Monday, January 14, 2019

Second Half Reset

I didn't see a point in penning a new blog entry, knowing the trade deadline was approaching and Seattle was likely to make some moves to shuffle their roster for the second half of the season. So, instead I waited until the trades were finalized and the new look roster had a chance to put a few games under its belt. The early results are encouraging and every new player acquired has factored onto the scoresheet while draft picks and young prospects have been added that will help the club in the not too distant future.

It's not often you trade away your leading goal scorer, your leading point producer for that matter, along with your number one goalie and your second most senior defenseman and can say with a straight face "we are not giving up on the season". But the proof, so far, is in the pudding. Since the deals were consummated, the T-Birds are closer to a playoff spot, not farther away. Since those deals were done the team has played to a 4-2 record, entirely on the road.

Now, it's still going to be a tall task for Seattle to grab one of those last playoff spots. Not because I don't think they are talented enough to do so after all the dealings, but rather because they have a daunting schedule ahead of them. 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.

Meanwhile, the T-Birds went 1-5 the first half against the two teams they're fighting for that final playoff spot in the West, Prince George and Kamloops. Besides Seattle, those are the only other teams out west, along with Kelowna, with sub .500 records. Seattle only has two head-to-head games left against the Cougars and Blazers, both against Kamloops (they also have one road game vs. Kelowna). The best way to catch a team ahead of you in the standings is to beat them head-to-head. The T-birds just don't have much opportunity for that left on the schedule. The T-Birds 1-3 mark against Prince George, the team currently directly ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, may come back to bite them, since they don't have any games left on the schedule against the Cougars.

In a good-news-bad-news scenario, those two clubs, Prince George and Kamloops, get to beat up on each other seven times the rest of the way. If one of those teams though, were to dominate those seven games, it could spell trouble for Seattle's playoff hopes. The specter of those teams playing a number of three point games (OT or SO) against each other, also could hurt the T-Birds.

So what can the T-Birds do? They can go out and continue to play the brand of hockey they played on their six game trek through the East Division. They played heavy, they played fast and they played an aggressive style. The trades made by first year General Manager Bil La Forge definitely put his stamp on this team. The players he acquired in those deals last week brought into the organization players that fit his style, a style that Head Coach Matt O'Dette agrees with. While Seattle traded out one top six forward in Zack Andrusiak, the moves by La Forge brought back three potential top six players in Sean Richards, Henrik Rybinksi and Keltie Jeri-Leon. In moving out a bigger, more stay at home, older defenseman in Reece Harsch, La Forge brought back a smaller, more mobile, more offensive minded and younger d-man in Zach Ashton.

The best of the deals might be the one that didn't cost Seattle anything but patience. The T-Birds listed goalie Roddy Ross back in September. They watched him have a terrific first half of the season with Canmore in the AJHL while he decided which route he would take, WHL or NCAA. Knowing they were going to deal Liam Hughes to Lethbridge, the T-Birds got Ross signed and brought him in to compete with Cole Schwebius. After debuting midway through the game in Brandon versus the Wheat Kings, Ross would get three starts on the recent road trip and go 3-0-0-0 with a 2.00 GAA and a save percentage of .925.

Two of those wins were against teams with a couple of the best records in the Eastern Conference. That includes a 32-save performance in a 4-1 win against the #1 ranked team in all of the CHL, the Prince Albert Raiders. Ross is 6'4" and that tall frame helps cover a lot of the crease. But more importantly, as La Forge, O'Dette and goaltending coach Ian Gordon have said, there is very little wasted motion in his game.

Has Ross earned the number one job? that remains to be seen. Remember, while Ross was playing regularly in the AJHL with Canmore, Schwebius was spending most game nights on the bench behind Hughes. When he got the start in Brandon January 4th, it was Schwebius' first game action since December 15th and only his eighth appearance of the season. He's going to get more opportunities now. He got three starts in eight days out east, the busiest he's been since preseason. He got better with each game, punctuating it with an 18 save third period Saturday in Swift Current, helping Seattle hold on for the 5-3 win.

I know there are some T-Bird fans who don't understand the deal that brought Richards to the team, but this is a good, 200-foot player who can play in all situations. And he can score as is evidenced by his three goals in the last two games. Does he play on the edge? Sure. Is he a dirty player, a goon who targets players? No. Just like T-Bird favorite Turner Ottenbreit did when he was here, just as young Cade McNelly does now, Richards skirts a fine line with his physical play. He needs to avoid the kind of hits that will draw suspensions, most importantly because if Seattle is to win a playoff spot it will because he is on the ice, not in the stands.

Seattle's winning record on their trip through Saskatchewan was impressive, not because they did it on the heels of a seven game winless streak, but because they did it in the midst of a roster make-over. The first couple of games you had linemates introducing themselves to each other at the pregame meal or heck, even pregame warmups. They did it by integrating new faces onto the team with minimal practice time. But they also did it because La Forge kept his veteran leadership group together. I have no doubt he received phone calls and inquiries on the availability of veterans Nolan Volcan, Noah Philp, Jarret Tyszka and Matthew Wedman, but by keeping that group around, he kept strong voices in the room who can lead these younger players. By keeping them, he kept this team's core identity. Combined on the road trip east, those four players accounted for 31 points (12g, 19a).

Early on the recent trip, Seattle got another look into the future when another of last spring's high Bamtam Draft picks, second rounder Conner Roulette, joined the team and played against Brandon. While Roulette didn't register a point, he was quite possibly one of Seattle's most dangerous players on the ice. I particularly liked how well the 15-year old Roulette played with another young T-Bird, 16-year old Jared Davidson. Yes, it's just one game but the future looks bright for the Winnipeg native.

My T-Bird Three Stars for the Eastern Trip:

Third Star: G Roddy Ross. Three starts, three wins. Not a bad way to start off your WHL career. A solid first start in beating Regina. He was at his best against Prince Albert early, making key saves, allowing his team to weather an early barrage, settle down and then get going in the 4-1 win over the #1 ranked team. He followed that up with another solid effort, including stopping two breakaways in Moose Jaw in a 7-2 win over the Warriors.

Second Star: C Matthew Wedman. Weds had a number of big hits early in most of those games, coming out and setting an early, physical tone. He's drawing penalties against the opponents top players. He continues to dominate the face-off circle. After missing the Brandon game while serving out a one game suspension (his absence was certainly felt) he ended the trip with three goals and two assists.

First Star: C Noah Philp. Philp followed up his WHL Player of The Week honors with a terrific second week of January as well. He finished the trip with 14 points (4g, 10a) while playing with brand new linemates in Richards and Rybinski. Centering that line he makes it seem as though they have been together all season. Seattle's power play suffered mightily when he was out of the lineup due to injury. It's starting to come back around, now that he's back.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

That's not the way the Thunderbirds wanted to go into the Christmas break. Seattle had a goal of reaching .500 and being in a playoff position. Unfortunately a winless three game weekend put the kibosh on that. The weekend summed up Seattle's first half woes. Injuries, poor puck management and a, mostly, ineffective power play were some of the culprits in the T-birds going into the break on an 0-2-1-0 skid.

Just when it appeared the team was back to good health, the team promptly lost Noah Philp and Loeden Schaufler to injury. Then, as expected, Ondrej Kukuca departed for Team Slovakia's World Junior Championships training camp. A more seasoned team might be able to overcome those losses. We saw it a few years back on Seattle's run to a WHL title. But this team is very green, the third youngest team in the WHL. The lack of experience among Seattle's depth has been key to their below .500 record. Young players are learning the hard lessons on the fly. What might have worked at the bantam or midget level because of your talent, won't work in the WHL where you're facing the top junior players. In due time the experience being gained through these hard lessons should pay off. Right now, it's called growing pains.

There are bright spots despite the struggles. Seattle's top line is doing what is expected of them. They are carrying the freight offensively for a team that can struggle to score goals. Nolan Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Zack Andrusiak have combined for 96 points (45g, 51a) in 31 games. On a team that allows more goals than it scores, they are a combined +21.

Usually when talking about a team Most Valuable Player, you look at the top scorers. There is certainly a lot of value in offensive production. But when debating who has the most value to the team's success, you can make a convincing argument for Philp. If not the MVP, he might at least be the linchpin between the team's success and failure as they suffer when he's not in the lineup. Having that experienced, second line center creates more consistent secondary scoring and it takes pressure off the bottom six in that forward group that is made up of many first and second year players. There is no question they are a better team when Philp is healthy. His absence affected the effectiveness of Dillon Hamaliuk, who often played on Philp's wing.

Two draft eligible Thunderbirds have made it to the "B" rankings (2nd-3rd round prospects) of the most recent Central Scouting rankings for the upcoming NHL draft. In addition both those players, Jake Lee and Hamaliuk, have been invited to participate in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game slated for Red Deer, Alberta in late January. Meanwhile some of those rookies are starting to shine with a couple of defensemen, Tyrel Bauer and Simon Kubichek, front and center. Because of injuries to veteran blue liners Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch, Seattle was forced to play the 16 year old Bauer in 29 of the first 31 games. I can tell you that was not the plan when the team gathered for training camp in August. Very rarely though, if ever, did you feel Bauer's youth was exposed. The goal scorers get all the headlines but Bauer quietly reached the holiday break with five assists, including two in the final two games, and a +4 rating. There may be no flash or sizzle to his game but if you want a very coachable, rock solid, smart, physical defenseman, Bauer is all that and more.

Meanwhile, Kubicek, who played the first half still a 16 year old (his 17th birthday is December 19th), was most often used along with the 17 year old Lee as the team's number one defensive pairing. Not only is Kubicek adjusting to a smaller ice surface but he's overcoming a language barrier and living in a foreign country, far away from his Czech Republic home. Despite that he reached the break with 14 points (7g, 7a) and a +5 rating. He's in the infancy of his T-bird career and should, like Bauer, only get better.

We are also seeing what a healthy Tyler Carpendale can do. Carpendale was actually with the team through their 2017 postseason championship run, although he didn't play. He was with the team at the Memorial Cup in Windsor as well. Injury cost him all but nine games a season ago and he spent much of the first two months this season on the shelf too. We've been waiting for him to make his mark and it seems, now that he's healthy, he's ready. Knock on wood.

I'm not excusing the team's first half performance, nor am I giving up on this season. While we can look forward to how the younger players develop and how that might affect the team's long term future, players like Volcan, Andrusiak, Wedman, Liam Hughes and Philp aren't concerned with that. They are playing to win today. In some cases, this is their last season in the WHL, possibly a last chance to catch the attention of a pro scout. They want to finish their time here as winners.

You can't restart the season but you can take a step back and reset and go after the second half the way you wanted to go after the first.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Doctor Will See You Now

The old joke during Steve Konowalchuk's six year tenure as Thunderbirds head coach was that he had a complete, healthy roster for all of maybe six games. A bit of an exaggeration but not too far off the truth. To that his replacement, Matt O'Dette says, "Hold my beer." Not one game since taking the job prior to last season has O'Dette had a completely healthy roster. So when we say this past weekend was the T-Birds at their healthiest this season, they are still not 100 percent healthy with Cody Savey out with a lower body issue. And now, after Saturday night, it looks like you can put Loeden Schaufler on that injury report as well.

But with a, for-the-first-time-this-season, mostly healthy lineup this weekend we saw what this team can do. Sure they only got a split of the two games. In fact they've played only.500 hockey their last four games. But the two games just played were six of their most complete periods of hockey this season. They were the better team on the ice both nights, first by large stretches in their 4-1 win over Tri-City Friday in Kennewick and then by a slight margin Saturday in the 2-1 loss to Everett. They put a combined 86 shots on goal. The 44 shots Saturday were more shots against the 'Tips then they had in their first two games against Everett combined (17+26=43). Getting 44 shots on the Everett net in one game is almost unheard of.

There are those who will say, stop using injuries as an excuse, but the facts don't lie. With Jarrett Tyszka, Noah Philp, Payton Mount, Tyler Carpendale and Reece Harsch in and out of the lineup, with Jaxan Kaluski playing almost one-handed, the T-Birds struggled. Too much had to be asked of their young, inexperienced players. With those previously injured players in the lineup together for the first time all season, Seattle showed they can compete with anyone. They were a controversial goal away from earning at least three of four points.

Yes, it was not all rosy this weekend. There are no moral victories. 86 shots over two games should net you more then five goals. They need to finish more of those Grade A chances. Seattle has to get the power play figured out too. We know they're capable. We saw them score an average of five goals a game during an October four-game winning streak. We saw them pot 13 power-play goals over a six game stretch earlier this season. They only have five in their other 21 games.

I checked Seattle Athletic Trainer Phil Varney for any new gray follicles in his beard after Saturday night's game. Varney was diligent in his duty, helping Tyszka recover from his upper body injury and get on the ice for the first time this season. And what does Tyszka do once finally back on the ice? He promptly gets involved a couple of very physical altercations both nights, including a fighting major in the first period of his first game.

Now available for Christmas, a WHL Wheel of Suspensions Dartboard, darts included! I think you can find it on Amazon for $29.95! Free shipping! If you can crack the WHL's player suspension code, please, send me the winning lottery numbers too! Seriously I'm flummoxed by it.

All those players coming back into the lineup are key cogs for Seattle's top lines or top D-pairing. The one player showing his worth that may not get the notice of the others is Carpendale. Since missing nine games he's responded with four points (3g, 1a) and plays the aggressive, physical style that Seattle's coaches preach. In reality he should have four goals. He scored one in the third period Friday in Kennewick. The problem is the referees, the goal judge and the video review judge didn't see the obvious. Injuries have cost him too many games the past two seasons. Here's to hoping he can stay healthy because when on the ice he affects games in Seattle's favor. He could be that quintessential late bloomer, in the Brenden Dillon mode. He may not be on any Central Scouting lists but he should at least be registering a small blip with some NHL scouts.

You be the judge:
69.1 Interference on the Goalkeeper – This rule is based on the premise that an attacking player’s position, whether inside or outside the crease, should not, by itself, determine whether a goal should be allowed or disallowed. In other words, goals scored while attacking players are standing in the crease may, in appropriate circumstances be allowed. Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. The rule will be enforced exclusively in accordance with the on-ice judgement of the Referee(s), but may be subject to a Coach’s Challenge (see Rule 78.7).
For purposes of this rule, “contact,” whether incidental or otherwise, shall mean any contact that is made between or among a goalkeeper and attacking player(s), whether by means of a stick or any part of the body.
The overriding rationale of this rule is that a goalkeeper should have the ability to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player. If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

Italics are mine for emphasis. Do I have a slight bias? Sure, but that looked like interference with the goaltender to me. There are no coach's challenges for interference with the goaltender in the WHL but why not? They have overhead video camera's zeroed in all the goals in all WHL rinks. They have a video review judge at all WHL games. Time to flip the page to 2018.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the week:

Third Star: Got to give it to goalie Cole Schwebius for recording his first WHL win Friday in Kennewick. The only goal he allowed was a PP goal on a redirection. There was nothing too overtly spectacular about his sixty minute winning effort, it was just solid goaltending. He made the necessary saves. He's only played in five games but his numbers, a 2.62 GAA and .915 save percentage, are solid too.

Second Star: C Matthew Wedman. Just everywhere on the ice this past week, earning points, hitting, winning puck battles, causing havoc in front of opposing goalies and dominant in the face-off circle. Even more impressive, He's +11 on a team that has allowed more goals than they've scored and he probably logs more minutes then most of his teammates.

First Star: W Zack Andrusiak. The T-Birds do, at times, struggle to score. They don't have a lot of "natural" goal scorers on the roster. Andrusiak is one of the exceptions. He's a goal scorer and that's what he's been doing lately. Hat tricks in back to back games recently he now has potted 19 on the season, far and away tops on the team. And while we do consider him a "natural" goal scorer with his quick shot, he does put in lots of work to hone that skill.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Baby Steps

I know it may be hard to see or even quantify statistically, but the young T-birds are making progress. Actually, there is some quantifiable evidence as Geoffrey Brandow (follow him on twitter @GeoffreyBrandow), a real junior hockey stats geek if ever there was one, has pointed out that Seattle's rookies are second in the WHL in points produced, trailing only Moose Jaw. Now for a lot of teams those rookie point totals get skewed by Imports, especially a 19 year old Import. That does factor in with the T-birds as 19 year old winger Andrej Kukuca is the team's leading rookie scorer with 17 points. But rookie defenseman Simon Kubicek, Seattle's other Import, is still just 16 and won't be 17 until December 19th, and he is the second leading rookie scorer with 10 points.

Payton Mount has been limited, due to the U-17 tournament and injury, but he has seven points in 14 games. Graeme Bryks and Tyrel Bauer have three points each and both Jared Davidson and Cody Savey have recently earned their first point in the WHL. Six other players classified as rookies, have played for the Thunderbirds this season. I would put money on a few more young players making their WHL regular season debut at some point this season.

The measure of these rookies early on isn't done through the points they earn though, but in their adjustment to a higher level of hockey, a faster and more physical game. It's adjusting to team schemes and systems, something most of these players didn't have to worry about at lower levels. When you see their ice time jump, you know they are progressing. It is a sign the coaches trust them more now then they did at season's beginning. Davidson and Savey are prime examples of that. Their minutes have increased. It hastens their development. They're still going to make rookie mistakes. Their response to those mistakes is key. they have to learn from those errors and correct them. It's a season long process. Remember, these two players weren't even drafted. They were essentially free agents listed by Seattle and brought to training camp, where they earned their spots on the roster. They are now significant pieces of Seattle's future.

Another key piece to Seattle's future was on display this weekend as well. 2018 second round Bantam pick, 15 year old Lucas Ciona, got into his first three WHL games. Physically, Ciona looks nothing like a 15 year old. Listed at 6'2", 193 lbs., I think he's so well conditioned he could play at this age in the WHL. I'm not saying he'd stack up the points but he could stand up to the physical rigors, playing on the third or fourth line. Alas, at age 15 he's only eligible for five games until his midget season concludes. He didn't register a point in those three games but he held his own. The one shift that stood out for me was him on ice Friday against Calgary's 19 year old Mark Kastelic, the league's second leading goal scorer. There was Ciona in a battle with the 6'4" Kastelic along the boards in the Seattle zone, banging away, tying him up and not letting him get off the wall with the puck. He's just a strong kid.

We've already written about the benefits of all the extra ice time rookie d-man Tyrel Bauer is getting in the absence of Jarret Tyszka. When Tyszka is finally cleared to play, and hopefully that's soon, don't expect Bauer to sit often, if at all. He's carved out a spot in Seattle's top six defensive rotation. Despite the struggles to win games recently, Bauer is still +3 on the season. We're barely through November and you almost want to take that "rookie" label off Bauer. You shouldn't. He's still just 16 years old. He's still going to make rookie errors. Once again though, you quicken his development by letting him make and learn from those errors. The T-birds did it with Shea Theodore and Jared Hauf. They did it with Tyszka and they did it with Jake Lee. Three of those are, or are going to be, NHL draft picks. Bauer is in line to follow that same trajectory.

Three has not been a magic number for the T-birds. They just lost three straight, winnable games and in each case the third goal was the "goal too far". It put Seattle in too deep a hole from which they couldn't recover. They didn't quit after those third goals from their opponents, but they couldn't dig out of those multi-goal deficits. I liked the effort in Portland Saturday in the 4-3 loss the best. Here's why. It was their third game in four nights, going up against a rested, healthy opponent that hadn't played in three days. After a struggle to get out of their own end the second half of the first period, they made adjustments and kept it simple the rest of the game. When they appeared to be running out of gas late in the third, they found a final push to make it a one goal game late and they put themselves in position in the final seconds to tie it. It didn't happen but the effort was there.

My T-birds three stars for the week:

Third Star: C Nolan Volcan. Just continues to do Nolan Volcan things, even when not scoring, he's affecting games. If the T-birds young players want to know how to affect games when the puck isn't on your stick, watch Volcan. He's totally engaged in 200 feet of ice. Like Scott Eansor before him, he's that player you don't want to play against because he never takes a shift off.

Second Star: W Zack Andrusiak. Seattle is struggling to score, everyone that is, except Andrusiak who now leads the team with 15 goals following his hat trick Saturday. Goals in six straight games and seven of his last eight. His job is to score goals and that's what he's doing.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. Now the team leader in points with 21 (8g, 13a) with a +7 rating. He's been driving the engine lately. Centering the first line, winning faceoffs, scoring, playing physical and playing in all situations. Seven points in his last six games. If there wasn't a Volcan on this team, I'm guessing he'd be your captain.









Sunday, November 18, 2018

And We're Back.

The Thunderbird offense finally busted out Saturday in a 6-4 win over Portland. The win snapped a seven game winless skid, a streak in which the T-Birds scored just eight goals and no more then two in any game. Prior to Saturday night, the last time Seattle posted a "W" was October 27th, a 5-1 victory over the Vancouver Giants up in Langley.

Maybe the win over Portland shouldn't be too surprising despite the seven game skid. You could see the offense starting to come around the previous two games, both losses to Spokane. Seattle put a combined 73 shots on goal in those two games. They created a dozen scoring opportunities against the Chiefs each night. Just in the third periods alone against Spokane the Thunderbirds had a combined 35 shots on goal, but scored just once. They weren't finishing their chances. They weren't getting to rebounds and scoring greasy goals. Saturday against the Winterhawks, the T-Birds scored three of their six goals off rebounds. Four of the six were scored from inside the "house", that area just outside the crease.

We mention often Seattle's youth and the growing pains associated with a young team. Saturday night against Portland that youth experienced a bit of growth spurt. Down early 2-0, it was Seattle's young corp that sparked the comeback. Sixteen year old rookie Jared Davidson's first WHL goal lit the fuse, getting the T-Birds back in the game by putting back in a rebound. That rebound came off an initial shot from fellow 16-year old rookie, defenseman Tyrel Bauer. The T-Birds tied the game minutes later when 17-year old second year player Sam Huo banged home yet another rebound. This came after an offensive zone face off win by yet another 16-year old rookie, Payton Mount, who earned an assist on the goal. By the way, the night before in the loss in Spokane, another rookie winger, 17-year old Cody Savey earned his first WHL point with a third period assist.

18-year old winger Tyler Carpendale still seems like a rookie. That's because he got into only nine games as a rookie last season before an injury that required surgery sidelined him the rest of the way. An injury sidelined him again early this year and he missed eight games. He returned to the lineup with a vengeance this weekend, recording a goal and an assist in the two games. More importantly he helped set the tempo by playing the "T-Bird way", an aggressive physical brand of hockey. He gave the team energy both nights as he looked to be making up for lost time. On a line with Huo and Mount they seemed to be on the same page all night.

Able to roll four lines allowed Seattle to get their top line players out of a scoring funk. Matthew Wedman picked up three points (2g, 1a) versus Portland. Nolan Volcan earned three assists and put another shot off the crossbar. Andrej Kukuca ended the night with a goal and an assist while Zack Andrusiak completed the weekend with a pair of goals and now has lit the lamp in four of the last five games.

Seven of the eight goals scored by the T-Birds this weekend were even strength. The eighth one was scored shorthanded. Seattle still hasn't got their power play back on track and are mired in a 1-41 stretch with the man advantage. Injuries have affected the power play as Seattle has lost Noah Philp and now Reece Harsch and as of yet hasn't had Jarret Tyszka in the lineup. Still, they are creating chances. Too many shots lately are missing the net, which I think is a sign of guys pressing. But better traffic around the net could help. They need to take the goalies eyes away.

Hockey is a funny game. Goalie Liam Hughes was probably better in most of the losses during the losing streak then he was in Saturday night's win. A couple early shots got behind him, shots he usually stops. Great to see the offense pick him up. I will say there are lots of goalies who'd kill to have a 51 save effort on an "off night" like Hughes had. In the end he did what goalies are asked to do, give your team a chance to win.

No team wants to experience a seven game winless streak. It's very hard to make up lost ground. Despite that, when it was over, the T-Birds find themselves only a game below .500 with lots of hockey ahead of them.

With the return of Mount from the U-17 Challenge and Carpendale back from injury, Seattle coaches have cobbled together line combinations that look like they can get them through the absence of Philp. You want to be productive up and down the lineup so opposing team's can't focus on just shutting down your top line. The task is to get Saturday's effort each night. If you can get offense from the third and fourth lines more consistently, opponents have to game plan for that. The first test will come this Wednesday against Vancouver.

Maybe it was just me but for the first three weeks of the season Sam Huo looked lost. He just didn't seem like the same player who had such a solid rookie campaign. Then head coach Matt O'Dette moved Huo off the wing and inserted him at center. Since then Huo has been a different player. Centering the third or second line has put him closer to the front of the net. It's given him more responsibility, especially in the defensive zone. Maybe it forced him to concentrate more or maybe it's taking better advantage of his skill set. Doesn't seem like that big of a move, but it may have saved his season. Confidence is hard to quantify, but Huo seems like a much more confident player then he did through much of October. Scoring three goals will help that. Tip of the cap to O'Dette and his staff for watching the video and putting a player in a better situation for success.

Seattle's two wins this season against Portland have come without their two oldest defensemen, Tyszka and Harsch, in the lineup. With both those players sidelined they beat Portland opening night, 5-3. They did it again Saturday night. Seattle has potted 13 goals in three games against the Winterhawks, outscoring them 13-9 in the season series. Tyszka heads to Montreal this week to get a checkup on his injury from the Canadiens medical staff. The T-Birds hope when he returns, he's a step closer to returning to the lineup. The biggest beneficiary of the Tyszka/Harsch absence has been Bauer. Did anyone notice the young Canmore, Alberta native ended the weekend with a +3 rating?

My T-Virds three stars for the week:

Third star: C/W Jared Davidson. It wasn't just that he recorded his first WHL goal this weekend. It was the timeliness of the goal. Seattle, in the midst of a seven game skid had just surrendered two early goals to Portland. The T-Birds were in a fragile situation. They could have hung their heads and wilted. Davidson's goal got them back in the game. It gave them back their mojo. It put them back on their toes instead of on their heels. The undrafted Davidson was the surprise of training camp, making the regular season roster when most pundits didn't see that coming. Just you watch, that first goal will be the first of many in his T-Bird career. He reminds me a bit of Greg Scott, another undrafted player who had a pretty good career with Seattle. Only Scott didn't make the roster until he was 17.

Second Star: W Zack Andrusiak. For Seattle to win consistently, they need Andrusiak to score consistently. He was their leading goal scorer a year ago. He now leads the team in goal scoring again this season with 10, including four in his last five games. His breakaway goal in the third period Saturday essentially iced the win over Portland. Goal scorers are usually streaky. Lets hope Andrusiak is in a hot streak that continues this coming week. He can play up and down the lineup which helps spread the offense.

First Star: C/W Jaxan Kaluksi. Very quietly Kaluski has been Seattle's best player the past week. It may not put his name on the scoresheet a lot, he had two assists in the three games, but his work rate is off the charts. He's also found some chemistry with Andrusiak on the second line. He's showed his versatility playing both center and wing. He's a tremendous penalty killer. Twice Friday in Spokane he stripped the puck away from the Chiefs best player, and a #1 NHL draft pick, defenseman Ty Smith, while the T-Birds were shorthanded. The first time he did it, it led to a shorthanded Andrusiak goal. His presence is most obvious winning puck battles in the corners. There is a reason he now wears an "A" on his jersey. The coaches trust him, very much in the vein of a Nolan Volcan.
















Sunday, November 11, 2018

Depth-theria

A few years back, when the Thunderbirds would lose a Scott Eansor to injury they had an Alexander True they could move up from the third line to center the second line. When Keegan Kolesar would miss time on the first line with an injury, they could plug in that spot with a Donovan Neuls. Right now, as the team goes through some injuries to top nine forwards, they don't have a True or Neuls to fill that void. Now, they may have a future True type, or a Neuls-in-training somewhere on the roster, but they are younger players, rookies. They haven't gotten the seasoning yet that True and Neuls got behind older players. When True and Neuls were 17 year olds, WHL veterans like Jamien Yakobowksi and Sam McKechnie were on board to help get them through the growing pains. In other words, the T-birds had more experienced depth back then.

So, why should this season be any different? Well back then Seattle had a veteran roster, nearly top to bottom, that would eventually lead them to two conference championships and a league title. As well, their younger players were named Barzal, Gropp, Bear and Kolesar. You can look at most WHL rosters and see an asterisk by any player deemed a rookie. Now some of those asterisks go by the names of import players who are 18 or 19 years old. Technically they're rookies but in reality are older players. Seattle's own Andrej Kukuca falls into that category. But I categorize most "true" rookies in the league as 16 and 17 years olds with no or limited WHL games under their belts.

The T-birds currently have nine such players on the roster. 16 year old rookie Payton Mount is an exception because the former first round bantam pick is further along in his development that he is a top nine forward. Of course, he's currently away representing Canada at the U-17 tournament. He's also the exception, not the rule. The other eight are the players the T-birds are plugging into spots in the lineup when older players are going out. Players still developing their games to fit in the WHL.

The best case scenario would be to let those players develop their games by rotating in on the fourth line, or in the case of a blue liner, either as a seventh defenseman or on the third d-pairing. They'd be healthy scratches some nights and getting a lot of their work in during practice. But injuries have scuttled those plans. With Noah Philp out, Seattle has had to move 2nd year forward, 17 year old Sam Huo up to the second line. He's been given significant power play minutes as well to fill the void left by the injury to Philp. The domino affect is that rookie Graeme Bryks moves from the fourth to the third line and 16 year old rookie Jared Davidson now centers the fourth line.

It means acquiring Brecan Wood from Moose Jaw to create more competition for minutes. While Wood is 18 years old he was used sparingly by the Warriors, in fact when Seattle acquired him he was playing in the AJHL with the Spruce Grove Saints. So he comes to Seattle and immediately starts getting more minutes in a new system. Of course this all happens with Tyler Carpendale, another top nine forward, sidelined with injury and Mount away at U-17. It is essentially like having to replace your third line with rookies and new acquisitions. Oh, and you're probably going to have to do it against what could be argued is the best division in the league, the U.S. Division.

And we haven't even touched on the defensemen group that is currently employing three 16 year olds and has only one player over the age of 19 currently skating. All this while their most experience d-man, and the only NHL drafted player currently on the roster Jarret Tyszka, continues to sit out with injury. He hasn't played a single minute yet this season.

When Seattle was relatively healthy and everybody was in their right spot in the pecking order, they went 6-2-2-0. When the injuries and subsequent line juggling cropped up they went 1-6. That's the difference between a more experienced bottom six forward group with a more seasoned blue line and one like Seattle has right now, very, very green. It's also the nature of the beast. The WHL is cyclical. Seattle is still coming down from their championship run.

The roster has almost completely turned over from May 2017. Only four players with significant roles remain from the Chynoweth Cup winning team. One (Tyszka) is out with injury, another (Zack Andrusiak) was a 4th line winger that season. Reece Harsch was a rookie on the third D-pairing and Nolan Volcan was an 18 year old third line player. Players move through the WHL pretty quickly and rosters turn over every three years.

Now the T-birds also have a bit of a whole in their 2000 and 2001 age group. After a season and a half with the team, Seattle traded the disgruntled 18 year old Elijah Brown to Medicine Hat last season. He was the team's 2016 first round draft pick. They got a couple of high draft picks in return, including a second round pick they used last spring, a selection they used on Conner Roulette. Roulette, a player who has shown terrific offensive ability at lower levels, is signed but at 15 years old is not yet eligible for full-time duty in the WHL.

The second round selection that spring was goalie Carl Stankowski. Stankowski was a significant piece to the 2017 championship run but his health and injury situation has been well documented and he was traded to Calgary this past summer so he could deal with that closer to home. In return Seattle got future considerations. The T-birds third round selection that year, forward Conner Pyne signed but didn't work out. Still, Seattle acquired d-man Loeden Schauffler from Kootenay earlier this season and Schauffler was taken just a few picks after Pyne, so you could argue the T-birds recouped that pick.

The T-birds didn't have a 4th round pick and their fifth round selection, Kabir Gil, opted for the NCAA route but they did get Dillon Hamaliuk in round six along with Carpendale. Seventh rounder Tyson Terretta played a season and a half with the team before deciding to leave hockey behind after an injury plagued career. It was a fairly decent draft but unfortunately the top of the draft, for very different reasons, didn't work out long term as T-birds

In the spring of 2016 Seattle had four picks in the first three rounds but nothing after that until round eight (they did trade back into round six but traded the rights to that player, Nakdodan Greyeyes, to Saskatoon for a future draft pick). Remember, to supplement their rosters for their playoff runs leading up to that championship season, Seattle traded away some draft capital, getting back players like Bow, Leth, Schumacher, Adams, Toth and Hyman and before that Jakabowski, McKechnie, Henry and Maxwell.

Meanwhile, with their 2016 first round choice they selected defenseman Jake Lee. Lee is already in his second season with the club and is listed currently as a "C" skater by NHL Central Scouting for the upcoming NHL Draft. When you don't have 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th round picks, picks traded away to build up your team for three playoff runs that led you to a league title, you probably want to hit home runs with those other high picks.

In Round Two Seattle chose a power forward type player in Eric Fawkes. In Round Three, with two picks Seattle opted for forward Alex Swetlikoff and defenseman Layton Ahac. Seattle went after the top talent available. But a selection in the draft is no guarantee, instead it just gives you exclusive WHL recruiting rights to that player. In the case of Fawkes, Swetlikoff and Ahac they all ended up verbally committed to NCAA programs. Sometimes you swing for the fences and hit a home run, other times you strike out. And before you think this is a "Seattle thing", look at some recent WHL drafts and you will see a number of teams who've lost high picks to NCAA programs. As they say, it is better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all.

Seattle did get Graeme Bryks and Cole Schwebius in later rounds in that draft, and then signed some solid list players who went undrafted that year including Sam Huo, Eric Ward, Cade McNelly and Cody Savey so the cupboard is not bare. They also traded Fawkes' rights to Kootenay for Schaufler and future picks. As well, they traded the rights of Swetlikoff to Lethbridge. You can't get back a 2016 draft pick. There is no flux capacitor or DeLorean time machine. No use looking back, you look forward at what you can control, that which is in front of you.

In the 2017 draft they grabbed Mount along with defensemen Tyrel Bauer and Luke Bateman with a few others still on their list. They signed a couple of promising undrafted players in Davidson and Matthew Rempe. Seattle has signed all but two of their selections from last spring's draft. Those signed players include a first rounder, two seconds and a third. They drafted and signed a local player, Mekai Sanders in the ninth round, a player they believe would have gone in the second or third round if he was better known in hockey circles. Currently Seattle has a first and two second round picks, and potentially two third rounders, in next spring's draft. That extra second rounder comes from Regina and should end up being at the top of round two.

So the reload has begun. That's down the road though. Right now the team has to fight their way out of this current scoring rut and five game losing streak. Younger players have to get more comfortable with unexpectedly bigger roles. Veteran players have to get back to where they were just a scant few weeks ago.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star: C Nolan Volcan. Yes, I know he hasn't scored a goal in nine games but he's still out there busting his butt every shift. He's probably more frustrated then anyone else on the team right now. I'm sure he knows he's missed a good 10-12 scoring chances over this five game stretch. And I still believe he's due to go on a scoring binge.

Second Star: D Owen Williams. If one player has stepped up his game in this stretch, I think its Williams. I'm just noticing him more out on the ice, and for the good things he's doing. Without Tyszka they needed someone to fill that void and Williams is looking more and more confident.

First Star: The goaltending. Seattle is not getting blown out over this stretch, games are probably closer because of the goaltending of Liam Hughes and Cole Schwebius. There have been moments in a few of these losses where Seattle could have gotten run out of the building. The goalies have not allowed that to happen.






Sunday, October 28, 2018

A Yo Yo Weekend

From the deep valley of their 7-2 home loss to Kamloops Friday to their high climbing 5-1 win Saturday in Langley over the Giants, it was an up and down weekend for the Thunderbirds as they head towards the end of October.

There's no sugar coating the five goal loss to the Blazers at the accesso ShoWare Center. Seattle put together another early two-goal lead then promptly surrendered seven unanswered for their first regulation home loss of the season. After killing off an early four minute Kamloops power play, that included a two-man advantage 1:41 in length, Seattle got their own chance to skate 5-on-3. They quickly scored twice before the game was 10 minutes old. It sounds strange to say but that might have been the worst thing to happen for the T-Birds. I think they got overconfident, not to the point they were cocky, but they seemed to be feeling good about themselves. It was if they said "They can't score on us with a two-man advantage, how are they going to score against us even strength?" And of course Kamloops did just exactly that seven times over the next 50-minutes.

Seattle just got too complacent and were too casual with the puck, especially in the defensive zone. It appeared they were coasting into plays rather then skating into them. They didn't bear down on scoring opportunities. More importantly they left their physical play in the tool box and got outworked for every puck.

No doubt the players got an earful from the coaches after the game and before the next on Saturday against Vancouver. Those speeches aren't often what you might imagine them to be. They are not fire and brimstone admonishments or undressing of a player or players. They are blunt reminders of what it takes to compete and win at this level. No matter what was said or how it was delivered, the message registered as the T-Birds put together a strong road effort in Langley for a the 5-1 win. How the win happened is the way you would expect it to unfold. With older players, the team leaders, showing the way. Nolan Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Liam Hughes were those leaders on Saturday.

Wedman is quietly averaging just over a point a game with 14 (5g, 9a) through the first 12 games. He's a big body, power forward type so it was no surprise both his goals against the Giants came from within five feet of the goal. More impressively, Weds is leading the team in plus/mimus at +11. He is winning 56 percent of his faceoffs as well. Volcan also sits at 14 points on the season and I contend he hasn't hit his offensive stride yet this season. I just think he still has a big offensive surge coming. He only has four goals so far. They're going to come. In the meantime he continues to play a 200 foot game. The T-Birds have killed off 19 straight power plays and no question he is probably their best penalty killer.

The six goals he allowed Friday before being pulled versus Kamloops weren't all his fault but it still wasn't his best game. So Saturday goalie Liam Hughes was looking for a bounce back effort. Boy did he get it with a 41 save performance against the Giants. His best work came in a 16 save third period, with Seattle down to five defenseman, taking too many penalties and back on their heels a bit as Vancouver tried to eat into the T-Birds three goal lead. They kept firing pucks at him, he kept kicking them out.

Some coaching decision sometimes sneak in under the radar, but the move by Matt O'Dette to have Sam Huo center the third line, rather then play the wing, paid off in a big way. Huo got is first goal of the season, a game winner at that, and I think playing center helped him focus on his responsibilities at both ends of the ice. Hopefully the fire has been lit for Huo after a slow start.

After Sami Moilanen opted to stay in Finland this season and play professionally, the T-Birds needed to fill the skates of a player who would have been penciled in for a potential 30-goal season. So, in the CHL Import Draft they took Andrej Kukuca with their first of two picks. Kukuca had been a prolific scorer back in his native Slovakia. The question was whether that would translate to the WHL. He did lead the T-Birds in scoring during the preseason but then got off to a slow start once the regular season started, going without a point in the first two games. He seems to have adjusted though, as he now sits tied for second on the team in scoring. He has 15 points in the last ten games (4g, 11a) with a +4 rating.

Just a reminder that defenseman Tyrel Bauer is still just a 16-year old rookie, probably not slated to see so much ice time at this point of his young T-Bird career. But pressed into heavy duty with injuries to the two 19-year old d-men, Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch, he's holding his own. Bauer has played regular minutes in all 12 games and there he was on the ice in the third period versus Vancouver, killing off penalties, helping protect that late lead. He may only have one assist, but he's +2. He's still a work in progress but he's getting ahead of the learning curve. Where is the 2020 NHL Draft? You might want to book a seat there. Good chance he and is T-Bird teammate Simon Kubicek have their name called. At the very least both are on the right path.


My three T-Bird Stars for the Saturday game in Langley (because, well you saw that game Friday against Kamloops didn't you?)


Third Star: Nolan Volcan. The captain doesn't have to score a goal to affect the outcome of a game. Big part of Seattle killing off six Vancouver power plays. He always seems to make a point of finishing his checks. I know this because I can hear them up in the broadcast booth. Volcan body checks have a certain sound to them...loud. And he chipped in with two assists.

Second Star: C Matthew Wedman. Scored twice and could have had more. The reason? He always goes to the front of the net. Also key on the penalty kill. One thing about that loss Friday to Kamloops; when he left the ice in the second period after being on the receiving end of a big open ice hit, Seattle was up 2-1. When he returned late in the second, Seattle was down, 3-2.

First Star: G Liam Hughes. Oh-so-close to that elusive first T-Birds shutout. Still turned aside 41 of 42 shots. Probably sad to see that Seattle has no more games in Langley this season. In two starts there he is is 2-0 with a 1.00 GAA and a save percentage of .972!