Saturday, October 26, 2013

Another Good Sho'-ing

Early in this new season the Thunderbirds are enjoying the home cooking. Seattle has earned 11 of a possible 12 points on home ice through the first six games at the ShoWare Center following Saturday night's 5-3 win over the Vancouver Giants. Not that it's been easy, with three of the first six games home games decided in the shootout, but you want to make your home ice a difficult place for opposing teams to play.

Saturday night's game maybe was a little tighter then it needed to be as the Thunderbirds built a 4-1 lead early in the second period only to see the Giants cut that lead down to a single goal, 4-3, by early in the third. For the second straight night the T-birds lost their momentum by taking too many avoidable penalties. As a result, Vancouver scored twice on the power play to make it interesting before Seth Swenson's empty netter sealed the deal in the game's final minute.

Vancouver came in to the game with the worst record in the WHL's Western Conference and after the loss still sit 10th out of ten teams at 3-9-1-1. That record is a bit misleading as the Giants have been plagued by multiple injuries, especially among their forwards. They are starting to get some of those players back healthy and it is improving their team. They had back-to-back wins recently before suffering a couple of close losses; Friday at home to Everett (6-5) and last night to the T-birds.

They are no pushover. In fact if you look at their roster, even with the players they are missing, they do have a solid group of older players led by 20 year old defenseman Dalton Thrower. Similar to Seattle, they have nine 19 year olds on the roster though a couple are out with injury. They also have six 18 year olds along with the prerequisite three 20 year old players. So this is not a young Giants squad. Overall their roster averages about the same age as the Thunderbirds. They might actually be slightly older on game nights because the T-birds use three 16 year old players extensively. If and when the Giants get their roster completely healthy, they are going to be a tough team to play against.

How tight is the U.S. Division through the first month of the season? One point separates first from fourth place and just six points separates first and fifth place after last night's results.

Speaking of tight, the fight for ice time for the T-birds is about to get tougher. Newcomer Jaimen Yakubowski got his first game action for Seattle in the win last night and I think we can expect Sam McKechnie to be ready to go Tuesday night against Brandon. With the addition of Ryan Gropp into the mix earlier in the week and the eventual return to the lineup of the injured Connor Honey, the coaches will have some tough decisions to make each night. Right now I don't see anyone among their 15 forwards who doesn't serve ice time. Problem is you can only dress 12.

Yakubowski may have been operating on pure adrenaline as he arrived in Kent less then three hours before game time. He wasted little time mucking it up, showing his new team he's here to compete and do whatever he's asked. he actually got stronger as the game wore on and he was at his best in the third period.

How do you keep 16 year old right winger Keegan Kolesar out of the lineup? He scored his first WHL goal against Vancouver and finished with 1g,1a and was the game's third star.
But Kolesar has played well all season and his big body parked in front of the opposing goal may be a key to getting the Seattle power play on track. In fact last night the T-birds three 16 year olds, Kolesar, Matt Barzal and Ethan Bear, combined for 1g,3a and were +1. It's scary to think that at 6'1" and 216 lbs at age 16, Kolesar is not a finished product. He's going to get bigger and stronger and all indications are that he's a very coachable player.

Meanwhile, the M&M boys, Thunderbird goalies Danny Mumaugh and Justin Myles, continue to play well as they alternate starts. This weekend it was a bit of "anything you can do I can do!" Friday night in Kennewick Mumaugh made 41 saves in helping the T-birds earn a road point in the 3-2 shootout loss to Tri-City. Saturday night at home, Myles guessed it...41 saves in earning his 6th win of the season against Vancouver.

The Thunderbirds goaltending pair faced a total of 88 shots and allowed a combined five goals against in the two games. But consider this; three of the goals were power play goals (Seattle was shorthanded 14 times this weekend), including one scored 5-on-3. One was a penalty shot goal and the 5th goal allowed was just after a Seattle penalty expired, so while not technically a power play goal, it might as well have been. And that 5-on-3 power play goal? The T-birds inadvertently knocked it into their own net after the initial save had been made.

Prior to the start of this season the Thunderbirds goaltending tandem had played in a combined 26 games and both had earned just one WHL win apiece. This season in 15 games they have combined for ten wins.

Count to Ten...And Keep Going!

Despite giving up the early penalty shot goal, the Thunderbirds came out of the gates last night in Kennewick like gangbusters. They had great energy and were buzzing inside the Tri-City blue line. That energy and effort created two early goals and numerous other scoring opportunities. They had Americans goalie Eric Comrie moving, creating wide open chances. At one point the shots were 8-1 in Seattle's favor and the scoring chances were probably 8-to-1 in their favor as well. For half the first period, the T-birds owned the ice.

Then they stopped. The energy level disappeared. They stopped going hard to the net, the scoring chances evaporated. The passing was less then ideal and they were now turning the puck over which led to penalty trouble. They allowed the Ams to regroup and get back in the game. When Seattle did have a scoring chance, they missed a wide open net. Instead of being up by two to three goals at the end of the first, the game was tied.

More significantly, they had a chance to deliver an early knockout blow to one of the best goaltenders in the WHL, but instead, they allowed Comrie to get back up off the canvas and that's what he did, stoning the T-birds the rest of the way including three times in the shootout. And after limiting Tri to one shot for nearly half of the first period, Seattle allowed 42 shots the rest of the way.

I guess the good news is the Thunderbirds still earned a point, so they are keeping pace with the top teams in the Western Conference while they learn some hard lessons along the way. It's a sixty minute game and you should never feel comfortable with the way you're playing until the final horn sounds.

Hollywood, Ryan Gropp called and he's got a script for you! Could Gropp have written his WHL debut any better? First game, first shift, first goal. Gropp still has some rust on him after having missed time with a lower body injury but you could see why he is highly regarded. He made a nice pass later in the game on a 2-on-1 rush with Branden Troock. Unfortunately Troock's one timer went wide of the open net. Gropp also used his speed late in the game to draw a hooking penalty on a strong rush to the net.

Don't look now, but Danny Mumaugh is throwing down the challenge to Justin Myles! Both of Seattle's goalies are off to good starts as head coach Steve Konowalchuk continues to rotate them in goal.
Last night was Mumaugh's turn and he was excellent in making 41 saves, showed good puck control and continues to flash his glove. A year ago in limited play I don't think he ever got comfortable in net, but this season, knowing for now he's going to play every other game, you can see his confidence growing. With his recent play, he has lowered his GAA average to 3.04 while increasing his save percentage to .918. Goaltending was big last night for both teams late and Mumaugh stood toe-to-toe with Comrie and got the well deserved second star.

Not sure what they will do about their struggling power play. It should be better then the bottom four in the WHL. They had a chance to win the game last night late in regulation if they just could have converted with under two minutes to go. It seems to be one issue is still a reluctance to shoot the puck but this is also the second time this season on the road against the Americans that they didn't get any traffic in front of Comrie when skating 5-on-4. That made it too easy for the Tri-City penalty killers to stand in front of their net unhindered and block shots.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A (Leth)Bridge Not Too Far

I'm a big Riley Sheen fan. I really like the way he plays at both ends of the ice. I greatly admire the hard work he puts in on the penalty kill and I certainly more then appreciate how gracious he's been with me when it came time to do an interview.
But I love this latest deal that Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell has put together, sending Sheen, Carter Folk and a 2015 3rd round Bantam pick to Lethbridge in exchange for Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie. This deal tells me that Farwell believed he had the horses to compete for a high seed in the WHL playoffs next spring but he wants more. He wants to compete for a championship. This is about going all in because you added two more 19 year olds to a team with a lot of 19 year olds. To me, this trade isn't a "should we make the deal", it was a "when can we make the deal" move.

While the deal doesn't guarantee it will put the T-birds "over the top" in that regard, on paper at least, it makes Seattle a very tough match up with their forward lines. Look at the top twelve forwards now on this roster. It's just my calculation, the coaches may see it differently, but you've got Lipsbergs, Barzal, Hickman, Delnov, Troock, Swenson, Benoit, Elliot, Yakubowski, McKechnie and when healthy, Honey and Gropp. Now look at your depth because we haven't even mentioned Holub, Kolesar and Eansor.

Talk about a battle for ice time!

Secondly, the price paid, in my estimation, is relatively inexpensive. Sure, it did cost you the hard working Sheen but you have to give up something to get something back. Still, we're talking about two forwards who a season ago combined for over 50 goals and 80 points for a Hurricanes team that didn't score a lot. Just so you have a comparison, their point totals last season would have been third and 8th on the T-birds with similar totals put up by Luke Lockhart, Delnov and Swenson.

When Seattle signed Ryan Gropp last week, it meant finding ice time this season for Folk was going to be next to impossible. In Lethbridge he'll have a chance to play. The 3rd round bantam pick in 2015? Isn't that what they got from Moose Jaw in the recent trade that sent defenseman Jesse Forsberg to the Warriors? Capital well spent.

I don't have any insight as to why things didn't work out in Lethbridge this season for Yakubowski and McKechnie but they now have a new lease on life and hopefully the chance to play with a playoff contending club will spark them to put up similar numbers to what they had last season.

Here's what Seattle gave up: Riley Sheen 17g, 34a so far in his WHL career (133 games). Here's what they got back: Jaimen Yakubowski 49g, 30a so far in his WHL career(145 games). Sam McKechnie 40g, 36a so far in his WHL career (153 games). While all three players are similar in games played and assists, both Yakubowski and McKechnie have been much better at putting the puck in the net. Remember, the name of the game is to outscore your opponent. I like to think Seattle got better at it with this deal.
*****Just an addendum to what I wrote Thursday. There is a lot of chatter about what this trade means for the team next season because they are now top heavy with 19 year olds. It's true that the T-birds now have seven '94 born forwards on the roster (plus two '94 d-men). Of course they will only be able to keep 3 of those nine players next year and with the loss of the three 20 year old forwards on this year's roster, the T-birds will be looking to replace anywhere between seven and nine of their top 12 forwards in 2014-15.

That's definitely an impact but will it be the deep impact we might think? None of the recent trades affected the young core of this team. Carter Folk is a loss but I didn't see him as a top six forward next season as an 18 year old. He definitely would have been getting a regular shift on the 3rd or 4th line next year but he probably wasn't a top six forward for another two years, when he reached his 19 year old season. Sheen could have been kept next year as a 20 year old but there are also other very good options for those 20 year old spots in 2014-15.

The T-birds still have a solid young core of forwards for next season in Barzal, Gropp, Holub, Eansor, Kolesar and Lane Pederson. I would guess at least two, if not all three of the 20 year old spots next season will be occupied by forwards. Furthermore, you'll probably see an Import Draft in which the T-birds are in the market for two forwards. It will probably be like the Import draft two years ago when they added an NHL drafted player (Delnov) and an NHL draft eligible player (Lipsbergs).

Remember too, Seattle has already signed two high picks from last spring's Bantam Draft, first rounder Kaden Elder and second rounder Nolan Volcan, to WHL contracts and both are forwards. There is also the possibility of trading some of those other '94 born forwards this offseason for a younger winger or center.

Just as important, Seattle's defensive core of Smith, Theodore, Hauf, Wolf, Douglas and Bear should all be back and will have added yet another year of experience while a high end talent like last spring's #1 draft pick, Dante Fabbro should be added to that mix. The goaltending again will be in good hands with a combination of Danny Mumaugh, Justin Myles and highly regarded prospect Logan Flodell.

Will the T-birds take a hit in the depth department next season? Yes, but it may not be as deep as you think. They didn't trade away the future but they did make themselves stronger in the present.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bronc' Bustin' Back Into the Win Column

Nice to nip that two game winless streak in the bud while continuing to play well at home. The Thunderbirds are now 4-0-0-1 on home ice, picking up nine of a possible 10 points so far at the ShoWare Center!

The T-birds could easily have earned two regulation wins this weekend and a full four points. A late third period collapse Friday cost them a point though as they lost in a shootout to Prince George, after having a late two goal lead erased. Still, gaining three of four points on the weekend is a success and the T-birds secured that with Saturday night's 6-3 win over the Swift Current Broncos.

You can lament the one that got away but Seattle is still currently on pace for a 104 point season and I'm an optimist that believes they will only get better as the season progresses. A season ago 104 points would have been the third best record in the Western Conference and good enough for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Seattle may not stay on that pace but they should stay squarely in the thick of the battle for a top seed come March.

It's always good to see a team spread the scoring around and Saturday the Thunderbirds got goals from six different players. Of the ten goals scored in this weekend's two games, only two players, Riley Sheen and Roberts Lipsbergs with two each, had more then one. I'm not sure what the longest point streak for a T-birds player was last season; maybe four or five consecutive games with a point. Matt Barzal currently has a streak of eight straight games with at least a point. I know goal scorers get all the love but Barzal is picking up assists like a shovel picks up grains of sand on the beach.

A year ago after thirteen games Seattle was allowing 3.46 goals against per game. This season, after 13 games, the T-birds are allowing 3.46 goals against per game. One issue lately with the goals against is giving up too many goals after building a lead, as they did this weekend in both games. I don't know if that means they are too comfortable with a third period lead but they'll want to play hard to the final horn to cut down on that goals against average.

Now, a big difference as to why they are 9-3-0-1 after 13 games this season as opposed to being 7-5-1-0 after 13 games a year ago is the increase in offensive production. Last year at this tine they were averaging 3.2 goals per game. At the same moment this season, they are almost a goal per game better at 4.07. What a simple formula, score more then you give up and you'll win more then you lose.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Well, that was a tough finish. Seemed Seattle had this game won when they scored the power play goal that gave them a two goal cushion with three minutes left. Then things sort of fell apart. Some will point to the offside on the 3-on-1 rush towards the empty Prince George net as the turning point. At the time the T-birds were up, 4-3, and only needed to put the puck into that empty net to finish off PG. I mean, you're shooting into an empty net. It shouldn't be too hard to stay onside in that situation. But to paraphrase an old bumper stick from the 70s...stuff happens.

To me though, the key point was giving up the Cougars third goal so quickly after scoring on the power play to get the 4-2 lead. It was just 24 seconds after Ethan Bear scored his first WHL goal that the Cougars answered with a Klarc Wilson goal. That goal gave Prince George life and momentum plus the confidence (not to mention enough time left) to think they could still win the game. I can't say that enough T-bird players thought the game was over after the Bear goal or that they let down their guard or relaxed enough for Prince George to take advantage. But for most of that third period Seattle was in control. They had dominated large stretches of the period with their puck possession and fore check. It was all building up to that fourth goal. After that goal though,they seemed to sag back into the defensive zone. Give Prince George credit, they didn't quit. They played to the final horn and it earned them two points.

All this came after the Thunderbirds had survived the second period. It was a bit surprising that Seattle had a lead after the second as they were legitimately outshot 21-10 and outplayed by Prince George for most of that period, but Seattle got through a 6-7 minute stretch of the second only giving up the one power play goal. The Cougars displayed a strong fore check during that span that didn't allow the T-birds to get out of their own end. But order was restored and Seattle got the lead back with a nice goal from Riley Sheen, who made a tremendous play to win a loose puck on the wall just to the right of the Cougar goal.

Again we have to remind ourselves that this is a T-birds team that over the past few seasons has lost more then it has won. They're still learning what it takes to win on a consistent basis. Last night, hopefully, is a lesson learned. When you have a chance to put a team away you need to step on them and finish them off. Last night, the 'Birds didn't do that.

That said, Seattle has earned points in nine of 12 games, they are 3-0-0-1 on home ice, earning seven of a possible eight points so far this season at the ShoWare Center. Their road record is a solid 5-3. They still have played just one game with their complete roster available and maybe best of all, after the bad finish last night, they get to go right back on the ice tonight against Swift Current and try to wash that sour taste out of their mouth.

Look at the WHL standings. Seattle has the second most wins. The season is still very young but so far no team has laid claim to being "the team to beat" in either conference. Most teams are at that stage of the year where they are still figuring out their identity and that includes the Thunderbirds.

It was good to see the power play go 2-4 last night. It's surprising to me that Seattle's power play has struggled so much early in the season. I think there is too much talent on the ice when Seattle is on the power play to rank in the bottom half of the league in that department. It's still early though and I would expect continued improvement in that department as the year moves along, especially when they get the injured Connor Honey back in the lineup and can add Ryan Gropp to the mix as well.

The Young Guns Watch: Seattle continues to play it's young 16 year olds extensively. I thought Keegan Kolesar struggled a bit for the first time this season in last night's game. He'll bounce back but the T-birds other 16 year olds, Matt Barzal and Bear, combined for 1g, 3a and were +2.

There was some concern for Seattle's penalty kill with the graduation of Luke Lockhart after last season and the trade of Connor Sanvido this summer but Riley Sheen really has embraced that role as a shutdown player on the PK. Sheen has had a good week on the ice so far and his goal last night was well earned.

I will just say this about last night's officiating. It wasn't their best night. A couple of strange calls/no calls. They're young and learning, just as the players are. It's part of the game at this level and I think we have to give them room to learn. I only wish that they would do more of what NFL officials do and huddle up and get calls as right as they can. I don't mean video replaying every incident. There were four sets of officials eyes on the ice; use them. There's no harm with referee's conferring with each other and the linesmen.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What the Blazers Happened This Week?

What an interesting week that has played out so far for the Seattle Thunderbirds. And it's not over yet.

For that matter neither is the season. Yes, the Thunderbirds did something rare last night....they lost! Losses are gonna happen. They can be great teaching lessons at this level. It's good to have high expectations after the team gets off to such a great start. But remember last night was just one game out of 72 and the season is just 11 games old. We knew the winning streak was going to end at some point. I just don't think we like the way it ended with the team not giving an optimal performance.

Guess who's expectations are probably higher then yours or mine? The team's. From the coaches to the players, no one was happy with what transpired Wednesday in Kamloops. There's been a common theme in the three losses the T-birds have suffered so far this season. They were out-worked each night. Maybe the Thunderbirds were going to lose last night regardless but it goes back to what head coach Steve Konowalchuk asks of his team every game. Give your best effort so that even on night's when you're "off your game", you still give yourself a chance to compete for a win.

If you are the hardest working team on the ice you put yourself in a good position. Last night, Kamloops was the hardest working team on the ice. They won the game. Seems simple doesn't it?

Now you might say, Seattle wasn't the hardest working team on the ice last night, but a little better performance on the power play and they could have pulled that game out. Maybe they didn't deserve it but they were in position to possibly pull out the "W". Well, that is because of the talent on this team's roster this season. But talent alone is not going to win you games every night. Talent + effort = winning opportunity. It's a formula they've proven works eight times thus far. It's the formula they need to get back to this weekend.

This is not to say there weren't players out there giving maximum effort last night, Riley Sheen and Keegan Kolesar really stood out for me. But, it's like a train and when one car goes off the tracks, it's hard for those cars still on the tracks to pull the rest of the train into the station.

Here is something the T-birds will have to get used to; having a bullseye on their back. A day before the game the WHL was abuzz with the T-birds signing of Ryan Gropp, then hours before the puck dropped the BMO CHL Top Ten Poll for the week was released and Seattle was ranked at number six. You don't think that was extra motivation for a Blazer team coming off a big win just two days ago?

Now, to the Gropp situation. Remember those lines from the Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler? "You got to know when to hold them, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run..."? Seattle G.M Russ Farwell must feel a bit like The Gambler. He drafted Gropp in the first round of the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft fully expecting Gropp to come play for the Thunderbirds. But I'm sure he also knew, in the back of his mind, that Gropp might go a different route. There are always options for high end talents like Gropp and after attending rookie camp that year, Gropp left before main camp and was a no show at camp this fall.

When Gropp started leaning toward the NCAA, Farwell still kept the lines of communications open between the Gropp family and the T-birds. This summer when Gropp announced a verbal commitment to the University of North Dakota, Farwell didn't say he was washing his hands of the Gropp matter. Instead, he basically said that Gropp made a decision, we respect it and now we're going to concentrate on the team we have for the upcoming season. But he never closed the door, he never "folded" his hand. He "walked away" but he didn't "run". Because as Kenny Rogers said and Farwell knew, "You never count your money when your sitting at the table, they'll be time enough for counting, when the dealings done".

In the interim, I heard a lot of fans clamoring for the T-birds to trade away the rights to Gropp. I hear a lot of trade ideas from fans. Some sound sensible, others are pie-in-the-sky. There is a time and a place for trades in the WHL. The Marcel Noebels trade a few years ago was a no-brainer. A minor deal for a player like Adam Henry should work because it brings in a player who fits your coach's system, much as the Sheen deal did last offseason. But folding your hand before all the cards have been played out doesn't make sense. Farwell was dealt an ace when he drafted Gropp. In order to make that ace worth holding onto, he needed to acquire a few more good cards. I'd say since then he's acquired another ace, and a few kings, so it was pretty smart to hold on to that first ace he got when he selected Gropp. I don't know if he now is sitting with a pair, holds a straight or is in position for a royal flush, but I like the cards he's playing with.

Winning teams at this level are built primarily through the draft and Seattle now has a lot of top end picks currently on their roster, including seven first rounders. Five are from the Bantam draft (Troock, Hauf, Gropp, Barzal and Kolesar) and two are from the Import Draft (Delnov and Lipsbergs). Other high picks from recent drafts also dot the roster; Hickman, Theodore, Douglas, Holub and Bear were either 2nd or 3rd round picks. Add in some solid selections from middle and late round picks (Myles, Wardley, Wolf, Elliot, and Folk) and you have a nucleus for a competitive team. Toss in some solid listed players such as Smith, Mumaugh, Eansor and Honey with your trade acquisitions (Swenson, Sheen and Henry) add a dab of veteran experience in Benoit and now you're cooking with Crisco!
For the second straight season Seattle has five prospects who will complete in the Western Canada U-16 Challenge Cup. A year ago it was Barzal, Kolesar, Bear, Logan Flodell and Lane Pederson. This time around Dante Fabbro, Kaden Elder, Nolan Volcan, Colton Thomas and Cameron Coutre will represent their respective provinces in Calgary early next month. Nine of those ten player were all drafted by Russ Farwell and his scouting staff over the past two years (Coutre was recently listed by Seattle).

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Tri-umphant Homecoming

The one thing about playing Tri-City, these headlines write themselves!

One thing that Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk has stressed since taking over behind the bench two seasons ago has been consistency. In other words, no matter the venue, no matter the opponent, players need to get into the habit of giving their same, best effort in each game. If you consistently give 100 percent every night, then on nights when you're not at your best, you still give your team a chance to win.

During this five game winning streak the T-birds are playing consistent hockey, giving their best effort from shift to shift and line to line, night to night. It's why they've been able to win the close games, the overtime games, the shootouts and the come-from-behind games. Consistency.

Saturday, in their first home game after six straight on the road, they gave that same best effort against Tri-City. But they were also playing at a high level, especially in the first period. Their forecheck was relentless from the opening faceoff. They pinned the Americans deep in their own zone and were forcing the Ams into turnovers that were creating quality scoring chances. If not for Tri-City's goaltender Eric Comrie, this could have been a 4 or 5 goal lead by the midway point of the first for Seattle.

The reality though, is it was still a scoreless game. But even so, the way the T-birds started the game, Americans head coach Jim Hiller used his one and only timeout early in hopes of breaking the T-birds momentum. I think Hiller had no choice but the timeout and a couple of Seattle penalties only slightly slowed down the T-birds attack. Eventually they got it rolling again and by period's end they had potted two goals and it seemed inevitable that this was going into the win column for the 'Birds.

Not that a two goal lead with 40 minutes to play is a comfortable, insurmountable advantage. But the way Seattle is playing right now, with the leadership on the ice and behind the bench, you knew they weren't going to let the effort fall off and try coasting on that first period lead. You knew they were going to continue to give their best effort until the final horn sounded. See, once you let off the gas, or flip the switch to "off", it's hard to flip it back on again. Tri-City fought to keep it interesting late in the third so the T-birds had to keep playing hard and they did. It was a tremendous way to return back home after such a long stretch on the road.

By no means was this a perfect game for the T-birds. There will always be parts of their game they will work to improve upon, such as cutting down on the penalties and being more consistent on the power play, but the fact is they haven't reached their peak performance yet and they're 8-2. With the exception of one night, they still haven't had their complete healthy roster available.

The headlines Saturday went to the line of Lipsbergs (2g), Barzal (2a)and Hickman (2a) and deservedly so. They were Seattle's best line all night. Danny Mumaugh gets some praise for another solid night between the pipes with 27 saves and Shea Theodore's goal, the eventual game winner, was an NHL caliber score. Don't overlook the play of Jerret Smith though.
The Surrey, B.C. native may have been the Thunderbirds best defenseman not only last night but in the two games over the weekend. Smith finished the weekend with one assist and was plus-2. He seems to be playing with more of an edge this season and during the winning streak has been much more physical then I remember him ever being. He may be a quiet warrior but he's starting to make a big difference. Being paired with Theodore on the blue line probably helps as the two players seem to compliment each other; Smith is more of a defensive-defenseman while Theo has the offensive-defenseman label.

The Bear watch: For those keeping count, the T-birds with Ethan Bear in the lineup, 8-0, with Bear a healthy scratch, 0-2. Just sayin'! Meanwhile, newcomer Adam Henry must think he's died and gone to heaven. After suffering through a 1-5-0-1 start with his old team in Lethbridge, Henry is 2-0 with his new team and has been an immediate contributor to his new club, scoring a big goal late in the first period last night.

Seattle's fourth line provided some good energy last night. The trio of Holub-Eansor-Kolesar were especially good at stemming any momentum the Americans might have been generating. Yes, Eansor does seem to be taking too many penalties right now but much of that is due to his aggressive nature. I'm not overly worried about it because I think he'll learn, with the help of the coaching staff, how to channel that aggression more smartly as he continues his adjustment to the level of play in the WHL.

Until the win Saturday night, the T-birds hadn't won five in a row since February of 2008. Thanks to a loyal T-bird fan/season ticket holder for that tidbit (you can find him on twitter @mjs1980). Wednesday in Kamloops the Thunderbirds try to stretch the streak to six in a row when they take on the Blazers at the Interior Savings Centre.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Road Tested T-birds

Last season the Thunderbirds won a total of 11 road games (out of 36 games). The 26 points they earned away from ShoWare Center during the 2012-13 season was third fewest in the entire WHL. Now, already this season, in seven road contests they've won five games and earned 10 of a possible 14 points. They are on pace to earn slightly over 40 points on the road this season.

The clich├ęd formula for most team sports has always been to win the majority of your home games and split on the road and you'll be a playoff team and a title contender. Well, at the moment, the T-birds are doing just that. It's still very, very early in the season and there are still 29 road games to go but so far Seattle is creating that formula for success that says good teams win no matter where they play.

After dropping the first two of their just completed six straight on the road, I think most who follow this team would have been happy if the club had split the remaining four games, especially after they were outscored 13-4 in those first two games. Instead the 'Birds won all four and did so by competing hard for sixty minutes. Three of those four wins were won in the third period or later. Twice, against pretty stiff competition, the Thunderbirds fell behind by two goals but came back to record the win.

The Thunderbirds power play hasn't gotten going just yet, which makes their 7-2 start all the more remarkable. But there is just too much skill and fire power on the team not to get it unleashed at some point. I still expect their power play to be in the upper half of the league when the smoke clears. They should have had a power play goal last night, if not for a quick whistle by a referee who lost sight of a puck the T-birds were about to score on. It is hard at times to remember that this is a development league for the officials too and they will make mistakes from time to time. Why does it seem that time always comes up when it affects the Thunderbirds adversely though??

The T-birds fast start is no fluke and neither is the fact that its happened with the team playing three 16 year olds extensively and in key situations. Watching the games you would never know that Mathew Barzal, Ethan Bear and Keegan Kolesar are freshed-faced newbies. Whether it's the power play, the penalty kill or late in the third period of a close game, all three are getting plenty of ice time.

Can we put to rest the notion that the T-birds goaltending is their weakness? In each of their last starts, Danny Mumaugh and Justin Myles have faced about the same number of shots (Mumaugh 39 vs. Kootenay and 40 for Myles in Kelowna) and come up with big performances including late game saving saves. They were each integral to the team's recent road success. Throw out one stat-skewing game down in Portland and the M&M boys have done exactly what's been asked of them; give the team a chance to win.
Myles played his best game in his brief T-birds career last night against the Rockets. He showed tremendous puck control and was the team's best penalty killer as Kelowna went just 1-for-7 with the man advantage. I've never seen this guy rattled. On or off the ice he displays a calm, ice-water-in-the-veins demeanor.

It's amazing how often the T-birds and Kelowna have played past regulation recently. But maybe all the close overtime battles shouldn't be too surprising as it seems the two Western Conference rivals are constructed in similar fashion. Both have a good, young corps of puck carrying defenseman with a solid group of two-way forwards, not to mention a good one-two punch in goal.

I heard or read a few questioning the trade of Griffin Foulk to Lethbridge in exchange for Adam Henry. I too was sorry to see Foulk go as he had made huge strides in his game over the past year and was off to a solid start this year with the 'Birds. But if Friday night in Kelowna was an indication of how he'll play the rest of this season, fans are gonna like Adam Henry. He came advertised as a good puck moving, offensive defenseman but he was solid at both ends of the ice. He showed some physicality in the d-zone but was definitely not afraid to jump up and join the rush, almost scoring his first T-birds goal in the third period by going hard to the net. He really seems to have a lot of hockey smarts.

Tonight the T-birds play the team that handed them their last loss. It was two Tuesday's ago that the Americans blanked the T-birds, 3-0, over at the Toyota Center. Should be a good battle tonight at the ShoWare Center in the return match.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hurricane Force Trade Winds

The Seattle Thunderbirds got a little makeover on their blueline with the trade of two defenseman while getting one back in return. Both deals could be looked on as a bit "surprising" from the initial reaction, but once you look deeper into the transactions you can see how they make sense.

First, the T-birds had a move coming one way or the other. Seattle was carrying four 20 year old players and the cut down date to get down to the league limit of three was looming. For a while it seemed their decision might be made for them when Mitch Elliot got extended time at camp with the Utica Comets, the Vancouver Canucks AHL affiliate. In fact, not knowing if Elliot was going to be returned, Seattle claimed Erik Benoit off waivers from Saskatoon.

It seemed no sooner had Seattle brought Benoit into the fold, that Elliot was then returned. This put Seattle one player over the 20 year old limit. A month, even two weeks ago I don't think we envisioned that it would be defenseman Jesse Forsberg who would be the odd man out. But in deed, Forsberg was dealt to Moose Jaw Wednesday for a 2015 3rd round Bantam Draft pick.

In my opinion, two things made this trade plausible. First, of the four overage players on the roster, Forsberg probably had the most return value in a trade. Quality 20 year old defenseman are hard to come by. Forsberg will bring leadership, passion, grit and solid two way play to the Moose Jaw locker room. I doubt the three remaining 20s could have brought back a 3rd round draft pick in a trade. It's just my opinion that you can get good 20 year old forwards for a lesser price. The T-birds in fact, paid nothing to acquire Benoit, who is a solid two-way player who plays in all situations, not to mention he's won a league championship and been to two Memorial Cups, yet all it took to get him was a waiver claim.

Secondly, the play in the early season of 16 year old rookie defenseman Ethan Bear makes trading Forsberg more palatable. I'm not suggesting they are the same type of player and at just age 16, Bear will still go through growing pains, but he's earned his ice time and the teams is unbeaten (6-0) when he's in the lineup. The good news for Forsberg is he gets to play his final season in the WHL back in Saskatchewan, where he's from. Circle Tuesday, January 21st on your calendar though. That's when Forsberg and his Moose Jaw team invade the ShoWare Center.

Meanwhile, if we look back at the Colin Jacobs deal that went down last offseason, the T-birds have gotten a pretty good return on their investment. Jacobs turns into one year of Forsberg plus a 5th a 7th and now a 3rd round draft choice.

The second transaction the T-birds made Wednesday was to deal another defenseman, 18 year old Griffin Foulk, to the Lethbridge Hurricanes in exchange for 19 year old d-man Adam Henry. At first it may seem odd that a team that has begun the season 6-2 would suddenly trade away two of its top six defensemen. But Seattle had a glut of '95 born blue liners on the roster. Four 18 year old defensemen (Hauf, Smith and Theodore in addition to Foulk) meant younger players weren't getting needed ice time to develop.

Sending Foulk to Lethbridge breaks up that age group. This trade is also as much about next season and the season after as it is about this season. Seattle has some very good young defenseman in the pipeline who are going to earn a roster spot next season. Remember, they spent their 2013 first round bantam draft pick on highly touted d-man Dante Fabbro. If you witnessed any of training camp you also saw a few other young, talented defenseman who could make an argument they should be on this team now, if necessary.

Meanwhile by acquiring Henry, you gain some of the veteran experience you lost in dealing away Forsberg and Henry seems to be a similar type player to what you traded away in Foulk.
I know when we were in Lethbridge last weekend and I asked about their roster, Henry's name came up as one of their better, more reliable players. He was also an older player on a rebuilding team. I'm sure a change of scenery with a Seattle team on the upswing, will invigorate him.

It's funny that just about five months ago we were excited for this season and one reason for that was the T-birds returning all of their top six defenseman from the 2012-13 campaign. Now 2/3rds of them are gone. But we also knew coming into camp this fall that the Thunderbirds had nine signed defensemen on the roster and something had to give.

I certainly will miss both these players. Forsberg was a solid team leader and gave the team a veteran defenseman last season when they had none. Meanwhile it was fun to watch Foulk's game make a big jump forward from the time he was acquired from Everett one year ago to now. You could see his confidence level rise with each game he played. They are two good hockey players but also two solid citizens and I wish them well with their new teams.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Weekend Warriors

I do my best blogging at six in the morning after getting off the bus following a long overnight drive from Cranbrook!

Understatement to say it but this past weekend of hockey was one of the best in recent T-bird history. Three games in three nights, all on the road with other mitigating circumstances (injuries) and the Thunderbirds pluck out three wins. Winning is never easy, winning on the road is even harder and winning under difficult conditions, well, that takes resolve and the T-birds showed they have it in spades.

The win Sunday night over the Kootenay Ice was one of the most impressive from this team that I've witnessed in a long while. Not because they got some incredible, mind bending performance from anyone, not because they weren't expected to win...this team believes they are going to win every time they take the ice...not because they pulled off some sort of last second miracle. No, what was impressive is that, down two of their top six forwards and two of their top six defensemen, they just went about their business, stuck to their game plan and came away with the well earned 4-3 victory.

Man down? No problem; next man up and let's get to work. That was their approach to the game.

I was at the game, I was watching the action, but still I missed one of the most incredible saves in a key moment of a game that you'll ever, or in my case never, see. From my broadcast vantage point at Western Financial Place, traffic in front of the Seattle goal with some thirty seconds remaining and Seattle nursing a one goal lead, obstructed my view. All I saw was Kootenay's Sam Reinhart, one of the best players in the WHL, take a shot toward a gaping opening at the right side of the T-birds goal. Then I saw the Ice players celebrating an apparent tying score. I assumed the game was tied and probably heading to overtime. Then I saw the referee waving his arms emphatically indicating no goal. Then there was Seattle goalie Danny Mumaugh skating out of his crease, holding up his catching mitt and shaking his head back and forth as if to say "No, no, no".

Some how, some way, Mumaugh had flashed that glove over in time to snatch that puck out of midair just before it crossed the goal line, preserving the lead. Maybe I shouldn't have been too surprised because Mumaugh had been making big saves all night. In fact, he had given a glimpse of things to come by making flashing gloves saves two nights earlier in the T-birds 5-4 overtime win Friday in Medicine Hat. One of the biggest question marks for the 'Birds coming into the season was their inexperienced goaltending but the way Mumaugh and Justin Myles have been turning up their play between the pipes, the only question is which of the M&M boys is plain and which one is peanut?

It's hard for a first-overall-pick-in-the-draft player to go about his business in an unassuming manner but in case you didn't notice, Mathew Barzal is now leading the team lead with 12 points (3g, 9a) and is plus-8.
The 16 year old rookie appears to get more and more comfortable playing at the WHL level with each passing game. It was interesting to see him matched up at times Friday night in Medicine Hat against the Tigers' Hunter Shinkaruk and Sunday against Kootenay's Reinhart and more then hold his own. After a productive weekend Barzal sits 8th in the league in scoring and is the top rookie point producer.

Speaking of unassuming, how about the play of defenseman Griffin Foulk? Foulk isn't going to pile up the points although he did get one assist Saturday in Lethbridge. His first order of business is to take care of the defensive zone and he had a good weekend in that department. Foulk was a plus player in all three games, finishing the weekend at +4.

Here's one of those "I didn't see it coming" stats. Seattle is 6-0 with 16 year old defenseman Ethan Bear in the lineup and 0-2 when he's a healthy scratch. Bear saw a lot of first unit power play time over the weekend and he's +2 on the year. With two of your top d-men down for the count, that's what's called stepping up