Now that training camp has wrapped up, it's on to the next step in the preparation for the 2015-16 Thunderbirds season, the preseason games. It's time to take the effort put forth in the scrimmages and transfer them to more game-like settings. It's the first chance for the players to go up against players on other teams and it starts Friday morning up in Everett at the annual Silvertips preseason tournament. The Thunderbirds will be the first game on the slate as they take on the Tri-City Americans at Xfinity Arena at 11:30. Seattle also has games schedule Saturday and Sunday in Everett. Both those game are schedule for 3 p.m. starts. Victoria will provide the opposition Saturday afternoon while the T-birds face off against Spokane on Sunday.
Some observations from training camp before preseason play begins:
There is still no separation in the goaltending battle between Logan Flodell and Taz Burman. Part of the reason is that neither has had the chance yet to play a full 60 minute game. I will say that Flodell got a lot of work in the scrimmages against the Watson-Eansor-Volcan line, the best line combo in camp. Then in the Blue-White scrimmage that changed and Burman had to face them.
We saw a lot of that Watson-Eansor-Volcan line and it is easy to see why head coach Steve Konowalchuk wants them together. And smart of him to get them together right away so they can develop cohesion. What's the old saying in sports? Speed kills? Well, those three have lots of it, but they also have already developed a sense of where each other will be on the ice. Speed only matters if you can find each other as you move up the ice.
Unfortunately, because of some minor injuries to Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar, we didn't get to see Seattle's top line together at training camp. It didn't seem to matter though as whoever was on the ice with the third member of that line, Matt Barzal, they were effective. Those training camp scrimmages were proof positive that Barzal makes anyone he plays with better. Not to say it was all Barzal. Most of the time Nick Holowko was on the ice with Barzal and I think Holowko is ready to build off his solid rookie campaign. One thing we saw out of Holowko last season was that if there was an injury that knocked a top six forward out of the line up, you could plug him in that slot and get effective minutes from him. I think Holowko is ready for a bigger role with this team. One possibility is to have him play right wing on Seattle's third line with Gustav Olhaver and Alexander True.
The good problem the T-birds have though, is that Holowko is not the only option. In addition to Holowko you have Donovan Neuls, Kaden Elder and Luke Osterman who can fill that role and whoever isn't on the third line will drop down to the fourth line and that creates matchup problems for other teams.
As for the defensive group, I was pleasantly surprised at how solid the young defenseman looked. The jump from age 17 to 18 is a big one in the WHL and I think both Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit are poised for big seasons. Bear has always seemed mature for his age, but I get the feeling he's wanting to take on more leadership this season. Time at development camp with the Washington Capitals and an invite to rookie camp with the New York Rangers seems to have given Ottenbreit the necessary shot of confidence needed going into his second season with Seattle.
Sahvan Khaira came to camp leaner, meaner and more confident and ready to step up from an inconsistent 16 year old campaign. The newcomers don't look out of place either. I heard Jarret Tyszka had a terrific offseason and came to camp ready to fight for top six minutes on the blue line. His play in camp would seem to bare that out. The 2014 first round bantam selection definitely has an offensive bent to his game but is not shy about mixing it up. I'm going to sound like a broken record but the same can be said about another potential rookie, 17 year old Brandon Schuldhaus. In fact, at times it was hard to distinguish these three players from each other. They are all around 6'2", have similar physical builds, skate well and can push the puck up ice. It's like watching a T-birds version of the Clone Wars. Reece Harsch is another young defenseman who's in the mix and he too is 6'2" and has similar attributes to his game. Whoever they settle on, the seven to eight defensemen they'll keep on the roster appear set.
Now, about those final two or three spots available among the forward group, there are going to be some tough decisions to be made because while there are just a couple of spots available, you have four or five players who have made good arguments that they should be on the final roster. Personally, I think Matthew Wedman has earned one of those spots. For one, the 2014 second round pick is already signed. Secondly, he is a center but showed he can also play effectively on the wing. You need that versatility from your 13th and 14th forwards. Third, from what I saw from the Edmonton product, he plays a 200 foot game. I hate making comparisons, but he reminds me of Justin Hickman. Wedman is listed currently as 6'1" but I don't think he's done growing and I think he's better served developing as a 16 year old at the WHL level then going down a level, even though he's probably going to be a healthy scratch many nights.
You also have a couple of U.S. born 16 year old players, Baker Shore out of Denver and the local product, Luke Ormsby from Monroe, who both said they came to camp with the idea of making the roster this season. Both have had solid camps but neither has signed his Standard WHL Player Agreement. Will they participate in preseason games without a roster spot guaranteed? That's probably the most intriguing question to be answered by next weekend. If either takes to the ice in the Everett preseason tournament, then they have committed to the WHL. Meanwhile you have Mackenzie Wight and Wyatt Bear who are both signed and offer that grit you need from players who will be asked to be grinders on your fourth line.
Lastly, while none of the players drafted this past spring can play in Seattle this season, and only time will tell if they'll ever be T-birds, it appears Seattle has had a third straight, solid bantam draft. Hitting homeruns is easier with your higher picks and it would seem Seattle did that with Elijah Brown and Carl Stankowksi, their first two picks. Where you make hay though is with middle and late round picks that may be contributors down the road. Personally, I liked the effort of a trio of 15 year old forwards in this latest draft class. All of Connor Pyne, Dillon Hamaliuk and Tyler Carpendale seem to possess the skill set that fits what the T-birds like in their players; skate well, play with energy and a focus on playing both ends of the ice. In addition, there were a few other players at camp that showed enough that it cold warrant a second invite to camp next year.