Sunday, December 28, 2014

T-Birds Unwrap a Couple of Wins

Seattle came out of the Christmas break this past weekend and delivered two big wins against conference foes. In both instances it was a strong start and a solid finish that propelled the Thunderbirds to victory. Of the seven goals the T-birds registered in victories over Portland and Vancouver, six were scored in the first period.

Then Seattle blanked the Winterhawks in the third period of their 4-3 win Saturday while Sunday in Vancouver they got a late third period goal from Scott Eansor to push them past the Giants, 3-2. It was nice to see that Seattle didn't lose any of their momentum from the pre-Christmas break win over Victoria nine days earlier. As a result, the T-birds are on a three game winning streak as well as being back above .500. In addition, the Thunderbirds are just five points out of fourth place in the conference with three games in hand on the team currently occupying that spot as the race in the west tightens up.

This is the time of year when many WHL teams will be absent some of their top end players who are called up for international duty at the World Junior Championships. For the T-birds that means the loss of Shea Theodore to Team Canada and Alexander True to Team Denmark. Throw in the absence of Matt Barzal due to injury and the Thunderbirds were missing three of their best players, including two of their top centers, when they returned to the ice.

Yet Seattle isn't missing a beat. That's because other players are stepping up and relishing more ice time and bigger roles during this stretch. The best example of this is the tandem of Nick Holowko and Luke Osterman. For much of the first half of the season these two rookie right wingers were alternating starts on the team's fourth line. But with Barzal, True and, for a time Florian Baltram, away these two have stepped into regular playing time and look perfectly at home doing so. Over the past two games the line of Holowko, Baltram and Calvin Spencer has provided some of the best shifts for Seattle.

With Donovan Neuls on the sidelines Sunday in Vancouver with an upper body injury, Seattle put 15 year old Wyatt Bear in the lineup for his WHL debut. Like so many of his teammates who made their debuts this season, the right winger from Hodgson, Manitoba, looked very much like he belonged, playing on a fourth line with Osterman and Kaden Elder. Bear, who is no relation to fellow T-bird Ethan Bear, is listed at 6'2", 205 lbs. and he looks every bit of it too. That's a very thick, and powerful looking 205 lbs. for a young man who doesn't turn 16 until May. Bear was selected by the T-birds this past spring in the 5th round of the WHL Bantam Draft. He could turn into another 5th round gem, like Lane Pederson, a 5th round selection in 2012 who potted his fifth goal in the win Sunday in Vancouver.

What I was impressed with in watching Bear, and what has impressed me about all these young Seattle players this season, is how they stick to the systems head coach Steve Konowalchuk employs. Not one of them freelances, they rarely take shortcuts and they play to the whistle or end of their shift. They've all had their "rookie moments", but their work rate helps cover up for the occasional gaffe.

When Eansor scored his game winning goal late in the third period Sunday up in Vancouver, one thought rolled through my mind. The past 3-4 seasons Seattle seemed to always be on the short end of those late, game-deciding heroics. In fact, the last three to four seasons you almost came to expect Seattle to be on the receiving end of those kind of setbacks. This season there is a new attitude though, and at the end of close games I'm now expecting the T-birds to pull out those type of wins.

My T-birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star: Calvin Spencer. I thought the Brooklyn Park, Minnesota native had two of his best games back-to-back for Seattle this weekend. He was a catalyst both nights. He was strong in all three zones. The coaching staff may have found some chemistry by putting him on a line with Baltram and Holowko. Spencer has good size and even though he seems out of control at times with his skating, has good foot speed. If he can be as consistent the rest of the season as he was this weekend, he can have a big impact on Seattle's second half.

Second Star: Taran Kozun. He was the difference Sunday in Vancouver, making 33 saves in one of the few games this season the T-birds have allowed more then 30 shots on goal. He was particularly good in the second period when the T-birds found themselves back on their heels a bit. He'll throw in the occasional spectacular save but it is his consistency in making the saves he should make that have him atop the WHL goaltending statistics.

First Star: Jerett Smith. Two games, three points (1g, 2a), +3 and a ton of ice time. He's been Seattle's best and most consistent defenseman all season and chipping in with some offense this past weekend was a big bonus. I think he is becoming a leader of this team both on and off the ice, a quiet leader, but a leader nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

No Grinch Before Christmas

It seemed the Seattle Thunderbirds might be in a gift giving mood. They gave up a 3-0 lead by surrendering four straight goals to the Victoria Royals Tuesday in the final game before the holiday break. Or maybe it was the Grinch trying to steal a Merry Christmas from the T-birds. In the end though a couple of Santa's helpers, named Neuls and Gropp, helped turned a potential lump of coal into a nice stocking stuffer, a come-from-behind, 5-4 win to send the players on their merry way.

The final game of the first half was a microcosm of the first half of the T-birds season. Like so many games this year, the T-birds were the better team on the ice for most of the three periods. They were outshooting, outhitting and outchancing their opponent. Near game's end though, they found themselves frustratingly down by one goal. But as they have done much of the season, they battled to the final horn. Only this time it paid off with two late goals to turn what could have been a disastrous loss, into an exhilarating win.

Again Seattle was not short of scoring chances as they peppered the Royals net with 45 shots. Gropp in particular was denied on a couple of occasions early in the game, including an end-to-end rush where it seemed he deked around and through all five Victoria skaters on the ice only to have his backhanded, five hole, attempt nick the pad of the goalie and stay out. Kaden Elder flicked a back hand attempt of his own toward the net that hit the goaltender in the headgear, before ricocheting off the crossbar and fluttering helplessly away.

Seattle could have certainly melted away, like a snowman in a greenhouse full of Christmas poinsettias, after they coughed up their lead midway through the third period. But like a December wind, the T-birds came roaring back to life just in time to pot two late goals and now scatter for the holidays on a positive rather then a negative result.

While Seattle doesn't officially reach the midway point of the season (Game 36) until December 30th when they face Everett at the ShoWare Center, the ten-day holiday break is traditionally thought of as the end of the first half. So, what did we learn about this young team through the first three months?

Shots on goal for and against aren't necessarily the best barometer to measure how a team is playing, but when compared to the last three or four seasons of T-birds hockey, that is the stat that jumps off the page at me. In 33 games Seattle has surrendered just 919 shots on goal, an average of only 27.8 per game. A season ago the T-birds were allowing 48 shots a game. That's an amazing turnaround, especially when you consider that this year's club is so much younger then the team the Thunderbirds iced a season ago.

The fact is, Seattle is routinely outshooting most of their opponents. Just in their last four games alone, Seattle outshot the four teams they played 129-102. Unfortunately, the T-birds went just 2-2 in that stretch. The problem isn't getting chances to score, the problem is finishing those chances. Over those four games Seattle was outscored, 11-10.

I don't want to be too critical of the T-birds offense though. Let's remember they played through most of the first half without two of their most potent offensive weapons in Matt Barzal and Shea Theodore. I'd estimate, conservatively, that pair is worth an extra five or six games in the win column and five or six more wins would put Seattle right at the top of the U.S. Division and among the top two to three teams in the Western Conference.

Of course if its and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas. The fact is Seattle can't get a do over of any of those close games they lost. Instead though they should recognize that they should only get better as the second half unfolds and hopefully, once healthy, they start turning 2-1 defeats into 3-2 wins. The team defense and rock solid goaltending show up every night, giving them a chance to win every game. Now they need the offense to find more consistency.

Heading into the break it might seem Seattle. sitting down their in 8th place in the Western Conference standings, is on the periphery of being a playoff team, closer to the outside then the inside of the playoff picture. But don't let their spot in the standings fool you. Seattle is just four points our of 4th place, just ten from the 2nd spot with 37 games left on the schedule against Western Conference opponents. This is far from over.

See you in the second half.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Weekend Gotaway

Not the weekend the Seattle Thunderbirds were hoping for coming on the heels of winning four of their last six games. After winning four straight against division rivals the T-birds drop two to division foes.

One was a well deserved loss Friday night in Kennewick to the Tri-City Americans. And the setback Saturday at home to Portland? Well, you could argue Seattle deserved a better fate but in the end, you have to take advantage of your own opportunities and the T-birds didn't. So, you could say they got the result they earned in that game as well.

The effort and compete level Saturday was definitely there as opposed to the game against Tri-City the night before. The game in Kennewick Friday was an anomaly when compared to the rest of the season. We are 32 games in to Seattle's season and that is the only game in which the T-birds lacked any semblance of a solid compete level over the course of the sixty minutes. They came out of the gate flat and pretty much stayed that way the rest of the game. Friday against Portland it was good to see that was the exception and not the rule.

The loss Saturday was reminiscent of a number of games played the first month or so of the season in which the T-birds would outchance, outhit, outshoot, outwork and basically outplay their opponent for three periods but end up with no result. And the issue then was the same as it was this weekend for the T-birds. Lack of finish. Seattle struggles to put the puck in the back of the net. Again, it is not for a lack of chances. I would conservatively estimate that Seattle outchanced the Winterhawks in that game 12-4. They just failed to finish those opportunities. This was Seattle's fourth 2-1 loss in their last dozen games and you can certainly make an argument that better finish could have easily turned each of those losses into a win or at least a point earned.

Was last night a glimpse into the future of the Seattle-Portland rivalry? Both teams were missing key components of their rosters because of either injury (Seattle's Matt Barzal) or World Junior competition. But three of four players Seattle was missing (Barzal, Alexander True and Florian Baltram) will all be back with the T-birds next season. Only Shea Theodore is unlikely to return since the Anaheim Duck's first round draft pick has already signed his first pro contract and at age 20 can play in the AHL next season.

For Portland, their two best players, Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstand, are in a similar situation as Theodore and are unlikely to be back with the Winterhawks next year. Both teams will lose a couple of 20 year olds too. So what we saw on the ice last night is essentially what these two rivals will look like a year from now, with a few roster tweaks thrown in. So I would guess next season we're in for more games like last night's, close low scoring affairs. All four meetings this season have been, essentially decided by one goal with Seattle currently leading the season series, 3-1.

This weekend also showed the value of Alexander True, the T-birds Danish import who is away from the team prepping for the World Juniors with Team Denmark. Without the 17 year old rookie center, Seattle struggled in the faceoff circle Friday in Kennewick and missed the energy and strong play along the boards that he brings each night. From some of the chatter I hear from NHL scouts in attendance at T-birds games, True is working himself into the equation for next spring's NHL Entry Draft. A strong showing at World Juniors coupled with a solid second half with Seattle could see him going in the mid rounds of the draft and possibly higher.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star: Nic Holowko. Holowko made the most of the extra ice time he got this weekend in the absence of three of Seattle's top nine forwards. While he didn't register a point in either game. he made his presence felt. He seemed to be the only T-bird playing with any sense of urgency and energy Friday and continued that Saturday against Portland. He's got that non-stop motor a coach loves and plays each shift as if it will be his last. He's one of those young rookies who only stands to benefit from this extra ice time. His work ethic during games will turn him into a top six forward before his WHL career is done. Seattle has it's top eight picks from the 2012 draft on their current roster. Holowko isn't one of them. he went undrafted that year. The T-birds listed him and he has earned his roster spot along side all those drafted players.

Second Star: Evan Wardley. Wardley spent six plus games playing right wing and produced points while he did. He was moved back to his natural defenseman's spot midway through the first period Friday in Tri and spent the whole game back their Saturday against Portland. He showed he's the consummate team player by doing whatever the coaches ask of him to help the team. Unless you're around the team you don't understand the leadership he brings in the lockerroom. The younger players respect him. After the way he has stepped up the last two weeks and showed his versatility, I would not be surprised if, by season's end, he earns a pro contract with an NHL club. He's starting to remind me of the way Brendan Dillon played his final year with the T-birds. Very focused.

First Star: Taran Kozun. Kozun didn't earn a win this weekend but he certainly did what he could to give his team a chance for a "W'. Most weekends when you allow just five goals in two games your team should win with that kind of goaltending. Remember three of the goals he surrendered were power play goals and one of those was 5-on-3. He deserved a better fate. Despite the two losses he still has the league's best GAA at 2.18 while his save percentage of .920 is #3.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sunday MeatLoaf

For the second straight weekend the Seattle Thunderbirds play three games in three nights and come out of it by taking four out of six points. Two out of three ain't bad, right?

In both cases Seattle polished off the weekend with a 4-1 win over division rival Spokane. A week ago it was at the ShoWare Center, a win accomplished without Matt Barzal and Shea Theodore, arguably their two best players. Yesterday they picked up a dominating win with Barzal, captain Justin Hickman and Florian Baltram all absent from the lineup. These last six games have been a testament to the T-birds depth. They may be young but they're talented and play competitive hockey night in and night out.

It's rather cliché to say all this ice time for these young players now will pay dividends later on, but I think we're already seeing the pay off. So many of those rookie players are starting to look very comfortable and confident playing big minutes each game. That was clearly evident Sunday night in Spokane as 16 year old Nolan Volcan had his best game yet with a goal and an assist. I had remarked in the press box after the 5-3 home loss Saturday to Medicine Hat that I felt that combination of Volcan and Donovan Neuls was poised to take a big step forward offensively. They made me seem like I actually know what I'm talking about when they finished Sunday's game with a combined four points (1g, 3a) and were both at +2 for the game.

Is the move to put Evan Wardley up on right wing still just a temporary move? He's played six games as a forward now and in those six games he has earned five points (2g, 3a) and is +2. Wardley missed out on another goal Sunday when he was stopped on a third period breakaway. He said it was his first breakaway chance since his Bantam days but he remembers not scoring back then either. More importantly, whichever combination of players are on a line with him, they are also earning points. Early on he was put on Ryan Gropp's line and Gropp responded with three goals after a seven game goal-less streak. Last night he helped Volcan and Neuls earn multiple points.

It will be interesting to see how he is deployed these next three games before the Christmas break with defenseman Shea Theodore and forwards Florian Baltram and Alexander True away at World Juniors and center Barzal still out with his injury. It might come down to how to better match up with each of the three teams Seattle faces.

Meanwhile, where's the computer that makes out the league schedule? Over it's last 11 games Seattle has played three 3-in-3 weekends. To their credit the shorthanded 'Birds have shown their resiliency, going 5-5-0-1 with three of the losses being by a 2-1 score. Once again, now 30 games into the season, the Thunderbirds have yet to have their full roster available for any game yet are playing .500 hockey.

What's the biggest reason for Seattle winning four of their last six games? Consistency. Even in their two losses they generated plenty of scoring chances, established a solid forecheck and limited shots against. Over the course of the six games Seattle outshot their opponents 173-143, giving up on average just 24 shots a game. The two losses, to two of the oldest teams in the league in Kootenay and Medicine Hat, came down to two or three miscues and older teams will make you pay for those mistakes. Good starts have also helped as the T-birds scored first in five of the six games.

Another key has been Seattle's power play. Over the past two weekends the T-birds have registered seven power play goals and have risen from 20th to 14th in the league in that department. They've accomplished this with out one of their best power play weapons, Barzal, on the ice. How much better will that unit be when he returns and they can put him and Shea Theodore on the ice together when skating 5-on-4.

My T-birds three stars for the just completed weekend:

Third Star: Evan Wardley. moving up from his usual role as a physical presence on the back end to play right wing, he responded with a three point weekend including a game winner Sunday against the Chiefs. More importantly he's made his linemates more affective. His game is also buoyed by his defenseman's instincts as he does a very good job of backchecking. Even better he's understanding he needs to be on the ice and has stayed out of the penalty box.

Second Star(s): Defenseman Ethan Bear, LW Ryan Gropp and RW Keegan Kolesar. When your leading point producer goes down with a long term injury, you are not going to replace his production with just one guy. It must be offense by committee. This T-birds trio stepped up to pick up the slack. This weekend they combined for 11 points (6g, 5a) and were +3. All three are NHL draft eligible for the first time this coming spring. All three are stating their cases before the scouts that they should be selected in the top half of the draft.

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. When your goals against average is already a league best 2.25 coming into the weekend, it is hard to improve on that number. But that is exactly what Kozun did, lowering his GAA to a WHL best 2.14 as he allowed just two goals in two starts, both wins. Meanwhile he made 40 saves on 42 shots and now also has the league's best save percentage at .921. He hasn't allowed an even strength goal since the first period of a 3-2 shootout loss to Everett back on November 22nd, a string of nearly 286 minutes. I finally found a flaw though. It's his youth. With his new pencil thin moustache, I commented that he bore a slight resemblance to screen legend Clark Gable (sans the big ears). His response? "I don't know who that is." Frankly my dear, I feel old.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Gobbling up Some Weekend Points

8-7-2-1. That was Seattle's record without Shea Theodore in the lineup to start the season. It also includes ten games with no Evan Wardley.

4-6-0-1. That's the Thunderbirds record since they lost leading scorer Matt Barzal to a knee injury back on November 6th. And don't forget, in four of those 11 games they didn't have Theodore in the lineup either and were absent Wardley for another five of those games as well. Let's not fail to mention in another three they had to use Wardley, normally a top four defenseman, up front because of a shortage of forwards with Lane Pederson unavailable.

Over the course of the 18 games to start the season without Theodore, Seattle scored 45 goals and allowed 45 goals. In the 11 games so far without Barzal, and at times minus Theodore and Wardley as well, Seattle has only been outscored by five goals, 30-25. And if you think it is all due to goalie Tarn Kozun standing on his head between the pipes, think again. Rarely this season has Seattle surrendered 30 or more shots on goal. In fact it is just as rare to see the T-birds outshot.

I find it remarkable that a team missing what has to be considered two of its best weapons for much of the first one-third of the season (in fact Barzal and Theodore have not played in a game together), using a roster inundated with from 10 to 11 rookies who are all getting significant minutes, is playing essentially .500 hockey and, with few exceptions, has been in position to win the vast majority of their games.

Think about this, 27 games into the 72-game schedule Thunderbirds players have combined to miss 68 games due to injury, illness, international tournaments or suspension yet enter play next week just a game below .500 at 11-12-2-2. To me, that's not just surviving, that's thriving. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk has not had one game this season with a full and healthy roster to put on the ice. It would only stand to reason that when they finally do get everyone healthy at the same time, knock on wood, they'll be an even better team.

This weekend was a prime example of that. They grit out a 3-2 road win Friday up in Everett. In Wardley's first game up on right wing, he's on the ice for all three goals and finishes the night +3. His first weekend as a winger would end with him earning one assist and ending the three-games-in-three-nights at +1. The T-birds stumbled at home the next night against Kootenay with no Barzal and no Theodore, who took ill earlier in the day, in the lineup. Still though, they did have an early two-goal lead and were only down one five minutes into the third period before falling 5-2.

Disappointed in their effort against the Ice the night before, Seattle rebounds nicely Sunday winning a convincing 4-1 decision over Spokane to earn four of a possible six points in the three games. Goals for Seattle this weekend: 9. Goals against: 8. Shots for Seattle in the three games: 76. Shots by the opponents: 69.

The one area where there was a large disparity was power plays as Seattle has hit a stretch where they are taking too many penalties. It's an area they need to clean up because of the eight goals they allowed this weekend, five were power play goals (only two, both by Kootenay were scored even strength and one, also by the Ice was an empty net goal). There was a wide gap in the power play numbers as Seattle was awarded only seven (4 on Sunday) while the opponents had the man advantage 18 times in the three games! I did some cursory examining of the numbers and Seattle is not actually taking that many more penalties then they were earlier in the season. The big difference is fewer penalties are being called against their opponents. In their first 13 games Seattle had 66 power play chances. In the last 14 games only 38.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star(s): The trio of young defensemen Scott Allan, Turner Ottenbreit and Sahvan Khaira. All three scored their first T-birds goals. For Allan and Khaira it was the first goal of their WHL careers. Allan's was a game winner Friday in Everett. With Evan Wardley moved up to a forward line those three had to step up their game and for the most part, they did. Once Seattle gets Theodore, Barzal and Pederson back healthy and can put Wardley back on the blue line, these three will be fighting for ice time. Should be a good battle.

Second Star: Evan Wardley. The senior T-bird defenseman was asked to play right wing in the absence of three Seattle forwards and he took up the challenge. His physicality was ever present. On the first goal Friday night in Everett his mere presence forced the Silvertips defensemen to cough up the puck to Donovan Neuls who scored. I thought he was even better Sunday against Spokane as he looked to take on a more offensive role and picked up one assist.

First Star. Taran Kozun. The Seattle goalie may not be facing an onslaught of shots but he is making the saves he should make and when there is a quality scoring chance against him, he's making the highlight save as well. He continues to be superb playing the puck, disrupting the oppositions attempts to dump and chase. Calm, cool and collected he went 2-0 on the weekend, surrendering just three goals (none 5-on-5) on 43 shots.

R.I.P Dick Emmett, longtime T-bird off-ice official who passed away this past weekend. Another member of our T-bird family is gone, but not forgotten.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

If it Weren't For Bad Luck, I'd Have no Luck at All.

Goaltender Interference

69.4 Contact Outside the Goal Crease - If an attacking player initiates any contact with a goalkeeper, other than incidental contact, while the goalkeeper is outside his goal crease, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

A goalkeeper is not “fair game” just because he is outside the goal crease. The appropriate penalty should be assessed in every case where an attacking player makes unnecessary contact with the goalkeeper. However, incidental contact will be permitted when the goalkeeper is in the act of playing the puck outside his goal crease provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such unnecessary contact.

When a goalkeeper has played the puck outside of his crease and is then prevented from returning to his crease area due to the deliberate actions of an attacking player, such player may be penalized for goalkeeper interference. Similarly, the goalkeeper may be penalized, if by his actions outside of his crease he deliberately interferes with an attacking player who is attempting to play the puck or an opponent.

Pay particular attention to the bold and italicized section of that rule. Because that is exactly what happened late in the third period Saturday in the T-birds 3-2 shootout loss to Everett. Austin Lotz, the Silvertips goalie, initiated the contact with Seattle's Justin Hickman. Lotz hesitated to play the puck that went behind the Everett goal and when he realized it would be Hickman who would get to the loose puck first, he jumped into Hickman's path. He didn't make any attempt to play the puck. Hickman's action is to get the puck and Lotz interferes with him, not the other way around. Yet Lotz is rewarded for his action, which in my opinion included a whole bunch of embellishment, and Hickman is penalized for his. The result is an Everett power play that allows them to score the tying goal. When a pedestrian jumps into the path of an oncoming train do you blame the engineer in the locomotive for the pedestrian's bad decision?

At the very least, Lotz should have been penalized as well as Hickman. But I don't understand why Hickman gets a penalty for doing what any attacking player would do in that decision; chase down a loose puck with a chance to set up a scoring play. The bad decision made in this instance was made by Lotz. Goaltenders get a lot of protection by the nature of their vulnerable position but they shouldn't be afforded that benefit of the doubt when they put themselves in harms way.

The T-birds were in control of the game late and that play decided the outcome. Too many times this season calls such as that are deciding games. That's an extra point Seattle had in their back pocket, taken away. They can't get it back and meanwhile Everett gets two points I don't think they rightly deserved. The fate of a team's season can be turned on a call such as that.

Meanwhile Seattle's offensive woes continue. Puck luck is not on their side either as once again they rang a shot off the post, just as they did the night before against Spokane. I count 12 posts or crossbars hit by Seattle in their last eight games. Just this past weekend alone in two games the T-birds were credited with 69 shots on goal but lit the lamp just three times. While they were better Saturday at getting traffic in front of the Everett goal, I still don't think they did it enough. They have to be more conscious of that part of their game.

They were better at getting shots to the net as opposed to hesitating or passing up a shot in favor of an extra pass. That was key to their power play goal in the second period as Jerett Smith did a good job of firing a puck into traffic. As a result Keegan Kolesar was able to bang in a rebound.

Evan Wardley was back on the ice after serving his second lengthy suspension of the season. Wardley played a very good game but he did take one silly, after the whistle penalty in the third period. When your team is up by a goal, trying to snap a losing streak, those are plays you must avoid at all costs. The T-birds killed off that penalty but Wardley has to play smarter. He has tremendous value to this team but that values is severely diminished if he's up in the stands watching the game in street clothes because he's been suspended.

Is Seattle feeling the affects of Mathew Barzal's absence from the lineup? You bet they are. Injuries though, are part of the game and Seattle knows Barzal is going to be out for an extended period and they have to step up their game. I still believe that collectively, the T-birds have enough talent to fill much of that void. It won't be one player but four or five of the young guys can step up. We've seen some of that from Calvin Spencer and the aforementioned Kolesar. Alex True's improvement is five fold since the start of the season.

But the one player Seattle needs to get going is Austrian Import Florian Baltram. Let's remember, like True, Baltram is just 17 years old and playing in North America for the first time. Back in Austria Baltram was one of the top scorers in his age group, often playing with older players. One of the problems is Baltram just isn't getting chances to shoot the puck. I think he is making such a concerted effort to take care of the defensive zone first, he's not thinking offense. I'd like to see him start taking the puck to the net and getting some shots on goal. Once he gets that first WHL goal, hopefully it relaxes him.

My T-birds three stars this weekend:

Third Star: Scott Eansor. Eansor is doing terrific work filling in for Barzal by centering Seattle's top line. He'll never do less then play a 200 foot game. He won the vast majority of his faceoffs this weekend, in particular versus Everett. His blue line to blue line rush set up Hickman for the go ahead goal early in the third period Saturday. For the second straight game against Everett he was doing a superb job of making Nikita Sherbak ineffective, until Sherbak left the game with injury.

Second Star: Keegan Kolesar. When Central Scouting finally put Kolesar on the watch list for next spring's NHL Draft, everyone took notice as he went from unrated to a B prospect. Apparently Kolesar took notice too. I get the feeling he thinks that rating is too low and he's out to prove he should be rated higher. He played two solid games. He plays a smart, physically disciplined game and is so strong at just 17 years old he's hard to move off the puck, whether in front of the net or along the boards. Maybe Seattle has to make enough space for him on that mural on the ShoWare Center concourse? Is their room to squeeze his image on there between Gropp, Bear and Barzal?

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun deserves a better fate. He has allowed just two goals against in each of his last four starts yet hasn't earned a win because Seattle's offense isn't supporting him with enough goals at the other end. Despite going 0-3-0-1 over that span he's lowered his GAA to a league best 2.32. That's right, he has the best GAA average in the league after this weekend's two games. Meanwhile, he has the the 4th best save percentage. The way he handles the puck behind the net, he might be one of the top defensemen too!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Let's be Offensive

From the strange-but-true department: On their just completed six game road trip through the Eastern Division the Seattle Thunderbirds scored 18 goals. The 18 goals averages out to three goals per game, which is actually more then they were averaging per game (2.5) before they left for the trip. And they did that with their leading point producer, Matt Barzal, out of the lineup for the entire trip. So why did they finish the trip with just two wins?

Well, the numbers are skewed because the T-birds recorded 12 of their goals in just two games, a 6-2 win in Prince Albert and a 6-4 win over Brandon. In their four losses they mustered up just six goals, a measly 1.6 goals per loss. You won't win too many games averaging under two goals a game, even as good as Seattle was in their own end. Had Seattle actually scored three goals in each game on the trip they would have gone 3-3. So, they still need to kick up the offense.

On the positive side, the T-birds only let in 20 goals in the six games and six of those came in one contest, the 6-2 defeat in Moose Jaw, In the other five games Seattle had a team goals against average of just 2.8 and that includes giving up just four goals to the high flying Brandon offense.

Seattle's scoring task was made harder when they lost the point-a-game offense of Barzal at practice prior to the first game on the journey. But even without Barzal in the lineup they created enough scoring chances to pot more goals in every game they played. The issue isn't creating, it's finishing and the T-birds didn't do that well enough. Just in the Saskatoon game alone, coaches counted 24 scoring opportunities missed, leading Seattle to lose the game, 4-2.

Over the course of the road trip I counted at least ten shots off the post, four in the Saskatoon game alone. So, when I get asked where is the missing offense going to come from, I say it can come from within. The players on the roster, young and old, rookie or veteran, are creating scoring chances and if you keep creating opportunities, eventually those pucks will find their way into the back of the net, right? If they don't, then you may have to explore a trade for a proven, bona fide goal scorer but option A is the easiest and cheapest solution to their offensive woes.

Remember, this is one of the youngest, if not the youngest, teams in the league. Often those young players are battling older, more physically mature players. Despite that though, they are in most games until the final horn with a chance to win or at least tie and force an overtime or shootout. A couple of times during my tenure broadcasting T-birds games Seattle has had young teams. I recall my first season when those youngsters were Nate Thompson, Tyler Metcalfe, Dustin Johner, Steve Goertzen, Greg Black, Mathew Spiller and a few more green players. Still I don't think that team was as young as this season's version. That 2001-02 team won just 21 games but by season's end all the ice time those youngsters got during the course of the year paid off as they upset the division champion Portland Winterhawks in the first round of the playoffs. The following season they more then doubled their win total and won the U.S. Division and made a deep postseason run.

But I also remember that 2001-02 team getting beat routinely by four, five or six goals. That's not happening with this young club that's playing at a nearly .500 clip, not the .368 winning percentage of that young team over a decade ago. So far this year the biggest margin of defeat is four goals and that happened once, just a few games ago up in Moose Jaw in a game that was 4-2 midway through the third period. The only other loss by more then two goals was a 4-1 loss in Spokane when Seattle played with a depleted defensive corps less then 24 hours after beating the Chiefs with just two healthy d-men. More often Seattle is losing games as they lost the last two on the trip out east, each a 2-1 setback.

There are no moral victories of course and the Thunderbirds would prefer to be on the winning side of a few more of those close games, especially the ones they are dominating in shots on goal and puck possession. Seattle is getting top end goaltending and playing sound team defense. As I mentioned earlier, they have a team goals against average so far this season of just 2.8. Keeping your opponent to under three goals a game will keep you in most contests. If they can find a way to average just one more goal a game they would be winning more of those close ones.

Seattle had an extra passenger with them most of the just completed journey through Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Gare Joyce, a writer with rode the bus with the team, trekked along to the morning skates, shared team pre and post game meals, visited the hometown rink of Donovan Neuls, enjoyed the home cooked meal at the Pederson casa in Saskatoon and even was there in Ochapowace with us on the reserve where Ethan Bear grew up. Keep an eye out for his article, chronicling the journey. Joyce has also authored a few books on hockey and other sports and you can find them on

T-birds three stars from the just completed six game road trip:

Third Star: Seattle's 4th line of Calvin Spencer, Florian Baltram and either Nick Holowko or Luke Osterman. That line did a good job of providing an offensive spark. Spencer had Seattle's first goal in the win over Brandon and it was huge, coming just four seconds after the Wheat Kings had opened the scoring. Nick Holowko scored in Moose Jaw, a goal that gave the T-birds a little hope in the third period, pulling them within 4-2 before the Warriors pulled away. Baltram added a couple of assists and Osterman recorded his first WHL goal in Regina. It almost stood up as a game winner before the Pats scored twice in the third period.

Second Star. Ryan Gropp. With Barzal out Gropp seems like the likeliest player to turn to, to pick up some of the missing offense. The Kamloops native averaged just over a point a game on the trip, registering seven points (3g, 4a) and was +1. His ten goals now leads the team in that department.

First Star: While he earned just one win and had his worst outing of the season in the loss to Moose Jaw, goalie Taran Kozun came back strong with two stellar performances in those back-to-back 2-1 losses against Regina and Swift Current to end the trip. I'm starting to take for granted how well he plays the puck behind his own net, but that's no easy skill, he just makes it look that way. He anchors the T-birds team defense and he is playing so well he ranks fifth in the league with a 2.38 GAA. Take out that Moose Jaw game when he was pulled after allowing four goals on 11 shots and he's probably number one. If there is one area on this team you don't need to question, it is their number one netminder.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

New House Needs a Roof

I know it can be frustrating for fans to watch their team play so well, control a game and not get rewarded for the effort such as happened Saturday night for the T-birds against Vancouver and has happened at least three or four other times already this season. Fans don't want to be told to be patient when their team is missing out on valuable points. It's like finding a twenty dollar bill in the parking lot outside the grocery store only to lose it by shoving it in the pant pocket with the hole in it. Then you don't discover that hole in your pocket until you get to the cash register and try to pay for that extra item you want to purchase and that twenty dollar bill is nowhere to be found.

Let's use another analogy, since I'm forced to watch a lot of DIY and HGTV at home. The Thunderbirds are doing a terrific job of laying down a foundation for a successful season. They've even put up some sturdy walls, finished the plumbing and electrical and added a few appliances. The house is just about move in ready, but they have to finish. They need to close that house up by adding a new roof. Without it, their project is getting rained on.

Before that can be done though, there will be a few setbacks, changes to the blueprints or the need for some touch up paint. Afterall, the construction just started a little over a month ago and to be honest, I think they're a little ahead of schedule, considering they're using so many apprentice workers and one of their best carpenters hasn't been on the job site yet. You just have to have faith that when the house is completed, it will be one of the most valuable properties on the block.

Thursday against Edmonton they finished the kitchen. They did a terrific job of taking the game to the Oil Kings. They set the tone with an aggressive, in-your-face style against the defending champs. They pushed the pace for 60 minutes with a relentless forecheck that kept Edmonton on their heels most of the game. It was a high energy effort from start to finish that allowed Seattle to roll four lines consistently and pile up a season high five goals.

Saturday against Vancouver was more of the same as the T-birds once again set the tone and tempo for the game. The problem against the Giants was that some of the nails got bent or missed the studs. There were probably the same, if not more, scoring chances Saturday but the T-birds struggled to finish. Certainly you have to give credit to the Giants goalie, Cody Porter, who was credited with 38 saves in earning the shutout. But I didn't think Seattle made the most of their chances. They left too many scoring chances on the doorstep, flailed away at a few pucks lying around the Vancouver crease in front of an open net, or were beaten to loose pucks by Giants players.

Let's remember, most teams are, on average, 15-17 games into the season and as of Saturday, only four points separate third place from 10th place in the Western Conference. There is still a lot of hockey to be played.

I'm a little concerned about the power play. I still see the T-birds trying to be too perfect, looking for the that one great chance rather then throwing pucks on goal and crashing the net for rebounds. As a result, Seattle is 0-for-11 since scoring twice with the man advantage against Spokane three games ago. One issue is not making a good tape-to-tape pass. that means the shooter has to settle the puck instead of getting off a one-timer and that allows the penalty killers to get in front of the shooter and block the shot.

Also, since coming off his three game absence due to injury, Ethan Bear has been off target with his usually reliable shot. At least four times in the past two games his shot has been high and or wide. It's just a matter of time before he gets that dialed back in. That and the return of Shea Theodore should help improve the power play.

Speaking of Theodore, Anaheim assigned him to their AHL affiliate Norfolk for a two-week conditioning stint. He's played in a couple of games for the Admirals and picked up two assists so it is clear the elbow is healed. But under the rules, he can't stay there. Once his conditioning assignment is over he has to go back up to the NHL or be returned to Seattle. Also, any games he plays for Norfolk count toward his free agency time line. Theodore signed his standard three year NHL entry contract shortly after being drafted. So, he could play seven more games with Norfolk/Anaheim before the clock starts ticking (it kicks in once you've played 10 pro games) and he would need to be sent back to the T-birds.

Finally the Thunderbirds announced that goalie Logan Flodell has been assigned to the Nipawin Hawks of the SJHL. That leaves Seattle with two goalies, Taran Kozun and Danny Mumaugh, and also reduces their roster from 11 down to ten rookies. The 17 year old Flodell appeared in just one game, getting the start and playing well in a 3-1 loss to Prince George. This by no means is a slight on Flodell's abilities. Rather it speaks more to the depth Seattle has in the goalie position.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. While he only faced a combined 44 shots in two games, there were a number of high quality scoring chances against as the T-birds had a penchant for turning the puck over right in front of their own goal. Kozun stood tall, allowing just three goals. The two in the Edmonton game came well after the outcome had been decided and both were scored off deflections. He made the early saves necessary when the game was still scoreless. And you certainly can't fault him for the Vancouver power play goal that won it for the Giants Saturday. Vancouver's Alec Baer was allowed to just skate the puck out of the corner uncontested, right to the front of the T-birds goal. That missed assignment can't be laid at Kozun's feet. Meanwhile Kozun continues to be like a third defenseman out on the ice the way he handles the puck behind his own net.

Second Star: Scott Eansor. I think we can stop using the term "underrated" now when describing Eansor. I think the other teams in the Western Conference are well aware of what he can do. Whatever his offseason workout program is, it should be copied by all his teammates because he's physically ready to go 200 feet for 60 minutes each night. Along with his stamina, he has tremendous power in his legs that make him one of the league's quickest skaters. He plays to the whistle and beyond. His four game point streak was snapped Saturday but certainly not for lack of effort. His biggest asset may be that he makes those he plays with more effective as he and his linemates are all plus players.

First Star: Matt Barzal. If not for the post Saturday night against Vancouver, Barzal would have probably had the Goal of the Week in the WHL. He completely undressed the Giants big Russian defenseman on that shorthanded, backhand chance. Penalty killing is a new role for him this season but he has taken to it like a dog to a bone. He set up his teammates with a couple of real good opportunities in that game as well. You wonder how many points he'd have right now if the T-birds were better finishers. He still had a three point night Thursday and was, without question, the most dynamic player on the ice both nights. I'd still like him to shoot more but he has such great vision he usually finds the open player with the puck. He plays the game so calmly which to me means he processes it faster them most players. He's barely into his second season in the WHL and he's just now scratching the surface of what he can do.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Breaking Out of Their Shells

I know Coach K was upset after the game Saturday night in Everett with some of the officiating and I think that is more of an accumulative affect of what has transpired over the first dozen or so games this year. I know the league admitted to officiating errors in at least two games earlier this season that probably cost Seattle a minimum of two points but more likely four. So, when there are late penalties called in a close game, he just had enough.

But I also see some calculation in what the coach said to the media assembled outside the T-birds dressing room after that game. He was willing to take the wrath of the league office to stand up for his players. Seattle had just played a tremendous game and if not for two high sticking calls late in the game, Everett doesn't sniff the back of the T-birds goal, let alone get the win. Seattle was controlling the play. Did you notice both of those penalties were called with Seattle's forecheck pinning Everett deep in their own end? Yet Everett, under duress from the Thunderbirds pressure, gets bailed out by these two calls.

And Konowalchuk isn't necessarily disputing whether there were high sticks although he leans toward the "they weren't" argument. Maybe they were maybe they weren't. But he's arguing that either way, the Silvertips players were embellishing on those plays (the one player reacted as if he had just been punched in the face by Mike Tyson wearing a cast iron boxing glove). Apparently this summer the league made a point of saying to coaches that more embellishment penalties would be called this season. We're 13 games in and I haven't witnessed one embellishment call yet.

But to me, the contact with the goalie was more concerning. The night before I watched Scott Eansor drive the net on Spokane's Garret Hughson. He took a shot and Hughson made the save but Eansor's momentum carried him into the Chief's netminder. The result, rightfully so, was a goaltender interference minor on Eansor. Last night in Everett I watched as Seattle goalie Taran Kozun covers a puck in the crease. He clearly has possession but the Silvertip's shove into him after the play is over, push him back toward the goal line, then the player actually turned and sat on Kozun. The result? No call. In fact there was contact with Kozun all night long and not one penalty on Everett for goaltender interference. It seems the standard for a penalty changes from game to game.

I've said before these officials are young, both in age and experience and, like the players, they are here in the WHL to develop and get better. Not one of them is out there purposefully trying to screw a team out of a win. They are trying to be the best they can be at what, quite frankly, is a thankless job. There does have to be a certain amount of room for error. But there also has to be signs of growth and I think the coach's tirade basically says, we're not seeing it. You can only keep the steam in the tea kettle so long before you need to vent. So maybe the coach has to get out his checkbook but I think he does so without hesitation.

As for the actual effort from the Thunderbirds this weekend? I was overly impressed with their game both nights. They did after all, earn three of a possible four points, finally got their first home win Friday with the 5-3 victory over Spokane, and picked up their ninth road point in seven away games with the OT loss up in Everett. In fact, Seattle has now earned four of six points in their last three games against teams with a combined record of 23-10-6-1. In fact, every team the T-birds have played this season has a winning record except for Portland.

And Seattle did this with a young, shorthanded roster. Is their another WHL team legitimately waiting for their best player to be returned from the NHL like Seattle is with Shea Theodore? Maybe Kootenay with Sam Reinhart or possibly Prince Albert with Leon Draisaitl. But those two are actually playing in the NHL and could be kept there. Theo is hurt and will be returned to the Thunderbirds once he's cleared to play. So he has still to see ice time in a game.

Is there another WHL team breaking in 11 rookies? Not only is Seattle employing 11 first year players which is half their roster, but they are playing them in heavy doses. Is their another team that has been playing a good portion of the early season without three of its top six defensemen? The T-birds had to make a trade just to have enough defensemen to fill those six spots because of injury and suspension, yet they've been in every game, save one, 'til the final horn and it is their team defense that is a large reason for this.

I was really looking forward to watching Nikita Sherbak, the Montreal Canadians first round draft pick the Silvertips acquired from Saskatoon earlier this season. I left disappointed. He should be one of the league's most dynamic offensive players but either he is disinterested, overrated or Seattle just did a tremendous job of cancelling him out. Let's go with the latter and give the T-birds all the credit. He was like Casper the Friendly Ghost most of that game....constantly disappearing. In fact I thought Everett was better when he wasn't on the ice. I saw that kind of effort in Seattle the last two seasons from Alexander Delnov. It's just one game and he did get the assist on what essentially was a 4-on-3 power play, game winning goal, but I think I could have made that pass with my eyes closed with so much open ice. The Silvertips paid a hefty price to obtain him. He should be better then that. For the league's sake, as one of the WHL's marquee players, he has to be better then that.

The T-birds are playing .500 hockey (5-5-2-1) without their full roster, without their best player, with the youngest team in the league and with the offense still trying to find its way. It is a team trending upward with a big arrow. Early season lessons learned should turn into Grade A exam scores at the end of the season. These young Thunderbirds are growing up.

When Seattle does get both Theodore and Wardley back in the lineup, how do you keep Turner Ottenbreit out? I don't think you do. I think he's earned top six minutes. Tremendously confident young player. But what about Scott Allan who was thrown to the wolves after the trade from Medicine Hat? he has performed admirably and deserves ice time too. Then there is 16 year old Sahvan Khaira, who's already showing signs he'll be a top two d-man before his WHL career is over and may have played his best game to date Saturday in Everett. What a conundrum for the Seattle coaches to have. Three young defenseman will be fighting for one spot in the lineup each night.

My Thunderbirds three stars for the weekend are:

Third Star: Captain Justin Hickman. Hickman finished the weekend with four points (2g,2a) and is finally getting close to being 100 percent healthy. He's not there yet but 95 percent of Hickman still makes him one of the best 20 year olds in the league. More importantly, as he has always done, he stands up for his teammates and with no Evan Wardley on the ice the past week, he has had to be that guy.

Second star: Matt Barzal. Barzal had a three point night Friday against Spokane (1g, 2a) and despite not scoring Saturday in Everett, was still the most dangerous player on the ice. If not already there, he is becoming a complete two-way player, getting ice time in all situations. Really, really good right now, by the end of the season he'll be one of the best players in the league. He's certainly not damaging his NHL draft stock. And to think he's just 17.

First Star: It's a tie! I gotta give props to both Scott Eansor and Jerret Smith. As for Eansor, call him the Tazmanian Devil or the Engerizer Bunny, he has the non-stop motor coaches love. He's just so relentless and with the help of his new linemates, rookies Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan, he's finally being rewarded with a three game goal scoring streak. As a result, he has already equaled his goal total from last year's regular season. hands down one of the best penalty killers in the WHL. At age 18 he reminds me of what former Thunderbird Luke Lockhart did at age 20.

Smith meanwhile, continues to be the bedrock of Seattle's defensive corps. With Theodore unavailable he's also been capably manning the point on the power play, even scoring a power play goal Friday versus Spokane. He may have already logged more ice time this season then he did all of last year. Okay, that's a stretch, but you get the point. He's been a terrific anchor of the back end.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Frustration Nation

The "Word of the Week" in Thunderbird Nation is "frustration". In large chunks there was much good that happened for the T-birds this past week, but none of that good ended up in the win column as the T-birds went 0-2-1-1. They were four winnable games for Seattle but all they got out of it was two of a possible eight points. Over the course of the four games Seattle probably generated 20-24 good scoring chances but could muster only eight goals and most came after they had fallen behind.

In a nutshell, Seattle's misfortune this past week started with an unfortunate and incorrectly called penalty on T-birds defenseman Jared Hauf late in the first period of Tuesday's home game versus Spokane. Hauf was assessed a five-minute major (and the automatic game misconduct that comes with it) for a clean hit on the Chiefs Liam Stewart. To me, this was a case of a referee erring too far on the side of caution, to the point he overreacted to a hit by a big player on a smaller player. It completely changed the complexion of the game.

Bad hits that lead to penalties are learning moments for players. This should be a learning moment for the official. They have a tough job and we ask perfection from them. We have to leave room for them to make and learn from mistakes.

Less then 24 hours later the WHL rescinded the penalty but it was too little too late. Hauf missed the rest of the Spokane game. Evan Wardley was already out of the lineup serving the first game of his suspension, and when Seattle lost two more d-men in that first period to injury, they were in dire straits. To their credit the depleted Seattle roster played valiantly, getting the game to the end of regulation tied at 2-2 before losing in the shootout.

All that ice time logged by what healthy defensemen Seattle had left had them skating on fumes in the rematch over in Spokane less then 24 hours later. Still absent three of their top six defensemen, they had no legs and it looked like they were skating in mud. They hung around as long as they could before falling, 4-1.

With only a day off Seattle returned home for a pair of games this weekend. Both nights, Friday against Prince George and Saturday against Kamloops, the T-birds came out with dominating first periods. So it may seem odd when I say despite the effort, I believe Seattle lost both games in the first period. The reason? They didn't reward their terrific first period play either night as they couldn't finish some excellent scoring chances. As a result they let their opponents hang around, gain confidence and get on the scoreboard first.

Saturday the Thunderbirds once again showed their resiliency as they battled back twice in the second period from a two-goal deficit and then again from a goal down in the third period. I really liked the fore check both nights and for good portions of each game they had strong puck possession. I was surprised though that each night this weekend their play fell off in the third period because through much of the early part of the season, the third period has been one of their best periods of hockey.

Fatigue may have been a factor, maybe frustration with seeing so many scoring chances go by the board. Whatever the case is, it is something they'll need to correct going forward. But, let's remember this is not yet a complete team. It's not just the fact they are missing Shea Theodore, Evan Wardley and now Ethan Bear or that Justin Hickman is not yet playing at 100 percent coming off the long layoff due to injury to start the season.

It's also the fact that Seattle is indoctrinating 11 rookies into the WHL. And they've all played. Outside of back-up goalie Logan Flodell, who has one start, not one of the rookies on the roster has played in fewer then four of the first 11 games. Luke Osterman, in his first season, has played both right wing and, out of necessity, defense and while there have been a few blemishes, he has held his own.

And yet the T-birds have had a chance to win all but maybe one of those 11 games. Saturday many of those young players may have turned a corner as Lane Pederson had an assist for his first WHL point, Nolan Volcan scored his first WHL goal and Donovan Neuls had his first multiple point night with a goal and an assist. I'm still appreciating the play of young defenseman Turner Ottenbreit who, in the absence of Theodore, Bear and Wardley, is getting top four minutes and power play time as well.

My T-birds three stars for the week:

Third Star: Ryan Gropp. Gropp had his seven game point streak snapped in the overtime loss Saturday against the Blazers but for most of the week, he was Seattle's offense. He has great hands and a quick release that will garner him 30-plus goals.

Second Star: Keegan Kolesar. A season ago in 60 games, the Winnipeg native tallied eight points (2g, 6a). Already this season he has four goals and three assists in the first 11 games and his shorthanded goal Saturday earned the T-birds a point. And while meaningless as far as the final result is concerned his last second goal Friday avoided the shutout against Prince George. When Bear and Theodore return his presence in front of the net should make the T-birds power play deadly. Far from a finished product, Kolesar is only scratching the surface of his ability.

First Star: Jerret Smith. No one stepped up more this week, after Seattle's D-corps got hit with suspension, ill-called penalties and injuries, then Smith. He logged major minutes back on the blue line this past week and earned a couple of assists in the process. And with so many defensemen down, you need those you still have to be available and on the ice. Smith has yet to be penalized this season, doing a terrific job of staying out of the box.

Saturday against Kamloops he took two bad hits along the boards, drawing penalties against the Blazers in the process. Yet he popped right back up each time showing he's one tough hombre. I've heard some say he has benefitted in the past from being paired with Shea Theodore, but that goes both ways. Having the steady Smith as a defensive partner allows Theodore to take chances up ice and to be more of an offensive player. Can't wait until those two get back together.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Road Warriors

The Seattle Thunderbirds have only played seven games so far this new season but the majority, five, have been on the road. Seattle's record in those games? 4-1-0-0. That includes back-to-back road wins this weekend after the T-birds came from behind to beat Spokane Friday night 2-1 in overtime and followed that with a 3-2 shootout win Saturday in Portland. Until they start awarding style points, you can't do better on a two-game road trip then earning four points and Seattle grabbed all four.

Young teams can either be intimidated on the road or they can just go out and play hockey and not worry about the surroundings, the road atmosphere or the opponent. The Thunderbirds take on the characteristics of the latter; they just play their game.

It helps to have a Taran Kozun in goal. While the rest of the team has had slow road starts, Kozun seems the one player who is on his game from the opening face-off. His stellar play, in particular in the first period of away games, keeps the team in those games while they get the bugs worked out. The T-birds have surrendered the first goal in each of their first five road games yet have come back to win four of them. They have gotten better as the game moves along but if not for Kozun's strong work between the pipes, they'd be chasing two or three goals deficits rather than the 1-0 holes they are climbing out from.

Friday night in Spokane was shaping up to be a frustrating loss as Seattle dominated play territorially for all but a 7 to 8 minute stretch in the second period. Despite most of the puck possession, they couldn't find the back of the net then fell behind late in that second period. But they persevered and eventually tied the game late in the third on the power play and won it in overtime.

Saturday they faced a Portland team at the Moda Center desparate for a win, especially on home ice. Sure enough the Winterhawks came out with early pressure, outshooting Seattle 11-2 over the first ten minutes and grabbing an early lead. But the T-birds weathered the storm and for most of the final two periods were the better team. They grabbed a 2-1 advantage before a late, flukish goal by Portland tied things up, then Matt Barzal and Kozun combined to win it for Seattle in the shootout. Again, like Spokane the night before, Portland's time on the puck was limited once Seattle found it's rhythm.

The keys for Seattle? Good defensive zone coverage, the ability to move the puck up ice by limiting neutral zone turnovers and a strong forecheck.

Seattle played just over two periods of the game in Portland with only five defensemen. They lost Evan Wardley to a five minute major and game misconduct for his hit on Nic Petan late in the first period. It was initially announced as a charging major but the scoresheet after the game listed it as a checking to the head penalty. It definitely wasn't a charge. I thought Wardley did everything right on the play until the last second when it appeared he lunged upward, making contact high with Petan's head. It should also be noted that Petan's natural instinct appears to be to duck and spin away from the hit. As a result the side of his head contacts Wardley's hands as Wardley was preparing to deliver the check to Petan's mid-section and that sends Petan sprawling to the ice. There is no shoulder to head contact. The league will now review the play for possible suspension.

I certainly also hope the league reviews Oliver Bjorkstrand's hit on Ethan Bear that occurred after time ran out at the end of overtime. I'm not sure how you can argue that was anything but intent to injure. The puck was dumped to the corner from center ice with just a couple of seconds left. By the time Bear got to the puck, time expired and the horn sounded but Bjorkstrand never let up. He continued at full speed and delivered a high hit on Bear.

Can I change my assessment of the Adam Henry-to-Saskatoon trade from a steal to highway robbery? Again, I keep being overly impressed with defenseman Turner Ottenbreit, the player the T-birds got back in return. With Wardley unavailable the last two periods Saturday night, Seattle leaned on it's two rookie defensemen, Ottenbreit and Sahvan Khaira, to pick up the slack, and Ottenbreit in particular made the team's necessary transition from a six man to a five man defensive group seamless.

There were lots of heroes for Seattle over the weekend. Scott Eansor and Florian Baltram were monsters in overtime both nights. Jared Hauf had the big game winning OT goal against the Chiefs. Justin Hickman's return to the lineup has solidified Seattle's four lines. But here are my three T-birds stars for the just concluded weekend road sweep:

Third Star: Defenseman Jerret Smith. Smitty has quietly gone about his business and is having a strong start to his season. He has been very good in the defensive zone but he has also been quite adept at moving the puck up ice. He's logging major minutes and is one of the team's best penalty killers early on, not to mention his work on the power play. Remember, he's doing all this with his usual defensive partner, Shea Theodore still on the shelf with injury.

Second Star: Center Matt Barzal. Barzal ended the weekend on a four game point streak and a three game goal scoring streak. His goal in Spokane late in the third period tied the game and gave Seattle a chance to win it in overtime. In Portland he scored another power play goal to give Seattle the lead. The goal almost stood up as the game winner, but when it didn't, he calmly potted the game winning shootout marker. For sure, he's a dangerous offensive player, but he's becoming a complete package as more then once on the back check he's created a turnover that negated an opposition's scoring chance.

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. While the rest of the team seems to come out of the gates slowly, Kozun has been the one T-bird ready to go from the moment his skates hit the ice. He faced 54 shots this weekend and stopped 51, plus three more big saves in the shootout versus Portland. His play I'm sure has inspired the team in front of him. He's covering for some of their mistakes with his stellar play and he's a prime reason the T-birds have had a chance to win each of his six starts. And the way he handles the puck, it's like having a third defenseman out on the ice. With three on the roster, he has clearly established himself as the team's number one netminder.

Seattle just finished a game against Spokane Friday night in exciting fashion with that overtime road win. So you think they've put the Chiefs in their rear view mirror? Think again. Three of their next five games will be versus Spokane including a mid-week home and home. It starts Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center with the first Director's Mortgage Two-for-Tuesday of the season.

The big question is, who will be Seattle's sixth defenseman? With Wardley most likely suspended Seattle has only five d-man on the roster. One solution is to put Luke Osterman back on the blue line until Wardley's return. Osterman was drafted out of Stillwater, Minnesota a few years back as a defenseman but the team has spent the last year converting him to a forward. His first two training camps with the Thunderbirds he was still a defenseman, and a good one at that, and I think the team would feel comfortable putting him back their again. We'll wait and see.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Young, Fun, Win Some, Lose Some

It is disappointing to take a game down to its final minutes before falling as the Thunderbirds did Saturday night in that 6-4 loss to Kelowna. It is usually in those close, last minute defeats that you have a much more critical eye when reassessing every aspect of the game and possibly over magnifying the mistakes made or chances missed.

But you know what? I'm gonna leave that, fine-tooth comb critiquing, to the coaches. After all, that's there job. Yes, the loss was disappointing but putting that aside for the moment, I'm really enjoying watching this young team compete. We are five games in to a long 72-game season and Seattle is routinely putting nine rookies, and five second year players, out on the ice each game and they are competing to the point they have had a legitimate chance to win each of those five games. That's essentially 70 percent of your roster each night with well under two years of experience at the WHL level but they just don't seem intimidated by the situation.

The T-birds are playing good, competitive hockey and two of their better players, Justin Hickman and Shea Theodore, have yet to see a second of ice time. Seattle already has the youngest roster in the league and with those two WHL veterans unavailable because of injury, their game night roster is even younger. But it hasn't mattered because these young players all seem to have the same high compete level. Are they making mistakes? Sure, but early in their Major Junior careers they are doing more right then wrong out on the ice.

There is still a lot of hockey to play but if I was handicapping the race I would say the Western Conference is the Kelowna Rockets to lose. There's a lot of very good talent on that roster, a roster that includes a lot of players who have experienced back-to-back 50 plus win seasons and deep playoff runs the past two years. And yet Seattle hung right with them, basically until the final minute of the game.

If you are wondering, the referee did not miss the high stick that caught Seattle's Lane Pederson right before Kelowna's game winning goal. He just ruled it was on the follow though of a shot/play of the puck. If that was the case then, by rule, that is not a penalty. In real time, it didn't appear that way to me but it happened so quick it's very possible. I think after the game I was more frustrated with the charging call levied against Evan Wardley early in the third period that led to the Rockets game-tying 4th goal. I just think Wardley's reputation as a big hitter drew that penalty more then the actual play.

Two games into his T-birds career and I think Seattle got an absolute steal in Turner Ottenbreit in that deal with Saskatoon for Adam Henry. I really love the way he attacks the game. Meanwhile, watching him in his first two training camps with Seattle in 2013 and 2014, Donovan Neuls was just another face in the crowd, an 8th round bantam pick who really didn't stand apart from other prospects I was watching. But somewhere over the past 12 months, he has elevated his game to where you have to take notice of him out on the ice every shift.

The T-birds stay at home was a brief one. They're back on the road for two games next weekend beginning Friday in Spokane before another trip down to Portland Saturday.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ealry Season Minutia

In the game of baseball you'll often hear them say this about an ace pitcher, "You'd better get to him early." In other words some of the best pitchers take an inning or two to find their mojo and if you are aggressive early, you might be able to jump on a couple of mistakes before he settles in.

Through four games of the new WHL season, the T-birds are a bit like that ace pitcher. They have started slow in every one of their four games and opponents are jumping on them early, but by the third period they are dominating the action. And while statistics don't tell the whole story and a quartet of games is a small sample size, here are some pertinent numbers to back up that thought.

In the first period so far this season, Seattle has been outscored, 3-0. In fact the T-birds have surrendered the first goal in every game. It's like giving Usain Bolt a two meter head start in a 100 meter dash. They're always chasing the play. Meanwhile, through four games the Thunderbirds are being outshot in the first period 43-30 or, on average, outshot 10.75 to 7.5 in the first each night.

Those numbers are certainly the bad news. Now, the good news. By the third period Seattle is completely turning those numbers around. So far this season the T-birds are outscoring the opposition 5-1 in the third period and they are outshooting them 41-16, or, on average, 10.25 to 4.

Last night in Portland, thanks to a 13-2 first period shot disparity in Portland's favor, Seattle was outshot in a game for the first time this season, 29-24. The 29 shots allowed was a season high but it took the Winterhawks 65 minutes to reach that total after recording three shots in overtime. The T-birds have yet to give up 30 or more shots in game. Remember, they are doing this without Justin Hickman and Shea Theodore in the lineup.

The task now is for the T-birds to start the game the way they've been finishing them. There is no reason they can't play the first period the way they're playing the third. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk calls it playing with desperation. Maybe that's one of the tougher lessons to teach a team of young players; that you should play from the opening whistle like you're already behind on the scoreboard. Instead, the T-birds are playing the first period as though they are waiting to fall behind and then have the desperation kick in. But starting games like that is why they are 2-2 instead of 3-1 or 4-0.

It's just one game and he may have been playing on adrenaline to impress his new coaches and teammates, but I liked what I saw from newcomer Turner Ottenbreit. He's not a finished product and will need to fill out that 6'4" 180lb frame, but the lanky defenseman competes to the end of every shift. I really liked how physical he played and, like a lot of these young T-birds, seems to have good hockey sense. He was paired with 16 year old Sahvan Khaira, who himself goes 6'3", 213lb, and while green around the gills, these two raw rookies present a huge upside as they grow in the system together.

Kudos to Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell and his scouts for asking for Ottenbreit in return for 20 year old Adam Henry in the trade earlier this week with Saskatoon. I get that the Blades needed a veteran presence like Henry back on their blueline and in their lockerroom, but if Ottenbreit's progression continues on its current path, that may have been an expensive price to pay, for a one year rental, by a team that may not even make the postseason.

So, in return for trading three good but surplus 20 year old players in Jaimen Yakubowski, Sam McKechnie and Henry, the 'Birds have received a 3rd and 6th round bantam draft pick and what is currently a top six defenseman who has the potential to be a top four.

Keegan Kolesar seems to always be in the middle of the action when the Thunderbirds play Portland. I recall when he came up for a game as a 15 year old two years ago, he was the best T-bird player on the ice in a loss down in the Rose City. You may also recall last season Kolesar was the recipient of a hit by the Winterhawks Brendan Leipsic that led to a seven game suspension for the Portland forward. Now in two games this season against the longtime rivals, Kolesar has registered five points (2g, 3a). If not for getting assessed a double minor, instead of a fighting major, in the season opening win, Kolesar would also have two Gordie Howe hat tricks against Portland as last night he scored a goal, earned as assist and drew a fighting major in a scuffle with Winterhawks defenseman Anton Cederholm.

Seattle has been at the top of their game so far this year when it comes to killing penalties. First, they've been fairly disciplined and are staying out of the box. But in four games the T-birds have surrendered just one power play goal and that came opening night. Overall, they've killed off 16 of 17 penalties with goaltender Taran Kozun leading the way. That penalty killing unit will get a stern test tonight with Kelowna in town. The Rockets are 13-of-35 on the power play in five games and are adept at drawing penalties.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Capable and Culpable

There is no hiding when you make a mistake on the ice and Friday night in Kennewick the Thunderbirds made a couple of egregious errors and those ended up in the back of their net in a 3-1 loss to the Tri-City Americans. It just turns out that a couple of mistakes by Seattle was all it took to provide the Americans with the margin of victory. We talk about how young this Seattle team is but in the loss, it wasn't the youth, but the older players who committed the gaffes.

I don't think veteran players make excuses when they make a mistake, in fact, most will own up to it. But being an older player at this level doesn't mean you still don't have things to learn. This is a developmental league and as a player you are always learning so that you can be prepared for the next level. Sometimes you learn the same lesson more then once. The key now is for those players to learn from the mistakes so that they can be eliminated going forward.

In years past if the T-birds were missing players the caliber of Justin Hickman, Shea Theodore and Evan Wardley from the lineup, you might start playing the "what if" game or using their absence as an excuse for a loss. The reality is the T-birds have had enough talent on hand to win each game they've played so far this season. Through three games they've outshot their opponents by a combined 86-64 and without reviewing the video of each game, I'd still feel comfortable saying the T-birds have comfortably outchanced the opposition as well.

If you've watched all three games you'd probably be as excited as I am then, about the level of skill and talent on this roster, in particular among the large contingent of young players who will form the nucleus of this team for the next two to three seasons. This is my fourteenth season calling T-birds games and there has never been a young group of skilled players all coming into the system at the same time like there is this year. It started with last year's rookie class and when you add in this season's newcomers you can see reason for optimism.

But talent is just one part of the equation. The next step is to get all that talent on the same page. And once you have that chemistry, you have to maintain it and get that talent and skill working together each game, each period, each shift. Hockey is a team sport and you can't play it as an individual. With this team I think they'll get all those parts meshing together into a cohesive unit sooner then later. It might be a little slow out of the gate, but I believe at some point they'll shift gears and get humming. Maybe it does take getting A Hickman, Theodore or Wardley back in the lineup but not once so far this young season have I thought they needed those players in the lineup to win. They can win without them, having them in the lineup will just make them that much better.

He hasn't scored a goal yet this season but no question in my mind Mathew Barzal has been the best player on the ice every night so far. He should end up this season with a ton of assists and when they start coming I predict they'll come in bunches. Second best player? I'd say 16 year old Nolan Volcan. He's the Energizer Bunny out there. In most cases if you say your two best players are a 17 year old and a 16 year old, you'd probably say that's a problem. Not with this least not yet.

I'm not dismissing the sluggish start of the offense. Obviously you can't win if you don't score. I think though, it is a matter of tweaking a few things such as getting better shots and more traffic in front of goal. The chances have been there in the early going for guys like Barzal, Gropp, Eansor and Kolesar. It's just a matter of finishing them.

One of the thoughts I heard from diehard fans through training camp and preseason was whether the T-birds will need to make a trade for a proven, veteran WHL goal scorer. GM Russ Farwell didn't necessarily dismiss the idea when I spoke to him prior to the season opener down in Portland. He's always going to look for ways to improve his team. If they do decide to make such a deal I personally would prefer it be done using just draft picks rather then surrendering any of the young talent currently on the roster.

Can it be done? Well, Everett just acquired Nikita Sherbak, a high end offensive player from Saskatoon for a first and second round pick and a third string, seldom used goalie. So it can be done. Of course that may be impractical. If you trade for someone, a young player currently on the team is going to lose ice time which is not good for that players development. But I can see a role for every current young player on this roster going forward and I don't mind suffering short term knowing the long term gain is high end if you can keep this group together.

With his WHL debut last night, Luke Osterman becomes the latest member of the 2012 draft to see ice time. Seattle's top seven picks from that bantam draft have now all played for the Thunderbirds just three years after being drafted as 14 year old. Osterman didn't see a lot of ice time but the few shifts he did have were productive. Remember, he's still transitioning not just to the WHL level of play but from his natural position as a defenseman to playing right wing.

How much stock should be put into the early going this season? Seattle, along with Portland and Victoria, have been picked by most prognosticators to be three of the top four teams in the Western Conference. Combined though, they are off to a 1-8-0-0 start with Seattle recording the only win and the three teams have been outscored 37-18 in the process.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An "If Only" Game

Saturday night's home opener was another one of those frustrating games where you think the better team probably didn't win. It wasn't a "we're head and shoulder better" type effort because it was a very tightly contested, close to the vest, sixty minutes of hockey. But in the end Seattle probably outchanced the Silvertips. I know the coaches track quality scoring chances and they look at that statistic more so then shots on goal and I'd conservatively say the T-birds outchanced Everett, especially in the third period where I was hard pressed to remember even one scoring opportunity for the opposition as the 'Tips mustered just two shots on goal.

In the end Seattle missed too many of those opportunities and there were three basic reasons why. One, was Everett goalie Carter Hart. He made the key saves when the T-birds threatened. One of the reasons for that though is two, the T-birds didn't get a lot of traffic in front of the Everett net. A lot of the T-birds shots on goal were right into the center of his jersey, a pretty routine save for any goalie. But put a body in front of the goal and you get a chance to redirect those type of shots and generate a better scoring opportunity. A prime example of that is the only goal in the game scored by Everett early in the first period, a shot redirected by traffic in front of Seattle's goal. Reason number three? Far too many shots Seattle unleashed didn't hit the target. They were wide, high or blocked.

How many times in the third period did a Seattle forward, usually Matt Barzal, skate the puck up ice, gain the zone then hit the trailing defenseman, only to see the resulting one-timer end up somewhere in Auburn? You can think to yourself, "Boy if we had Shea Theodore in the lineup,that wouldn't happen." But the reality is that Seattle didn't need Theo last night. They have other defensemen very capable of putting that shot on net in Bear, Henry and Smith. Last night it didn't happen. A good week of practice can help that, heading into Friday's road game in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans.

Friday night down in Portland the T-birds started a little jittery out of the gate but recovered quickly to the point it didn't hurt them. Last night against Everett they had a very slow start and that was the difference in the game. The 'Tips got the games only goal two minutes in, and Seattle spent almost the entire first half of the first period hemmed in their own end. Seattle needs better starts.

I was not surprised to see the T-birds carrying the puck up ice and into the offensive zone as opposed to dump and chase hockey, especially in that third period. Unlike the recent past Seattle now has forwards, such as Barzal and Ryan Gropp, who are capable of beating the neutral zone trap. It doesn't mean we won't see dump and chase. It will depend on the opponent but I fully expect to see more of what we witnessed in the third period Saturday night.

It was encouraging to see Scott Eansor score four goals in last spring's playoffs and hopefully it carries over to this season. He's had chances already in the first two games of the new season. Last night he kissed the crossbar on a shorthanded breakaway late in the second period. It is a game of inches, isn't it?

Like most fans I get frustrated when I see a missed opportunity like last night's game. It was certainly winnable from a Seattle standpoint. But in the end, despite the loss, I would still grade out that game as a positive. Effort was not an issue, maybe execution, but certainly not effort. When I talk about Seattle's youth and the fact they are going to probably be the youngest team in the WHL this season, I'm not throwing it up as an excuse or alibi for losing games like last night. Rather, I'm encouraged that in a close game like last night against Everett, the T-birds young inexperienced players didn't play like young inexperienced players. It tells me this team, with so many 16 and 17 year olds and so many first or second year players, can still compete night in and night out. There just seems to be a lot of hockey smarts among that youth.

I loved the grit from rookie Nick Holowko on his shifts in the third period. He was bangin' bodies, battling along the boards and scrapping for pucks. And I know rookie Donovan Neuls got penalized for that fraction-of-a-second after the whistle hit in the second period, but no way would I discourage him from that type of play-to-the-whistle (or slightly beyond) effort. To think Holowko went undrafted and Neuls was an 8th round pick. Could turn out to be a couple of steals. Just a few examples that Seattle's changes in their scouting staff a few years back is paying dividends.

Can we check the birth certificate of Nolan Volcan? Is he really just 16? The young man plays with his hair on fire. There may not be another T-birds with better straight line speed and like Holowko and Neuls, he doesn't shy away from physical contact. In fact, he's often the aggressor. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk wouldn't throw his three 16 year olds out their in close games if he wasn't confident in their abilities and Volcan, fellow forward Kaden Elder and defenseman Sahvan Khaira were all seeing the ice in the third period. They're going to make their mistakes along the way but I love how all of these young guys play with confidence in their abilitiy to execute the game plan. It can only benefit them down the road and my that I mean later this season, not two or three years from now.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Young and the Restless

Opening night games are a funny thing. Win and you start dreaming you'll never drop another game, lose and you think, "oh well, it's just one game in a long season."

The Thunderbirds opened the new season Friday night in Portland with a solid 4-1 win over their longtime rivals. Now, I'm not trying to be Dougie Downer here, but let's remember that Seattle started each of the past two seasons with an opening night win over the Winterhawks as well, and when the season ended five months later the T-birds were firmly in Portland's rearview mirror in the U.S. Division standings. Let's also realize that Portland was missing some pretty key components to their roster with 7 to 8 top end players away at NHL camps and a few others sideline with injury.

That being said, there is no need to put an asterisk by this win. As one coach I used to work with would say, control the controllables. The Thunderbirds have no say in who their opponent puts on the ice but they do control the effort they themselves bring to each contest. Much is being made of Portland having nine rookies in the lineup last night. Well, the T-birds had eight and a ninth rookie was a healthy scratch. Don't forget, the T-birds are absent a couple of key players too and even if they had those missing players in the lineup, they still field one of the youngest, if not the youngest rosters in the WHL. Friday night, in addition to the eight rookies taking to the ice, the T-birds had four second year players in the lineup as well.

It was their young players doing most of the damage. Second year player and 2011 first round draft pick Ryan Gropp paced the attack with two goals. The T-birds two first round selections from the 2012 draft, Matt Barzal and Keegan Kolesar, began their second year in the league by contributing four points (1g, 3a). 2013 second round selection Nolan Volcan probably had the assist of the night, setting up 2014 first round Import Draft selection Alexander True's first WHL goal.

If you wanted to bill this opening night game as a battle between Seattle's future and Portland's future, the T-birds not only won the battle, they dominated. The final score was actually flattering to the Winterhawks. If not for the stellar play in goal by Portland goalie Adin Hill, the final numbers on the scoreboard would have been more lopsided in Seattle's favor. Again, its just one game but it might have been a good glimpse into the future.

Sometimes the scoresheet doesn't tell the whole story. If you look beside the name of Seattle's Austrian import Florian Baltram, you'll see nothing but zeros but I thought he was one of the best players on the ice for the Thunderbirds. If not for a couple of acrobatic saves by Hill, Baltram would have easily had a multiple goal WHL debut.

The last thing to come around for a young team such as the T-birds are, is consistency or the ability to bring that type of effort to the ice each game. The good news is Seattle gets a chance to show they can be consistent when they hit the ice again tonight in their home opener against Everett. So this becomes a very good early season test of that ability to bring a consistent effort from game to game, not to mention that a good opening weekend could go along way in setting the tone for the rest of the season.

There is some thought that the injury to defenseman Shea Theodore's elbow would affect which three 20 year old players the T-birds will eventually keep once we reach the 20 year old cut down date in Mid-October. Theodore will be sidelined 4-to-6 weeks after suffering the injury while at camp last weekend with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks. The T-birds are currently carrying two 20 year old defensemen on their roster in Adam Henry and Evan Wardley. Henry had a key assist in the win over Portland while Wardley is currently in camp with the NHL's Montreal Canadians.

I posed that question to Seattle G.M. Russ Farwell last night in Portland and essentially he said since Theodore will eventually return from the injury, it should have no bearing on their 20 year old decision but he does want to resolve the issue as soon as possible so that which ever players end up on the outside, get a chance to hook on with another team.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thinning the Herd

The Thunderbirds announced Wednesday that they have dealt left winger Jaimen Yakubowski, along with a conditional 2016 7th round draft pick, to Moose Jaw in exchange for a third round selection in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. My first reaction to this is that GM Russ Farwell got a very good return in the swap. You might recall a few years back when the T-birds traded Jeremy Boyer to Saskatoon they received a 3rd round pick in return. That pick was turned into Shea Theodore. And last season's trade of Jesse Forsberg also netted them a third round pick which they used to help acquire some important pieces for the second half last season.

The Thunderbirds can do two things with that draft pick. Hold on to it and use to restock the team. When the current group of young players are graduating out of the program in 3-4 years, the player selected with that pick will just be entering the prime of his WHL career. Or, they can use that draft pick as part of a trade package to bolster the team either this winter at the trade deadline, or in January of 2016.

In any trade the hope is that the deal works out for both sides. In acquiring Yakubowski, Moose Jaw gets a gritty two-way player who has also shown the ability to score goals at the WHL level. While he potted just nine goals in 47 games with Seattle, that is partly due to the fact he was willing to accept a role on a checking line. He is just two year removed from a 30+ goal campaign. I think he can also provide them with some toughness as well as leadership. He should be a tremendous locker room guy for them as well. The one thing I learned about Yak in the short time he was with Seattle is that he is a team player and very positive guy. That should fit well with a relatively young team in Moose Jaw.

The deal is also classic Farwell in that he puts the player's best interest into the equation. By dealing him to Moose Jaw, Yakubowski gets to play his final WHL season near his Saskatchewan home.

By making the move a week before training camp opens Farwell also reduces the number of 20 year olds still left to fight it out over three roster spots. There is certainly still opportunity for another trade before camp begins but as of now the remaining candidates for those three spots are goalie Taran Kozun, defensemen Adam Henry and Evan Wardley and forwards Justin Hickman, Sam McKechnie and Connor Honey. It is still possible that a couple of those players could make the final decisions easier by signing pro contracts, such as Hickman and Wardley. Until that unknown becomes a known, I would expect all six of those players to be at camp for the duration, that is, of course, unless some WHL team makes an offer for one of those players the T-birds simply can't refuse.

Additionally, with Shea Theodore most likely getting a longer look at camp with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks then he got last season, it makes sense to hold on to one, if not both, of Henry and Wardley until Theodore is returned to the T-birds in October.

In summary, this is a good deal for Seattle. It reduces the number of players fighting for those three spots but not to the point there isn't any competition. No one has been handed a roster position. They still have to go out and earn it.