Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Fall in Line

Normally we'd be one week into the new WHL season and scouts would be travelling into Kent to view a host of Seattle Thunderbirds eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft. But, as has been noted on many occassions over the past seven months, these are not normal times. If they were, we would have witnessed the 2020 NHL Draft three months ago. But because of our circumstances that draft was delayed until early October. 

It's meant a half dozen first time draft eligible T-birds have had an extended wait to see if they'll hear their name called by one of the 31 NHL teams who will participate in the selection process. Not all six players will be selected. In fact there is no guarentee any of them will be chosen over the course of the seven rounds. But Seattle does possess some intriguing prospects who will get considerable consideration. So when the two day virtual draft rolls around, listen carefully to see if you hear the names Bauer, Kubicek, McNelly, Rempe, Lyda or Mount. 

Of those six players, three made it onto NHL Central Scouting's final rankings for the draft, Bauer, Kubicek and Lyda. All are considered late round prospects but it only takes one team to fall in love with your skill set and your potential, to pull the trigger and call your name. Is their a safe pick among the six eligible T-birds? At the moment I'd say none of them possess the high end skill of a Mat Barzal or a Shea Theodore, two recent Thunderbirds who were first round NHL selections and led their respective NHL clubs on deep playoff runs this summer. 

All six have areas in their game that will need improving if they are to get to hockey's highest level. But one thing all of them possess that you can't teach, with the exception of Mount, is size. Mount is 5'9". Of the other five prospects no one is shorter then 6'2" with Rempe measuring in, at last check, at 6'8". 

Three of the draft eligible players are defensemen. Seattle has a decent recent track record of producing d-men who get drafted or sign pro deals, including the aforementioned Theodore along with Ethan Bear and Austin Strand, to mane a few. The current crop of draft eligible d-man, Bauer, McNelly and Kubicek, all bring a physical element to their game. While many see the game evolving into a more skilled contest, just watching this summer's Stanley Cup Playoffs shows the physical aspect of the game is still extremely important. So much of the work necessary to win is done along the boards, in the corners or in front of the net. 

Of those three Bauer is probably the most well rounded player at the moment and comes with built in leadership. His lack of offensive numbers may hurt his draft stock but he has so many other desired intangibles. 

Kubicek is probably more of the offensive defenseman. I think he projects out to someone who can be an important power play piece. Maybe not on a first unit but h e has some upside in that area. He was a little hot and cold with the T-birds last season, but again, that's why he is considered more of a middle to late round prospect. 

Maybe the sleeper in that threesome is McNelly. Playing a physical brand of hockey will never be his problem. He plays with too much emotion at times, which I think even he would admit he has to tone down. We've seen glimpses of an offensive game. When he does shoot, he has shown an ability to get pucks on net. The question out there is do NHL teams beleive that can be developed into a more consistent part of his game? McNelly is that kind of player where a lot of teams may not even have him on their board but there are one or two teams that just love him enough they could take a late round flyer on him. I don't know how player interviews were conducted for this draft, over the phone or over video, but I'd put money on McNelly acing that part of the process. 

Many were surprised when the seldom used Blake Lyda made Central Scoutings final North American goalie rankings. I wasn't. T-birds GM Bil LaForge told me he was getting calls on Lyda well before those rankings were published. A couple of times before laast season abruptly shutdown I saw Lyda outside the T-birds room postgame, being interviewed by an NHL scout. Projecting goalies might be one of the hardest scouting jobs in hockey. They all seem to develop at a slower pace then skaters. I think part of that is that 16 and 17 year old goalies in the WHL traditionally don't see a lot of ice as they sit behind a 19 or 20 year old. So whether he gets drafted or not, Lyda is on a lot of radars. Ignore his numbers. Hard to be consistent between the pipes when you are playing once every two to three weeks. There was a stretch last season where he got to play 2-3 times in a week and his numbers were solid. At 6'2" he has the length NHL teams now covet in metminders. He needs to fill out his frame then show what he can do with more consistent playing time. 

The most shocking omission for me when it comes to those Central Scouting rankings, was forward Matt Rempe. And I don't mean the most shocking T-birds ommission. I mean of all the player who were listed from North America and Europe, I can't fathom how they could not find a spot for a guy who is 6'8", can skate like he's 6'1" and projects to fill out to about 240-250 lbs. if not bigger. After starting last season on the sidelines he ended up putting up 31 points (12g, 19a) in 47 games. For a roster where a double digit plus/minus was more the rule then the exception, he finished at just -1. 

Maybe scouts just looked at his stat sheet and saw there were no long scoring streaks or big offensive games. But last season was his first at the WHL level and he had to get going without much benefit from a training camp or preseason. Then he had to work his way into the lineup, starting on the fourth line and moving up. By season's end he was one of Seattle's most reliable players. 

They don't play the same position but watching the NHL postseason I've been keeping an eye on defenseman Jamie Oleksiak of the Dallas Stars. Physically Oleksiak is where Rempe could be in a few years. The Dallas d-man is listed at 6'7", 255 lbs. Like Oleksiak, Rempe also has sisters who compete or competed at a high level. Okeksiak's younger sister Penny is a multiple medal winning Olympic swimmer. Rempe has twin older sisters who played NCAA hockey for Brown University. I also believe Rempe is using the Central Scouting snub as a motivator. He's been using the offseason, focused on training to take his game to a higher level.

Mount's size and a bit of an injury history may work against him.  He might be someone, like Matt Wedman who will need 3-4 seasons in the WHL before he gets the attention of the scouts at the next level.  In a few years Seattle will have a group that has grown together and should be competing for banners and Cups.  he could be the leader of that group and that could help his stock.  

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

What Next?

As expected, the Thunderbirds made just one selection in the two round 2020 CHL Import Draft Tuesday. With Czech defenseman Simon Kubicek expected to return for a third season, the T-birds had just one import spot open on their roster. That spot was previously occupied by Slovak winger Andrej Kukuca, but he graduated out of the program.

So to fill the void Seattle once again turned to Slovakia, choosing Kukuca's countryman, 17 year old defenseman Samuel Knazko. The left-handed shot d-man, whose birthday is in early August, is entering his 18 year old season. Knazko was ranked in the top 45 among European skaters for the upcoming NHL Draft. This is the second time he's been selected in the Import Draft. A year ago he was chosen by the Vancouver Giants but decided to play in the Finnish Junior A league for TPS Turko.

In normal times, we'd sit back and wait until late August, when training camp normally gets underway, to get a first glimpse at the team's newest acquisition. But as you know by now, these are far from normal times. Because of the coronavirus pandemic the WHL has tentatively pushed back the start of the next season to early October. But even that start date is written down in pencil and not pen. We just don't know.

In fact, there are a lot of things we don't know. Will players be allowed to travel over from Europe? Will those players prefer to stay in their home country with the virus surging in North America? Will league's in Europe start up before the CHL, making it more favorable for those players to stay home? Lots of questions, very few answers. For more on that you can check out Andy Eide's conversation with Seattle General Manager Bil La Forge over at https://sports.mynorthwest.com/992544/chl-import-draft-nets-thunderbirds-slovak-defenseman-samuel-knazko/

But, let's just say that everything falls in to place. let's go on the premise that Knazko decides this time he'll come over to North America and play next season in the WHL as a Seattle Thunderbird. Let's just close our eyes and pretend everything is normal and we get a full 68 game season underway come October 2nd. What will the 2020-21 version of the Seattle Thunderbirds look like?

Last season the T-birds were one of the youngest team in the entire CHL, let alone the WHL. Guess what? They very well could still be one of the youngest teams again this upcoming season. The T-birds graduated out three 20 year olds from the 2019-20 roster in Kukuca, Max Patterson and captain Conner Bruggen-Cate. As the roster sits right now, they have only two 20 year old players to occupy the three allowed 20 year old spots for next season; defenseman Owen Williams and winger Kelti Jeri-Leon. Goalie Roddy Ross was in line to be a third 20 on the roster but Seattle traded him to Regina back in April, during the WHL Bantam Draft. They can always trade for a third 20 year old, or pick one up off waivers, but will they? Three is the maximum number of 20 year olds you can carry on the roster, but it is not a requirement.

As it sits right now, assuming Knazko comes over from Slovakia, the T-birds have 28 players who are eligible for full-time duty on the team's roster next season. Those are players age 16 and older who have signed a standard WHL player agreement. Seattle typically starts the season with 25 players but eventually the roster is trimmed down to about 23. The reason is some players are still at NHL training camps, so you keep a few extra players around to get through the opening couple of weeks. Your game day roster consists of 18 skaters and two goalies with three players scratched. So Seattle has to whittle down 28 to 23.

Typically a roster is made up of 14 forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders, 14+7+2=23. For Seattle the hard work will be determining who those final 23 will be because there is going to be some tough competition for the final three or four roster spots.

At the moment, when it comes to a position that is locked down, the only sure thing is in net. After the trade of Ross, Seattle is left with 18 year old Blake Lyda and 17 year old Thomas Milic as their goaltending tandem. The T-birds would not have traded Ross if they weren't confident in these two manning the crease. The question is who takes up the 14 forward and seven defensemen spots on the roster? Let's break it down by position and age group. These are the players we know are eligible to be here full-time next season.

Forward group:
20 year olds-Kelti Jeri-Leon.
19 year olds-Henrik Rybinski.
18 year olds-Payton Mount, Brendan Williamson, Jared Davidson and Matt Rempe.
17 year olds-Mekai Sanders, Kai Uchacz, Reid Schaefer, Conner Roulette, Sam Popowich and Lucas Ciona
16 year olds-Jordan Gustafson, Gabe Ludwig and Nico Myatovic

Defenseman Group:
20 year olds-Owen Williams
19 year olds-Simon Kubicek, Cade McNelly, Zach Ashton and Ryan Gottfried
18 year olds-Tyrel Bauer, Luke Bateman and possibly Samuel Knazko
17 year olds-Jeremy Hanzel
16 year olds-Kevin Korchinski and Spencer Penner

Not included in this list are any unsigned prospects currently on the team's protected list that may sign a standard WHL player agreement between now and the start of the season. I'm not saying that will happen, but it is always a possibility. It also doesn't include the potential addition of a third 20 year old either and you can't predict a trade. So there could conceivably be more then the 28 players listed above fighting for a roster spot.

I'm not going to play roster roulette here and tell you who I think will be on the team, although Conner Roulette will be on the team. Instead, I invite you, the reader, to use the list above and put together the roster you think will make the 23 man version of the 20-21 Thunderbirds. You've got three months (maybe more) and I've already started you off with the two goalies.

Just keep in mind you need four centers among your forward group and you need a good mix of left and right shots in both your wingers and defensemen. Then you have to figure how many rookies you are going to carry, especially 16 year old rookies. I know it would be easy just to eliminate the 16 year olds from the discussion but trust me, there will be 16 year old rookies on the opening night roster.

Will there be enough ice to get them all the required number of games? A season ago Seattle used six 16 year old forwards, three of them on a nightly basis. Now those six, 16 year olds are a year older and all six of them figure to be in the lineup nearly every night. A team typically dresses 12 forwards. So the T-birds newly turned 17 year olds will comprise one half of your game night forward group.

The list above shows 11 defensemen eligible to be full-time T-birds next season. Ten if Knazko doesn't report. Either way, we know ten or eleven defenseman on the roster is not going to happen. Only seven, maybe eight will make it. Even if you were to eliminate the two 16 year olds you are still left with eight or nine. Again though, I refer you to my statement above. there will be 16 year olds on this team. Paring down the defense to the requisite number might be the most difficult task.

The hard part for you as you try to put together the roster is you don't know which older player or players the coaches and GM value not just for their on ice ability but for the intangibles they bring to the team. Intangibles such as their leadership both on and off the ice do factor in to these decisions. Keep in mind too that some of these young players, while eligible to play at a lower level, are so important to the team's future that the organization sees more value in keeping them in Kent. The whole point of this exercise is for you to think like a WHL GM and weigh all the variables as you put your team together. The key phrase there is "WHL GM". Don't think like an NHL GM. At this level you have to factor in that you are in a league that focuses on player development.

Wear a mask when necessary and wash your hands! It will get us closer to hockey again!

Friday, May 1, 2020

The Dotted Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be safe, wash your hands!

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Ice-olated for the Draft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe. Wash your hands!

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Well, That Was Pointless

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

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

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

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

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

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

My T-birds three stars for the lost weekend:

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

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

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

Monday, February 24, 2020

February Frenzy Finished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Busy Bodies, Strong Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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