Sunday, November 24, 2013

Paging Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde

So what's more surprising? That the Thunderbirds can play toe-to-toe for sixty minutes (or 65) in back-to-back home games against the likes of Kelowna and Portland, or that their compete level and consistency drop off in a game like Friday night up in Vancouver or earlier this month against the Winterhawks or Regina? For me, I'm more surprised when they DON'T bring the compete level every night for sixty minutes, against every team. I'm an optimist and believe this is a very good hockey team that has a chance every night.

Okay, maybe that is unrealistic. There will be nights over the course of a long season when you just don't "have it", for whatever reason, be it the third game in three nights or when a flu bug goes through the locker room. But any team should be able to do that 90 percent of the time. It should be right there on top of the game plan; compete hard for 60-minutes. I think it is realistic to be on your "A" game 60-65 times a season.

I talked to an NHL scout who's seen every team in the Western Conference multiple times and in his opinion Seattle's roster has the third or fourth most skill among the teams out West. Now, that's one man's educated opinion. I think you have to take "compete level" and "consistency" into account because I believe those are a part of a players "skills" package as much as skating or stick handling. And the T-birds higher end skill may be younger then the skill level on other rosters. But, what I think that scout was saying was Seattle has enough talent and ability on the roster that they should be able to compete for 60 minutes night in and night out, whether that opponent is Portland or Kamloops.

This is the message head coach Steve Konowalchuk has been delivering every night. So far this season I've conducted 26 pregame interviews with the coach and I'm guessing he's talked about "compete level" at some point in all 26 of those conversations. If he's talking to me about having the right compete level, you know he's emphasizing that with the players as well. He's not the only coach I've heard it from either. I've heard it in some form or another in interviews with Don Hay up in Vancouver, Ryan Huska of Kelowna, Kevin Constantine with Everett and Mike Johnston in Portland. In other words, it is not a secret formula guarded in a locked vault by winning teams. It's right there on the directions to Hockey 101, like the recipe for Tollhouse cookies on the back of the Nestles bag of chocolate chips.

So, I'm not sure why the players don't come with the effort they showed against the Winterhawks last night, every night. It is not a guarantee of wins over losses. It doesn't always mean you leave the ice with the two points. Tuesday's shootout loss to Kelowna proves that. But it is a formula for season long success. You won't win every game, but if you compete hard every night you put yourself in a position to win as we witnessed last night. I'd rather be frustrated by putting out my best effort and losing a 4-3 shootout game than disappointed by not giving my best effort and falling 6-3 in lackluster fashion.

Now I don't know if this is a valid argument but part of the issue might be the lack of previous success at the WHL level. No one currently on this roster has been part of a team with a winning record at this level, with the exception of 20 year old Seth Swenson two years ago with Portland. Some have had success at lower levels but at the midget or bantam level I think you can win many games just on skill alone but as you rise up to the level of the WHL and beyond, team chemistry, consistency and compete level become a bigger part of the winning package. Why? Because every team at the WHL level has players with high end talent and skills. Even during their recent losing seasons the Thunderbirds were having players on their roster drafted or signed by NHL clubs.

The hope is that as this group of T-birds play together more, as they learn to win and understand the total effort and commitment it takes to win in the WHL on a nightly basis, they will become more consistent with their compete level from game to game and that games, like the one they played Tuesday against Kelowna and last night against Portland, become more common place; the rule and not the exception. We know they can play with and beat the best teams. We just witnessed it. Now we need to see them do it every night.

To me, that is what is separating Seattle from the likes of Portland, Everett and Kelowna at the moment. Not the level of talent on the roster, but the compete level and consistency from game to game. It's attention to detail, sticking to the game plan, trusting your teammates and not cutting corners.

I heard a rumor that Connor Honey may return to the lineup next weekend. Fingers crossed! Honey has missed 19 games with an upper body injury. Remember, this guy was second on the team in scoring last season and was off to a good start this season, averaging nearly a point a game (2g, 4a) before the injury. Honey is a combination of a lot of things on the ice. A leader, an energy guy, a skilled offensive player, a two way forward, a key cog on special teams, but his best attribute may be his utter disdain for losing.

The questions now becomes which forward sits when Honey returns? I'm guessing it won't be Scott Eansor. How can you watch this guy play and not appreciate the amount of energy he exhausts on each shift. I swear the only reason he goes to the bench is to get a refill of unleaded. More importantly he's become maybe the most consistent T-bird in the face off circle. I doubt it will be Ryan Gropp who loses ice time, as he gets more comfortable with each game played, he shows why he was considered one of the best players available in the 2011 Bantam Draft. He's starting to remind me of a younger version of Branden Troock!

Meanwhile, defenseman Adam Henry has quietly put together three straight games of sixty minutes of hockey, playing hard at both ends. Henry has been a key to the team's recent power play success. Even though the T-birds went 0-for-5 on the power play last night against the 'Hawks, I thought they were generating plenty of opportunity, with the exception of that 5-on-4 late in the 2nd period. Henry's ability to knock down clearing attempts is a big reason why Seattle has power play goals in 3 of their last 4 games.

Don't underestimate what Mitch Elliot and Evan Wardley did to get the crowd into the game early and set the right tone on the T-birds bench by winning those early tilts. Two of the more one-sided fights I've seen in a while.

Raise your hand if you knew Portland would have some fight-back in them in third period with the T-birds up by two goals. I see a lot of hands raised. Champions don't fade away, they go down swinging. I actually didn't think the 'Birds played that poorly in the third as their lead was erased. But they need to expect that from, not just Portland, but all teams. No game is over until the final whistle. In a strange way, I'm glad that happened because I wanted to see if Seattle could respond to the adversity. Great response too, led by their captain Justin Hickman.

Another part of the compete package is tenacity. How tenacious was Matt Barzal in winning the puck from two Winterhawks players to set up the Alexander Delnov game winning goal. It's what playmakers do.

Happy Thanksgiving! Celebrate with family and friends, enjoy the football then get ready for more hockey! The T-birds have two more home games next weekend. Friday they host Saskatoon and Saturday it's the final regular season game against Victoria.

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