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.