Friday, August 31, 2012

A Good First Step

The Seattle Thunderbirds began their preseason schedule Friday afternoon with a, 4-3, overtime loss to the Portland Winterhawks. Only, for me at least, this one didn't have the same feel that so many of the T-birds losses to Portland have had over the past three seasons.

Granted, it is just a preseason game and wins and losses really don't mean as much as creating some chemistry between linemates or finding those 3-4 players who are going to round out the regular season roster, but I think it is important for the T-birds to get into good habits. Winning is a good habit. Seattle didn't win this game but it was very evenly played and for the T-birds there were a multitude more postives then negatives to take from this game.

Seattle doesn't play again at the Everett tournament until Sunday but it is important to build off Friday's effort. The lineup will change as players who didn't see action versus Portland will take to the ice while others will rest. Even with the changes Seattle needs to find the same success. One of the hallmarks of a losing team is inconsistent play. The T-birds have to learn how to play consistent hockey from game to game no matter what players are or aren't on the ice.

The line of Seth Swenson, Justin Hickman and Branden Troock was probably the best line on the ice all game, for either team, and they were rewarded with three goals (each player had one). If that trio stays together, they will be a hard threesome to play against. That being said, they weren't the only T-birds creating chances on the ice. In fact I thought Seattle created a few more scoring opportunities then did the Winterhawks. Not a great deal more but there were a few golden chances they didn't cash in.

Roberts Lipsbergs, the Latvian Import, is an engergizer bunny. That guy is controlled exhuberance! He's all over the ice, banging bodies, chasing down loose pucks, winning puck battles along the boards and generally being a prototypical two-way player.

Shea Theodore has come back for his second season, and from a gold medal with Team Canada earlier this summer at the U-18s, with a stack more confidence. He's an offensive minded defenseman (and made a great outlet pass to spring Troock for the tying goal in the third period) but I thought he looked so much better in the d-zone.

Another 17 year old defenseman,Jerret Smith, seemed tentative on his early shifts which, I suppose, isn't all that unexpected considering this was his first WHL game. He picked it up as the game went on though. I think this is something the T-birds will have to get through in the first half of the season; young rookie defensemen like Smith, Taylor Green and Kevin Wolf growing into their ice time.

Goaltending: Brandon Glover made one mistake playing a puck in the first period that indirectly led to Portland's second goal. Other than that he was solid in his 30 plus minutes. 16 year old Danny Mummaugh showed no nerves and was very good in his time on the ice. He allowed two goals but it was hard to fault him on either. The three man race for the second goalie roster spot is going to be a good one.

I was waiting to see if one of the young forwards would step up and separate from the pack. None of them made glaring mistakes but none of them stood out in a positive way either. It will be interesting to see which ones stick for the regular season. Four more preseason games and a few weeks of practice to determine that.

One young player who did make me take notice a couple of times during the game was Keegan Kolesar. He was especially good in the third period when the game was tight. At age 15 Kolesar is not eligible to play in the WHL this season but he's a gamer!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

20 Questions

There has already been a lot of chatter from T-bird fans on who the three 20 year olds will be or should be on this year's roster.  Technically that decision doesn't have to be made until mid-October.  My guess is, because it will be a very difficult decision, the T-birds will wait until the October deadline before they finalize their decision rather then make their choices at the end of preseason.  The one exception to that thought would be if the team was able to work out a trade before hand. 

Before I continue, let me say this.  I've had a few people ask if the potential NHL lockout would affect the number of 20 year old players WHL teams will carry this season.  The answer I'm getting is no, there will be no increase from the standard three 20 year old players per roster. 

It has been a few years since the T-birds entered a training camp with more then three 20 year olds on the roster.  A season ago, they had just one (Burke Gallimore) and ended up making deals to bring in two players, defensemen  Kyle Verdino and Cason Machacek.  Unless you've just had s strong playoff run and had all your older playes drafted, the prevailing thought is, if you don't have three or more of your own 20 year olds on the roster going into camp, you probably haven't found success in recent drafts or previous trades.  So the fact the T-birds have some "home grown" 20 year olds to choose from this season, is a good thing.

Currently the T-birds have five players battling for three roster spots.  One of those five, goalie Brandon Glover, was obtained via trade over the summer.  Glover was brought in to be the starting goalie, replacing the departed Calvin Pickard.  I think it is safe to say Glover has one of the 20 year old roster spots locked up.

That leaves four players competing for the remaining two 20 year old roster spots:  defenseman Brad Deagle, left winger Chance Lund and centers Luke Lockhart and Brendan Rouse.  I think all four could easily fit into the team's plans for the upcoming season.  Any argument that can be made for any one player I believe I could easily make just as strong an argument for another.  It's both a blessing and a curse.  All four are solid players who can contribute but not one of them stands head and shoulders above the rest.  As I heard someone say this weekend, "There's no Brendan Shinnimin in the group."  Shinnimin, as a 20 year old last season for the Tri-City Americans, scored 58 goals and put up 134 points. 

The decision on who stays and who goes may not come down to how good (or poor) any of these players perform in camp or through the preseason games.  Rather, it could be determined by how some of the younger players perform.  The WHL is a development league and if you can get from a 17, 18 or 19 year old what you can get from a 20 year old, then the odds are you're going to give that roster spot and, more importantly, the ice time to the younger player so they can develop.

To that end then, here are some players to watch as camp and preseason progresses.  If a few of these players step up, it could go along way in deciding which two 20 year olds occupy those last two spots.

1.    Brayden Low.  The 18 year old Low is a former Portland Winterhawk draft pick who the T-birds listed over the summer after he was dropped by Portland.  He played in 5 games with the Winterhawks over the course of the past two seasons without registering a point but he has size.  The question is whether his offensive game translates to the WHL level. 

2.  Phil Pietroniro.  Pietroniro is an 18 year old defenseman out of the Phoenix area.  He played last season for Corpus Christi (TX) in the NAHL.  He's a right-handed shot. He has average size but from what little I've seen of him at camp and in the scrimmages, he plays a very steady game.  You may notice his younger brother (by two years) Chad, is also at camp. 

3.  Riley Sheen.  Sheen was obtained from Medicine Hat in a trade that sent fan favorite Jacob Doty to the Tigers.  The 17 year old left winger doesn't have a lot of size (listed at 5'9", 150 lbs) but he's a tremendous skater with mad puck handling skills and a wicked shot.  He registered just one goal in 46 games a year ago for the Hat but it is his offensive potential that makes him such an intriguing player going into this season. 

4 and 5.  Jerret Smith/Taylor Mulder.  In the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft the T-birds used 4 of their first six picks on defensemen.  None of them were named Smith or Mulder.  These two were essentially free agents the T-birds listed after that draft.  Could they have uncovered a couple of nuggets?  Smith is listed at 6'2", Mulder at 6'4".  Both got practice time with the team at various points last season, so the organization must think highly of both.  If either or both of these players impresses enough to make the roster, Seattle will have a very good class of 17 yr old defensemen when you add them to the Shea Theodore/Jared Hauf/Taylor Green mix.

6.  Daniel Wray.  As a 16 year old a season ago, Wray was the last player cut coming out of training camp.  Like Smith and Mulder he saw practice time with the club late last season.  a left winger, Wray was a 2010 6th round bantam selection.  Is it just me or have the T-birds gathered a solid group of '95 born players? 

7.  Michael Bell.  Bell, a 6'3", 205 lb center, was a 2010 7th round draft pick of the Everett Silvertips.  He played in ten games with Everett a season ago but did not register a point. After being released by the Silvertips, the T-birds listed him.  Certainly no harm in taking a flyer on a player with that size.  He's still just 17 years old.  I saw some good shifts from him during the first scrimmage of main camp on Saturday.

8.  Andrew Taverner.  As a camp invitee a year ago as a 16 year old, Taverner impressed the T-birds enough that they listed him.  He's back for his second go around hoping to impress again at age 17.  Could he follow in the footsteps of fellow Edmontonian Conner Honey?

9.  Taylor Green.  I'm listing Green this low only because I believe he's going to make the roster no matter who the 20 year olds are.  The 6'6", 2010 2nd round draft selection, Green actually played three games with the team a season ago and practiced with them quite often.  Trivia time...Green actually scored the first goal of the 2011-12 season for Seattle and he did it as a forward even though he is listed as a defenseman.  It appears the coaching staff will use him as a hybrid once again this season as he saw time in the first main camp scrimmage as both a d-man and left winger and looked very comfortable doing both.  I think this makes him a very valuable commodity going into the 2012-13 campaign.  

I've purpsosely left the 16 year olds out of the discussion.  I expect the Thunderbirds to carry two, possibly three, '96 born players on the roster this season.  I just don't think any of them are getting ice time at the expense of releasing any certain 20 year old player.  The T-birds are always going to carry two to three 16 year old players on the roster.  Its part of getting some of your top prospects acclimated to the trials and tribulation of the WHL.   

Friday, August 24, 2012

And so it Begins

The Seattle Thunderbirds opened training camp this week in preparation for the upcoming 2012-13 WHL season.  For the first two days the rookies ('96s & '97s) scrimmaged while the "veterans" (those age 17 and older) went through on-ice drills. 

That will change over the weekend as some of the younger players return home and some go on to join the older players at "main camp". 

No question the standout player in the scrimmages has been Matthew Barzal, the 15 yr old T-bird prospect and #1 overall selection in May's WHL Bantam Draft.  Barzal came as advertised.  He's just on a different plane then his contemporaries.  I could spend 5,000 words describing how talented he appears to be, but why waste the energy when I can understatedly say he's the real deal.

All the young players come to camp looking to impress.  Some are more wide-eyed then others but they all show tremendous effort. It's a tough business though and not all will realize a goal of playing at the WHL level.  It really is a fine line between uber-talented, super-talented and just plain talented but there really isn't much separation in desire and effort and all these kids are putting in the work.

Other than the aforementioned Barzal, I'm not going to try and determine, after just watching a couple of scrimmages, which of these young players has the potential to lead the T-birds to future glory because 1.) I'd like to see them all succeed and 2.) that's what coaches scouts and GMs get paid the big bucks for!

What I did like from the scrimmages was seeing those players who were here last year as 15 year olds, have all improved their games now that they are 16. I didn't see anyone who took a step backward.  Michael Holub, a 3rd round draft pick in 2011, in particular seems to have pushed his game up to another level.  I don't know how many, if any, 16 yr olds the club plans to carry this season but if there is a spot for a 16 yr old on the roster, Holub is definitely in the mix. 

The same could be said of Carter Folk, another 2011 T-bird draft pick.  He's starting to remind me a bit of Portland Winterhawk Brad Ross.  He's gritty, chippy and looks like he has some offensive skills.

I'm not sure what it was a season ago, but 2011 2nd round pick Austin Douglas looked "uncomfortable" on the ice at times at last year's rookie camp.  This year, in his second go 'round the big 6'5" defenseman looked much more comfortable on the ice and skated with a lot more confidence.  He still may be a year away from being a WHLer but if his improved skill level continues at the same pace over the next 12 months, he could be a solid blue liner by 2014. 

Seeing a name in print is not the same as pronouncing it correctly, something broadcasters usually find out the hard way.  I had heard the names of the T-birds top two 2012 draft picks pronounced in a variety of ways.  For the record, according to Matt it is pronounced "Bar-zell" and Keegan says his last name is pronounced Koh-leh-sahr.  In both cases, there doesn't appear to be an emphasis on any one syllable. 

Keegan, by the way, is the first player I've come across who looks bigger out of his gear then in it.  I believe he looks smaller on the ice because he's a very smooth skater who moves well without much effort.  But in fact, he's already 6'0, 200lbs at age 15.  In talking with him he thinks he projects out to about 6'2', 230lb by the time he's 19. 

I'm as anxious as anyone to get to main camp.  That's where the real battles begin.  There are a number of 17 and 18 year olds who will be fighting for a roster spot.  For some it is their first legitimate opportunity to try and win a job with the team.  Some of them also probably know it could be there last chance.