Sunday, November 11, 2018

Depth-theria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

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

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

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






Sunday, October 28, 2018

A Yo Yo Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2018

An in Depth Look

The week started off well enough for Seattle when they registered their fourth straight win last Tuesday at home, a 5-4 decision in the first of three straight games versus Tri-City. Captain Nolan Volcan was a beast on the ice with a four point night (2g,2a). In the previous four games Seattle had scored 20 goals but not one of them came off the stick of Volcan. His performance Tuesday showed he didn't like being left out of the party. While they won the game, the T-Birds lost leading scorer Dillon Hamaliuk to an upper body injury in the first period. The T-Birds cobbled together new line combinations and, after surrendering a couple of two-goal leads, fought from behind for the win.

Even with no Hamaliuk in the lineup, things started off well enough Friday at the Toyota Center in Kennewick when the T-Birds once again jumped out to an early two-goal lead. For the second straight game though, Seattle got into some poor puck management and the Americans not only came back to tie it, but eventually got a late third period goal to take the lead enroute to a 4-2 win, thus snapping Seattle's winning streak. It didn't help matters that Seattle's power play was 0-for-4. Meanwhile, for the second consecutive game, the T-Birds lost a top six forward to injury as Payton Mount missed much of the second half of the game.

Saturday back at home for the third meeting between the two teams in a week, it would be Tri-City grabbing the early two-goal lead. Seattle continued it's recent struggles with the power play, failing on two lengthy 5-on-3's. Since two early power-play goals in Tuesday's win, Seattle is now 0-for-it's-last-13. Despite that they found a way to get the game even late in the third period thanks to a nice snipe off the rush by Matthew Wedman, before falling in overtime. The absence of both Hamaliuk and Mount was certainly felt in the game Saturday, but Seattle still generated plenty of chances to score more then the two they got. The T-Birds ended up with just 22 shots on goal because too many of their shots were wide of the target or easily blocked. On a number of occasions Seattle simply overpassed the puck, passing themselves out of a scoring chance.

The biggest takeaway from the three games was the T-Birds forward depth was tested and was just too inconsistent in trying to answer the bell. Some players, Cody Savey comes to mind, stepped up to the challenge but others did not. We've talked early in the season about how some young defensemen like Ty Bauer have flourished getting extra ice time because of injuries on the back end. This past week was a good chance for some of the young forwards to do the same and right now you'd have to give them an incomplete grade. Injuries happen. You overcome them with your depth. This weekend should be a lesson to the younger forwards about filling the void so the team doesn't miss a beat.

Despite the offensive struggles in the last two games, Seattle was in both games 'til the end because they got good, solid goaltending. Both Cole Schwebius Friday and Liam Hughes Saturday, gave their team a chance to win. Schwebius has played two games, two weeks apart, and allowed just five goals. His work between the pipes hasn't been supported by the offense as the T-Birds have mustered just three goals in those two games.

You wonder if scoring 20 goals in four games pushed some players off the game plan and away from the team systems this weekend? When it seems goal are coming in bunches everyone wants to pile up points. That can get you into bad habits, thinking offense before defense and players can stray from what's been working.

The first 10 games can be the first marker of the season, to look back and see where the team is at. Seattle has played to this point without their most seasoned defenseman, Jarret Tyszka. Reece Harsch, their second most veteran d-man missed all of training camp and preseason, then a few early games. Two still-16-year-old rookies in Bauer and Simon Kubicek have logged big minutes on the backend. Injuries have jumbled the forward lines, yet Seattle sits at 6-2-2-0. All things considered, that's a good start with plenty of room for improvement.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Week:

Third Star: RW Cody Savey. With Hamaliuk and then Mount out, the 17-year old rookie took advantage of the ice time this weekend. While he did not register a point he contributed with strong play along the boards and won a number of 50/50 puck battles. Friday night he drew two penalties on the Americans. Unfortunately Seattle didn't capitalize on the subsequent power plays. His play should help him earn more consistent minutes on the fourth line.

Second Star: The goaltending combination of Cole Schwebius and Liam Hughes. You ask your goalies to give your team a chance to win and that's what these two did this weekend. The #2 goaltending spot was a big question mark coming into the season but Schwebius has all but put those fears aside. Hughes will probably lament the two he gave up in the first period Saturday but he made some huge saves early in the third period that allowed Wedman to score the equalizer late.

First Star: C Nolan Volcan. Even when he's not scoring he's still the hardest working player on the ice. Good to see he's never satisfied with his game. He looked at video of himself from pervious games prior to this past week and saw he had more to give. He then went out and had a four point night Tuesday, proving himself right.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

"O" Yeah!

After scoring five goals in their season opening win over Portland back on September 22nd, Seattle's attack was limited to just six goals in their next three games and went 1-1-1-0 as a result. Head coach Matt O'Dette did some line juggling after that and the result is a three game winning streak in which the T-birds lit the lamp 20 times.

The biggest beneficiary of the line adjustments has been Noah Philp. The 20 year old center had not potted a goal through the first four games of the season while on a line with fellow overagers Nolan Volcan and Zack Andrusiak. Over the course of the winning streak, while centering a line with Dillon Hamaliuk and Payton Mount on his wings, Philp has recorded nine points, including six goals. On Wednesday in Kelowna he registered the first hat trick of his WHL career with a three goal first period. He would end that night with four goals in total. Philp is also becoming a key cog on the T-birds special teams. Saturday in the 7-3 win over Edmonton he scored two third period power play goals and also set up Hamliuk's shorthanded goal in the second period.

Philp seems to play well with younger players. A season ago when paired early in the season with then rookies Hamaliuk and Tyler Carpendale, his line flourished until Carpendale was hurt and lost for the season. Now with Hamaliuk and rookie Mount that line has accounted for 19 points during the winning streak (8g 11a).

What mixing up his line combinations from the first week of the season has done for O'Dette is create match up problems for opposing teams. If opponents focus on shutting down the top line of Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Andrej Kukuca, they still have to deal with the Philp-Hamaliuk-Mount line. Meanwhile Seattle's top sniper from a season ago, Andrusiak is waiting on the third line along with Jaxan Kaluski and Carpendale. You might ask, how can you put your top natural goal scoring threat on the third line? I think the key to all this has been the emergence of Kaluski. Kaluski was another of those under-the-radar moves made by Russ Farwell. At the trade deadline last season Farwell, who was still GM at the time, sent a 5th round draft pick to Moose Jaw to get Kaluski. Kaluski is becoming this year's version of Donovan Neuls, a versatile player you can plug in to different situations.

Kaluski was coming off a long layoff due to a broken ankle the previous season (ironically, suffered in a game against Seattle). As a result he hadn't played much hockey the previous two seasons, suiting up for just 62 games. Upon his arrival in Kent he was relegated to mostly fourth line minutes the second half of last season as he got back up to speed. Fully healed from the start of training camp, Kaluski is playing with confidence and he's getting earned ice time on the penalty kill as well as his regular shifts on the third line. His ability to move from the wing to centering the third line makes the reshuffling of the lines possible and you can't do that without being able to handle the extra responsibilities that comes with playing center. Through seven games he has three points (1g, 2a) and is +2. The three points is half his WHL point total from his previous two years (those 62 games) in the league. Kaluski's play has helped Andrusiak maintain his offensive production now that he's on the third line. In the last three games Andy has six points (4g, 2a) including Saturday's game winner.


Speaking of healed and ready to go, Carpendale missed 65 games his rookie campaign last year. He was just starting to get rolling, with points in his last five games prior to being sidelined. But scoring is not his main role. He has one assist so far this season in seven games. After starting the season on the fourth line, he has moved up to the third line and his job is to use his 6'3" frame to be physical and create space on the ice for Andrusiak and Kaluski.

I wrote previously that Seattle's current top defensive pairing of Jake Lee and Simon Kubicek could well be the top d-pairing in the league in a couple of seasons when both enter their 19 year old seasons. The two may not wait that long. Combined they have racked up 13 points (5g, 13a) in the last three games along with a +5 rating. Again both are in their 17 year old season, although Kubicek doesn't officially celebrate his 17th birthday until December 12th.

How amazing was it to watch Hamaliuk find a fifth gear and blow past the Edmonton defense to take a Philp pass on his shorthanded goal against the Oil Kings? If you stepped in some drool on the upper concourse after that it was probably left there by some of the NHL scouts in attendance. A 6'3", 200 lb. power forward who can move like that, and have the soft hands to finish, a very rare combination.

On the strength of their 9-of-16 power play success the last three games, and Portland going 0-for-9 with the man advantage Sunday versus Everett, Seattle currently sits atop the WHL leaderboard on the power play. They are clicking at 30-percent with the man advantage. Most of that damage lately has come from the #2 unit featuring Philp, Hamaliuk and Lee.

By the way, the T-birds are doing their damage in the early going with minimal offensive production from their leading scorer from a year ago. Volcan has just six points through seven games. You know he's going to get going though and I fully expect him to be one of the team's top point producers at season's end. He did have two assists Saturday and his play has helped get Kukuca off the snide. He affects games in so many other ways, including the penalty kill, the forecheck and just standing up for his teammates. That Seattle is 5-1-1-0 before he gets his offensive game going should speak volumes for the rest of the roster.


Watch out Cade McNelly, Jared Davidson has arrived! The 16 year old 5'10", 164 lb. undrafted rookie picked up his first fighting major late Saturday against the Oil Kings.


My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star: D Simon Kubicek. Technically still 16 years old, plays like he's 20. Registered his first WHL goal Wednesday in Kelowna, then added three more. His point shot is a little reminiscent of Ethan Bear's, don't you think? Although I'm not sure Bear was as consistently accurate as Kubicek has been at this early stage of his WHL career. His late birthday gives him an extra year to impress the NHL scouts as he's not eligible for selection until June of 2020. Hmmmm, just in time for a Seattle NHL franchise??? One can dream, can't they?


Second Star: D Jake Lee. Lee, who is eligible for the NHL draft in nine months, helped his draft stock with seven assists in the last two games. The stat sheet looks nice with those numbers next to his name, but it is his all-around game that impresses. Very solid in the d-zone and he thinks the game so well. By no means is he a perfect player yet. That only means he's going to keep getting better. The early season injuries to Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch have put him in the spotlight, as part of the T-birds number one d-pairing, and he (along with Kubicek) have stepped up to the plate and delivered.

First Star: C Noah Philp. He registered the first hat trick of his WHL career Wednesday and in fact would end the night with four markers. For an encore he potted two power play goals Saturday. Those two goals, early in the third period turned a one goal game into a 6-3 lead and gave Seattle the room to coast to the 7-3 win. He also had a big assist on Hamaliuk's shorthanded goal. He has good speed, an accurate shot and is a top penalty killer, not to mention he has been money in the face off circle. Another subtle trade acquisition that is paying big dividends.









Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Young and the Restless

When last season ended, the average age of Seattle's top six defenseman was 18.7 years old.  The average age of Seattle's six defensemen in the lineup Saturday versus Kelowna was 16.6 years old.  With 19-year olds Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch out with injury there was no one older than the 18-year old Owen Williams in that group of six Saturday and Williams just turned 18 less then two weeks ago.

Payton McIsaac won't be 18 until the day after Christmas. Jake Lee turned 17 in July. Simon Kubicek doesn't celebrate his 17th birthday until December 19th.  Tyrel Bauer has been 16 for all of six months and Luke Bateman had a 16th birthday less then a month ago.  Had he not been suspended, the still 16-year old Cade McNelly (his 17th birthday is October 17th) would have most likely played both nights.

The T-Birds defense was only slightly older when Harsch was in the lineup the previous night in Everett.  The average age of the group against the Silvertips was just barely over 17 years old (17.1).  Seattle's defense is not just young, but they are green with very few games of WHL experience under their belts.  Yet over the past three games the T-Birds have surrendered nary a 5-on-5 goal.  The last 180:17 minutes of  minutes of hockey and the goals against have been five power-play goals, one empty-net goal and one 3-on-3 overtime goal.  One of those power-play goals came at the tail end of a seven minute penalty kill for Seattle against Portland last weekend and another was in the last 30-seconds of a three minute Kelowna power play Saturday.

As rough as Seattle's breakouts have looked early this season, when the puck is in their defensive zone for extended periods of time, they are keeping shots to the outside and keeping the front of the net fairly clear of traffic.  In just slightly over 300 minutes of hockey this season the T-Birds have surrendered just three 5-on-5 goals and two were scored in a seven minute span opening night.  While it would be silly to think they will keep up that pace over the course of the season, it is still a remarkable feat.

The T-Birds goaltending has been a big reason for that along with veteran forwards being responsible in the D-zone, but that young group of defenseman are doing their job too.  If you've ever been in the military, you are familiar with the acronym OJT, on the job training, and that is exactly what many of these young d-men are getting.

Speaking of goaltending, on the weekend Seattle's goalies stopped 82 of 85 shots faced.  Start right there when you want to know how the team earned three of four points in the two games.  It started up in Everett Friday night when, in his WHL regular season debut, Cole Schwebius denied 38 shots in the 2-1 overtime loss to the Silvertips. Not bad for a 2016 10th round bantam pick.

After missing that game with a lower body issue, Liam Hughes showed no ill effects Saturday with his 44 save performance.  Hughes now sports a 3-1 record with a stellar 2.00 GAA and a save percentage of .947.  Hughes is yet to record that first WHL shutout, but it's coming, but lets also realize that shutouts are really a team stat.  Hughes has given his team a chance to win in all four of his starts.

Dillon Hamaliuk continues on his 68 goal pace for the season.  Five games, five goals.  In reality he should actually have more. he's been denied at least twice in the early going by an opposing goalie's  goal-robbing save or a rolling puck.  There were NHL scouts in the building Saturday and they had to like what they saw from both Hamaliuk and Lee, two first year draft eligible Thunderbirds.  The pair combined for two goals including a game winner.

I keep getting asked the status of Tyszka, who is still working through concussion symptoms after suffering from a head shot in a preseason NHL game last month.  The answers is, I don't know but when there is a TBD (to be determined) behind your name on the weekly injury report, you can assume it's probably long term.  The question now is whether Seattle is comfortable enough to continue throwing out that young group in Tyszka's absence, or do they need to spend some assets to look for a more experienced defenseman to help get them through the first part of the season?

It was nice to see the power play, which struggled early to find a rhythm, strike for three goals against the Rockets. There is still work to be done as the passing still is not as crisp as it needs to be, but the effort Saturday was a step in the right direction.

Am I the only one who sees the confidence in rookie Payton Mount grow with each game he plays, each shift he takes? Once he fully understands he belongs here, he's going to start producing. It's like Hughes and the shutouts.  He's on the verge.  Speaking of 16-year old rookies, we've only gotten small doses of him in the early going but center Jared Davidson makes the most of his ice time.  He's quick, willing to battle for pucks and has shown an ability to win face offs.  Definitely another player to watch develop over the next four seasons.

My T-Bird Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star:  LW Dillon Hamaliuk.  A timely goal late in Everett to get the game to overtime, earning the T-Birds a crucial point in the standings.  It's becoming his signature goal scoring move, a power drive to the net in tight space with a deft finish.  Saturday he scores the game winner on the power play against Kelowna.  Going back to last season he now has goals in six straight regular season games.

Second Star:  G Cole Schwebius.  A road start versus a divisional rival in a hostile environment for  a team that doesn't particularly play good hockey in front of you.  38 saves later you're the main, if not only reason your team steals a point in a game they had no business getting to overtime. Welcome to the Dub.

First Star:  G Liam Hughes.  Unable to go Friday, Hughes got a hold of some recovery water and showed no sign he had been suffering a lower body injury just 24 hours earlier.  44 saves on the night and feisty as ever.  With the game in hand he still came up with some incredible saves late as the Rockets skated 6-on-3 after a couple of last minute Seattle penalties. 113 saves on 118 shots in his last three starts. Only one of those goals scored against him was even strength.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Finding Out Phase

Three games into the new season and it's still a learning process as we try to discover what this current incarnation of the Thunderbird will be.  They sport an early above .500 record of  2-1-0-0, though they've yet to put together what I think head coach Matt O'Dette would call a complete sixty minutes of hockey.  It's been three winnable game and they've managed to win two.

Here are a few of my early season takeaways:

Second year winger Dillon Hamaliuk is discovering that self confidence and a belief in your skills can lead to good things.  I thought at times last season he played with some hesitation.  I'm not seeing that so far this go round.  It's fun to watch a big power forward skate with the puck in tight spaces as he did in all three games.  He's becoming what I always thought Brendan Troock would be, but never fully did become in his tenure with the T-birds a few years back, a power forward whose skating and puck handling ability makes him hard to play against. That will start opening up ice for his linemates.

It's only three games but Hamaliuk has already elevated his game from his rookie campaign a year ago and he's only going to get better as the confidence grows. After pulling the T-birds within a goal in the third period in Portland he almost tied it minutes later on a gorgeous power move to the net, only to be denied off his backhand as the puck rolled just wide after he got the goalie down and out.  Six points (3g,3a) through three games and a +5?  That's a 136 points pace!  Certainly that's not sustainable but half of that ( 34g, 34a, 68 pts) might be a too conservative estimate.  Seattle brass has always had faith in Hamaliuk.  Remember, in the Championship series two years ago against Regina, they brought him up after his 16 year old season ended, to log a few shifts in the first game.  It got his name engraved on the Chynoweth Cup.  Now, the rewards for their faith in him are starting to pay off.

The three power play goals allowed to the Winterhawks aside (two of those goals were a bit "flukey"), Seattle appears to have a solid, deep group of penalty killers.  Nolan Volcan and Noah Philp lead the way but Zach Andrusiak is no slouch and guys like Jaxan Kaluski, Graeme Bryks and Tyler Carpendale showed their mettle shorthanded too. Then throw in all the young defenseman who are out there and it can be a very green, but affective group.

When on the power play Seattle spends a lot of time in the attacking zone.  Unfortunately they are only 2-for-17 in the early going with the man advantage.  At times they may have hesitated to shoot but I think the real culprit was not jumping on second chance opportunities.  You get the feeling though that once they get a couple in, the damn will burst.  I expect their power play to be a real weapon for them.

The Thunderbirds have played so far without the services of their most veteran and seasoned defenseman, Jarret Tyszka, still out with concussion symptoms.  They've only had their other 19 year old d-man Reece Harsch for two games and that comes after missing all of training camp and preseason.  He's still shaking off some rust. They've used two 17 year old rookies and one 16 year old rookie quite a bit in the early going.  Despite that I haven't seen glaring holes in the back end.  Certainly areas to work on but in three games Seattle has allowed only three even strength goals.   The combination of a pair of 17 year olds, Jake Lee and Simon Kubicek, have been eating up monster minutes.  Think about this, Seattle is going to get three full years out of that pairing.  By the time they hit their 19 year old seasons, there may not be a better tandem in the WHL.

Seattle may have found a perfect third line to hopefully compliment their top two.  The combination of Bryks centering Kaluski and Payton Mount showed an eager willingness to play the 200-foot game.  Saturday in Portland they created scoring chances by moving the puck up ice efficiently and taking it to the net.  Friday in Langley, Kaluski drew two straight penalties against the Vancouver Giants.  One of them led to a crucial Seattle power play goal that ended up being the difference in a one goal game.  Being hard on the puck, he drew another penalty against Portland.  He has a little Scott Eansor in him.  The coaches showed enough confidence in Bryks to have him take some key late game faceoffs.  The 16 year old Mount earned two assists on the weekend and showed flashes of his cerebral game and playmaking potential. I think they're good enough that Seattle coaches won't be worried about throwing them out there against an opposing team's top line.

Home or road, O'Dette showed little concern over line matching.  He believes in his top two lines and if the third line continues to perform, it makes his job a little easier.  With the way Bryks has played early, the T-birds appear strong down the middle with Matthew Wedman, Philps and Bryks centering those three lines.  If they can get Sam Huo going they're set on all four lines, but rookie Jared Davidson is an option there too.

Not much to say, nor needs to be said about goaltender Liam Hughes.  To paraphrase a former NFL coach, he is who we thought he was.  A solid start to pick up where he left off last season. One of the best things you can say about a goalie is his play between the pipes gives his teammates the "want" to play well out in front of him.  That's Hughes in a nutshell.  The only question in goal is how Cole Schwebius will perform when its his turn.  Hughes can't play all 68 games so Schwebius will need to show he can handle the reins when called upon.

A few notes:  Matthew Wedman making his goals count early on, has both of the game winners.  Late in games, whether protecting a lead or chasing for an equalizer and rookie 16 year olds Mount and defenseman Ty Bauer are getting ice time and not looking out of place.  I love that.  D-man Cade McNelly played under control vs. Vancouver and Seattle won.  McNelly got a little, shall we say "exuberant" versus Portland and the T-birds lost.  He can be physical and effective without being out of control.  He's still learning how to skate that fine line.  Jake Lee is going to open even more eyes by the end of the season.  He's going to get drafted but I think he's going to go earlier then expected because he's going to log a lot of minutes.  Just a smart hockey player.  

My T-birds Three Stars for the first three games:

Third Star:  LW Nolan Volcan.  The team captain leads by example.  Three points through three games on 2g,1a but I believe he's just getting warmed up and hasn't hit his stride yet.  Was a workhorse on the five minute penalty kill at the end of the second period down in Portland. Still plays like a pit bull.

Second Star:  G Liam Hughes.  Was a deserved first star in the road win against Vancouver with 31 saves on 32 shots.  A pair of crazy bounce power play goals belied how well he played in the loss to Portland on a 38 save night.  Often times it isn't how many saves you make but how timely are those saves.  he has a knack for making the key save in a key moment.

First Star:  LW Dillon Hamaliuk.  He still is working on his consistency but could you have had a better start to your first season of NHL draft eligibility then Hammer had in the first three games?  Going back to the last game of the 2017-18 regular season, he now has a four game goal scoring streak under his belt.  A couple of goals he just missed might have been prettier then the pretty goals he scored.  There are times in the game you're waiting and waiting for him to erupt, then boom, he goes Mount St. Helens on you.  




Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Puck Stops Here

It would have been interesting to see what a Liam Hughes-Carl Stankowski goaltending tandem could have done together with the Thunderbirds this season.  We'll not get that opportunity though, after the announcement Tuesday that Seattle has traded Stankowski to the Calgary Hitmen for a draft pick and the rights to a U.S. born prospect.  The goaltending job, at least the number one spot, now belongs to Hughes.

The T-birds/Stankowski relationship is like that of star-crossed lovers who can't overcome the obstacles to making the relationship a long lasting one.  Instead, all we got was that one, shining moment.   If Mat Barzal and  Ethan Bear were the superstars of the T-birds 2017 WHL Championship team, Stankowski was the surprise revelation.  The barely 17 year old netminder started all 20 playoff games that spring in place of an injured 20 year old Rylan Toth, and went 16-4 on the way to a Chynoweth Cup.  He almost stole the playoff MVP honors from Barzal with his effort.

And that's what Stankowski will be remembered for as a T-bird; that glorious playoff run, because, well, that's all there is. In two years with Seattle Stankowski spent more time injured, more time away from the organization getting treatment or rehabbing, then he spent with the team.  That's no fault of his.  Injuries are part of the game and some are more significant then others. Then there were other health issues that again are no fault of Carl's.  Just more a matter of genetics.  The reality though is that over the course of a two year career with the club, he played in only seven regular season games.  He missed all of last season to health issues, not even making it to training camp and barely dropping by the rink near season's end to say hello to his teammates.

Because of Stankowski's absence the T-birds were forced to make the trade for Hughes last September and then later for Dorrin Luding two months later.  It was his long term 2016 injury that necessitated the trade that brought in Matt Berlin.

Those three goaltenders played in a combined 90 regular season games the past two seasons while the Thunderbirds waited, and waited, for Stankowski to heal up.  Individually all three saw more regular season ice time as T-birds then did Stankowski.  Luding got into 17 games in just over half a season with the club.  So far, after just one season as a T-bird, Hughes has played in 36 regular season games, plus five postseason games, and Berlin was in net for 37 games in just over a year with the team.  In fact, if not for the injury to Toth, we may have seen very little of Stankowski in a Thunderbirds jersey.

But what we saw in that playoff run was legendary.  There is no erasing the important part Stankowski played in T-birds history.  It started in the very first playoff game against Tri-City when he stopped a number of third period breakaways to preserve a Seattle lead.  It was besting Everett's Carter Hart in a second round sweep.  It was a near shutout performance in both Game 3 and Game 6 of the Western Conference Championship Series ,on the road both times, against Kelowna.  It was a crucial early save in the overtime of the sixth and decisive game against Regina in the Championship Series.  Even then though, Stankowski was apparently playing at less then 100-percent.  That's what his dad told Any Eide this spring in an article posted at mymorthwest.com.

And it's those health issues that still concerned the T-birds.  So they reached a crossroads with Stankowski.  Do they gamble he'll stay healthy or do they move on?  They made the choice to move on.  Only time will tell if they've made the right decision.  Stankowski still has three seasons of WHL eligibility left.  I hope he can or has already figured out a way to stay on the ice.   His dream is to be an NHL goalie and  I'm rooting for him. I want him to overcome those health issues.  If it were not for those health issues, there would be no need to trade him, if not for those health issues there would have been no need to acquire Hughes, or Berlin, or Luding.   If not for those health issues, the return on this trade would have been greater.

But Seattle made the deal from a position of strength.  They aren't in the same quandary they were the past two seasons that necessitated trading for three goalies in a 13 month span.  First and foremost they have Hughes, the 19 year old who had a strong second half.  Strong enough that he finished among the league leaders in save percentage.  They have two, young signed prospects in 17 year old Cole Schwebius and 16-year old Eric Ward, and just spent a 2018 third round bantam pick on Thomas Milic.  Seattle has now traded three goalies (Berlin, Luding and Stankowski) in the last seven months.  You don't do that unless you have confidence in the young prospects coming up through the system.