Friday night in Portland the Seattle Thunderbirds will embark on season two of the Steve Konowalchuk era. Konowalchuk, of course, is the T-birds head coach. A season ago, in his first year behind the bench, the team went 25-45-1-1.
Notice I didn't say "his team" went 25-45-1-1. Konowalchuk had mostly inherited a team that had gone a combined 46-76-12-10 over the two previous campaigns. Last season he was essentially using many of the same players from those teams. There will still be some carry-over in personnel from last year's team to this season, but we've already seen a lot of roster turnover this offseason. Konowalchuk is starting to put his stamp on the club. He is very convinced in the way he wants his team to play and resolute in the makeup of the players he wants on his bench.
You can call last season a bit of a mulligan, if you will. Not to say the Thunderbirds weren't fighting to make the playoffs, a goal they just missed out on, but it was also an opportunity for Konowalchuk to find out what he had, what he didn't have, and what was worth holding on to and what parts he didn't need.
Every coach has a style, or system, they want to play and an idea of the type of player they think best fits that style. With the acquisition over the past nine months of players like Riley Sheen, Connor Honey and Seth Swenson, the drafting of imports Alex Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs, the retention of two 20 year old forwards in Luke Lockhart and Brendan Rouse, a bigger role for Justin Hickman and the makeup of Seattle's defensemen, you can see the value Konowalchuk places on everyone on the roster being a solid skater who can play both ends of the ice.
The question now is how will it play on the ice against the rest of the WHL? The group of forwards are older players (12 of 18 will be 18 or older by midseason) while the defensemen are young, even raw in many cases (five of seven are age 17 or younger). The fresh-faced d-men will grow together while the seasoned players up front will hopefully allow the T-birds to improve on an offense that has been among the league's least effective over the past three seasons.
Since the start of the 2009-10 season the T-birds have scored just 540 goals over the span of 216 games. That's an average of just 2.41 goals per game. As a result Seattle won just 71 of those contests. 2.41 goals a game won't cut it this season. Not if you want to be a playoff team. The 'Birds have to get that average up to at least 3.00.
You expect a good scoring season from NHL drafted players like Branden Troock and Delnov. You see the potential for good offensive numbers from Swenson, Lockhart and maybe even Hickman and Honey. But up front I believe the key to scoring more goals , lies within a trio of 19 year olds who must push past what they've done previously in the WHL. Tyler Alos, Mitch Elliot and Connor Sanvido need to rise to the occasion in 2012-13. It doesn't mean they have to be 25-30 goal scorers. It means their play must create more offense then it has thus far in their T-birds careers.
Teams with poor special teams that make the playoffs are the exception and not the rule. Seattle knows this firsthand. The T-birds put up some solid numbers on specials teams play during the preseason. Hopefully that carries over to the regular season. Both the power play and penalty kill must improve. One thing that stood out in the preseason was how much more decisive the 'Birds were with the man advantage. There was quicker, sharper passing and most importantly no hesitation to shoot the puck
I'm sure there was some shock...or maybe trepidation, after it was learned the T-birds parted ways with 20 year old defenseman Brad Deagle. That leaves the club with seven d-men and only 19 year old Jesse Forsberg, obtained in a trade this offseason from Prince George, has more than one year of WHL experience under his belt.
Is it a gamble, especially for a team that allowed 292 goals against last season (4.05 per game)? Sure it is, but if you watched preseason unfold then the move shouldn't be so surprising. You saw the coaching staff's confidence in their young blue liners. The forwards may be the veterans on this team but the high upside lies within that group of mostly untested defensemen.
It is just my opinion but I believe there are three factors that led to the release of Deagle. One, the acquisition of Forsberg.
Forsberg was billed as more of a stay-at-home defenseman but he has shown he can carry the puck up ice and jump into the offense and he appears to be a dynamic presence in the locker room who can lead by word and example.
Two, the need to improve the offense meant the team is better served with two 20 year old forwards. Some say the preseason doesn't have much meaning but I think the way both Lockhart and Rouse played in those preseason games made the decision to jettison Deagle easier. It certainly wasn't anything Deagle didn't do. Both Lockhart and Rouse showed their value to this team. You might question whether sacrificing a veteran defenseman for the sake of offense is the right choice. Remember though, team defense isn't all about the defensemen and the goalie. It's also forwards coming back on the back check. Lockhart and Rouse are both very good defensive forwards.
Three, the potential of the young defensemen and the need to get them ice time, especially the play of Jerret Smith. In many ways Smith is a mirror image of Shea Theodore. Both are 17. Smith is a right-handed shot, Theodore is a left-handed shot. They are both offensive minded d-men, about the same size (6'2"), albeit Smith is a bit thicker. Theodore is obviously ahead of Smith in terms of his development but I see a huge upside for Smith if he can harness his talents.
The learning curve for these young defensemen is going to be steep. They are going to have to be ready for the rigors of the WHL from game one. With Deagle gone, there will be no training wheels on their skates. Evan Wardley will probably need to stay out of the penalty box yet still play his physical style. Jared Hauf and Taylor Green will need to keep using their long frames as well as they did through preseason. Kevin Wolf needs to absorb as much as he can in this, his 16 year old season and the fans, well I hope they realize what this group can be while going through the growing pains.
Now to the goaltending. One of the prevailing thoughts I hear or read is that without Calvin Pickard in goal and a young defense, the T-birds are in trouble. My answer to that is that WITH Calvin Pickard AND a veteran group of defensemen a season ago, the T-birds won just 25 games. The year before that, just 27 and the year before that only 19 wins. I know, I know, your rebuttal to that is probably, "Just think how many fewer games they would have won without Calvin".
Look, there is no denying that Pickard was one of the best goalies in franchise history. That alone should tell you it didn't matter who was in goal for this team as it missed the postseason three straight years. It is all about the supporting cast. The T-birds, GM Russ Farwell, coach Konowalchuk and his staff, have used this offseason to begin transforming that cast. 20 year old goalie Brandon Glover is part of that transformation. He should be a solid presence in net. Quick trivia; in his four year Thunderbirds career Pickard played in five postseason games (2009). Last spring with Calgary Glover played in four.
A good goalie can steal you a few wins, he can't steal an entire season's worth though. Again, supporting cast folks. There is still a decision to be made on the #2 netminder. Whether it is Daniel Cotton or Justin Myles, they will have earned the job after a healthy battle through camp and the preseason. Whichever one nails down the job, they should be in line for 15-18 starts.
There is no reason to think the T-birds aren't a contender for a playoff spot. Of course there are nine other teams in the Western Conference who feel the same way and, as you know, only eight teams qualify for the postseason. While some of the competition, like Tri-City and even Portland to an extent, might fall back towards the rest of the pack this season, they still have proven playoff rosters. Meanwhile, teams like Prince George and Victoria will, like the T-birds, be on the path to improvement.
So, the challenge remains the same and once again you should prepare for a season in which the Thunderbirds postseason fate may not be decided until mid-March.
Finally, I hope everyone who attends the home opener this Saturday vs. Portland arrives early. Prior to the start of the game, the Thunderbirds will be honoring Bruce McDonald, my broadcast partner over the past 11 seasons who passed away in June after a short battle with leukemia. It is difficult to think of doing the games this weekend without Bruce by my side. He will be sorely missed and I'd like to dedicate this season to his memory.
In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012