Thursday, March 22, 2012

No Looking Back, It's Onward and Upward!

I wanted to wait until after the WHL Draft Lottery to put a wrap on the just concluded 2011-12 season. As I posted earlier, I had a strange intuition that the T-birds were going to win the lottery and, viola, they did! I just needed a little bit of good news after the disappointment of missing out on the WHL playoffs for a third consecutive season. The lottery win was more than a little bit of good news, that was great news.

I truly believe that winning that lottery sweepstakes is the first sign this franchise is coming out of a down cycle. Again, like my premonition about the lottery ,I have a feeling good things are down the road. The lottery win was just a sign though, not the first step. I believe the T-birds took those first steps in recent years with the acquisition of some quality young talent.

Seattle now has a core group of players to build around and that is the next step. For next season that still includes the leadership of a player like Luke Lockhart, and possibly a Brad Deagle, but in reality the leadership focus has already begun to shift to younger players like Brandon Troock, Conner Honey and Shea Theodore.

Meanwhile players like Seth Swenson, Colin Jacobs, Justin Hickman and Evan Wardley must continue their development as well. All will take on bigger roles with this team next year. All flashed signs of great potential but now there needs to be consistency in their play. The motto must be "60 X 72". That's not a math equation, it is a winning formula as in, sixty minutes of hockey in every one of the 72 regular season games next season.

I have no idea what the roster will look like in six months. I think there could be anything from some major overhauling to some minor tweaking. I believe Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk needs the opportunity to build the team with "his guys" though. I think his systems are fine, he just needs the right players to plug in. I'm not saying he gets a mulligan for his first season behind the bench but I think a year of adjusting to the WHL isn't out of the ordinary for a coach coming from a higher level.

Konowalchuk should have a better grasp of the league by the start of camp in August, if he doesn't already. Last year at this time I thought the T-birds could be a close to .500 team in 2011-12. Of course we know now that didn't happen. But I also believed Konowalchuk had to tear this team down, then start to build it back up again and in the end I think it did affect the wins and losses.

One concern going into next season will be the defense and how young it could be...and it will be young. You get the feeling, that after he was named the team's Defenseman of the Year for 2011-12, that 20 year old Brad Deagle has a roster spot going into 2012-13. After that though, they get pretty green on the back end. I could see Mitch Elliot getting every opportunity to make the switch to defense permanent next season as a 19 year old but that's not a guarantee he'll make it. General Manager Russ Farwell could use one of his two Import Draft selections in June on an 18 or 19 year old defenseman, or look to acquire a 19 year old rear guard via trade. Outside of those options the next oldest returning defenseman will be the 18 year old Wardley.

Both Theodore and Jared Hauf saw plenty of ice time as 16 year olds and I expect both to take a big step forward next year. Taylor Green should be here full time but he's an unknown quantity back on the blue line. He played in just three games for the team this past season, all early in the year and played all three up as a forward. Kevin Wolf, the 2011 Bantam pick out of Minnesota will be here as a 16 year old but after that there are still a few spots to be filled. Expect at least one other 17 year old defenseman, if not two, to make the roster out of the trio of Jerret Smith, Zach Douglas and Taylor Mulder. Of course there is always the possibility that some player on the team's radar pops up at camp unexpectedly and grabs one of those roster spots.

There should be a healthy battle at training camp for the two goaltender spots. Obviously Daniel Cotton has a leg up on others as he spent the entire season with the team, backing up Calvin Pickard. At this time I think Cotton is fairly certain to have a roster position next season but I don't think he's guaranteed the number one job. Here's another position where the team could invest one of their Import Draft selections or possibly make a trade. Otherwise expect players like Justin Myles, Danny Mumaugh, Nolan Kruizenga and Brad Rebagliati (and possibly a few others) to try and stake a claim. All those mentioned were at camp with the team last fall.

But believe it or not, even with the uncertainty of the goaltending situation and the expected youth of the blue line corps, the biggest concern for me going forward is the offense. This team mustered only 173 goals this past season. That is an average of just 2.40 per game and at times last year the goals per game average was closer to 2.35. You're just not going to win a lot of games averaging less than two and a half goals per game.

I think, just to be at or near a .500 record next year, the Thunderbirds have to average, at a minimum three goals per game and that's being conservative. Of course they probably have to allow, on average, not more then three goals against per game which means giving up about 80 goals less next season then what they allowed this year...and do it with a younger defense and a goalie not named Calvin Pickard.

Kelowna finished 2011-12 as a .500 club (31-31-4-6) and scored on average 3.01 goals a game. Out east Red Deer was just under .500 at 32-34-1-5 and they averaged only 2.83 goals per game. So again, just to be a .500 team next season the 'Birds are going to have to score another 25 to 35 goals more then they did in 2011-12. And with that young defense and an untested goalie, it may have to be more like 35-50 more goals then this past season.

The question is where will that scoring come from? We'd all like to think that we have players on the roster who can greatly increase their offensive output. But remember this past season we had four of the top five scorers returning from the previous year and each one, to a man, saw his offensive numbers go down, in most cases quite dramatically. Hopefully it was a fluke but you can't just pencil in a player to score another 15 to 20 goals just because he's a year older.

So let's take a look at where the scoring could come from and, being conservative, see how it adds up. Lockhart will be the top returning goal scorer and he tallied just 16 in 72 games. The year before he potted 21. That's an average of 18 goals each of the past two seasons. So let's say he's good for 20 next year. Chance Lund netted 15 but we can't be sure he'll be on the roster next season with only three 20 year old spots available. So, for the time being we'll leave him, and for that matter Brendan Rouse, out of the equation and just say we should hopefully get 20 goals out of the other 20 year old spot if that other 20 year old spot is used on a forward. So our total at the moment is 40 goals.

Branden Troock is next on the list of returning goal scorers. He had 14 in an up and down season affected by injuries. I think he's in line for a breakout season but it's still an unknown so I'm conservatively going to put him at 25 goals. Justin Hickman ended up with 12 goals but tailed off over the final couple of months. Still, I think 20 goals isn't out of the realm of possibility in his 18 year old season. That brings the total to 85 goals.

Then you have three players who all saw just half a season with the T-birds: Colin Jacobs, Conner Honey and Seth Swenson. Jacobs missed half the season rehabbing from offseason surgery. He came back and contributed nine goals in 44 games. The previous year, as a 17 year old he had 22 goals in 68 games. So he was on a similar scoring pace. He certainly has the ability to be a 20-25 goal scorer. So let's pencil him in for 25. The 17 year old Honey joined the team just before Christmas. It took him a while to get going but eventually he contributed ten goals in 46 games, but he was streaky in that department. Still, by sure grit he should get you 20 goals next season. Swenson arrived in Seattle via a trade mid-January from Portland, banging in ten goals in 34 games. Again, we're being conservative here so I'll put Swenson down for 20 in 2012-13. Our total is now at 150.

What can we expect from Tyler Alos as a 19 year old? He's never scored more than eight goals in a season and that was three years ago. His last two years have seen just 9 goals combined from him. I don't think it would be fair to expect a big jump next year. He's not that type of player. He's a grinder, a hard worker and a strong penalty killer who can occasionally chip in on offense. What about Conner Sanvido? He registered eight goals this past season but was also in the coach's doghouse at times. He was even suspended from the team for a week. Will he even be back next year? I think a 19 year old Sanvido could be a 10-15 goal player but there's no certainty he makes it out of training camp. If Sanvido is here he and Alos together may get you 20 goals. That puts us at 170.

The same thing that was said about Sanvido, outside of the "being in the coach's doghouse", could be said about Elliot and Jacob Doty. Both work hard but will either player return next season as a 19 year old? If he does come back, will Elliot be a d-man or a forward? Combined they only contributed four goals so even if they are back, they won't be relied on for offense. Not knowing their status I won't venture a guess.

Meanwhile the group of defensemen who are slotted to return next year combined to give you ten goals in 2011-12, led by the four of Theodore. I think Theo, by himself could contribute at least ten in 2012-13 but again, for the purpose of this exercise we are being fairly conservative so I'm just going to pencil in 25 from which ever players constitute our defensive group. Our total is now 195 goals.

Remember I said just to be a .500 team the T-birds probably need to average, at a minimum, three goals a game. That would be 216 for a 72 game season. We're sitting at 195 with our returning players, give or take 5-10 goals.

Somewhere Russ Farwell needs to find another goal scorer. A player who can light the lamp about 20-25 times. It could come in the form of an import player. That could be the "cheapest" option. It could possibly come by way of a trade, although when you are building a young team, as Seattle is, I don't know if you want to trade away the type of assets it would take to get a scorer of that magnitude. You're probably talking about a 19 year old that you would only have for one season. That's a big risk to take just to be a .500 team. Is it a risk worth taking?

A year ago at this time we were wondering about the status of a young first round draft pick with tremendous offensive upside who had missed his entire 16 year old season because of health issues. That player, Troock, eventually made it onto the ice for the 'Birds. Now, here we are a year later and we are again wondering about a young first round draft pick with tremendous offensive upside; Ryan Gropp.

Gropp, the sixth overall pick in round one of last year's WHL Bantam Draft, has still yet to commit to the T-birds. He and any other rookie that would join the team next season, be it a Michal Holub, a Daniel Wray or a John Edwardh, is an unknown commodity. But Gropp in particular could be a 10-15 goal contributor even as a first year player. I think getting Gropp into the fold has to be priority number one, priority number two and priority number three this offseason.

Even after a third straight year of non-playoff hockey I continue to be optimistic about this team. I think there is enough talent on this roster to be a postseason team next year. Some changes are necessary and who knows what players might be recruited this offseason, and show up at camp in August, that will become big cogs in this team going forward, but a good many of the right pieces are already in place.

I'll be keeping an eye on the WHL playoffs as they get underway. I think Portland has the most skill of any playoff roster but that doesn't always equal championship. Tri-City will be tough to beat at home, Edmonton is the hottest team going into the playoffs and I really like Moose Jaws group of defensemen.

I'm excited to see what the Thunderbirds do with that number one overall pick in the bantam draft as well as their other picks in the top 25 selections and, as always, I'm looking forward to next season!

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