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!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

That Took Some Balls!


On Monday, I half jokingly told a friend the Thunderbirds were gonna win the WHL Draft Lottery and with it win the rights to the first overall pick in the draft. I just figured this team was due some good luck so why not the Draft Lottery?

It's like when a player or a team is struggling to score (we know all about that). The puck seems to bounce left when you need it to bounce right or a shot at a gaping open net clangs off the post. Your team is trying hard and throwing everything at the net but nothing is going in. So what you need, to break the dam, is that bit of luck; a fluke. You need a puck to take an awkward deflection off the glass and carom behind an unsuspecting goalie and into the back of the goal. Or a shot to ricochet off a defenseman's skate and in.

Well, that's exactly what the T-birds just got. And maybe that fortunate tumble of a ping pong ball is what turns this franchise's fortunes around. Now, I don't know who the Thunderbirds will use that pick on. It may be to early for even them to know. If you read some of the blogs and scouting reports out there, names like Barzal, Soy, Musil and Harkins seem to be getting a lot of play.

Don't forget, the T-birds also have the 20th pick of the first round (obtained from Portland in the Marcel Noebels deal) and the 25th overall selection (their own second round pick). We'll find out when the WHL Bantam Draft unfolds May 3rd in Calgary, but next year or in the years beyond, when this Thunderbirds put three seasons of non-playoff hockey behind them, we may look back on March 21st, 2012 and a ping pong ball with a Seattle logo on it as the turning point.

By the way, do you think Scott Lowe had a hand in getting that T-bird ball to come out first at the draft lottery? Lowe, a long time Thunderbirds off-ice official, passed away Tuesday night after a long battle with ALS. Apparently Scott's first act in hockey heaven was to give his favorite team a little good luck. Thanks Scott!

Please send your thoughts and prayers to Scott's family.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Pause to Reflect: Calvin Pickard


The image of Calvin Pickard, at the end of the final game down in Portland slumped over in the crease, down on his knees with his masked forehead resting on the ice, staying there seemingly forever, will be one that lasts with me for awhile. It was an emotional reaction from a fierce competitor who realizes a goal won't be reached.

Then I remember back just 48 hours earlier to the final horn in Spokane Friday night after a thrilling 4-3 win over the Chiefs that had kept Seattle's flickering playoff hopes alive. The image there of Calvin hopping up and down on the ice, arms raised high in the air as he literally bounced from the crease to the blueline. Pure euphoria at the joy of victory. Another kind of emotional reaction from this fierce competitor.

Then there he was down on the ice after the home loss Saturday to Everett. Calvin, like his teammates, still in uniform, his pads still on, down on one knee on the ice during the postgame team awards ceremony. There was sweat dripping off him, his hair matted against his head, his eyes staring off into the distance at nothing and everything at the same time trying to come to grips I'm sure, with the gravity of the situation. the chance to clinch a playoff spot had slipped from their grasp. Yet another show of emotion.

They say you have to keep your emotions in check and try to ride an even keel in this game; don't get too high with the ups and don't get too down with the lows. But when you love the game that is easier said then done. Besides, I'd rather see the human side of these players, After all, they play this game because of their passion for the sport. No one has more of that passion then Calvin Pickard. Sunday it was as if he died just a little bit with each goal Portland scored Sunday. But he kept fighting and twisting and throwing his body at every puck. He wasn't going down without leaving everything on the ice. It was like the end of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and Robert Redford and Paul Newman are surrounded by the Bolivian Army. They know it's over but they were going to go out on their terms, even if that end was under a hail of bullets.

Calvin wanted the playoffs so badly, to play at least one more game as a T-bird for his teammates, for the fans....for himself. It was just not to be. I think the significance of the situation hit him as that final horn sounded down in Portland. His record-setting WHL career was over. A big chapter of his life was done. Dreams he had when he entered the league four years ago went unfulfilled.

So, as he lie there in the crease after the game Sunday for what seemed like an eternity, with teammates like Cason Machacek and Mitch Elliot coming over to console him, you understand why Pickard wasn't thinking of the bright future that lies ahead of him. The only thing that mattered to Calvin at that moment was "the now". The reality of a finality to his junior career.

I ran into Calvin after the game outside the locker room, just before he boarded the bus for the ride back to Kent. His uniform and gear had long since been packed and stowed for the final time. His hair slicked back, nattily attired in suit and tie but his eyes still red; still wearing the emotion of the situation. I shook his hand and tried to think of something clever to say but could come up with nothing significant. Just an awkward sort of "thanks". really, what else can you say?

Think about this; goalies are on the ice for more minutes then any other player on their team, sixty minute on average per game. And no goalie has been on the ice in his WHL career more than Calvin has. This means he's spent more minutes on the ice then anyone in Thunderbirds history. He's faced more shots and made more saves then any WHL goaltender ever has. Did the team win any titles or claim any banners while Calvin was here? No. But Calvin tried to make every one of those minutes he spent in a Thunderbirds jersey count.

They say you don't know what you're missing until it's gone. But Calvin Pickard isn't gone just yet and we already miss him.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Three-Peat?

The Thunderbirds would love to repeat their Tuesday night performance, and earn a third straight win, when they travel to Spokane Friday to face the Chiefs for the final time this season. The T-birds 3-1 win over Spokane Tuesday may have been their most complete effort of the season, definitely top three.

It may have been as close to playing over a full sixty minutes the way head coach Steve Konowalchuk wants them to play every night. They were physical, they were aggressive on the forecheck, they sacrificed the body to block shots, the passing was the best I've seen all season and they went hard to the net, especially on the power play. There were still too many defensive zone turnovers to my liking, so it wasn't perfect but it's the direction this team needs to go over the final three games.

Seth Swenson tallied just one goal the first half of the season with the Portland Winterhawks. Since coming over to Seattle at the trade deadline he has struck for nine more, including five on the power play. He's also added seven helpers giving him 16 points in 31 games. That projects out to about 36 points over the course of a season. But those numbers should go up next season. I could see Swenson easily doubling those numbers as a 19 year old when he'll get even more playing time. What I really have appreciated about his game is his willingness to go hard to the net to get those greasy goals.

So what has changed since that humbling 11-2 home loss to Portland Saturday? Well, for one desperation has set in as the T-birds can't afford any hiccups in their quest to earn a playoff spot. That loss to the Winterhawks may have been rock bottom, as well as a wake up call. I think the real change though, is that some of the younger players have decided to step forward and show some leadership. The aforementioned Swenson is one but also players like Troock and Honey. Even 16 year old defenseman Shea Theodore seems to have stepped up and is more aggressive with the puck.

Very good defensive game Wednesday by two forwards. Justin Hickman must have blocked a dozen shots all by himself and Chance Lund was a monster, especially on the penalty kill. When your goaltender is standing on his head to make save after save, you need help like that from the guys out in front.

Two very big wins but Seattle is still on the outside looking in at the playoffs. They do have a game in hand on 8th place Victoria. That game in hand though is the last game of the season, Sunday down in Portland. Best option for the T-birds is to get points in these next two games (Fri @ Spokane, Sat vs. Everett) and avoid a must win scenario in that season finale.

Here are the updated Pace to the Playoffs standings:

7. Everett on pace for 54.26 pts (3 games remaining: @Kelowna, @ Tri-City, @Seattle)
8. Victoria on pace for 52.45 pts (2 games remaining vs. Portland @ home)
9. Seattle on pace for 52.17 pts(3 games remaining:@ Spokane,vs. Everett,@ Portland)
10. Prince George on pace for 49.37 pts (2 games remaining: @ Kamloops, vs. Kamloops)

Monday, March 12, 2012

March Madness; The Final Four

What a roller coaster weekend! From the hugely disappointing performance in the lopsided loss Saturday to Portland to the bounce back effort and emotional, last second overtime win Sunday against Everett. The bottom line? After 68 games the T-birds playoffs hopes are still alive.

First though, let's congratulate Calvin Pickard. What an iron man he has been in goal for this franchise over the past four seasons and now he is the WHL record holder for most minutes played as well as for most career saves. To think he is eligible to play one more season at this level and put up more saves and minutes that would make both those marks tough for anyone to surpass! Of course, being a signed player, the odds of him returning next season are probably two; slim and none. So enjoy these last few games with him manning the crease for the Thunderbirds. If anyone on this roster deserves a trip to the postseason, Pickard surely is that player.

Where does this leave the team with four games remaining. Well, they are still on the outside looking in, three points out of the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Simple math says they have to win at least two of those final four games to get in and depending on what Victoria does in their final two games, it may take more. The one plus for the T-birds is they have twice as many games remaining as the Royals. Also, the Royals final two games are both against Portland and Portland is fighting for the top seed.

The easiest path for the Thunderbirds to follow (and "easy" is used here rather liberally in a season when nothing has come easy for Seattle) is to win their remaining two home games. The T-birds host Spokane Tuesday and then, after a game in Spokane Friday, return home to host Everett on Saturday. The problem is the 'Birds are 0-3 at home against the Chiefs this season and historically have not fared will when hosting Spokane at the ShoWare Center. If memory serves me right, I believe the Chiefs have lost only one, maybe two games at ShoWare since it opened in 2009.

I know the phrase "take them one game at a time" is a time worn coach's cliche but it really describes this situation. Seattle must play Tuesday night like it is the only game that matters. Everybody has to be on the same page; everyone has to give their best effort. Now, there is also the possibility that the T-birds could steal a point over in Spokane Friday. Seattle has actually played the Chiefs better on the road the last few years then they have played them at home but I believe for Seattle to have a realistic chance at the playoffs they must win Tuesday night.

Seattle has not posted back-to-back wins since late December when they won three in a row following the Christmas break. What a perfect time for their first winning streak of 2012.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Not an Amicable Split

Normally when you go on the road for two games and get a split, you're okay with that. But at this point of the season, with a playoff spot on the line, you have to be greedy. You need to grab all the points you can get. You have to play with a sense of urgency, as if every shift could be your last. You need to pounce on loose pucks and fight for those greasy goals. I saw some of that Tuesday night in a 3-1 win in over the Cougars in Prince George. I didn't see enough of it in the rematch at the CN Centre Wednesday night.

The result is the T-birds settled for a split of those two games, a very unsatisfying split at that. In Tuesday's game both teams came out a little slow in the first period. I can understand that to a certain extent. It's a big game for both teams, there's maybe a little nervousness before the teams settle down.

But Wednesday, that is not understandable. Prince George lost the night before, their playoff lives were on the line and they came out to start Wednesday's game with a sense of purpose. They were desperate. The situation for the T-birds wasn't as dire but they had to know with a win they could possible jump back into a playoff spot while potentially crushing the Cougars hopes. But for the second straight night the T-birds came out flat. I didn't see any sense of urgency or desperation in their game. Not until they fell behind and the minutes ticked off the clock. That's not how you play with a postseason spot on the line.

One player who stepped up was team captain Luke Lockhart. Lockhart scored two goals including the game winner Tuesday night. Calvin Pickard was solid in goal but once again got no offensive support. Seattle's offense has struggled mightily over the past eight games, scoring just 12 goals. At a time of the season when they need the offense to step up, they are averaging 1.5 goals per game over that span.

The power play went 0-for-8 in the two games. It was the difference in Wednesday's loss as PG's second period power play goal ended up being the game winner. Seattle got five straight minutes of power play time in the second half of the first period. Down by one they had a chance to at least tie the game if not take over momentum but they came up empty.

I think the reality now is that for the T-birds to make the postseason they must win both home games versus Everett. It still may not be enough but it's almost impossible to get to the playoffs with those two wins.

Current Pace to the Playoff Standings:

7. Everett on pace for 53.45 pts (6 games remaining)
8. Victoria on pace for 51.58 pts (5 games remaining)
9. Seattle on pace for 50.18 pts (6 games remaining)
10. Prince George on pace for 47.28 pts (5 games remaining)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Losing Control

Well, the two losses this weekend, in concert with wins by Everett and Victoria, means the T-birds have lost some control of their own destiny. Now, if Seattle were to win out and go 8-0 down the stretch, they'd probably make the playoffs but the odds of that happening are not great, so Seattle will need to help themselves and then probably get help to get in.

They can start with winning two games this week up in Prince George. That is easier said then done. The Cougars just showed, by splitting at home with Spokane, that taking two on their ice won't be easy. That said, the T-birds actually have a four game winning streak at the CN Centre dating back to the 09-10 season. We may now look back on the two games these two teams played against each other earlier this season as keys to Seattle's failure if they miss the postseason. Seattle dropped a pair of games at home to the Cougars, losing 3-2 in a shootout November 25th and then being shutout, 1-0, on December 9th. Three big points left on the home ice at a time the team was actually playing some good hockey.

How quickly things can turn. Seattle got the big home ice shutout win over Everett back on February 25th, playing one of their most complete games of the season. But now they've dropped four in a row and in the span of a week they've gone from a three point lead for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, to being three points out.

The injury bug and suspensions hit the team at precisely the wrong time as the 'Birds have played these recent games without Tyler Alos, Chance Lund and Cason Machacek. Branden Troock missed two games as well.

Meanwhile the T-birds offense has become even more of a struggle, being shutout twice in their last six games, registering just a single goal in two others. Twice they scored three times but one of those was still a loss. Eight goals in their last six games just won't cut it, especially while surrendering 22.

Everything from here on out will have a desperation, do-or-die feel to it....or at least it should.

Here is the updated Pace to the Playoffs standings going into play this week:

7. Victoria on pace for 53.16 pts (7games left)
8. Everett on pace for 52.06 pts (7 games left)
9. Seattle on pace for 49.5 pts (8 games left)
10. Prince George on pace for 46.52 pts (7 games left)