Monday, April 29, 2013

The Draft is on Tap

The WHL Bantam draft will be held Thursday (May 2nd) and for the second consecutive year, the Seattle Thunderbirds will have three of the top 30 selections (8,22 and 27) including two first round choices.

A year ago Seattle had the first overall selection and chose Mathew Barzal. While Barzal has not yet officially committed to playing for the Thunderbirds there are signs that seem to indicate he will. He attended training camp last fall, he practiced with the team late this past season and he attended Seattle home playoff games this spring too.

Meanwhile, three of Seattle's top four picks from the 2012 draft , Keegan Kolesar (1st rd), Ethan Bear (2nd rd) and Logan Flodell (3rd rd) have already signed and have suited up for the club. Others from both the 2011 and 2012 draft classes are on the T-birds radar as well.

In the case of Kolesar and Bear, they have already seen ice time. Bear played a regular shift in a late season game down in Portland while Kolesar was in the lineup in Portland New Year's Eve and then played extensively in the final two games of Seattle's first round playoff series versus Kelowna. Though he never saw the ice, Flodell suited up and served as the backup goalie for one game in December after Justin Myles was injured.

Additionally, through the course of the season, the Thunderbirds had various other young drafted or listed prospects participate in practice sessions, especially during their playoff run. This isn't an unusual occurrence in the WHL but the large number of T-birds prospects eager to join the team for a practice session or two speaks volumes. It harkens back to the early part of the last decade.

This tells me these players view the WHL as a good path for their hockey growth and, more importantly, they want to do it as a Seattle Thunderbird. A similar scenario occurred two seasons ago when list players Conner Honey, Jerret Smith and Danny Mumaugh attended camp and eventually signed. Honey came to the T-birds midway through the 2011-12 season from the USHL. In the case of Smith and Mumaugh, both saw late season practice time with the T-birds in 2011-12 and then made the decision to come play for the T-birds this past season.

Meanwhile, in a recent online interview with ESPN Seattle, Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell mentioned the team is still pursuing their unsigned 2011 first round bantam draft pick, Ryan Gropp, who just finished up a very strong season with the BCHL's Penticton Vees.

All these moves coincide with the hiring of Steve Konowalchuk as head coach prior to the 2011-12 campaign. I don't know that the T-birds are consciously using Konowalchuk as a recruiting tool, but players talk to each other and you can be sure one of the questions prospects are asking current T-birds is "What's it like to play for Konowalchuk?" From my vantage point, Konowalchuk has shown to be firm but fair with his roster. I think players respect that, and players want to play for a coach they respect. Furthermore, players don't always get recognized by NHL scouts if coaches don't use them properly. Scouts are recognizing Seattle players.

While it is still too early to pass judgment, the preliminary return on the 2012 draft is very favorable, especially with those three high picks. With the same success Thursday Seattle should have six top end players on the roster in two seasons all picked in or near the first round of the bantam draft. A best case scenario would see a 2014-15 roster laden with 13-15 players chosen with picks high in either the 1st, 2nd or 3rd round.

As for what Seattle will do in the upcoming WHL bantam draft, while they don't have the first overall pick as they did last spring, they still have a high choice, making their first selection at #8. The word, from various sources, is that the talent among the 1998 born players is very good making for a deep draft.

That's good news because, as we said, the T-birds have two first round picks plus an early selection in round two. The downside is that the Thunderbirds are without a 3rd or 4th round choice, having dealt those picks away. The 3rd round selection (pick #49) was sent to Calgary last summer for goalie Brandon Glover and the 4th round pick (#71) went to Moose Jaw at the January trade deadline in exchange for center Andrew Johnson. So, after that 2nd round pick at #27, the T-birds don't select again until pick #90 early in the 5th round.

When I hear scouts say this is a "deep draft" I think that means there will be 1st and 2nd round talent available in the 3rd and 4th rounds (as an example, Shea Theodore was a 3rd round pick in 2010, which was also considered by many as a deep draft). Let's hope in this case the depth of talent reaches back even further in the draft as Seattle has a combined four picks in rounds five, six and seven (Luke lockhart and Adam Kambeitz were both 7th round picks). But if the T-birds hit homeruns with those three high picks, the lack of a 3rd or 4th round selection will be somewhat mitigated.

By the way, if you don't think the T-birds are drafting or recruiting well just look at the final Central Scouting Service rankings of North American players for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Seven T-birds players are on that list (up from one at the mid-term rankings with the inclusion of Taylor Green). Four of those seven players were drafted by the Thunderbirds. Jared Hauf was a first round pick, Green was picked in round two and Theodore was a 3rd round choice. Meanwhile Roberts Lipsbergs was a 1st round import selection. Two of those players were listed "free agents"; Conner Honey and Jerret Smith. Only Riley Sheen came to the T-birds via trade. This is a great testament to the hard work of the Thunderbirds scouts.

In memory of Bruce MdDonald, 1971-2012

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In the End....a New Beginning?

It's not often you can feel good from a loss, but I'm really upbeat despite the Thunderbirds falling in overtime of Game 7. It was just a great series to have a ringside seat for and Seattle made WHL playoff hockey an event again. Like many T-bird fans I wish next season would start tomorrow. That's the excitement this team put into its fan base with this unexpected seven game run. They left us with a good taste in our mouths and wanting more.

Let's get this out of the way so we can get on to the real positive stuff from this just completed, epic, seven game playoff series; the downfall of the Thunderbirds against Kelowna was their inability to score on the power play. Oh-for-27 with the man advantage in the series. They didn't need to be stellar on the power play, just one or two goals might have made the difference. Look at the Rockets. They averaged just under one power play goal per game (6 for 29) and they are moving on. In a series where the margin between winning and losing was so razor thin, the ineffectiveness of the power play was probably the difference between moving on and going home.

If you want to know why they call hockey a game of inches just check overtime in the last two games. Overtime in Game 6 at the ShoWare Center Tuesday, Luke Lockhart beats Rockets goalie Jordan Cooke with a shot off a face-off, only to see the puck trickle off the post and stay out. Moments later the Rockets score the game winner. Game 7 overtime, again Lockhart with a shot from just below the hash marks that looks like it might get through the five hole of Cooke for a game winner but Cooke squeezes the pads together in the nick of time to keep the puck from getting behind him. Moments later, the Rockets score the series winner. That's playoff hockey.

The consensus is that the T-birds came of age in this series. According to all the pundits, Seattle had no business winning one game, let alone taking the Rockets to overtime in Game 7 and being one good bounce away from the biggest upset in WHL playoff history. Statistics would back that up. Kelowna had 27 more wins and 50 more points then the T-birds in the regular season. The Rockets scored 100 more goals and allowed over 100 fewer goals against then the T-birds did during the 2012-13 season. At one point the Rockets, who finished in the CHL Top Ten rankings, reeled off a 24-game home ice winning streak. Heck, the T-birds barely won 24 games total all year! But, that's why they play the games. Nothing is decided on the sports pages.

But for the the T-birds to come of age they have to build on this seven game playoff run. And they can't wait until training camp. The bad taste from losing this series has to motivate each and every returning player to prepare for next season beginning today, not in August. Okay, maybe a day or two to decompress but this loss needs to motivate them to want to be even better next time around because there are no guarantees in sports. Your own perspiration, not someone else's admiration, is what gets you to the next level. So all the slaps on the back for a well played series mean nothing if you don't work even harder as a result.

Injuries are a part of the game, although it seems the team that has fortune smile upon it and stays healthy, usually wins it all. Still I wonder how better this team would have been in the regular season and the playoffs with Tyler Alos and Branden Troock available or Conner Honey and Justin Hickman not suspended for that final game.

This team reminded me a lot of the first Thunderbirds team I worked with back in the 2001-02 season. That year the T-birds won just 21 games but like this year's version, they were both exasperating, entertaining and fun to watch play at the same time. They had so many young players on that team: players like Brooks Laich, Tomas Mojzis, Nate Thompson, Greg Black, Zack Fitzgerald, Tyler Metcalfe, Matthew Spiller, Matthew Hansen, Ryan Gibbons and Steve Goertzen. Similar to this year's club, they earned a lot of points in the last two weeks of the season to earn the 8th and final playoff spot. They then shocked everyone by winning an epic seven game first round playoff series over the second best team in the Western Conference that year, Portland (the name Trevor Johnson will live forever in T-birds infamy!).

The Thunderbirds were eliminated in the next round by the soon-to-be league, and Memorial Cup champion, Kootenay Ice, but they had laid the foundation for the next season. In 2002-03, they would win 44 games and capture the U.S. Division pennant before losing in the Western Conference Finals to top seeded and the evental WHL Champion, Kelowna.

Like that 2001-02 team, this year's T-birds were a young, loose, close knit bunch. They had fun and rarely were anything but upbeat. They frustrated you at times by losing games they should have won and winning games you thought they would lose. But you could see the chemistry was there, just like it was 12 years ago. I said at the start of this playoff series that this year's team was probably the most mentally ready for the postseason. They weren't just content to be in the playoffs, they wanted to make some noise. They played like they belonged. In my years with the team, the only other team that resembled this one was that group of players that made up the T-birds roster for the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons.

The 2004-05 team might have been the deepest T-bird team I've been around but the team that will make up next year's roster could rival that. Outside of Luke Lockhart, all of the T-birds top scorers are returning. Knock on wood too that Troock finally gets through a season healthy. The preseason trade for Riley Sheen and the midseason acquisition of Andrew Johnson gives Seattle quality depth among its forward lines. Meanwhile, everyone of Seattle's top six defensemen is eligible to return and the T-birds will be adding some good young players into the mix.

In fact the 'Birds will have a glut of good yound defensemen that will need to be sorted out. That task was made all the more difficult because of a seemingly minor trade made back in October when Seattle acquired Griffin Foulk from Everett. What a revelation he has been the second half of the season and he capped it off with a solid playoff series. His development was a big reason Seattle got better defensively the final months of the regular season. As I understand it though, Seattle has ten defensemen signed and committed for next season (although Taylor Green has been more of a forward then a d-man the last month). There is no way they carry ten defensemen, so something will have to be done about that.

In 2002-03, the T-birds added a veteran goalie to help them with their playoff run to the conference finals. 20 year old Brent Krahn helped push Seattle deep into the playoffs that year. With Brandon Glover graduating out of the league, Seattle may need to make a similar move for next season because they have no goalies in their pipeline over the age of 17 and the ones they do have carry little to no WHL experience. Krahn was a bridge to the Bryan Bridges era (no pun intended) and the T-birds may need a similar stop gap goalie before either Justin Myles, Danny Mumaugh or Logan Flodell are ready to carry the load in net for this franchise.

Lastly we bid adieu to Seattle's three 20 year olds. Actually I'd like to make if four good-byes because I still think of Brendan Rouse as a T-bird, even though he finished his career in Vancouver. And although he was only with the team for half a season, Adam Kambeitz provided much needed leaderhip and solidified the lockerroom down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Brandon Glover will forever be a T-bird trivia question answer now. Who was the goalie who had the task of replacing Calvin Pickard? Who was the goalie when the T-birds snapped their 22 game road losing streak to Tri-City? Who was the T-bird goalie who won his first three playoff games in overtime? I'm sure you can come up with some of your own. He proved he was at his best when the money was on the table. What a playoff performance. Hopefully it earns him that pro contract.

We also say good-bye to Luke Lockhart, the team captain for the past two plus seasons and the first T-bird to play his entire five season WHL career with Seattle since, I believe, Lindsay Nielsen. He ends up number two all time in games played for the organization. Not bad for an undersized 7th round bantam pick.

Here's another bit of trivia for you. Did you know that Lockhart and Kambeitz were both selected in the 7th round of the 2007 WHL Bantam Draft? Kambeitz went 143rd overall to Red Deer and Seattle selected Lockhart two picks later. Lockhart always gave 100 percent and more. he gave up his body to block countless shots, especially on the penalty kill. He spent the bus ride up to Kelowna after the Game 6 OT loss, getting treatment on his ankle, yet there he was logging the most minutes again in Game 7.

He finished off his career by leading the WHL in shorthanded goals this season. Even better, it was great to see him end his Thunderbird career with a + by his name on the final playoff stat sheet, as he finished at +4 for the series against Kelowna and he went out in fitting fashion, scoring the T-birds last goal.

Lastly kudos to the fans. The atmosphere they created for Games 3 and 6 of the playoffs was electric. Just read some of the comments from Glover and Kambeitz from Andy Eide's blog on those crowds and how it helped motivate the team. That is what the ShoWare was built for and it was great to see it finally come into play.

Next up for the Thunderbirds is the WHL Bantam Draft in early May. For the second straight year, Seattle will have two first round picks (8,22) and a high pick in Round Two (27th overall). Seattle has a great opportunity to build a roster that can compete at the top of the league for the next 4-5 years.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Monday, April 1, 2013

Take Three

Recovering from these bus trips seems to be taking me longer and longer these days. Hope everyone enjoyed the fantastic Easter Sunday weather we had in the Puget Sound area yesterday. Spring has definitely sprung. It is a bit strange to be preparing for a hockey game this time of year since it's been 5 years since the Thunderbirds played April hockey. But I'd sure like to get used to it. It sure beats the alternative which, in my case, is yard work.

Tomorrow night the T-birds will not just rediscover April hockey, but hopefully the edge they played with the first three games of this series. The T-birds have been flat over the last six periods. Conversely, Kelowna has come out and set the tone by being quicker to pucks, crisper with their passing, more solid in their defensive zone and, especially Saturday, the more physical team. The Rockets won the vast majority of battles along the boards, they were able to cycle the puck seemingly at will.

Special teams, specifically the respective power plays, are dictating the series right now. Kelowna got back in this series by scoring three first period power play goals in Game 4 and opened Game 5's scoring with another power play goal. Meanwhile, Seattle is a less then anemic 0-for-22 with the man advantage through the first five games.

Game 5 was a fairly evenly played contest through the first half of the first period. Once the T-birds took two succesive penalties and the Rockets cashed in on the second one, the tide turned in the Rockets favor in a big way. I think the T-birds got gun shy with their physical play as a result of those penalties. If not for Brandon Glover, Kelowna was poised to blow the doors off the 'Birds in the second half of that first period. Still, the T-birds almost put together an umbelievable last 37-second comeback. Scoring twice and just missing a third goal with time winding down. That would not have been possible without the play of Glover.

Despite being up three games to two, the T-birds have still led for just eight of the nearly 320 minutes played in the series. Kelowna has scored the first goal in every game and outscored the 'Birds 9-2 in the first period in the series, including 7-1 in the first period of the last three games. The Thunderbirds need a better start Tuesday night.

That's the funny thing about this game though, all those statistics don't mean anything. All the T-birds have to do is win tomorrow night and they move on to the second round. Of course, that is easier said then done.