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.

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