Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New? Or Just Improved?

What a difference a year can make. A season ago Roberts Lipsbergs led the Thunderbirds in scoring with 58 pts. (30g, 28a) in 64 games. Lipsbergs is on pace for a similar finish this season. Currently he has 30 points (22g, 8a) at the midway point. A season ago Connor Honey finished second on the team in scoring with 54 points(16g, 38a)in 57 games. Honey has missed the last 30 games due to an upper body injury. As a result he's only been able to contribute six points (2g, 4a) in seven games.

Luke Lockhart was Seattle's 4th best scorer last season with 49 points in 72 games. He was second on the team to Lipsbergs with 25 goals. Lockhart, of course, is no longer on the team. Oh, did I mention they traded away their 7th leading scorer from a year ago?

So, with their leading scorer from a season ago only on pace to register the same number of points as last year when the team averaged less then three goals a game, their second leading scorer from last year out with injury most of the first half of the season, their 4th leading scoring from the 2012-13 season graduated out of the organization and their 7th leading scorer sent off to another team, the offense has suffered considerably, right? Wrong! Both the offense and the defense are on the upswing. Just a couple of indicators as to why this team is playing so much better.

Through the first 37 games of the season the T-birds are giving up 3.4 goals against per game, which doesn't sound that impressive. But over the past 12 games, as the team has shown a more concerted commitment to team defense, the goals against average is just 2.6. Remember, a season ago the T-birds allowed four goals a game to the opposition. With the better defense has come better results as Seattle is 10-1-1-0 over that span. Meanwhile the commitment to playing better defense has not come at the expense of the offense. In fact, the scoring has improved. For most of the first half of the season the T-birds were averaging about 3.4 goals a game. That is now up to 3.7 thanks to a 4.4 goals per game clip over the last dozen games.

So I guess to make such a dramatic improvement Seattle GM Russ Farwell traded away the future for a bona fide superstar goal scorer, yes? Wrong again. the improvement has come from within. Defenseman Shea Theodore is just seven point away from equaling his entire point total from last season. A healthy Branden Troock is on pace for 36 goals and 81 points. Alexander Delnov is just three tallies away from equaling the 20 goals he potted in 69 games last year. Then there is rookie Mathew Barzal who has lived up to the billing with 30 points through the first half of his rookie campaign. So, despite being on pace to equal his last season's team leading point total, Lipbergs right now would finish 5th on the team in scoring this season.

Meanwhile team captain Justin Hickman has already equaled his goal total from last season with 12. While Seth Swenson's scoring is down he's still contributed eight goals (19 pts.) from the team's checking line. Another rookie, Ryan Gropp is starting to get his offensive game going and now has 13 points (6g, 7a) in 24 games. While Theodore is getting the headlines as the top scoring defenseman in the WHL, the other five primary d-men for Seattle are chipping in with a combined 57 points (12g, 45a).

One of the significant trades the T-birds did make earlier this season was to acquire Sam McKechnie and Jaimen Yakubowksi from Lethbridge. A season ago the two combined for 50-plus goals with the Hurricanes. So far with Seattle their biggest contributions for the T-birds have been on the defensive side, teaming up with Scott Eansor to form a shutdown line. Still the trio has combined for 19 points (9g, 10a). Yakubowksi's recent injury has broken up that trio but once he's back I'd look for the offensive production to increase in the second half of the season.

The WHL trade deadline is looming. This season it is January 10th, just as the T-birds come off of a five game road trip. Hopefully by then, some of the walking wounded are back. Seattle does have an opening on the roster for a third 20 year old. They could try to fill that spot with a trade or they can stand pat with what they have. The price tag on an acquisition, plus team chemistry, will figure prominently in that decision. Seattle has a lot of young, quality talent on the current roster and in the pipeline and I'm not sure they want to deal any of it for a short term rent-a-player.

Whether or not Farwell makes a trade deadline deal, the best acquisition the team could make would be getting Connor Honey his health. Honey makes this team better in every facet of the game, especially the power play.
It would give Seattle even better depth and put less pressure on young players like Keegan Kolesar and Calvin Spencer. It would give them another leader on the ice and on the bench. It would make them that much harder to play against.

The second half is underway and the T-birds fate is in their own hands.

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