Sunday, December 8, 2019

Fresh Ice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

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

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

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

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Pressure Campaign

Saturday night in Everett was the T-Birds at their very best. Minus a sluggish start and an initial power play that couldn't get out of its own way, it was 60 minutes of hockey played the T-Birds way. Get pucks in deep, attack on the forecheck and force the opponents to play much of the game in their own end. At the other end, keep shots to the outside and get in to passing lanes or sellout to block as many shots as possible. Then add in a strong dose of solid goaltending and exceptional penalty killing. Doing that, Seattle, by the third period, had worn down their opponent. That effort might seem manic, but that is by design. Just keep putting constant pressure on the puck. That's the T-Birds way.

Seattle had a poor first shift. As a result, the Silvertips scored just 65-seconds into the game. On the road, before a hostile crowd it could have been the first ingredient for a recipe to disaster. Seattle didn't buckle though. They wobbled but stayed upright. Andrej Kukuca made a terrific read on a poor Everett cross-ice pass at the Seattle blue line. He stole the puck and raced up ice on a 2-on-1 one rush with Conner Roulette. He then unleashed a beauty of a shot that tied the game, 1-1, three minutes into the game.

If that wasn't the turning point then the T-Birds two penalty kills in the first period were. Everett entered the game tops in the league with the man advantage, clicking at just under 26%. They were 10-for-24 on the power play over their last six games. Led by Roddy Ross between the pipes, Seattle silenced the 'Tips power play. Henrik Rybinski and Brendan Williamson were two of Seattle's best penalty killers all night, but it was a total team effort in that regard. The first period PK denied Everett the chance to get momentum on their side. The same was true in the second period when the Silvertips were awarded three straight power plays over the last seven minutes. One goal against in that situation could have been enough to put Seattle too far behind the eight ball. We talk often about gaining momentum off your power play, but the same is true of your penalty kill. Seattle's successful kills energized the entire team.

Greasy goals. We hear that expression all the time. They are effort goals, never-quit-on-the-puck goals. They are funnel-pucks-to-the-net-and-bang-away-until-you-hear-the-whistle goals. And they are game winning goals as was the case Saturday. The T-Birds dominated the third period by putting everything they could on net. If the shot was saved, they just did it again. Do it enough and eventually it will lead to a rebound or deflection that gives you a second or third chance opportunity. That describes the T-Birds game winner. Owen Williams just flung a puck on net. After a couple of rebounds by Rybinski and Roulette clanked off the post, Keltie Jeri-Leon finally tucked it home.

In two games in Everett this season the T-Birds have outshot the Silvertips 73-58. In the third period of those two games the shots favor Seattle 33-14. Seattle only has one goal to show for it, but that might have something to do with the quality of the opposing goalie. It's no reason to stop shooting. Meanwhile, over the course of those two road games against their division rival, Seattle and Ross have allowed just two goals against, and one of those came in overtime. Over his last four road starts in Everett, dating back to last February 22nd, Ross has a 1.20 goals against average, a .964 save percentage, stopping 135 of 140 shots while posting a 2-0-2-0 record.

Over their last four games Seattle has allowed just 10 goals against with one of those being an empty netter. So really it has been 3, 2, 3 and 1 goal allowed in those games. This four game stretch comes after a game in which the T-Birds surrendered 10 goals in one game up in Kamloops. The better team defense coincides with the return to the lineup of captain Matthew Wedman, from a four-game suspension, and defenseman Cade McNelly, off an 18-game injury. The past four games has seen the T-Birds roster at it's healthiest and most complete. For a young roster, missing key players from the lineup matters.

Saturday night was also a fourth straight game where the T-Birds young rookies played like anything but rookies, as Seattle got consistent play from that group once again. Williamson, Roulette, Matt Rempe, Lucas Ciona and Kai Uchacz are carving out roles but most importantly, they are playing the T-Bird way. You don't have to end up on the scoresheet to affect games and Ciona and Rempe, with their physical style, exemplify that.

More important was the effort of Seattle's veteran core group. They too, after collectively having an off night Wednesday, got back to playing T-Birds hockey. Kukuca and Jeri-Leon had the goals but Wedman, Rybinski, Ryan Gottfried and Conner Bruggen-Cate were all noticeable for the right reasons. And did anyone have a better game than d-man Williams? He came to Seattle a few years ago from Regina with the reputation as an offensive-minded defenseman, but his d-zone play has been outstanding, especially over this four game stretch.

As you read this another T-Bird rookie, 16-year old Mekai Sanders, is probably on the ice skating once again after a two month layoff due to a lower body injury. Soon he'll be cleared to play. Another piece of the future, but also for the present, ready to get into the fight for ice time.

My T-Birds Three Stars for Thanksgiving Week:

Third Star: C Matt Rempe. Rempe scored his second goal of the season Wednesday in the loss at home to Victoria and he did it from his knees. What kind of goal was it? A greasy goal, banging away at a loose puck in the crease. Meanwhile the 17-year old rookie is showing his value in the face off circle as well, winning 45 percent of his faceoffs. His physical style fits well in the T-Birds brand of play. Got into his first WHL scrap, but it wasn't a fair fight. He got jumped from behind after delivering a clean, monster hit. If I was gonna pick a fight with a guy 6'8", I probably wouldn't want to attack him face on either.

Second Star: D Owen Williams. He was on the ice for a great deal of the third period Saturday in Everett, expending a lot of energy. Yet, he still had enough gas in the tank to continue to win his puck battles, especially in the D-zone. He also knocked down a couple of Everett clearing attempts, extending Seattle's O-zone time and of course, he set up the game winning goal.

First Star: Goalie Roddy Ross. Ross stopped 62 of 66 shots over the course of two games. As you can see by the numbers posted above, he loves playing at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. His record would be much better then the current 7-9-2-1 if he had more offensive support in front of him. He was Seattle's best penalty killer Saturday against the Silvertips helping the T-Birds kill off all five Everett power plays.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Page Turned?

Wednesday's loss to Victoria was a frustrating game for Seattle. Why? It was a game that screamed out, "follow the game plan and you can win". But because they didn't follow up their two, well played, games on the weekend with another, they were saddled with a loss. Somewhere between Saturday night's win over Saskatoon and the Victoria loss, they got off the rails a bit.

They were really never out of the game. Once again, outside the late empty-netter, they played a third straight one goal game in which they surrendered just three goals against. Once again though, the offense got stuck at two goals. The breakouts weren't crisp, the passing was off and there were other puck management issues. And, according to head coach Matt O'Dette's postgame comments, some players tried to do too much individually. Some of those issues were from older players. Let's hope they get it back going into the weekend. Coaches always say they will live with the results if you put forth your best effort. Straying from the game plan is not your best effort. As young as this team is they still need their veteran players doing well to succeed.

That being said, something has been brewing with those young players recently. On occasion we've seen one rookie have a good game on a Friday, only to fall off on Saturday while a different rookie, who didn't show up the game before, steps up and delivers. We just haven't seen them collectively all have solid games at the same time and do it in back-to-back games. Going back to that 3-2 loss last Friday against Kelowna though it was hard not to notice, that as a group, those young rookie forwards all started to impact games together for three successive contests.

The obvious ones show up in the box score with goals from Matt Rempe and Kai Uchacz. Since returning from the U-17 Tournament, Uchacz has been a different player then he was the first month of the season. He looks more like they guy we saw over five games late last season. He's playing physical and hustling to engage in battles for pucks.

Rempe has been that way almost from his first shift after missing 15 games due to injury. He's learning each game how to utilize his 6'8" frame to his advantage. Both players are performing well in the faceoff circle which is important because they are your third and fourth line centers. Like Uchacz, Conner Roulette is back from the U-17s, as well as a minor injury, and while he hasn't scored a goal since his return, the chances are coming, mostly off his own creation. Meanwhile Lucas Ciona, who also missed time with an injury, has come back into the lineup and picked up where he left off. He and fellow rookie Brendan Williamson have earned their time on the penalty kill because they have gained the trust of the coaching staff to be put out on the ice in that situation.

Those five rookie forwards weren't a liability in the lineup the last three games. Together they were assets. Wednesday night, representing the bottom six forward group, they may have been the best "effort" players on the ice for Seattle over the course of the game. We are a third of the way into the season and it might just be that this group has turned the corner in their rookie season. Let's see how they continue to play over the next month going into the Christmas break, but if the last three games are a barometer, then the decision to keep all five on the roster was the right one. They are getting ahead of the curve. For lack of a better description, they are playing comfortably, as though they have mentally made the adjustment to now being full time WHL players. The results may not consistently be in the win column but if we continue to see the growth from that group that I saw this past week, collectively they'll come out of the season the better for it.

The fact that their better, more consistent play coincides with most of them returning to the lineup at the same time, whether from a tournament or an injury, is also telling. Now that almost everybody is available, there is competition for ice time. No one wants to be a healthy scratch. Their job is to make that game-by-game roster decision a tough one for the coaches. This young group knows they have to practice well and play hard to earn their spot in the lineup on game night. But you know who also knows? The veterans. If they're not careful, some of these younger players may just pass them by.

Hopefully that competition for a spot in the lineup is going to sharpen them. A healthy roster means nothing will be handed to them. In a few weeks, that competition will get stiffer, once another rookie, Mekai Sanders is cleared to play. It should push a second year player like center Jared Davidson too. As they compete and play together and (knock on wood) stay healthy, we'll get to see this group, that also includes second year player Payton Mount, grow together. When you add in a couple of players who have come up to play a few games and looked solid doing it, in Sam Popowich and Reid Schaefer, that's a group of 10 forwards, age 17 and 16, who within two seasons will make up your top three forward lines. While you are pondering that, ponder this. The T-birds first round pick last spring, Jordan Gustafson, is also a forward.

Watch these guys as they play together the rest of this season because over the next four years you are going to see a lot of them.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The "I"s Have It

Inexperience plus injuries equals inconsistency. It's a simple formula and it has defined the first two month of the Thunderbirds season. We knew last May at the Bantam Draft that the T-birds were going to be demonstrably younger this season. That's when Seattle traded away 263 games and five years worth of WHL experience to Kelowna in exchange for two first and one second round draft pick. In late August we knew they were going to be even younger still when 20 year old defenseman Jarret Tyszka, and his 213 games in the league, opted to forego his fifth and final season in the WHL. Of course Seattle also lost a combined nine plus seasons and 580 games because Nolan Volcan and Noah Philp graduated out of the program.

The question wasn't whether they were going to be a young team this season. We knew the answer to that question six months ago. It was just how young would they actually be? Well, 11 of the players who have suited up for the team this season, or approximately half the roster, had a combined 17 games of WHL experience coming into the season. Twelve of those 17 games belonged to three of those 11 players, meaning the other five games were divided among eight players which works out to .625 games of experience per player. This is a pretty green team.

A season ago Seattle carried at times, what the WHL classified as nine rookie players, but two of those were a then 18 year old goalie named Roddy Ross, who came on the second half of the season after the trade of Liam Hughes, and 18 year forward Graeme Bryks. Seventeen year old Cody Savey was another of those rookies but he was injured most of the season and only got into 18 games. 17 year old rookie goalie Cole Schwebius was the backup to, first Hughes and then, Ross. 17 year old defenseman Zach Ashton, like Ross, joined the team via trade at the halfway point. Heck, even then 19 year old Import Andrej Kukuca was considered a rookie by WHL standards because it was his first year in the league. In reality though, the T-birds had a core group a season ago of five rookies: 16 year olds Payton Mount, Ty Bauer and Jared Davidson and 17 year olds Simon Kubicek and Cade McNelly and Kubicek and McNelly with late birthdays, didn't hit 17 until well after the season started. Because they had a smaller rookie group Matt O'Dette was able to give that group consistent ice time. They were rarely not in the lineup.

Fast forward to this season and the T-birds have had only one "older" rookie, 18 year old Michael Horon and he has since been traded to Prince Albert. The rest of this year's group are 16 and 17 year old first year players. It includes three affiliated players, one a 15 year old and two 16 year olds, that they've had to put into the lineup for a combined 10 games due to injuries, suspensions and tournaments. Even subtracting those four player from the group Seattle still has eight rookies on the roster and they all need ice time. What complicates it further is that six of those eight are forwards. Four of those six forwards are 16 year olds. By league rule 16 year olds must play a certain percentage of games or they must be reassigned to either Junior A or Midget level teams. In order to get those four into the required number of games, O'Dette and his staff have to rotate players in and out of the lineup. That rotation will be further complicated once 16 year old winger Mekai Sanders is healthy enough to make his debut in a couple of weeks.

Why carry so many rookies? Well, GM Bil LaForge told me if you're good enough to play at this level at 16, you'll be here because he believes it's better for the hockey development of those players. Every shift at this level is a brand of experience that can't be duplicated down a level. They are practicing every day against WHL players and those practices get them further engrossed in the T-birds systems. It's also a quicker acclimation to the grind of the 68-game WHL season. More importantly it develops a bond among that group that will be important when they are the core group of this team in two and three years. The Barzal-Bear-Kolesar-True-Eansor-Ottenbreit group didn't become champions overnight. They played, worked and lived together for three seasons before reaching the pinnacle of WHL success. I'm not saying this current young group is destined to follow in their footsteps and raise a banner, but that's the goal and if the formula worked before, it can work again.

But it tells you that right now, today, Seattle has a very young bottom six forward group. Not that their top six is very veteran laden as, outside the three 20 year olds, the T-birds only have one healthy 19 year old winger (Keltie Jeri-Leon) and two 18 year olds (Henrik Rybinski and Alex Morozoff). And I don't care how talented or how huge the upside of those young forwards might be, they are still teenage rookies. They are still maturing physically. There is a significant difference physically between a 16 year old teenager and a 20 year old man. Look no further then the T-birds captain, Wedman. Remember him at age 16? He was a gangly, all arms and legs, 6'1," and 175 lbs. Now, at age 20 he is 6'3", 210 lbs and one of the strongest player in the WHL. At 16 you could probably knock him off his skates with a feather. At age 20 he's a brick wall.

It takes time to develop these players. That is why they call the WHL a development league. You're not just developing their hockey skills but developing them physically as well, by teaching them proper workout and nutrition habits. Assistant coach Kyle Hagel isn't just helping them with the Xs and Os of the game. He's in the gym supervising their workouts. He's helping them put together a diet plan. But their youth is why this team, consisting of 11 players age 17 and younger, can occasionally get knocked around the ice by a team laden with nine to ten players age 19 and older as was the case Wednesday in Kamloops against a team featuring nine players in that older age group. It's why this young team can outplay an older team for most of 60 minutes like they did against Kelowna Friday night and still lose, 3-2. Who set up that win for the Rockets? 19 year old first and second round NHL draft picks. Experience matters in the WHL.

Which brings us to the second "I", injuries. Yeah, yeah, I can hear it now, stop using injuries as an excuse. It's not an excuse, it is a fact of life in the world of sports at all levels. And the fact of the matter is, through the first 22 games of the season injuries, suspensions and NHL training camp have cost the T-birds 26 game and counting just in their veteran forward group alone.

Out of sight sometimes means out of mind. We forget the T-birds have played the first two months of the season and will play quite a bit more without 19 year old winger Tyler Carpendale. Carpendale was injured in the Everett preseason tournament and has not played since. He was penciled in to be a top six forward, probably a top three. You might look at at his career numbers and wonder why the T-birds believe he is such a missing piece from their lineup. In 81 career games he has 27 points (9g, 18a). But one more 19 year old forward in the lineup means one less rookie is relied on to eat up minutes. Carpendale is also a strong, physical presence. he is willing to go to the net. And age 19 is when players usually have a breakout season. Injuries have plagued Carpendale's T-birds career but when he is in the lineup, it's a plus for the T-birds.

A short term injury to Ty Bauer and a long term injury to Cade McNelly, severely hampered an already young defensive group. It also forced Seattle to make a couple of early season trades just to bring in a couple of players to fill the void. It meant they had to spend some draft/prospect capital they weren't planning to spend. With that group healthy on the weekend for the first time since the second game of the season, the T-birds surrendered just five goals over two games.

And long term injuries have hampered or delayed the development of a couple of rookies. Matt Rempe missed 15 games while Sanders is still waiting to get on the ice. Recent injuries and invites to the U-17 Tournament meant Seattle had to bring in more youth to fill the void in the absence of Conner Roulette, Kai Uchacz and Lucas Ciona. In all the T-birds have lost well over 70 man games to injuries this season. It all adds up to an inconsistent level of play and a 7-12-2-1 record through 22 games.

My T-bird Three Stars for the week, a busy stretch of four games in five nights:

Third Star: W Brendan Williamson. He may not be piling up points with just three assists in 20 games on the year, but he is starting to remind me of Scott Eansor with the way he hustles from end to end. He is becoming the team's best penalty killer. Love how he gets pucks in deep and gets right on the forecheck. Robbed of his first goal Friday against Kelowna you get a feeling that first one is coming.

Second Star: W Keltie Jeri-Leon. With four goals in his last seven games, he now has the goal scoring lead on the team with eight in 22 games. That equals his goal total from a season ago when he potted eight in 74 games between the T-birds and Lethbridge. What I like best about his game right now is that he is putting the puck on net every chance he gets, no hesitation. Can't score if you don't shoot. A lesson some of his teammates need to follow.

First Star: F Conner Bruggen-Cate. The 20 year old stepped up in the absence of the suspended Wedman to deliver leadership and four points on a goal and three assists, playing in all situations. After a slow star he now has points in six of his last seven games. He plays with grit, never does anything but hustle, providing an example to the young players of the right way to play.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Weekend Worth Watching

The Thunderbirds played just one game this weekend, but it was an important game. They came into Saturday night's contest against Portland looking to snap a four game losing streak. They were looking for their first win against a U.S. Division opponent. They were looking for some veterans to step up in the absence of suspended captain Matthew Wedman and they played the game with the youngest T-birds roster in recent memory. With injuries and suspensions, Seattle put the future on full display. When it was over, the T-birds had their win and everyone was putting on sunglasses because the future's so bright, we gotta wear shades.

For sure, older players like Conner Bruggen-Cate and Keltie Jeri-Leon figured prominently in the 5-4 shootout win. The 20 year old Bruggen-Cate in particular seemed to take on the need for leadership in Wedman's absence. He was the seasoned vet leading by example all night. He hustled from end to end. delivered hits, took some hits to win pucks and tried putting everything he could on net. The 19 year old Jeri-Leon meanwhile has, almost quietly, put himself in a three way tie for the goal scoring lead, after potting his sixth of the season. For a team struggling to score, the question going into this game was where would the offense come with Wedman, their leading scorer, sidelined? These two stepped up and delivered.

On the back end, 19 year old defenseman Owen Williams logged a lot of minutes on a defensive group made younger by the absence of the injured Ryan Gottfried. Remember, back before training camp began, Seattle thought they would have that steady veteran presence on the blue line in the form of 20 year old Jarret Tyszka. But Tyszka surprised everyone by opting not to come back this season. That left Williams as the senior leader of a group that outside of him, averages barely over 17 years in age. There are not a lot of older players on this roster, even less, healthy ones. With Wedman suspended, with Tyler Carpendale out with long term injury, the play of the few remaining veteran players is critical.

So, at least on this night those vets did their part. Even 20 year old Andrej Kukuca, while he didn't score, created numerous scoring opportunities and 19 year old goalie Roddy Ross was credited with 47 saves. But on this night, the spotlight shined down on Seattle's young players too and that spotlight came even with two significant 16 year old rookies, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, unable to play due to injury.

Back with the team to fill their void were two more 16 year olds; Sam Popowich and Reid Schaefer. With Gottfried added to the list of walking wounded and Cade McNelly not yet fully recovered from his injury, Seattle brought up 15 year old defenseman Kevin Korchinski, one of their two first round selections from last May's Bantam Draft. For his WHL debut, Korchinski, who probably conservatively plays games in front of maybe a 100 fans back home, would be out there in front of 6,000 rowdy T-bird faithful. If he had butterflies or was in anyway rattled by the noise and his surroundings, he didn't show it. He was composed, kept it simple and just played hockey. When G.M. Bil LaForge made the big draft day deal with Kelowna, sending Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee and Cole Schwebius to the Rockets, Korchinski was one of the reasons why. Seattle scouts see tremendous upside in him. They moved back into the first round of the draft to get him. A little of that potential was on display Saturday night.

Reid Schaefer, meanwhile, was part of the T-birds impressive 2018 Bantam Draft. This draft produced Kai Uchacz, Ciona and Roulette in the early rounds. Schaefer, though, was taken in Round Eight, the 164th player chosen. Against Portland he played like anything but an eighth round pick. Because he is still 16, he is not done growing. But he is already listed at 6'2", 197 lbs (By comparison, Ciona is 6'2" and 200 lbs.). He's fast of foot, and has an offensive mindset. He's not afraid of contact and battles for pucks. Imagine that at age 19. Imagine him and Ciona at 19! I was impressed by his poise. I don't expect a lot from first round 16 year old rookies, but to get it, at least on this night, from an eighth round selection, shows the scouts are doing their homework.

The Thunderbirds made nine selections in that 2018 draft. The rights to two of the picks were subsequently traded away (Aiden Brook and Noah Barlage). One of those trades netted the T-birds Henrik Rybinski. The other seven choices have all signed their WHL Standard Player Agreements with Seattle. Of those seven, only third rounder Thomas Milic and ninth rounder Mekai Sanders, are yet to make their T-birds debuts. With Ross manning the pipes here in Kent and Blake Lyda capably backing him up, there is no reason to rush Milic into the WHL, where he'd do more sitting then playing. He's the future. For now, Milic is playing for the Burnaby Winter Club's prep team where he is sporting a 1.43 GAA and .954 save percentage. More recently he was one of three T-birds participating in the U-17 Hockey Challenge, where he was named player of the game in an overtime game his team lost.

Sanders, the local kid out of Gig Harbor, is getting closer to being healthy enough to make his regular season debut after being hurt in preseason play. Hopefully sometime after Thanksgiving he's back on the ice. Will he be able to do what his fellow 2018 draftees have already done? When Schaefer recorded an assist on Seattle's fourth goal against Portland he became the fifth member of that draft class to register his first WHL point. And all have wasted little time putting their name on the scoresheet. Schaefer did it in his second game, Popowich did it in his first. Late last season Uchacz scored his first goal in just his fifth game. It took Ciona just six games for his first point while Roulette potted a goal in his fourth and already has his first WHL hat trick.

Seattle followed up that draft with 13 picks in the 2019 draft and while they don't expect to sign all 13, they've already inked three (fellow first round pick Jordan Gustafson along with second round choice Spencer Penner) and more will come. Korchinski is the first of that class to make his debut but won't be the last. Seven of those 13 were chosen to to participate in the WHL Cup (Western Canada's U-16). Korchinksi captained his team to the Gold Medal at the tournament.

This is what made Saturday's game significant. As T-birds assistant coach Castan Sommer said following the win, each shift these 16 and 15 year olds take this season is experience gained to help them acclimate and improve their game for this level of hockey going forward. It speeds up the process. It's confidence gained. It's lessons and ice time they can't get down at Junior A or the midget level. It's getting seven young players out ahead of the curve. Out of necessity Seattle threw a roster out against the Winterhawks whose average age was barely 17 and a half years old. One 15 year old, three 16 year olds and seven 17 year olds if you include Simon Kubicek who doesn't turn 18 until Mid-December. Three more 16 year olds were up in the press box watching, waiting to get back to good health. That they won the game was a bonus.

Speaking of Kubicek, has head coach Matt O'Dette found a shootout sniper? Kubi is now 2-for-2 in shootouts including a shootout winner and now a shootout goal that all but sealed Saturday's win.

My three Stars for the One Game Weekend:

Third Star: F Reid Schaefer. Congratulations to him on earning his first WHL point with the assist on Jeri-Leon's third period goal, but it was his total game that I was impressed with. Too bad his shot was wide of the mark on his breakaway, because he came close to his fist WHL goal as well, but his pull away speed on that chance really stood out. I noticed him all night long and in a good way. When the T-birds get healthy he'll be returned to Spruce Grove of the AJHL but he will be back!

Second Star: F Conner Bruggen-Cate, Like Schaefer, there wasn't a shift the 20 year old took on the night where he wasn't affecting the play and mostly in a positive way. It was clear he knew he had to fill the leadership vacuum created by Wedman's absence. Even his penalty, that led to Portland's 5-on-3 in the second period, came from working hard to make something positive happen on the PK. His teammates had his back and killed off that two man Portland advantage, along with the subsequent 5-on-4.

First Star: C/W Payton Mount. All the talk of the 2018 draft class and it was the top pick from the 2017 draft that led the way Saturday. Mount ended the night with two assists, a big power play goal, strong penalty killing on Portland's 5-on-3 and then got the shootout off to a good start with what turned out to be the winning shot.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Little Undercooked

Returning home after five straight on the road, the Thunderbirds were looking to take advantage of some home cooking this past weekend as they began a stretch of seven of eight games on home ice. Unfortunately they couldn't dish out sixty minutes of consistent play either night and dropped two games.

Facing the two best records in the Western Conference, Seattle needed to be prepared to play at the top of their game every shift. It didn't happen. The missing ingredient was a sense of urgency, or desperation. That's what you get with a young team. The ingredients are there, they just need seasoning.

Friday night it was a flat performance the first ten minutes of the game. As a result they found themselves in an early two-goal hole against high powered Kamloops. Despite a push back the rest of the night, they never could overcome that early deficit and fell, 7-4. When you get behind you have to play a near perfect game the rest of the way. That's a tall order to ask from a young team.

Saturday versus Everett it was a better effort. The start was not as slow as the effort against the Blazers but it still lacked a strong push out of the gate. Missing on two early power play chances was a missed opportunity to grab early momentum. Again, it wasn't until Seattle fell behind that they jump started their intensity level. It was just too little too late in a 4-2 loss. There is not a lot separating Seattle from most of their opponents. In some cases it really does boil down to experience. As a young player you don't realize the level your game need to be at in the WHL until you experience it night after night.

We talk a lot about all these young players the team is focused on building around. Is the excitement justified? Are these 16 and 17 year olds the real deal or just roster spot holders? It is one thing to get excited about a high first round pick, but a seventh rounder or a listed player? Come on! Now you're just being too hyperbolic, right? Look, don't approach it with the idea that these players better light it up every night. Too many out there think if that young guy isn't averaging a point a game why is he here? If he makes one mistake, for some that is one too many. They see it as the player not being ready or overvalued. Send him back to play Midget or Junior A and bring me an older, veteran player!

What you should be looking for is how they are taking advantage of the ice time they are given. They come in with potential and promise but are they getting better with each game they play? How are they competing against opposing players, not just the ones in their same age group but older players on other teams as well? Now tell me if any of these rookies look out of place? I've certainly seen in past years a young player come in and get overwhelmed. I've not seen that with any player yet in this group. Not even when Sam Popowich and Reid Schaefer were called up from the AJHL and were in the lineup briefly last week.

Another case in point is Matt Rempe, who after missing the first 15 games with injury, finally made his regular season T-bird debut this weekend. You notice him out on the ice, First, it is hard not too with his 6'8" frame. He's also physical and, as he adjusts and learns to use that size, he's going to take some penalties as he did in both games. The T-birds certainly aren't going to tell him to stop trying to punish opponents. Besides those penalties, he delivered a big, legal hit Friday that led to Seattle's fourth goal against Kamloops. Instead the T-birds are going to teach him how to consistently deliver those legal hits and avoid the ones that lead to penalties. But the big man can skate and he can shoot as was evident on his first WHL goal late in the third period Saturday against Everett and that is rare in someone his size. Normally you see those guys over 6'6" on the back end, as defenseman, but his skating, shooting and work along the walls allow him to be a forward.

A player who is 6'8" starts off as a curiosity. It grabs your attention but you wonder is that it? Is he just a novelty because of that size? But I watched Rempe at the last two training camps and camp scrimmages get free on a number of breakaways. He's no longer a curiosity. He can play. He's not just all legs and arms, he's a WHL level talent. He's another part of the puzzle for this team's future.

there is another player, another rookie still to come. Mekai Sanders, like Rempe, Sanders has spent the first month of the season on the shelf with injury. the Thunderbirds are hopeful his debut is just a few weeks away. Like Rempe, the 2018 9th round Bantam pick is still a bit of a curiosity. He's the local kid from Gig Harbor fans are waiting to see. Until he goes out there and plays we don't know, right? But the team knows. The scouts, the GM the coaches, they've seen him and they believe he's another piece of this future they are building.

It's because of that, it's because of this deep group of 16 and 17 year old forwards and a player like Jordan Gustafson, another young forward Seattle picked in the first round of the Bantam Draft this past spring and it's because of other potential signing of young forwards from the 2019 draft that Seattle made the decision to trade away 18 year old rookie Michael Horon. It's that simple, it came down to a mumbers game. The T-birds have eight forwards age 17 and younger they need to get into the lineup as much as possible. If Horon were a year younger, he'd most likely still be here. It is nothing he did wrong. In two years those 15, 16 and 17 year olds will still be here. The T-birds will add more to that group in next spring's Bantam draft as well. Odds were that in two years Horon would not be here.

Horon was a late bloomer but full credit to him. It took until his third WHL franchise to earn a roster spot but he made himself into a WHL player. He proved he can succeed at this level of hockey and now he gets to be a solid depth piece for a contending team in the East, the defending champion Prince Albert Raiders. GM Bil LaForge found him a great landing spot. That's another success story. Now, if you think with just a 7th round pick coming back that Seattle didn't get enough in return for an 18 year old WHL rookie, third line player, I offer up exhibit A: former T-birds 8th round pick and WHL Champion Donovan Neuls. It's not where you pick 'em, it's how you develop them.

My T-birds Three Stars of the Weekend:

Third Star W Matt Rempe: Yes he took some penalties but I'm guessing part of that was adrenalin. He was so excited to finally get into the lineup. It's encouraging to see some of these rookies with big grins before their first game rather then a look of trepidation in anticipation of their debuts. This group comes with a bit of swagger but it's not overconfidence. It's an assuredness that they belong here. After missing 15 games with injury he worked hard to get to this point and according to assistant coach Kyle Hagel, put in a lot of extra work to get back sooner rather then later. His first WHL goal was a thing of beauty.

Second Star D Ty Bauer. The second year d-man tried to light a spark under his team Friday with a toe-to-toe tussle with Kamloops big d-man Montana Onyebuchi, then sparked Seattle's late comeback attempt Saturday against Everett with his first goal of the season, an angry blast from the blue line that had a lot of sizzle on it. Among this group of first and second year players, he is the unabashed leader. There is a reason he wears an "A" in just his sophomore campaign.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. Wedman just keeps being Wedman. There is only so much he can do as one of the few veteran players on the club but he's going to do it to the best of his ability. His work rate each night should rub off on the young group. He gets a bulk of the attention from the opposition because he is the one proven scorers on the team who is scoring constistently. When this young group matures in a couple of seasons, Weds will be long gone, but his affect on them will still be felt.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Five on Five

The Thunderbirds completed their stretch of five consecutive road games with a 2-3 record. As always the team is not looking for moral victories but they were in every one of the five games. A bounce here, a little stronger effort there and another win or point or two was not out of the realm of possibility. There are a number of areas where the team is still working to improve but the biggest culprit through the first month-plus of the season is their lack of scoring punch.

Through their first 15 games Seattle is averaging just 2.26 goals per game. On the just completed five game road trek, they potted just eleven. Over the last four of those the T-birds averaged only 1.75 goals a game. That they won two of those games, and were in most of the others down to the end, is a testament to solid goaltending and better team defense. But you won't win a lot of games averaging 1.75 goals per game.

If Seattle wasn't getting puck possession, if they weren't generating chances, it would be more alarming. On the season though, the T-birds are averaging 32 shots on goal per game. That's a decent number. What Seattle is lacking is finish. That is especially true on the power play where the team is just 19th out of 22 teams. The T-birds have produced just nine power play goals on the season on 63 opportunities. That means on average the T-birds are getting four power play chances a night but are averaging just .6 power play goals per game. When you are allowing a power play goal against each game (Seattle has surrender 15 power play goals to the opposition), it is like starting each game in a 1-0 hole.

A couple of games ago I asked head coach Matt O'Dette why the team isn't generating more offense and seem to be stuck at the two-goals-a-game barrier. There were a number of reasons given but he said getting traffic in front of opposing goalies was a primary issue, not a lack of opportunity. I watched that particular aspect the last two games. He's right. The team was not consistently getting traffic in the house area in front of the net. Players are often waiting for the shot to be taken before going to the net. That's usually going to be too late to get to a rebound. Additionally, Seattle is missing the net with a lot of their shots recently. Then, to compensate for that some players are just putting the puck into the goalies body, making for easy saves and severely limiting second chance opportunities.

Why are veteran players usually leading goal scorers in the WHL? Because they've learned that most goals are generated in that five to ten foot area around the goal. My guess is, if you looked at the goals Matthew Wedman and Andrej Kukuca have scored, the majority of them have been from on the door step. Younger players are used to scoring on their first shot down at the bantam or midget level. Crashing the net hasn't been a consistent aspect of their game yet.

Thus, Seattle's roster makeup is part of the reason for the low goal output. The T-Birds have two proven goal scorers in 20 year olds Wedman and Kukuca. They have a third player, 18 year old Henrik Rybinski, who can distribute the puck and score and 19 year old Keltie Jeri-Leon has contributed four goals, but the bulk of the roster is young second year players or rookies. 12 player currently on the roster fit into that category. This early part of the season is essentially their apprenticeship, their on the job training.

Most of that youth on the team is in the forward group. This past week two more 16 year old fowards, Sam Popowich and Reid Schaefer, made their WHL regular season debuts. They are filling in for two 16 year old forwards, Conner Roulette and Kai Uchacz, who are away at the U-17 Hockey Challenge. Next week I anticipate one more young forward, Matthew Rempe, finally healthy enough to make his WHL debut. At some point 16 year old Mekai Sanders, yet another rookie forward, will need to be inserted into the lineup.

When you have that many rookie and second year forwards, they can't all be in the lineup at the same time. There just aren't enough spots available in the bottom six on game night. So, you rotate them in. This will affect continuity. You'll get different line combinations every game. Is that going to frustrate some fans? I'm sure it does. But the reason is simple; the organization has made a concerted decision to hasten the development of that group of players. Could they stick a few of them on a Junior A team as they have done with Popowich and Schaefer? I suppose. But the Thunderbirds believe in their talent so much that they feel they are better served learning at the WHL level. They want that group playing, practicing, traveling and living together to build the chemistry among them.

The reality is, it is the right decision. A player like Lucas Ciona isn't going to get better playing Junior A, In fact a year down a level might even stunt his growth. But playing in Seattle this season is going to make him a better Thunderbird two years down the road and the same can be said of so many of these young guns.

While Seattle is not winning the majority of their games so far, they are battling down to the wire most nights with this very young group. Half the roster is comprised of rookies and second year players and they are not being skated off the ice, they are competing on a nightly basis. If they had more room on the roster I think they'd keep Popowich and Schaefer in Seattle rather then send them back to the AJHL when Roulette and Uchacz return. They are good enough to be here.

So why this season and not a year after they won their 2017 WHL Championship, or why not last season? For one, Seattle still had a lot of quality veteran talent left from that championship run the last two years. Enough to get them into the postseason and try to make some noise. they did eventually trade some of that off at last January's trade deadline. My guess though, would be the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft has a lot to do with it. I'm sure the T-birds plan was to build around that draft and seamlessly go quickly into reload mode off their Chynoweth Cup. Seattle was very high on that draft. In fact I saw one person outside the organization who follows bantam hockey in Western Canada proclaim Seattle had one of the better drafts that spring.

Unfortunately, as we sit here today, not one player from that 2016 draft remains with the organization. They would comprise your 18 year old age group if they were here. Before this season began the T-birds traded away the last vestiges of that draft when they sent Jake Lee and Cole Schwebius to Kelowna and Greame Bryks to Victoria. Seattle had four picks in the first three rounds that spring. Lee was their first pick, but he was the only one of those four high selections to sign with Seattle.

Second rounder Eric Fawkes along with two third round picks, Alex Swetlikoff and Layton Ahac, all opted for the NCAA route. Only Ahac remains on the team's protected list. Only Swetlikoff is playing in the WHL, on the roster of his hometown team, the Kelowna Rockets. When it became clear he wasn't going to sign with the T-birds, Seattle traded his rights to Lethbridge and they subsequently dealt him to the Rockets. After Kelowna won the bid to host the 2020 Memorial Cup, Swetlikoff decided to forego the NCAA and sign with his hometown team.

Fawkes, who attended two training camps, is currently playing in the NAHL but is committed to RPI. Seattle dealt his rights to the Winnipeg ICE, his hometown team. Ahac, who was drafted in the third round last June by the NHL's Las Vegas Golden Knights, played the last two years in the BCHL with the Prince George Spruce Kings and is now at the Ohio State University. Seattle also traded the rights of their sixth round pick that year, Nakodan Greyeyes, to Saskatoon but he remains unsigned. While Seattle never dealt a first or second round pick, they traded 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th round picks to acquire players to build up their championship roster.

When the 2016 Bantam Draft didn't work out the way the team hoped it would, newly minted General Manager Bil LaForge did the prudent thing. He got all his 2018 draft picks signed or traded for more assets. He then cut his losses and dealt away the parts of that 2016 draft that remained in exchange for even more draft capital. Seattle had already inked their top three picks from the 2017 draft (Payton Mount, Ty Bauer and Luke Bateman).

They drafted and quickly signed Uchacz, Roulette, Ciona, Thomas Milic, Sanders, Popowich and Schaefer in 2018 and they've already signed their top three picks from the 2019 draft (Jordan Gustafson, Kevin Korchinski and Spencer Penner) and I have no doubt more signings are in the future from that class of 13 players. LaForge and the scouts have restocked the cupboard with talent and future picks, including an extra first rounder. The 2016 draft was a setback, but the train is back on the tracks.

My T-birds three stars for the five games on the road:

Third Star: W Henrik Rybinski. He got off the schneid offensively potting his first goals of the season. More importantly, he's shooting more then he was the first couple or weeks of the season and he's back to being a menace on the forecheck. Those are all the qualities that made him a fifth round draft pick of the Florida Panthers back in June. I don't know if he lost some confidence or was just frustrated but he's looking more and more like the 2018-19 version we saw the second half of last season.

Second Star: G Roddy Ross. He probably didn't have his best game in Red Deer, but he did enough, including stopping all three Rebel shooters in the shootout, to get the win. He was the primary reason for the 2-1 win in Calgary. If Seattle has a chance to win most nights it's because he's making the saves to keep them in games late. I'm not around the T-birds room that often, but when I am, I'm hearing Ross more and more. That's a sign he's embracing a leadership role on the team as well.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. He is simply put Seattle's best player every night. And on many nights he's also the best player on the ice for either team. With Seattle not getting offensive punch elsewhere, they are relying on Wedman. The fact he's scoring when opposing teams are concentrating on shutting him down, tells you how far he has elevated his game from his rookie 16 year old season. The more I see of him the more I believe not only does he have a chance to be a solid pro player, but he has a chance to make it to the NHL.