unfortunately they couldn't hold that lead. Tri-City scored the last three goals and skated out with a 4-3 victory. It was two points that the T-Birds let slip away. Their playoff hopes were teetering on the brink. After that loss they were staring up at a schedule that featured either Everett or Portland in five of their next seven games. The most difficult part of a difficult schedule was in front of them. It was like having to scale a 30 foot high cliff while boulders were rolling down on top of them.

Fast forward to this past Sunday and the T-Birds are once again hosting the Americans. Once again they build up a 3-1 lead early in the second period. Tri-City closes to within a goal just past the midway mark of the period. How will the T-Birds respond this time? Instead of wilting Seattle fights back and scores a goal before the period ends. They add two more early in the third and skate away with a 6-3 win. It put a cap on a five point weekend. In between those two games against the Americans, Seattle not only faced a daunting schedule, they attacked it head on. This team is too legit to quit.

The last three weekends have seen the Thunderbirds play a combined eight games. Seattle has compiled a 5-1-1-1 record over that span. With the exception of the Kamloops game this past Friday, every game was versus a team with a winning record. Outside of Red Deer, none of those winning teams were less then 10 games above .500. It was a murderer's row of opponents with five of the eight games against either Everett or Portland. It was a significant chunk of a make-or-break stretch of the schedule as far as the team's playoff hopes were concerned. With their season on the line, the T-Birds earned 12 of 16 points and pushed their lead in the battle for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference to seven points.

The work is not done. The schedule from here on out doesn't get any easier. In fact, it gets harder. Six games to go. All six are against teams with winning records. No one left on the schedule with a winning percentage below .565. Four of the six games against the top three teams in the Western Conference and against three of the five best records in the entire WHL. That's right, four of the six games are against teams with winning percentages above .650. The combined record of the teams left on Seattle's schedule? 192-97-12-10. Saddle up, let's go!

Is their a "magic number" for Seattle to clinch a playoff spot? Yes. Heading into this week the T-Birds magic number to clinch at least a play-in game is seven. Any combination of points Seattle earns or Kamloops fails to earn going forward equaling seven and the T-Birds would at least get a one game playoff game against the Blazers to determine the second wild card spot. The magic number for Seattle to claim the last Western Conference playoff spot outright, would be eight. That could change midweek as the Blazers host Vancouver Wednesday night. Obviously the T-Birds will be cheering on the Giants. A Vancouver regulation win would reduce the magic numbers to 5/6 before Seattle plays again this coming weekend.

The Thunderbirds don't need that help going forward. They do control their own destiny. Four wins or eight points earned over the final six games will do the trick. Of course, with their schedule, that's easier said than done, although the T-Birds proved over the past three weeks that their bite is as good as their bark. Still the T-Birds haven't accomplished their goal yet. There is a lot of heavy lifting still to be done. While there are only a half dozen games left in the regular season, they are still not guaranteed that playoff berth.

Every team deals with injuries. Everett right now is missing Riley Sutter, Portland has seen Cody Glass in and out of the lineup recently and Tri-City limped in this past weekend with three defenseman out. But you do wonder where this T-Birds team might be the second half of the season with a healthy Dillon Hamaliuk. Hamaliuk, of course, was lost for the season back on December 29th when he suffered a season ending lower body injury in a game against the Winterhawks. Hammer was on pace for a 25 goal, 58 point season. How might he have helped the newly constituted second half roster? Might the T-Birds be battling for the first wild card spot, rather then the second? Would they have already clinched? His absence makes what they have accomplished the second half of the season all the more remarkable. He was a top six forward when the injury struck. Since starting the second half 1-2-0-0, the new look roster has gelled together and gone 14-7-2-2 in the last 25 games.


My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: C Nolan Volcan. Huge goal to help ice the big road win in Kamloops Friday night. Tough as nails, Volcan was a physical presence all weekend. If you get a chance, watch the play he made in Everett where he put on the jets and raced up ice to deliver a big check on a Silvertips breakaway chance. Never. Give. Up. He leaves it all on the ice as was evident when he blocked a shot Sunday against Tri-City with his face. He's doing this while still not fully back to 100 percent after suffering an injury in late January.

Second Star: C Mathew Wedman. He's just playing with a remarkable amount of confidence right now and it has him leading the team in scoring with 71 points. His 37 goals is more then any T-Bird has had in a season since Prab Rai registered 41 back in 2009-10. After his 11-game point streak was snapped in the overtime, shutout loss Saturday in Everett, he jumped right back on the scoresheet with a three point game (2g, 1a) Sunday against Tri-City. To top it off he is +25 on the season on a team that allows more goals than it scores.

First Star: G Roddy Ross. Ross didn't even get the win in his best performance on the weekend, the 1-0 overtime loss in Everett. In his two games (1-0-1-0) he faced 87 shots, making 40+ saves both nights. He outdueled an NHL draft pick in Kamloops, Dylan Ferguson, and went toe-to-toe with Everett's Central Scouting ranked netminder, Dustin Wolf. We talk about Wedman possibly getting drafted by an NHL team this spring but I imagine Ross is opening some eyes and he could earn himself an invite to an NHL camp. His 6'4" frame alone, should get him some notice.