Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Last Harrumph

They say a season is not successful unless it ends with a championship. In the case of the 2013-14 Thunderbirds campaign I'd have to vehemently disagree. Juxtaposed against the last four seasons of sub .500 records and in most cases, non-playoff hockey, I'd classify this year's results as an unmitigated success.

Seattle, in its third season of stewardship from head coach Steve Konowalchuk, took another step forward with their program. After sneaking into the playoffs last spring with just 24 wins, they improved that win total this season to 41, earned home ice advantage in the first round and, for the first time since 2008, won a playoff series and advanced to the second round.

Before the season this organization set out a list of goals and when all is said and done, they checked just about everyone of them off their list; winning record, top four finish in the conference with home ice advantage, plus a deeper playoff run then last year. When you've been playing losing hockey for four straight years, you don't all of a sudden leap the Grand Canyon to the top of the standings. Instead you take incremental steps forward. Each season with Konowalchuk behind the bench Seattle has improved. They went from a losing record and just missing the playoffs in his first season to a losing record and just making the playoffs in his second campaign (scaring the bejeezus out of Kelowna in the first round last year)and now in year three a winning record and a playoff series win. It's called progress and I expect that progress to continue in Year Four.

Getting swept by Kelowna certainly was a disappointing result but let's remember we're talking about a team that was number one in the WHL almost from day one and spent the majority of the year ranked number one in the CHL top ten poll too. Seattle had it's moments in the series, probably should have won Games 2 and/or 3, but were just too inconsistent against the Rockets and in the end, the better team won. There isn't a lot of "if only this worked or if only that happened" from this series like the seven game series last spring. Kelowna really left no doubt. They'll have their hands full against a Portland team I think is playing the best hockey of any team in the league right now, but the Rockets deserve their spot in the Western Conference Finals.

Let's also remember that the players from the first bantam draft since Konowalchuk was hired just completed their rookie season; players like Barzal, Bear and Kolesar. Others will join the team next season on a full time basis such as Flodell, Pederson and Neuls. There are still players from the "old regime", if you will, on the roster although over the past couple of years players that don't fit his system have been weeded out and others brought in. Still there is a bit of a transition phase going on that's not entirely complete. Players like Eansor, Yakubowski, McKechnie, Henry, Spencer and Maxwell weren't brought here this season just to fill a roster spot. They play a style that fits Konowalchuk's systems.

While the season was a success, it was by no means perfect. They still had lapses where not everyone was on the same page. They still allowed far too many goals against. In fact, despite their winning record they gave up more goals then they scored this season. Defensive zone coverage and puck management have to improve. And special teams play was far too inconsistent. They languished near the bottom of the league most of the season on the power play, then rose to as high as 7th overall before finishing 14th in a 22 team league. The talent on the team suggests they should have been better. The same can be said for the penalty kill although it was consistently ranked in the middle of the pack, finishing 13th. It too can improve.

It didn't help that they didn't have their second leading scorer from the previous season, Conner Honey, available most of the year. Honey was going to be a big part of this team, especially on special teams. When he got hurt in Lethbridge back on October 6th, he had accumulated six points (2g,4a) in just seven games. He was on pace to be a point a game player and his leadership and other intangibles were probably worth another 5 to 6 wins in the standings. He worked hard all season to try and get back in the lineup but never could. I don't know where he stands right now but you have to wonder if he can play again at this level. But even saying that, the T-birds probably still finish 4th in the conference and their path to the second round probably wouldn't have changed.

I fully expect the Thunderbirds to compete for a top four spot in the conference again next season. Anything less would be a disappointment. In fact at this moment, not knowing what offseason moves teams will make, I would expect the top four teams from this year to be the top four teams next year as well; Kelowna, Portland, Victoria and Seattle but not necessarily in the same order.

There is a bit of a misconception that, because they had ten 19 year olds on the roster, the T-birds were an old team. That is skewed because they carried only one 20 year old the second half of the season. They really aren't much different from the team that just beat them, Kelowna, which carried three 20 year olds and six 19 year olds or Victoria and Portland with their three 20s and six 19 year olds. The reality is, they are pretty much going to lose the same number of players as those other top clubs in the West.

The advantage Seattle has is they have a tremendous group of '94 born players from which to choose their three overage players for next season. The key is for Seattle to pick the right three overage players to keep and then get value in trade for those they cannot retain. Meanwhile, they ended the year with seven rookies on the roster, including four 16 year olds, and all were seeing significant ice time in the playoffs.

Over the next few weeks, leading up to the bantam draft, I'm going to write about the 20 year old situation in more depth, maybe opine on what direction I think the team will go. Maybe guess on what they'll try to do in the Import Draft and try to forecast what players are poised to rise next season.

Right now I'd like to take a paragraph or two to thank Mitch Elliot for five years of service to the Thunderbirds. I think if you follow this team and Mitch over the last five years you couldn't help but smile when he scored his playoff goal against Everett in Game 5 of Round 1. And it was no cheapie either. It was great to see him finish the postseason with three points (1g, 2a) and +1. Mitch was the ultimate team player. Whatever role he was asked to play he did it. He was genuinely appreciated by his teammates both on and off the ice.

Off the ice Mitch embraced the opportunity to be a part of the local community. Mitch is the first player in franchise history to play his entire five year T-bird career with the team based in Kent. He wasted little time getting involved in the mentoring program with the Kent School District and also led the team's Movember Campaign to raise awareness for men's health. But what I will remember most about Mitch is that in June of 2012, he drove down non-stop from his home in Prince George to be here for Bruce McDonald's memorial service. That's a 12 hour unscheduled car ride minimum, with no co-pilot. He didn't have to do it, but he wanted to. Let me tell you Mitch, Bruce's mom, Char, will never forget what you did for her and to honor her son. Thank you.

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