Friday, May 1, 2020

The Dotted Line

When Bil LaForge was hired to be the Thunderbirds General Manager on June 6th, 2018, it was a month after that spring's WHL Bantam Draft. That meant outgoing GM Russ Farwell, along with Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson, were in charge of making the T-birds nine selections. This was the draft class that netted Seattle Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, among others. After his hiring was announced LaForge made a point of saying he agreed with the T-birds draft day choices.

Now, you may say he was just toeing the company line, but the proof is in the pudding. LaForge wasted little time in signing six of those nine selections (Roulette signed the day before LaForge's hiring was announced). The two he didn't sign would later be traded for immediate impact players. One went to Medicine Hat in the Henrik Rybinski deal and the other to Red Deer last September in the deal that brought Ryan Gottfried to Seattle. The other seven signed picks, all have made their T-bird debuts. Four of them spent the entire season with Seattle. Every one of those nine 2018 draft selections has already had a direct or indirect impact on the Seattle roster.

May of 2019 was the first chance LaForge had to directly oversee a Seattle Bantam Draft. This time he, Filson and Head Scout Mark Romas, had 13 picks to work with. Trade deadline deals and draft day trading gave the T-birds extra picks to use, including a second first round choice and a second pick in round two. It was a draft day highlighted by LaForge's trade of three players, including Dillon Hamaliuk, to Kelowna. It brought back, among other assets the second first round pick that year. Seattle used that pick to acquire defenseman Kevin Korchinski. Like so many from the 2018 draft, Korchinski has already made his T-birds debut. He also stands a good chance of being a full-time T-bird this coming season. Of the 13 players chosen, nearly half have already signed.

Now, the Thunderbirds aren't going to sign all 13 selections from any one draft. There just isn't enough room on any WHL roster for one age group featuring a baker's dozen prospects. It will increase the competition for rosters spots though because all those prospects want to prove they are talented enough for the WHL. And extra picks allowed LaForge and his team of scouts to gamble on some high end players without passing over other prospects in that draft that they liked. In essence they secured their WHL rights should they ever opt to come this way. Other players picked that aren't or don't sign can be used in trades, as was the case with two of the 2018 selections.

One of the gambles LaForge and his team of scouts took in that 2019 draft, was to use their extra second round pick, a pick they obtained from Everett in the Zack Andrusiak deal, on U.S. born forward Gabe Ludwig. Like most of you, before the T-birds drafted him with the 42nd overall pick, I had never heard of the Eagle River, Alaska native. Let me tell you though, since that selection by Seattle I've heard quite a bit about Ludwig. Much of what I've heard comes from outside the organization. Things like "first round, top ten talent" or "a steal of a pick" and "high hockey IQ". Most of that was before the T-birds even convinced him to sign and come play for them, which they did back in early April.

Now only time will tell if all those outsiders are correct about their assessment of Ludwig but LaForge listened to his scouts, made the pick, then went out and recruited the player. Some times it takes convincing that one player in order to open the doors to others who might be on the fence regarding the WHL.

That brings us to 2020 and the most recent WHL Draft. The draft was held a week ago. the T-birds made another 13 selections and already LaForge has inked the top three picks, first rounder Sam Oremba and the two second round choices Brayden Dube and Scott Ratzlaff. The building blocks are falling into place. LaForge has laid out his blueprint and is building his team.

For those of you who are counting at home, it's a month shy of two years on the job and the new GM has signed fourteen draft picks. Roulette makes it 15 signed in two years and believe you me, had he not already been signed the day before LaForge's official hiring, LaForge would have signed him. Of those fifteen, ten were chosen with either a first or second round draft choice. That's fifteen players all within two year in age of each other. So in a few year when these fifteen are ages 19,18 and 17 years old, they will constitute two-thirds of the roster. There will be other signings. Whether they are draft picks, list players or Import Draft selections, but players who fall into that age group. Recently signed 2003-born defenseman Jeremy Hanzel is one such player. There will probably be more deals consummated to shore up that group as well.

If you are puzzled by the recent trades of older players LaForge has made, he's not hiding anything. He's literally showing you that he is building a team that will grow together. It is a team of players who all have the attributes he wants on his team. Instead of being puzzled, think of it as a puzzle. The pieces are on the table and they are now being joined together.

So under LaForge Seattle has accumulated, drafted and signed a lot of high picks (1st, 2nd rounders). One last note before I go. If you're still on the fence about the LaForge hiring, consider this: Between the next draft in 2021 and the 2024 draft, the T-birds, thanks to LaForge's work have, as of today, six first round picks, seven 2nd round picks, four third round selections and six picks in the fourth round to work with going forward. This follows in the footsteps of the last three drafts. In the 2018, 2019 and 2020 drafts they had 15 picks in the top four rounds, which is the top third of the draft. So far, they've signed all but three of those picks and two of those were just picked last week.

They can use the picks or trade them to bring in other players but they have plenty of high draft picks to use to try and put together a championship team...or two. Again, nothing guaranteed but they have the capital to try.

Be safe, wash your hands!

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Ice-olated for the Draft

Prospects are just that. Until they hit the ice and prove themselves, they are just prospects. Same with draft picks. They haven't proven anything yet at the WHL level. Still, with that in mind, you have to be impressed by what T-birds General Manager Bil LaForge and his team of scouts have done with the last two WHL Drafts. They've accrued a lot of prospects and draft picks. They've signed what most consider, high end talent for the future.

What LaForge did on Draft day 2020 is exhibit A. He took a player, certainly a good player, in goalie Roddy Ross and turned him potentially into two second and one fourth round draft picks. He then used one of those second round picks to choose a player he obviously thought was the premier goalie talent in the 2020 draft. It was a move that cost very little in the big picture, but could pay huge dividends in the future.

Sure they lose the talented, 20 year old Ross for next season, but Seattle has two young goalies in 18 year old Blake Lyda and 17 year old Thomas Milic who they strongly believe in and now they've drafted another goalie of the future. Was Seattle going to win it all with Ross between the pipes next season? With the young roster they will ice, the odds were very much against that. Remember, LaForge and the T-birds spent zero to bring Ross into the fold in January of 2019. No draft pick was used to get him here, no trade was made. All they did was list and sign him.

Now to continue, lets start with the premise that a new GM gets to, or at least wants to, build a team that fits his style. He wants to put together a team that will play a brand of hockey that he thinks will win championships. To acquire those players, he may have to flush out some of the players he inherited. He has to assess where the team he took over, is on the junior hockey life cycle. For LaForge, who took the reigns in the spring of 2018, the T-birds were still coming off a cycle that saw them win a league title in 2017. They were on the down slope. They were still good enough to compete for the postseason but, after player graduations, the roster for a few seasons wasn't seen as championship caliber. That's just the nature of the beast. You go up, you go down.

I'm sure LaForge recognized he inherited a team in transition. What he most likely wanted to do was make the transition period as short as possible. He wants to get the organization back up to the top quickly and keep it there. It may mean a little short term pain for the fan base. Good and popular players might get traded away to accumulate enough draft capital to get your brand of player into the system.

Sure Seattle could have held on to players like Dillon Hamaliuk, Matthew Wedman and Jake Lee, to name a few. Would it have put them in position to win a banner? That's debatable. Those players all went to Kelowna and that team barely finished ahead of the T-birds in the Western Conference standings. So, if Seattle had kept them, maybe they finish ahead of the Rockets instead of vice versa, but holding onto them might have also meant a longer climb back to the top of the standings because they wouldn't have gathered the draft capital to hasten the climb back up.

Yes, there is no guarantee that all these moves will equal banners and Chynoweth Cups. You are competing against 21 other teams with the same goal. But what is it they say? If you ain't tryin' to move forward, you're standing still. If there is one thing I've noticed being around Bil LaForge for nearly two seasons now, it's that he doesn't like to stand still. If his feet aren't moving the cogs in his brain are. I've learned he has a definite mold for a successful WHL player; fast. Fast of feet, fast of thought, fast of hands. He's communicated that to Player Personnel Director Cal Filson and his team of scouts and they go get him those type players.

In a very short period he has wheeled and dealed to acquire high picks, signing most of them so far. There are the first round picks Kai Uchacz, Jordan Gustafson, Kevin Korchinski and Sam Oremba. Now, add in the second round picks Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Spencer Penner, Gabe Ludwig, Brayden Dube and Scott Ratzlaff. That's ten players from just the first and second rounds of the last three Bantam Drafts. That is essentially half a team. We haven't even mentioned 2018 third rounder Milic. We haven't spoken of other signed recent draft picks in Sam Popowich, Reid Schaefer, Mekai Sanders and Nico Myatovic.

It also doesn't include many of the 2020 selections like third rounder Sawyer Mynio or any of the other unsigned picks from the past two years, not to mention the other draft capital that has been acquired and put in the vault for future seasons. That includes extra first and second round selections. Lets also not forget Landon Dauner and Drew Mackie from the initial US Prospects Draft earlier this year.

Even with that, we've only touched the surface because LaForge has also scouted and signed or traded for some pretty strong talent in Jared Davidson, Matt Rempe, Brendan Williamson, Blake Lyda and Jeremy Hanzel. More importantly he'll never be satisfied. He will always be looking to add to his talent base. Not everyone will work out. So far he has turned four or five former players potentially into a dozen future T-birds. There will be some misses among the hits. No one bats a thousand but LaForge and the rest of his lineup are going to get in some healthy swings when at the plate. The goal is to get back to the top and stay there or at least make those down turns as short as possible. I'm looking forward to seeing his work play out.

Stay safe. Wash your hands!

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Well, That Was Pointless

Disappointing weekend for the Thunderbirds as they drop both games while being outscored 15 to 5. Maybe the 9-2 loss in Spokane can be explained. The team was shorthanded to start the game and then lost a key player, Max Patterson, to injury in the first period. The Thunderbirds ended the game with just 16 available skaters. And Spokane has just had Seattle's number all season. In the Chiefs five wins over Seattle, they've outscored the T-birds 27-8. Even in Seattle's lone win over Spokane, the T-birds still surrendered five goals. It seems to be a case where, when facing Spokane, the Chiefs bury every scoring chance while Seattle misses on too many of their own opportunities.

The Saturday loss at home to Portland was the more frustrating setback. The frustration wasn't that Seattle lost the game. The series with Portland has been a back and fourth affair. The T-birds entered Saturday's game with a 4-4-0-1 record against the Winterhawks, so they've had their share of defeats to their rivals. But Seattle has been uber competitive against Portland this season. Even in games they've lost and been widely outshot, Seattle has used their grit and energy to battle and stay within striking distance. It's how they earned three shootout wins.

Saturday that energy wasn't there for the full sixty minutes. It sort of ebbed and flowed. It showed up in their comeback in the third period when they came from three down to pull within one at 4-3. I thought it was missing in the second period after they had cut a Portland 2-0 lead to 2-1. They didn't seize the momentum and by the end of the period were down, 4-1. The T-birds didn't take advantage of a Portland team missing their best defenseman and captain. They didn't take advantage of an opponent missing it's second leading scorer. They didn't manage the puck well enough to force the Winterhawks, a team without two of their top six defenseman, to have to play below their own goal line consistently and the T-birds made too many mental mistakes.

When the T-birds did finally start playing with desperation, when they flipped momentum their direction and had Portland on their heels the second half of the third period, they killed that momentum themselves with an ill advised break out pass. The unforced error or the old "self-inflicted wound". It was like drawing the string back on your bow, setting your sights on the bullseye then shooting the arrow in to your own foot.

Despite the two losses, Seattle's magic number to clinch a playoff spot was whittled down by four points, thanks to Prince George also dropping a pair of games on the weekend. The T-birds will go into a three-in-three weekend next week with a magic number of eight to claim the 8th seed, seven to earn at least a play-in game. But Seattle doesn't want to rely on the kindness of strangers to claim that postseason spot, they want to earn it. With eight games left they want to pick up some wins to go into the postseason playing good, winning hockey. It starts Friday in Kelowna.

The return of Henrik Rybinski to the lineup after a nine game absence should help. Rybinski was the driving force behind the third period comeback attempt against Portland. The T-birds also need to get some of their top scorers scoring again. It was nice to see Conner Bruggen-Cate knock one home after a seven game pointless streak. Kelti Jeri-Leon may be the most frustrated T-bird. While he has assists in four straight games, its been 12 games since he potted a goal and he has just two in his last 18 games. Even Rybinski was snake bitten in the offensive zone with only three points (one goal) in 13 game prior to the injury. The best case scenario is that they all heat up in these last eight games and carry that into the playoffs.

My T-birds three stars for the lost weekend:

Third Star: C/W Jared Davidson. Davidson is reminding me a bit of Scott Eansor when he was 17. Tentative start to the season but was going full throttle by season's end. Plays both ends of the ice, wins faceoffs and helps set up the offense by winning puck battles. He's versatile and can play up and down the lineup.

Second Star: C Henrik Rybinski. His return should help kick start the offense. You could see that in the third period against Portland. He had one assist and set up a couple more chances that the T-birds failed to capitalize on. There was some rust early after missing nearly three weeks, but he was up to speed late in the game.

First Star: C/W Payton Mount. In the absence of Rybinski, it was Mount who was driving the T-birds offense. He has been their most consistent player the past month. Mount is similar to Davidson in that they both let their play on the ice do their talking. And like Davidson, Mount can play up and down the line up. He can center a line or play on the wing. His play on the half wall helped breathe a little life into the T-birds moribund power play. We talk about the experience being gained by the 16 year olds on the roster, but those 17 year olds are just as key to the team's future and Seattle has four very good 17 year old forwards to build around in Mount, Davidson, Matt Rempe and Brendan Williamson.

Monday, February 24, 2020

February Frenzy Finished

What a last couple of weeks it has been. I sneezed and threw out my back for a couple of days. My home computer crashed and I've spent a lot of time recovering important information, including for this blog, off the old hard drive. I then had a run-in with a coffee table and am dealing with a broken toe. Oh, and the Thunderbirds just completed a ten day stretch in which they played seven games. Just your typical February.

Over those seven games, the T-birds picked up five points. It's not a basketful of points, maybe a handful, but not a basketful. But over that same span, the team with the only chance of keeping Seattle from the postseason, Prince George, was earning just four points. So, in essence, it was a net gain of one point in the standings for Seattle. At the same time, the team directly ahead of the Thunderbirds in the standings, Kelowna, was earning just four points. That means Seattle is just two points in arears of the Rockets for the Western Conference's seventh seed, albeit the Rockets do have two games in hand. The Rockets play those two games midweek up in Prince George.

After this weekend, the T-birds magic number to clinch, at minimum, a play-in game for the conference's eighth seed is 14 points. That is any combination of points Seattle earns and Prince George fails to earn going forward, and the T-birds would face PG in a winner in/loser out game to determine the final spot in the west. Seattle's magic number to outright clinch the final playoff position is 15 points.

With just ten games remaining in the regular season for the T-birds, it may seem as though the Thunderbirds need to win a vast majority of their games going forward. Certainly they'd like to do that but it's not necessary. For instance, if Seattle earned just two wins or four points over their last ten games, Prince George would have to earn 18 points, the equivalent of nine wins, in their final 13 games just to force that play-in game. If Seattle gets six points going forward, the Cougars would have to take 21 of the final 26 points available on their schedule to catch Seattle.

You never say never, but PG is a team with a current winning percentage of .373. Under that scenario it would essentially take them playing .700 hockey down the stretch to chase down Seattle. The remaining Prince George schedule includes ten games against teams with records well above .500, teams fighting for their own playoff position, teams like Lethbridge, Kamloops, Vancouver and Victoria.

Not that Seattle's schedule is any easier from this point on. Over their final ten games only a March 6th road game against Kelowna features a team currently at or below .500. And they could be above .500 by the time Seattle takes the ice against them. Otherwise it is multiple games against four teams who are a combined 32-6-1-1 over the past two weeks. Daunting, to say the least.

Of the seven goals Seattle scored in the just completed three games-in-three-nights weekend, six of them were scored by players age 17 or younger. Four of them were potted by rookies. Over the past four games, 20 of the last 32 points (goals and assists) awarded to Seattle have been to players in either their first or second year in the league. This actually comes with an asterisk since I have not included the seven points (4g,3a) from Andrej Kukuca in that total. While this is Kukuca's second season in the WHL, he is a 20 year old, so I eliminated him from the equation. Instead I focused solely on the players who began the season age 17 or younger. It's just a reminder that , yes, this is a very young team, but a very talented young team.

My T-birds three stars for the past week of hockey (four games):

Third Star: G Roddy Ross. Ross went 2-0-1-0 in three starts, stopping 79 of 85 shots in just over 124 minutes of action. That's a save percentage of .929 with a 1.95 GAA. He was at his best in the third period of his last two starts, Saturday versus Portland and Sunday against Prince George, denying a combined 24 of 24 shots.

Second Star: W/C Payton Mount. Mount's play over the past couple of weeks is really leaping out off the ice. You notice him every shift, especially his work along the boards. He's just consistently winning a good many puck battles. Playing center between Kukuca and Conner Roulette in the absence of the injured Henrik Rybinski, Mount helped those two register 10 points (6g, 4a) the past four games while earing three of his own (1g, 3a). he also helped revive the power play over the weekend (3-11) while helping kill off six of seven penalties.

First Star: A number of different ways to go here. Roulette had a nine game point streak going until it was snapped Sunday versus PG. He had three points (2g, 1a) in the four games and was a +3. He is tied for second on the team in scoring with 37 points (19g, 18a) in only 49 games and leads the team with a +14. Another rookie, Brendan Williamson, finally registered his first WHL goal and what a memorable goal it was, a game winner versus Portland. Williamson earned three points over the four games (1g, 2a) and was +2.

But my choice for first star is Andrej Kukuca. Kukuca had four goals and three assists and finished the week with a +3 rating. His hat trick led the T-birds from behind to victory Tuesday against Moose Jaw. It was his shot block and outlet pass that sprang Williamson on the winning goal late in the third period Saturday against Portland. His 54 points on the season (23g, 31a) are far and away the most on the team.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Busy Bodies, Strong Hearts

Seattle enters the shortest month of the season with the busiest schedule of the campaign. The month of February has just 29 days but Seattle will play 14 games over that span. The most they had played in any previous month was 11 games. The Thunderbirds got the month off to a good start with hard a fought, 4-3, shootout win down in Portland thanks to a pair of goals from Andrej Kukuca and a 43-save performance from Roddy Ross. Simon Kubicek provided the finishing touch with his shootout game winner.

Once again the rivalry between these two teams delivers big time in drama and entertainment value. I still would not have cared if this game ended in a tie. Of course Seattle getting the extra point by winning the shootout is fine with me too but I prefer the intensity and edge of your seat action provided through 60 minutes of regulation and the five minute overtime period.

These two teams have met seven times so far this season. They still have five more games to play against each other including a home-and-home battle mid-month. In those seven games, four have been decided by a shootout with Seattle winning three. Two were one goal games won by Portland in regulation. Only one game was decided by more then a goal. That was a 4-1 Portland win in late December and the fourth goal was into an empty net. As they say, if the playoffs began today, these two teams would meet in the first round. Think that would be fun?

Here's one for the strange statistic department. In their last two clashes, the T-Birds and Winterhawks have combined to score four goals in the second period only to follow it up with scoreless third periods, forcing both games to be decided past regulation. And once again, Seattle shows their grit, coming from behind three times Saturday night to force the game to overtime. In fact, it's the third time this season the T-Birds have overcome a Portland lead to get the game to a shootout. They were down 5-2 back on January 25th at the accesso ShoWare Center before rallying to forge a 5-5 tie only to fall 6-5 in the shootout. Back on December 15th, Seattle was trailing 4-3 at the Moda Center when Conner Roulette scored in the final minute of the third period, then won it with the only goal of the shootout that night.

These are two young teams with Portland being slightly older then Seattle. What helps the T-Birds stick around in these games, outside the solid goaltending by Ross, is the contribution they are getting from their fourth line. Head Coach Matt O'Dette and his staff can rely on that line to provide productive minutes, keeping a little more fuel in the tanks of the older players for the third period. Depending on who is in the lineup that night, a fourth line made up of Jared Davidson, Kai Uchacz and either Brendan Williamson or Mekai Sanders have earned the trust and confidence of their coaches.

Two 17-year old rookies are continuing their solid inaugural seasons. Matt Rempe is the leading scorer for Seattle in the series versus Portland. Because of injury, Rempe missed the first game against the Winterhawks back on November 2nd. Healthy for the next six he has compiled nine points (2g, 7a). He was credited with two assists Saturday night, so technically I guess he has 10 points, but I believe that second apple will be taken away and rightly awarded to Lucas Ciona. But Rempe did score a goal in his first WHL shootout attempt. On the season Rempe has 23 points (7g, 16a) and is +5 in 31 games. Not bad for a guy passed over in the Bantam Draft.

I thought 17-year old rookie defenseman Luke Bateman had one of his best games this season down in Portland and that continues a recent trend. No points but he finished the night with a +1 rating and was consistently using his reach and size to disrupt the Portland offense. He's a defensive defenseman and as a result he only has ten points (1g, 9a) in 41 games but overall he is +8, including a +3 in his last three games. That +8 by the way? Second on the team behind the +11 of Roulette. His stat line is starting to remind me of a guy named Turner Ottenbreit.

I liked the new defensive pairings the coaches have deployed the last couple of games. I especially like how Kubicek and Cade McNelly have worked together. It allows Seattle to put their top two defensemen, Ty Bauer and Owen Williams, out together against opposing top lines. That doesn't mean those new pairings are etched in stone. The silliest complaint I hear is from fans upset by constant roster juggling of the forward lines or the defensive pairings. This happens with all teams on a nightly basis. Line combinations get disrupted by power plays and penalty kills. Benches get shortened in the third period. Trades and injuries constantly affect line ups. A player can get dinged up and have to miss a shift or two necessitating a mixing of the lines. A player gets benched for a couple of shifts because they're making too many mistakes or are just flat that game. It can just be a case of looking to spark the offense or finding the right chemistry to shut down or take advantage of that game's opponent. My concern would be if a coach wasn't mixing the lines up from time to time. It's a chess match within the game and it's the coach's job to move those pieces around to give his team the best chance to win.

A big two games coming up midweek as Seattle travels up to Prince George to face the Cougars twice at the CN Centre. By the time the following Monday rolls around the T-Birds will have played three of their next four games against PG. Seattle currently holds a 10-point lead over Prince George for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They can either hold serve, increase that lead or let the Cougars creep back within striking distance. Seattle cannot take these games lightly. Prince George recently defeated Kamloops, one of the top teams in the league. The stats may not show it but the Cougars are a difficult team to score against. In the same number of games played (47) they have surrendered almost 30 less goals then the T-Birds. Quite possibly they have the best young goaltending tandem in the WHL and you can bet they will treat these games against Seattle as must win, playoff like matchups.

My T-birds three stars for the win in Portland:

Third Star: C Max Patterson. In his last two games against the Winterhawks Patterson has won 33 of his 49 faceoffs, including 13 of 21 Saturday. In a game where the T-birds lost the faceoff battle 34-31, Patterson's work at the dots was critical, especially in the third period with the game tied. He added a big assist on Seattle's first goal by hunting down a loose puck and spotting Jared Davidson in the slot.

Second Star: W Andrej Kukuca. The 20-year old Slovakian scored twice, pulling Seattle back into a tie each time. It sure looked like he got hooked to the ice on another scoring chance in the second period. The first of his two goals may have been the most crucial. Portland had taken a lead just 24-seconds into the second period on the Cross Hanas "Lacrosse" style goal, one that got the crowd out of their seats. Kukuca came right back and silenced them just 19 seconds later. It quickly erased any moment Portland had gained. Kukuca leads the team in scoring with 44 points (18g, 26a) and is on track to equal his numbers from last season when he compiled 57 points on 25 goals and 32 assists.

First Star: G Roddy Ross. Ross continues a string of solid starts that dates back to the game on the 19th of January against Everett. Saturday in Portland he made 43 saves and conservatively, at least a half dozen were flat out highway robbery. He put the cherry on top of the sundae with a three save shootout performance. In doing so, he denied three shooters who combined have registered 65 goals this season. That's what you call staring down the barrel of the gun and winning the duel.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Tie-ing the Knot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My T-bird Three Stars for the weekend:

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

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

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

Monday, January 20, 2020

Footing The Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My T-Bird three stars for the weekend:

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

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

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