Sunday, September 25, 2016

Undefeated Season Vanishes on Opening Night

Seattle dropped their season opener down in Portland Saturday, 7-3, a final score that was not indicative of what was a much closer game. The game was knotted at 3-3 past the midpoint of the third period when the Winterhawks scored to push back on top for good with just under eight minutes remaining.

About a minute later it appeared Seattle's Cavin Leth was held as he was about to skate past a Portland defenseman onto a loose puck just outside the T-birds blue line but the referee either didn't see the play or didn't feel it was enough to warrant a holding or interference penalty. So, rather then Seattle being on the power play down a goal, play continued. Moments later Seattle was assessed a bench minor for too many men on the ice. Portland capitalized with their second power play goal of the game and the two goal deficit was too much for Seattle to overcome. The 'Hawks would add an empty netter and one more goal late to round out the scoring.

You've probably heard this before; you can't win a game in the first period but you can certainly lose it. Missed chances early came back to bite Seattle in the end. Ian Briscoe could have started his WHL career off with a bang but instead it started with a "ping", as in he pinged one off the crossbar early in the first period. Too bad too, because it was a nifty play to go to his back hand after getting the Portland goalie to go down. Briscoe is a guy who put up solid numbers in AAA Midget a season ago. He registered 19g, 22a and 41pts. in 44 regular season games with the Winnipeg Wild then was a point a game player in their playoffs (4g, 6a, in 10 games). That early close, but not quite chance may be a sign this 17 year old rookie's game will translate well to the WHL level.

Briscoe wasn't the only one to miss the mark. Seattle had three or four other quality first period scoring chances and others throughout the game but in most instances missed the net. And it wasn't just rookies, it was older players as well. Layne Bensmiller, Scott Eansor, Leth and Sami Moilanen all had their opportunities. The T-birds had just one power play in the game and it came in the first period. Lots of offensive zone time with the puck on that 5-on-4 situation, and about four shots on goal, but they couldn't convert. Special teams, as they often are, ended up being the difference in the game. Seattle was 0-1 with the man advantage while Portland went 2-4.

The T-birds weren't particularly undisciplined but a few stick infraction (a slash, a hook and a high stick) are certainly avoidable. A bench minor with new faces and young rookies in the lineup for the first time is not too uncommon but these are issues that need to be addressed this week in practice. Why were the Thunderbirds the beneficiary of only one power play on the night? Their lack of a physical game was a major culprit. Playing physical and strong along the boards often draws penalties on your opponent. There wasn't enough of that from the T-birds Saturday night.

In the first period the T-birds were able to get contribution from all four lines, despite being held off the scoreboard. Over the final two periods they became too reliant on their top line of Eansor, Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan and unfortunately, it was some of the other veteran players who were AWOL over the final 40 minutes. Remember, two points in game one mean the same as two points in game 36 or game 72. Preseason is over, it's all business now.

Don't fault Rylan Toth too much for allowing six goals on 34 shots in his T-birds debut. One, I understand from goaltending coach Ian Gordon that Toth had not played in any meaningful game action since the first week of preseason while still a member of the Red Deer Rebels. That was just half of one game, playing 28 minutes on September 2nd against the Edmonton Oil Kings. The Rebels participated in the Tri-City preseason tournament in Kennewick the following weekend but Toth didn't travel with the team. Of course the next week he was traded to Seattle and was in transit when the Thunderbirds played their final two preseason games against Everett. So Toth's last game action before facing Portland was three weeks ago.

Two, Seattle had too many missed defensive zone assignments as forwards, both rookies and vets, were caught puck watching on Portland's 3rd and 4th goals. Head coach Steve Konowalchuk stresses backchecking and defensive zone responsibility and was not a happy camper postgame because of those lapses. Twice a Winterhawks player skated the puck behind the Seattle goal and on both occasions forwards failed to cover the player in the slot. Toth had little chance on those two quick one timers.

Luke Ormsby came up last December for a cup of coffee with the T-birds and played in all of four games as a 16 year old. He registered one assist in a game in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans as we got a glimpse of his speed and offensive ability. Saturday down at the Moda Center, the Monroe, WA. native showed off both of those assets again in registering his first WHL goal, getting in behind the Winterhawk defense on a break and then not giving up on the puck after an initial save to score on the rebound. Like the 17 year old Briscoe, the 17 year old Ormsby can provide an offensive threat, but also like Briscoe, the work he needs to do is to improve his game in the defensive zone.

With that goal Ormsby, I believe, becomes the first Washingtonian player since Spokane native, and current assistant coach, Tyler Alos, to score a goal for the Thunderbirds. Is he the first "local" player to do so? Time to check the record books. I believe he's the first player from the Puget Sound region to be on the Seattle roster since goaltender Doug Bonner (1992-96), who hailed from my hometown, University Place, down near Tacoma.

Don't sleep on Donovan Neuls and his ability to have 30 or more goals this season in his 19 year old year. The jack-of-all-trades forward from Grenfell, Sask. potted two opening night. Skating with Eansor and Volcan again this season should provide him with plenty more opportunities to light the lamp. Remember too, with a full roster, that line would be the T-birds second line most nights, not their number one line.

Defenseman Anthony Bishop, obtained from Saskatoon in the trade that sent Logan Flodell to the Blades, made his T-birds debut as well down in the Rose City. Touted as an offensive-defensemen, I was actually more impressed with his defensive zone play. Time and again he used solid positioning to break up a Portland chance or steal the puck back for the T-birds. He wasn't perfect as he got beat once and had to take a slashing penalty to break up a Portland scoring chance, but hopefully as he gets more comfortable with his new teammates and D-partner, he will only get better. Have the T-birds stolen another diamond in the rough from Saskatoon, ala Turner Ottenbreit, with the acquisition of the Kelowna native?

I like the new hybrid icing if for no other reason then at least twice in the game Seattle used their speed to negate what would have been an icing call against them. In one instance it led to a scoring opportunity from Eansor.

In summary, opening night 2016 reminded me a lot of opening night 2015 when Seattle faced off against the Giants up in Vancouver. Seattle fell behind in that game, fought back on a couple of occasions to tie it but could never get the lead, then lost on a late power play goal. They rebounded to win nine of their next 11 games, going 9-1-1-0. Deja Vu' anyone?

Seattle's three stars opening night:

3rd Star: I'll give it to Luke Ormsby for collecting his first career WHL goal. I liked the fact he never gave up on that puck and willed it in past the goalie. His mindset there seemed to be he wasn't going to be denied.

2nd Star: Scott Eansor. He did shoot wide on a glorious scoring chance but was all over the ice as usual. The T-birds newest captain was officially credited with just one assist by games end, but I think he should have two and wouldn't be surprised if one is added upon video review.

1st Star: Donovan Neuls. Great way to open the season, scoring a pair of goals. His goal that tied the game early in the third was all about patience, tenacity and good hands.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Break Out the S'mores, it's Camping Time!

After the shortest offseason in franchise history, just a little over three months, the Seattle Thunderbirds are set to gather again Tuesday for training camp ahead of the 2016-17 WHL season. For the second straight camp very few roster spots are up for grabs as the Thunderbirds return a large nucleus from their 2016 Western Conference Championship team.

But, unlike a year ago, that doesn't mean there won't be intense competition for the few roster spots that are available. Even after Josh Uhrich announced earlier this summer that he would not return for his final season of eligibility, the T-birds still have 13 potential returning forwards. That number includes seven 1997 born (19 yr. olds) players. Meanwhile, Seattle has seven other signed forwards who are looking to make the roster, for the first time on a full-time basis. That's 20 players battling for, what will eventually be pared down to, 14 spots. Something's gotta give.

Either way, the forward position has very few question marks coming into camp. Certainly the numbers suggest they won't need to trade to strengthen that group. The one question that looms large though, is the fate of Mat Barzal. Does he play one more season with the T-birds or does he make the roster of the NHL's New York Islanders? A recent article on projects him making the Islanders roster this season. I've also read and heard commentary that says he needs to refine his defensive game and could use one more season at the WHL level. The decision though, isn't up to internet articles or armchair prognasticators. It's up to the Islanders and Barzal. Either way, those are the only two options for him, New York or Seattle, and we may not know the definitive answer until early November. Stay tuned.

The bigger questions going into camp concerns the group of defensemen and the goaltending situation. No question the loss of 20 year olds Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf leaves a big void on the blueline. Not just for the veteran presence and the ton of minutes they logged on the ice each game, but their unquestioned leadership off the ice will be hard to replace as well. Seattle should have a solid top five in Ethan Bear, Turner Ottenbreit, Brandon Schuldhaus, Jarret Tyszka and Bryan Allbee. The coaches will need to find a reliable 6th and 7th d-man they can rotate in with the veteran Allbee, on that third pairing. Can they find that among youngsters Jared Pelechaty, Reece Harsch and Kabir Gill or will they need to look outside the organization for someone with more experience?

After spending most of the past 18 months as the primary back up to a 20 year old netminder, the number one goaltending job is Logan Flodell's as camp opens. The only question about Flodell is whether he's up to that challenge of being "the guy" 50-60 times this year. He's had solid numbers so far in his season and a half with Seattle. He sports a 26-15-4-1 record with a career GAA of 2.78 and a SVCPT of .901 along with three shutouts. Remember, he did that while rarely getting back-to-back starts.

I think we forget that 2015-16 was Flodell's first full season in the WHL. It seems he's been here longer then that because he was drafted the same year the T-birds picked 1997 born mainstays Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear, Donovan Neuls and Luke Osterman. Flodell wasn't on the roster as a 16 year old because the team preferred he play full time at a lower level. The same was true in his 17 year old season. He started that year playing Junior A hockey in Saskatchewan while Seattle went with the tandem of Taran Kozun and Danny Mumaugh in net. It wasn't until over halfway through the 2014-15 season, after Mumaugh left the team, that Flodell was brought up to be the number two goalie behind Kozun, appearing in just nine games. A season ago he began by sharing the goaltending duties with Taz Burman, before Burman was traded for 20 year old goalie Landon Bow, who took over the number one role.

So often in this league, goalies don't hit their physical and mental maturation until their 19 year old season. Kozun was a prime example of that. Seattle is hoping that's the case with Flodell, who has two untested youngsters in Ryan Gilchrist and Carl Stankowski, nipping at his heels. I think the team's plan after drafting Flodell in the 3rd round, back in 2012, was to bring him along slowly with the idea of having him ready for the #1 job this season. So in that sense, they are on target with his progression. It's just that his development was sped up by the unexpected departure of Mumaugh two years ago.

So what are the other questions that need to be answered in training camp and the subsequent preseason? Let's start with the top heavy forward group. With Barzal, and most likely Scott Eansor and Kolesar, having extended stays at NHL training camps, other veteran forwards should get ample playing time through the preseason schedule to show what they can do with increased responsibility. Players like Garan Magnes, Osterman, and Owen Seidel will be asked to step forward because newcomers like Sami Moilanen and Elijah Brown are in the mix for regular shifts this season and are primed to take ice time away from one or two of those older players.

Meanwhile younger forwards such as Wyatt Bear, Ian Briscoe, Luke Ormsby and Mckenzie Wight are all now 17 years old. Bear and Wight have been signed to WHL education contracts for two years. Briscoe signed just before the start of last season and Ormsby signed last December. These are guys chomping at the bit to play in the WHL. They have yet to make their impact on this team, albeit that's been tough to do on a roster deep with talented forwards ahead of them on the depth chart. Combined that group of four players has suited up for only 13 games of WHL action and nine of those games belong to Bear. They should all get the opportunity through training camp and the preseason schedule to state their case for a full-time roster spot. It means there will be some intense competition for the last one or two forward spots on the roster, a competition that could last through October.

It's a little different on the back end. Five of the six roster spots for defensemen would appear to be spoken for but when Bear and Ottenbreit are away at NHL training camps, the T-birds will be left a bit thin in their defensive corps during the preseason schedule, particularly the two games they'll play in Kennewick. This should give Pelachaty, Harsch and Gill ample ice time to state their case for one of those final two roster spots available on the blueline. The absence of Bear and Ottenbreit for preseason could also give the T-birds brass a chance to get a longer look at 2016 top Bantam draft pick Jake Lee. Lee is not eligible to play full time with Seattle this season but he has already signed his Standard WHL player agreement, thus he's eligible to play in preseason games.

The Thunderbirds could also have up to four or five 16 year old defensemen in as training camp invitees. Will any standout enough this week to earn a second look like Pelachaty did the past two camps? The undrafted Pelachaty had such a good camp last year, and the previous year, that he not only earned a spot with the organization, he got into a couple of games this past season and even scored his first WHL goal. Undrafted winger Nik Holowko did the same the two camps before and now is a potential top six forward with the team going into the 2016-17 season. Those are the kind of stories that make training camp so intriguing. Who will be this year's Pelachaty or Holowko?

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Twenty Questions

Josh Uhrich won't be returning to the Thunderbirds for his final season in the WHL. Instead he's opted to get started with the next chapter of his life and that means putting hockey aside. This doesn't come as a surprise to me. Uhrich hinted to me after Seattle acquired him last December from Saskatoon that the 2015-16 season could be his last, telling me you never know if you'll be playing in this league at age 20. I think having been traded a couple times in his WHL career and not being drafted into the NHL, he had a good grasp on his future in the sport. I'm glad he got to enjoy a ride that took him and Seattle all the way to the WHL Final. Until last spring, he had never experienced the WHL postseason. And enjoy it he did. No one on the team had as much fun on that ride to the Championship Series as he did, showing up for every game, every series, every postseason practice, bus ride or flight with a big grin on his face. I think he knew then it was his final hurrah and he soaked it all up. He capped it off by scoring twice in his last WHL game.

With Uhrich announcing his retirement at the ripe old age of 20, it left the Thunderbirds roster with just two returning over-age players for the upcoming season in the form of forwards Scott Eansor and Cavin Leth. That's one short of the WHL maximum for 20 year old players on a roster.

Technically Ryan Gropp is eligible to return for his 20-year old season but being a signed prospect of the NHL's New York Rangers, it is more likely that he spends the season with their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack or even the ECHL's Greenville franchise, which has an affiliation with the Rangers. The Rangers could still return Gropp to Seattle if they thought it was best for his development but usually NHL team's look to get their more valuable prospects playing against older players as soon as possible. Would I be shocked if Gropp was sent back to the WHL? No, but it so rarely happens to 20 year old, signed NHL draft picks that the odds of it happening are pretty slim.

Of course there is still the chance the 20 year old Eansor could sign a pro deal and not return to the T-birds either. I don't think that scenario is likely to play out even though Eansor has been at development or training camps the last two summers with the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. I think Eansor's situation is similar to Jamal Watson last year. The longer Watson stayed at training camp last September with the Canadians the more worried many T-birds fans were that he would sign a pro deal with them and be assigned to one of their minor league clubs. Watson was eventually returned to Seattle and finished out his major junior eligibility with, first the T-birds, and then the Swift Current Broncos, after a mid-season trade. After he was returned to the T-birds Watson told me he never came close to signing a deal with Montreal and that his plan all along was to play out his final year of junior eligibility.

When you are an undrafted, free agent 20 year old WHL player, it seems your best course is to play out that final WHL season. If you have a strong enough year on the ice you may have numerous NHL teams bidding for your services come March, rather then just one team. Then you can take the best offer. It is a gamble and doesn't always work out. Watson didn't have the season he had hoped for, mostly because of injury, and as far as I know hasn't signed a pro deal yet. But a number of overage WHLers have parlayed a strong final season of Junior into a pro contract. Former T-bird defenseman, and current San Jose Shark, Brendan Dillon is a prime example. By the end of his 20 year old season with the Thunderbirds he had scouts from a number of NHL teams on his tail before signing with the Dallas Stars.

A few years before that former T-bird Gregg Scott actually signed his first professional contract with the Maple Leafs at the start of his 20 year old season but still came back to Seattle and played as an overager before embarking on his pro career. I could see either of these scenarios playing out for Eansor.

So, at the moment, it appears the only T-birds locks for returning as 20 year olds are Eansor and Leth. What does General Manager Russ Farwell do about that third, open spot? Make a trade? Pick up a player who gets released at the overage deadline? One problem is the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, wasn't a very strong or deep one, and not just for Seattle, but league-wide. Like Gropp, the best players from that draft are signed to pro contracts and off to begin their professional careers. After that, it appears to be slim pickings.

Logic would suggest that since Seattle graduated out two veteran defensemen (Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf) from last season's Western Conference Championship team, Farwell will fill the void by trading for a 20 year old d-man. Easier said then done. Take a look at rosters around the WHL heading into training camps later this summer and you will see a dearth of 1996 born players, let alone quality veteran '96 born defensemen. For one, most teams seem to have only three overagers on their current rosters. Any team with a surplus seems to have surplus forwards, not defensemen.

If you think your team is a contender and you have a quality 20 year old d-man, you're not going to trade him. If you're not sure your team is a contender, you're going to wait until the January trade deadline before dealing. If you don't believe your team is a contender this coming season and you have a quality 20 year old defenseman, well you have yourself a very valuable commodity. How much in the form of current players, current prospects or future draft picks is a G.M. like Farwell willing to spend to acquire a 20 year old defenseman?

Could the T-birds management convince an undrafted college defensemen who's currently on their 50 Player Protected List to play as a 20 year old in the WHL? I think the days of pulling a quality collegian away at that age have passed. Players at that age are just less inclined to give up two more years of a full ride scholarship. The T-birds would probably have better luck with say, an NHL drafted, 19 year old college defenseman on their PPL, deciding to sign a pro contract and thus losing his NCAA eligibility and his NHL team assigning him to Seattle. This is what happened last season with Jack Daugherty in Portland.

I'm sure Farwell and his scouts will exhaust all avenues in regards to filling that final 20 year old roster spot, but there is no rule that says you have to have three overage players. Just go back to the 2013-14 season. Seattle played the second half of that season with just one 20 year old on the roster, Mitch Elliot. In fact they spent the first half of that season with just two overage players, Elliot and Seth Swenson, after shipping Jesse Forsberg to Moose Jaw just before the season kicked off. At mid-season Swenson was then dealt to Lethbridge in the Russ Maxwell trade.

You can do that, play with less then the maximum 20 year olds, when you have a bevy of young talent that needs the ice time and is as good or better then any 20 year old you could acquire. With just one 20 year old on the roster for a good portion of that season, the T-birds went 41-25-2-4, finished second to Portland in the U.S. Division then won a first round playoff series over Everett before bowing out in Round Two to Kelowna. That club featured five youngsters getting their first real taste of WHL potseason; Mat Barzal, Ethan Bear, Keegan Kolesar, Gropp and Eansor. Those five would be instrumental in leading Seattle's charge to the WHL Final this past spring, using experience they might not have gotten had Seattle had two more 20s on the roster in 2014.

Does Seattle have similar young talent on the roster going into this season that they may ride with just two overage players? Certainly I think they have enough forward depth to absorb the loss of Uhrich. They added Sami Moilanen in the Import draft. The Finnish forward was recently listed on the 2017 NHL Draft Futures List. Matthew Wedman, who is also on that list, enters his second season looking to build off a solid rookie campaign. Signed 17 year olds Luke Ormsby, Wyatt Bear, Ian Briscoe and Mckenzie Wight will all battle for ice time and a roster spot while 16 year old Elijah Brown, the team's 2015 top bantam selection, appears ready to have a strong rookie season. Two other 16 year old forwards, Connor Pyne and Dillon Hamaliuk, could also be in the mix. Meanwhile American-born Baker Shore, a 2014 draft selection could be a wild card if he opts to go the WHL route.

What about the blue line crew? The returning veterans are 19 year olds Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit. They could be one of the top d-pairings in the league. 17 year old Jarret Tyszka, like Wedman and Moilanen, is on the 2017 NHL Draft Futures List. He and fellow 2015-16 rookie, and now 18 year old, Brandon Schuldhaus should be able to build off strong freshman campaigns. The big question mark is the third defensive pairing. Bryan Allbee, who will be 19, fills one spot. After that it is a couple of untested youngsters in Jared Pelachaty, Reece Harsch and possibly 16 year old Kabir Gill. If Farwell gets everyone, including Barzal, back from NHL camps and believes his team has another run to the Final in them, it might be in the team's best interest to fill one of those top six defensemen spots with a 20 year old veteran.

The good news is, I personally don't see filling that final overage position as a pressing priority. Seattle isn't in the position yet of making a deal just for the sake of making a deal. You're not looking to acquire a 20 year old just so you can have three on the roster. You are looking for a player who is going to make your team better. I think there is enough talent on the team to let it play out. Certainly if they can get a deal done before the season, that's a plus. But they can also wait until the overage cut down date in mid-October or until the trade deadline in January. Furthermore, a deal doesn't have to be for a 20 year old. I think they have enough surplus talent and assets that they can come up with a deal that could net them a top end 19 year old d-man.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Finnishing Things Off

The annual CHL Import Draft was held Tuesday morning. The Seattle Thunderbirds had the 52nd pick in Round One. Each CHL team has two picks but depending on the import situation on their current roster, not all teams opt to make more then one selection, or in some cases any selection at all.

Seattle ended last season with Alexander True, from Denmark, and Andreas Schumacher, from Sweden, on their roster occupying their two import slots. Schumacher recently signed a pro deal back in his native Sweden and we knew he would not be returning for the 2016-17 WHL season. Days before the draft T-birds General Manager Russ Farwell told writer Tim Pigulski that the 19 year old True would be back for his third season in Kent.

So Seattle went into Tuesday's Import Draft with one spot to fill. After losing two of their top four defenseman, Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf, who graduated out of the program, many thought the T-birds would use their one pick on a d-man. But the CHL Import Draft is not like most other player drafts. It's all about finding a player, regardless of position, who is 1) willing to leave Europe for North America and 2) agreeable to playing for your franchise. You are also relying on scouting reports from contacts overseas although with the amount of video available teams can probably do a little homework on the players as well.

2015-16 was the year of the Finns in hockey. They did very well on the international level, most impressively winning the Gold Medal on home ice at the World Junior Championships this past January in Helsinki. They also won silver, behind Team Canada, at the IIHF World Championship in Russia this spring. To top it off three of the first five selections in the recent NHL Entry Draft were Finns.

So no surprise then that nearly a dozen young Finnish players were selected by CHL teams Tuesday. Among those was Seattle's selection of 17 year old Sami Moilanen, a 5'9". 174lb right winger who won a gold medal himself this spring at the U-18 tournament that took place in North Dakota. Moilanen played primarily with the Jokerit U-20 team, registering 35 points in 38 games, including 21 goals. In addition to playing at the U-18 Championships, he also played for Finland's U-17 team.

Here's a link to a scouting report on Moilanen:
Is it just me or could you take out the name "Sami Moilanen" and insert the name "Scott Eansor" because it sure reads like they are describing a Scott Eansor type player. It's possible Moilanen is a better finisher and can provide more goal scoring.

While the pick did not address the need on the blue line (although I think Seattle has some young defenseman who are ready to take up bigger roles and more ice time such as Tyszka, Schuldhaus and Pelechaty), it does create a bit of a logjam among signed 1999 born forwards. Prior to the selection of Moilanen the T-birds already had five '99 born signed forwards: Matthew Wedman, Wyatt Bear, Mackenzie Wight, Ian Briscoe and Luke Ormsby.

An unknown is the status of '99 born winger and 2014 6th round bantam draft selection Baker Shore. The Coloradan has attended the last two Thunderbirds training camps. Shore is currently with Hockey USA's U-17 summer select camp and doing very well. He had expressed interest in the WHL route last year. Does he still have that interest? Don't forget the two signed forwards from the 2000 draft class, Elijah Brown and Dillon Hamaliuk. Not all of those players are going to make the roster this coming season.

You have to factor in there are 12 older, signed returning forwards looking for roster spots as well. So that's at least 20 players battling for 14 spots. There is going to be some terrific, intense competition in camp for those 14 roster spots but you have to believe that Moilanen has one of those spots locked down after the team used their only import selection on him.

Of course with a plethora of 1997 born forwards(Brazal, Kolesar, Neuls, Osterman, Magnes, True, and Holowko) on the roster for the moment, we know most will not be back in 2017-18 when they would be 20 years old so at the least, Seattle will have enough depth from the '99 born group to take up the mantle. When those '97 borns are gone, the '99 born forwards will be 18 and ready for bigger roles with the team. That should make for a smoother transition and not a steep drop off in the level of play.

Speaking of those '97 born forwards, congratulations to both Mathew Barzal and Keegan Kolesar who were both invited to Canada's WJC summer camp. Meanwhile Brown and goalie Carl Stankowski will attend Canada's U-17 summer camp in Calgary.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

That's a Wrap

Let the debate begin now as to whether the 2015-16 season was the best in franchise history. Lots of arguments can be made to push it to the top. Second most wins in franchise history, second most wins on home ice. The team claimed a U.S. Division banner, their third but first in 11 years. They overcame a nine point deficit in the standings with just 20 games remaining. They finished the regular season on a 13-0-1-0 run and the only loss, in overtime, came in a meaningless game the final weekend of the regular season, after they had clinched first place in the division and rested a few players. After 19 seasons, they won their second ever Western Conference Championship by rolling through their first three playoff opponents, going 12-1.

They finished the WHL regular season with the top ranked penalty kill and were #3 on the power play. Only two teams in the league allowed fewer then Seattle's 186 goals against. They accomplished all they did despite having only one player, Mathew Barzal, in the top 30 in league scoring which may be the most telling point of all when you start talking about the Thunderbirds best "team" of all time.

Best-in-franchise-history teams are defined by what they do in the playoffs. This year's team went 13-5 in postseason play with three of their five losses in overtime, including the first three games of the championship series. They easily surpassed their 8-7 postseason record the last time they made it to the WHL Championship Series back in 1997. By virtue of their 6-1 win in Game 4 versus Brandon, this T-birds team won one more game in the league final then did the '97 team that was swept by Lethbridge. When you combine regular season and postseason the 2015-16 T-birds won 58 games, tying it with the 1989-90 team for the most in franchise history. That 1989-90 team won 52 games in the regular season but only six in the playoffs and failed to make the league final.

So, is this the best T-bird team of all time? This group of players is certainly in the conversation. The season started well, even with key players not available at the start of the year. Seattle went 7-2-1-0 in their first ten games. They were 9-2-1-0 by the end of October. A couple of injuries just before their swing through the Central Division in early November, sidetracked them a bit. They returned from their Alberta sojourn though and promptly went 6-1-1-0.

Seattle reached December and fought through more player absences with their top three centers away at World Juniors, plus an injury or two. They still were able to play .500 hockey to end 2015. Seattle adjusted their roster a week into the new year, trading for Landon Bow, Cavin Leth, Andreas Schumacher, Bryan Allbee and Garan Magnes. It took almost a month to get the chemistry right, as they continued to play at a break even pace, but when they did finally get it going, they were nearly unstoppable, going 18-4-1-0 from the start of February until the end of the regular season in late March.

In the end, this team lived up to the expectations of others, if not their own. They were just one of four WHL teams ranked in the BMO CHL Top Ten preseason poll slotted at #7. The only team from the Western Conference to rank ahead of them was Kelowna at #4 and they vanquished them in the conference finals. In the end, the only WHL team to best them was Brandon and the Wheat Kings were ranked #1 before the season began. Certainly no shame in losing to the top ranked team in all of the CHL.

So I cast my vote, and say yes, this is the best T-birds team in franchise history.....for now. Stay tuned, you never know, but you have to believe the best is yet to come.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Lingering Affects

You often hear it is easier to lose and move on from a no doubter 6-1 loss, then to lose 2-1 and spend the next week, month or year wondering, "what if?". Because, you see, hindsight is 20/20 and we can always look back and find a dozen ways we could have reversed the fortunes from such a close loss. Sort of like what just transpired in the WHL Championship Series.

Unfortunately, the T-birds lost too many close games in that series with Brandon to just so easily move past it. The sting of the losses will linger a little bit. While, as I've written before, Brandon was probably the better team over the course of the series, it wasn't by such a wide margin that you can't see points in those four losses that could have turned the series in Seattle's favor.

The better team doesn't always claim the crown and Seattle was good enough to beat the favorites from the east. The Wheat Kings could try to replicate the "quirkiness" of their first two overtime winning goals and probably fail 999 times out of a thousand. You could give Ethan Bear a million more attempts to clear that puck from in front of the T-birds goal in the third period of Game 2 and he'd probably safely clear it each time and the Thunderbirds would hold on to their 2-1 lead. It just happened to be that million and one chance that deflected in off the leg of Brandon's Tyler Coulter and ricocheted back into the Seattle net. Maybe it was fate, karma or a preordained deal with the hockey gods, but whatever, it just seemed everything in that series was transpiring against the T-birds.

Just enough things happening that make you wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat wondering, "What if?"

Game 1: Seattle controlled much of the first 16 to 17 minutes of the first period. They didn’t allow Brandon their first shot on goal until almost 11 minutes into the game. The T-birds had the first 4 or 5 quality scoring chances. They had the game’s first power play, created by their aggressive forecheck. But Seattle didn’t reward themselves for all that hard work. They were stopped on a breakaway. They didn’t convert on a couple of shorthanded odd man rushes either. Had Seattle scored on a couple of those glorious opportunities who knows how it might have changed their fortunes in that game or in the series. The T-birds did take a 2-1 lead 30-seconds into the third but had they buried the earlier opportunities they would have been adding to a lead, not protecting a one goal advantage. Once Brandon tied it four minutes later the Wheat Kings took over control of the game and the overtime period, winning 3-2 on an improbable carom off the back glass. The old saying is you can't win a game in the first period, but you can sure lose it, rings true here.

Game 2: A more even effort for Seattle over 60 minutes of regulation. Again Seattle failed to finish some chances. Midway through the third they scored to take a 2-1 lead. Not long after that goal though, the Ethan Bear zone-clearing shot from in front of the Seattle crease, deflected off Coulter and ricocheted back into the Seattle net. Before that, Seattle had the lead and the momentum and in the blink of an eye, it was gone. Even more upsetting is that Bear was probably Seattle's best player in Game 2, but it is forgotten because of one play. Once again Brandon controlled the overtime period and would win, 3-2 but once again the winning goal comes from a most severe angle and just catches the perfect deflection to find the back of the net.

Game 3: Seattle fell behind early but thanks to their power play scored two quick goals to grab a 2-1 lead that would carry to the midway point of the third period. Before that though, Scott Eansor hit the cross bar with a first period shot that would have extended Seattle’s lead to 3-1. Also in that first period, Matt Barzal was stopped on a breakaway, using a move that he’s probably scored on 99 times out of 100 in his lifetime. Then in the third period, while skating 4-on-4, Cavin Leth and Alexander True broke into the Wheat Kings zone on a 2-on-1. Leth deked and got Brandon goalie Jordan Papirny to flinch, opening up the top half of the net. Leth snapped his shot. It rang off the crossbar. Minutes later Brandon would tie the game at 2-2. Again the Wheat Kings would be the better team in OT, winning for the third straight game, 3-2.

Game 5: Seattle fell two goals down for the first time in the series when the Wheat Kings scored early in the second period to go up 3-1. Seattle roared back. First Josh Uhrich tipped in a Jerret Tyszka point shot to close within a goal. 30-seconds later Jerret Smith tied it with a power play goal. Just past the midway point of the second period True skated into the slot and snapped a shot past Papirny, giving Seattle their last lead, 4-3. All the momentum was on the T-birds side. The crowd was loud, the ShoWare Center was rockin’. But with less than two minutes left in the period Seattle turned the puck over just outside their own blue line. The Wheat Kings scored off a 2-on-1 rush to tie the game. Tied at 4-4, Brandon dominated the third period, pulling away for an 8-4 win and clinching the championship.

If this were a game of horseshoes, close but not quite would count for more. In a league final, it just leaves you wondering, "What if?".

I want to say a few words on Seattle's parting 20 year olds, especially Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf who spent their entire WHL careers with the T-birds. Obviously Landon Bow was tremendous in his time with the organization. Seattle might not make it to the Championship Series without him. Bow was listed as number two for playoff MVP on a lot of media ballots, just behind Brandon's Nolan Patrick. That's how good he was.

But Bow only spent four months, albeit four glorious months, but still just four months, with the T-birds after being acquired from Swift Current in early January. Smith and Hauf meanwhile spent four and five seasons respectively with Seattle. I still remember being introduced to Hauf for the first time when he was just 15. It was at his first training camp in August of 2010, just a few months after the T-birds had selected him in the first round, fourth overall, in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. Hauf had an arm injury that summer and didn't get to skate at camp. Here he was though, this tall, gangly kid from Calgary. Like all these players when they come to their first camp, he had that sorta stunned, awkward but smiling can't-believe-I'm-here look on his face as he shook my hand back in the T-bird offices. I'm sure I was just another face to him, probably the 100th person he had been introduced to that day.

Over the next couple of seasons he would get thrown into the fray, rarely a healthy scratch even at age 16, usually paired up on the ice with another 16 year rookie defenseman named Shea Theodore. No matter what, Steve Konowalchuk, then in his first season as head coach, kept throwing the two of them out there; baptism by fire. 56 games that first season. Hauf got bigger and he got better and this past season was unquestionably his best. He played with more confidence then he had his previous four seasons. It's hard to quantify leadership but Hauf had it. I saw it firsthand on the bus and on the ice. It was a matter-of-fact kind of approach he took to taking on that leadership role this season. I witnessed him talk to a couple of rookies early in the season. What he had to say, he only had to say once. He had their respect.

So to look back at that first encounter with him nearly six years ago, in the back office of the ShoWare Center, and to see how far he has traveled in his T-bird journey is remarkable. He went from an impressionable, wide-eyed kid to a mature young man who led this team to a WHL Championship Series.

Jerret Smith's T-birds journey was a little different. Unlike Hauf, Smith wasn't selected in the 2010 Bantam Draft. Instead at some point Seattle added him to their protected list. He didn't make the team as a 16 year old, the T-birds already had two 16 year old d-men on the roster that year in Hauf and Theodore and had drafted another in Taylor Green. I do remember, about midway through the 2011-12 season, coming to the ShoWare Center to get ready for a bus trip and a road game. The morning skate had wrapped up but there were a couple of listed prospects still on the ice, skating with one of the coaches. One of those players was Jerret Smith. I didn't think much of it at the time. Prospects, whether drafted or listed, often come up to skate with the team, some are never seen again. I didn't see Smith again until training camp before the 2012-13 season. Smith didn't jump out and wow me at camp, but you noticed him. He was steady, consistent and skated with confidence. He seemed to be a little more mature then the other players his age.

Before you knew it, not only had Smitty made the team, but he played in 71 games as a 17 year old rookie. And then he played in 72 games the next season and 72 more games in the season after that. Smith became reliable, someone the coaches could pencil into the lineup every night and he would be one of the tops on the team in minutes played. He appeared to be in line for another 72 game season this year as well. Then he got hurt in early February and you wondered if his T-bird days would end prematurely. For the first time in his T-birds career, he was out of the lineup. He would miss six games. It wasn't a career threatening injury, but it was one that required attention. In fact, it probably would have been better for him to step away and heal up properly. Instead he decided to play through the pain and discomfort.

I asked him why he didn’t take the other route and step away so he could be 100 percent healthy if he were to be invited to an NHL camp this coming fall. He gave me a couple of reasons. One reason was he wasn't sure he'd done enough to catch the scouts attention and wanted that final month and a half of the regular season and the playoffs to try earning a pro contract.

But his main reason for sticking it out and enduring the pain and discomfort was for the most unselfish reason of all. He didn’t say because he wanted to win a championship. That never came up. He said, “I want to finish the season with them (his teammates)”. He said they had a special group inside that locker room and he couldn’t walk away. He had to stay around for them. He was their leader. That’s what a captain does. He played not for the name on the back of the jersey but the name on the front; the team and all his teammates, his band of brothers.

Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf, one from British Columbia, the other from Alberta. Joined together by their partnership on the ice, and by their leadership off it. A pairing that will always be linked together in Thunderbird history because it led to two banners rising to the rafters of the ShoWare Center. We won't see either next fall as they move on now, but when those banners rise, a piece of both of them will rise with them and remain forever.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

United Nation

At the end we can admit that Brandon was the better team. A lot better? No. I mean, three overtimes, Seattle had the lead in all five games, four times they had the lead in the third period and tied starting the third period of the decisive 5th game. Outside a couple of meaningless empty netters the goal scoring in the series was pretty even. The Thunderbirds actually held the lead for more minutes in the series then did Brandon.

But you don’t have to be better by very much to be a champion. You just have to be one goal better, one shift better or get one more fortunate bounce. In the end, the Wheat Kings were a determined group, eager to erase the bad taste of being swept in last year’s championship series by Kelowna. They are worthy champions.

You never feel good after you lose. You feel even worse after you fall three wins short of your ultimate goal. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk has said it is only a successful season if you are the last team standing and hoisting that Cup. So I’m sure right now there is a bitter taste in his mouth and the mouths of those other coaches and the players after coming so close. The sting of the defeat will linger for a bit but in time I hope they come to realize there were many successes realized as a result of these past nine months, a U.S. Division banner, a Western Conference Championship chief among them, and hopefully they find some time to celebrate them.

I don’t know if this was the singular best season of hockey in franchise history, it’s right up there. It was certainly the best season since I started with the organization in 2001. They not only won on the ice, but this group won over the fans. They made the ShoWare Center a place to be. I don’t know that you can say Kent is now a hockey town. The ShoWare Center is more of a community gathering place for the fans that come from throughout the area. So I’d say, because of this group of players, Kent is now a hockey destination. And this team more than anything, with a few star players but mostly a collection of dedicated-to-their-craft, hard working grinders with a never quit attitude, reflected the soul of our South Sound region.

Let’s not forget that this franchise had to rebuild its fan base after the move down from KeyArena in January of 2009. I’m amazed by the fans that stuck with this team when they relocated. 25 miles doesn’t seem like a lot but with the local traffic being what it is during the afternoon drive 25 miles can seem like 25 hours when you are stuck in afternoon traffic on I-5, I-405 or the Valley Freeway. That’s dedication. You, the longtime fans, have shown your loyalty. You are the core, the backbone of this fan base and you are appreciated and deserve a stick tap.

But many fans from the Key and Mercer Arena days, for various reasons, whether it was the distance, the commute or something else, stayed north. Steadily over the past eight seasons the organization has introduced this game, and this brand of hockey to a new following. And this year’s team in particular, with what they accomplished over the course of the regular season and through the playoffs, helped bring together T-birds Nation. Fans are no longer saying “I’m a T-bird fan”, they are saying “We are T-bird fans”.

We don't want to let go of this unforgettable season, this team, this collection of young men. Heck some of them really are still kids at heart. We want to suspend time so we can come back tomorrow and see these guys play together one more game. For the first time since I began broadcasting T-birds games 15 years ago, I saw fans shedding tears at game's end. We want to see Smitty with one more push of the puck up ice, one last bone-jarring hit from Hauf, one more spectacular save from Bow. But this level of hockey is cyclical. Rosters turn over every three years. All we can do is hold on to the memories and wish those players moving on the best as they go forward with their hockey careers, with their lives, knowing once a T-bird, always a T-bird.

When the game ended and the Wheat Kings celebration began Friday night, the dejected and despondent Seattle players were stunned by the finality of the moment. Many were bent over exhausted. They were hanging their heads or leaning on their sticks, some trying to console others. You the fans then rose up out of your seat and without any prompting began chanting “Let’s go T-birds, Let’s go T-birds” over and over and over. You lifted those players back up. In time you would give Brandon their deserved congratulations, but in that moment it was as if the Wheat Kings weren’t even on the ice. You wanted to show your team how much you appreciated the season they just gave you; a magical season of wins and banners, highs and lows, thrills and spills that won’t be soon forgotten. Well done T-Birds Nation.

Stay tuned to this blog as I will be doing a final review and a look ahead over the next week or so.