Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A New Era Dawns

There are those that believe you get a good read on a team about 20 games into a season. Well, the T-birds will reach the 20 game plateau with a pair of home games this weekend against Tri-City and Portland. Going into the weekend, the team sits at 7-11 having just gone 2-4 on their six-game road trip through the Central Division.

Frankly, because of the transition into a new coaching staff, I don't think the 20-game mark is a good barometer for this team. I think the midway point of the schedule would be a better benchmark for this club. I think it will take that long for the players to get fully engulfed in the new regime and for coaches Steve Konowalchuk and Darren Rumble to fully understand what they have with this roster.
If you just looked at the first 18 games you would think that not much has changed from a year ago. The team is still struggling to find an offensive identity and the goaltenders are still facing too many quality shots because the puck is inside the T-Birds blue line too much. There are times when the team can punish the opposition with a good fore check yet there are still times when they get pinned down in their defensive zone by a good puck cycling opponent.

But there have been glimpses of what this team can eventually become. To find those glimpses you need to look at the young players; the ones the coaches will have the most impact on. I'm not discounting the veterans. Their job is to stabilize the roster and lead. Players like Luke Lockhart, Burke Gallimore, Kyle Verdino and Cason Machacek have to set the example both on and off the ice, but if this team is to push for a playoff spot this season then it is the younger players who will have to step up and show improvement between now and March.

It begins with the group of 18-year-olds who need to take that next step from role players to solid contributors. I'm talking about the likes of Tyler Alos, Mitch Elliot, Connor Sanvido and Jacob Doty. If your goal is to make it to the next level or to have a pro career somewhere, this is the age where you have to put the burden on your back and run with it. You have to become a player who is relied upon, not one who relies on others. Otherwise younger players start to pass you by.
We're already seeing that from Justin Hickman. Hickman was goal-less in his rookie season a year ago but has already stepped up with four goals this season and three of those came in the last few games. If you could sit down and talk with Hickman I think you'd come to the conclusion that his ability to read the game is improving with each shift. He's developing good hockey smarts. He's a power forward in the making; someone who can take the punishment in front of the opposing net and get greasy goals. He's still going to take the odd bad penalty but that's part of trying to create a physical nature.

We should start seeing it soon in Branden Troock. A year away from the game is a year's development lost. To me, Troock is still the equivalent of a 16-year-old rookie. I also know that what I saw from him in his short stint here as a 15-year-old was no aberration. He is a major prospect. Right now he's like a race car in the pits. Get the fuel in, get the proper tires and make the adjustments on the body then once everything is aligned, watch him go. Troock just needs a few laps around the oval to get the feel for the track.

We're catching a glimpse of it from Shea Theodore and Jared Hauf as well. The two 16-year-old defenseman are going to suffer their growing pains. We've already seen some highs and lows with these two. There are no training wheels on either of them though. Theodore is already a staple on the power play. The ice time they get now will only speed up their development down the road.

Remember too, this team is evolving. Over the summer General Manager Russ Farwell brought in two 20-year-old defensemen in Verdino and Machacek. After the season began two more seasoned defensemen, 19-year-olds Braeden Laroque and Brad Deagle, were added to the roster via trade. Four of your top six d-men were not on this roster at the end of last season. Two of them weren't with the club opening night.
More recently the club added another veteran center by picking up Sean Aschim from Moose Jaw. By the way Aschim reminds me a little of Andre Herman, another trade acquisition by the Thunderbirds a few years back. Aschim's a guy I think can create some offense for both himself and his linemates. More importantly it allows Marcel Noebels to be shifted back to left wing.

Eventually Colin Jacobs will finish the rehabilitation from his offseason surgery and join the team and so will defenseman Evan Wardley after suffering a long term injury in training camp. All this has created competition for ice time and that should create a better hockey team as the season moves forward.

Strange thing, of all the games played on the recent road trip, I though the last game (the 5-1 loss in Kootenay) was their best overall effort. Yes, they struggled to get shots through to the Ice goal, sure they gave up another late goal at the end of the first period and they didn't get any puck luck when they rang two shots off the post in the third period when they still had a chance, but it was the most consistent of the six games from start to finish and their third period was one of their strongest. They are still a work in progress but hopefully they are progressing in the right direction.

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