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.