Saturday, September 26, 2015

Opening Things Up

As far as Seattle's season opener goes, it wasn't all bad and it certainly wasn't all good, in their 3-2 loss up in Vancouver to the Giants. There were certainly errors that can be cleaned up during this next week of practice before they hit the ice again for the home opener next Saturday. There were also plenty of things done well that make you believe this team is going to be okay going forward.

Lets first and foremost talk about the goaltending of Taz Burman, who got his first regular season start with Seattle since the offseason trade that brought him over from Red Deer. I know a lot of the fan base has been concerned about the goaltending aspect of this team. Seattle opens the new season with two relatively untested novices between the pipes in Burman and Logan Flodell. It's only one game but if that sixty minute effort Friday night from Burman is an indicator of how he will perform this season, at least my fears have been alleviated.

One of the primary tasks for the goalie is to give your team a chance to win. Burman did just that. In the first period alone he stoned at least three point blank shots in making 12 saves. You can dissect all three goals Vancouver scored and would be hard pressed to find fault on any of them that can be laid at the feet of Burman. He showed great agility in moving side to side and was very active with his pads. In the battle between these two goalies for ice time, Burman fired the first shot and it came pretty close to hitting the bullseye dead center. Now Flodell will get his chance to respond next weekend.

It was a very timid, almost cautious, start for the Thunderbirds and it may have been that start, more then the late game penalty, that led to Seattle's demise. Maybe it was opening night jitters, maybe it was line combinations that hadn't seen the ice together much in the preseason. Whatever the reason, the team started too slowly and ended up playing catch up the rest of the game. Yes, they did eventually catch the Giants on the scoreboard before the late power play goal lifted Vancouver back into the lead, but had they started the game with more urgency they may not have found themselves chasing the play. The T-birds allowed Vancouver 13 first period shots on goal, then only 12 over the final forty minutes. Seattle didn't have the puck on their sticks much in that first period. They then dominated puck possession over the final two periods.

Did Seattle miss the trio of Matt Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Jamal Watson in the lineup? Of course they did. A year ago that threesome put up a combined 169 points (66g, 101a) in 177 games. But even without those three, the T-birds were in position to win a road game in the final minutes. Here's an amazing factoid. A season ago a young Seattle team won 38 games while never once icing a game night roster with all their best players available. The season before that they weren't able to ice their best team for most of the season either, yet still won 42 games. Unfortunately that trend continued to start the new season, meaning it's been since early October of 2013, nearly two full calendar years, since Seattle has had all their players healthy and available. Yet like so many games the past two seasons Seattle's shortened line up still put up an effort worthy of a win.

One issue Seattle will need to address in practice this week is spacing. Too often Vancouver was able to get a player in behind the Seattle defense because too many T-birds defenders were occupying one side of the ice. It directly led to the Giants first goal and a number of other high quality Vancouver scoring chances, especially early.

Seattle dressed and played five WHL rookies Friday night; 18 year old Gustav Olhaver, 17 year old Brandon Schuldhaus, and a trio of 16 year olds in Jarret Tyszka, Matthew Wedman and Wyatt Bear(Bear played three games as a 15 year old last season but is still technically considered a rookie). Outside of Burman, Olhaver may have been Seattle's best player in the first period, displaying a nice physical presence. As an older rookie and an NHL draft pick you would expect Olhaver to be the least intimidated by the atmosphere of an opening night on the road.

Bear was solid in his minutes but I think he is still rounding into game shape with his conditioning. Schuldhaus is the kind of player that, if you don't notice him a lot, it's a good thing. That means he's doing his job and not overextending himself. That's called being reliable. Maybe that's not an exciting way to describe a player but if I was a coach, I'd be happy with that every night.

As to the two 16 year olds making their WHL regular season debuts, there were some great highs and a couple of lows but the fact the coaches were willing to use both players in all situations is a testament to how they view both Tyszka and Wedman. Tyszka, the 2014 first round bantam pick probably has the more tasking role as a defenseman. Despite that head coach Steve Konowalchuk showed no hesitation sticking him out on the ice on both the power play and penalty kill. There is a willingness among the coaching staff to accept the growing pains because he has such a high ceiling. It's going to be interesting to watch Tyszka's growth over the next couple of seasons, a growth that will be accelerated by playing in these type of situations.

Meanwhile Wedman, once he got going along with the rest of the team after a sluggish first period, showed no fear. He attacked, Yes, that aggressiveness led to a late second period penalty, one I thought Giants goalie Payton Lee sold very well, but I certainly wouldn't tell Wedman to dial it down, as long as it is controlled aggression. With help from Keegan Kolesar, he made a terrific pass to Nick Holowko to set up Seattle's second goal that tied the game midway through the third period. In making that play he showed good vision and a deft touch.

Wedman, selected in round two of the 2014 Bantam Draft, is a bona fide prospect. He has some assets scouts are going to be intrigued by; a big bodied player with a smooth skating style. He has the opportunity to be the quintessential power forward. At age 16, he's already listed at 6'2 190 lbs. I had a chance to chat with him briefly earlier in the day Friday. I told him I don't remember his brother Cole, who played in the WHL with Spokane, being as big a player. In deed, in his 19 year old season , his last in the WHL, Cole Wedman was listed at 6'3" but only 175lbs. But Matthew told me he has another brother, Dan, currently playing collegiately at Cornell who goes about 6'5", 210 lbs. So, you can see there is room to grow.

With their three big guns missing, Seattle iced a lineup that featured just 11 forwards while dressing seven defensemen. The Barzal-Gropp absence was particularly felt on the power play. It also meant juggling line combinations all game and some double shifting. That makes it hard to build chemistry, in particular so early in the season when you can't even get your desired line combinations together in practice. So, despite the loss, I'm not too worried about this team going forward. Once those players are back they should be okay. I was a little concerned during the game over the lack of offense but they seem to rectify that by the third period as players started to show more cohesion on their shifts.

Is Keegan Kolesar in for a big season? He ended the night with two big assists, was a net front presence most of the game with a couple of redirections that just deflected wide and this was with out his presumptive linemates, Barzal and Gropp, in the lineup.

Finally, enough with the penalty for shooting the puck out of play from inside your own blueline! How is that any different then icing the puck, yet icing is not a penalty? Outcomes of games should not be affected by such an arbitrary rule. You might argue that without that rule, players will be purposefully shooting the puck into the crowd more often late in games. So? How often do you seem teams ice the puck in that situation? What is the difference? Yet you've decided that one is a penalty and one is not?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

And Away We Go

The Thunderbirds wrapped up their preseason schedule Friday night at the ShoWare Center with a lackluster 4-1 loss to the Victoria Royals. With the loss the T-Birds end preseason play with a 2-3-1 record. Seattle now turns its attention to Vancouver and the regular season opener next Friday up at the Pacific Coliseum.

I think head coach Steve Konowalchuk said it best about the loss to Victoria when he told ESPN 710's Andy Eide, "I thought we had a couple of vets trying to do too much and that's counterproductive. Instead of keeping it simple and playing the game that's there in front of them." (You can read the rest of the article here).

When you are missing key players from your lineup we always ask the players remaining to step up their game to fill the void. But there is a right way to do that and a wrong way. I think last night we saw the wrong way. You still have to trust in your teammates in that situation. You still need to stick to the systems. There were moments of that last night but there were also too many moments of, as the coach said, vets trying to do too much. When that happens I think the young players become tentative and it puts everything out of whack.

That being said, Victoria iced a much more veteran roster then did Seattle. Not only did the Royals lineup look more like a regular season, game night, roster but they also appeared to use players in situations, such as the power play and penalty kill, that you would see in a regular season contest. By contrast Konowalchuk and the Seattle coaching staff continued to just roll the three lines they had, whether it was even strength play or special teams, often having 16-year-old rookies manning the power play and penalty kill units. Of course part of that was by necessity as Seattle's entire first unit power play, and most of their top two lines, is still away at NHL camps.

So, while the Royals, who themselves did have a few components of their lineup missing, most notably defenseman Joe Hicketts, were more capable of treating the action like a regular season game, the T-Birds appeared to approach it for what it was, a preseason game that gave them one more chance to give rookies Jarret Tyszka, Brandon Schuldhaus, Matthew Wedman, Wyatt Bear and Mackenzie Wight lots and lots of ice time. And with five of your top six forwards still away, it allowed them to put second year players such as Kaden Elder, Nolan Volcan and Luke Osterman in position to take on more responsibility. While they had their moments, the missing ingredient was consistency.

For the third straight game, the Thunderbirds went with an undermanned lineup, dressing just ten forwards. After playing two games last weekend in Kennewick with just four defensemen, the T-Birds were able to suit up six against Victoria but I would not expect to see the pairings we saw against the Royals once the regular season gets underway. For instance, Jared Hauf and Jerret Smith didn't appear to take one shift together. And while his team didn't play well in front of him, starting goalie Taz Burman seemed quite out of sync, allowing three goals on just 13 shots. Two of those three goals he allowed were far too soft. The bright spot had to be Logan Flodell, who took over in goal midway through the contest and allowed just one goal on 16 shots. The effort might just have given him a slight edge in the goaltending battle. Flodell ended the preseason with a 1-1 record to go along with a 2.43 GAA and a .909 save percentage.

Hopefully the effort against Victoria was a good teaching moment. The players will need to be better by next weekend. There may not be complete re-enforcements coming just yet. The question now becomes how many of the six T-Birds players still at NHL camps return in time for the start of regular season play? My guess is two to three of them won't be in the lineup Friday night when the team hits the ice in Vancouver against the Giants. Instead they'll be involved in NHL preseason games. The good news is, it is a slow start to the WHL regular season for Seattle with just the one game on tap opening weekend.

Again, let's not put too much stock into preseason wins and losses. A year ago the eventual WHL champion Kelowna Rockets lost their last three preseason games before reeling off 53 wins in the regular season. Meanwhile the Kamloops Blasers were 4-1 in the 2014 preseason but could only muster 28 wins in regular season play and missed the playoffs.

A reminder to join myself, Andy Eide and Tim Pigulski for an hour long roundtable preview of the Thunderbirds this Wednesday at 6 pm on 1090 The Fan.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

One Tune Up Left

I did not travel to Kennewick this past weekend to watch the Thunderbirds two preseason games at the Red Lion Hotels’ Preseason Tournament, so I can't comment too specifically about the team's play. But all you have to do is look at the box score from each game to know Seattle played both days with an undermanned line up. Certainly Seattle's opponents in both games were missing players too, but in each contest the other team was able to dress a full compliment of 18 skaters and two goalies. Not so, Seattle

It is, as they say, the price of success. The T-Birds roster is rife with top caliber talent to the tune that nine of their players are currently at NHL training camps. That, coupled with the injury last week to Donovan Neuls, left the team with less than enough bodies to dress a complete lineup. Despite that Seattle took their game Friday against Kootenay to overtime before falling, 3-2, then dropped another close 3-2 decision Saturday night to tournament host Tri-City.

Seattle played both games with just four defensemen. More amazing was, outside of four year veteran Jared Hauf, there was a total of 43 games of WHL experience on the T-birds blue line for the two games. Those 43 games belong to Sahvan Khaira, who was used sparingly a year ago. The other two defensemen dressed were rookies Brandon Schuldhaus and Jarret Tyszka. Yet Friday against the Ice they allowed just 16 shots in 63 minutes of hockey.

The forward group was just as thin. Not one forward who played in the two games in Kennewick was older then 18 and there were just four of them; Alexander True, Nick Holowko, Gustav Olhaver and Luke Osterman, and Olhaver only played in the Friday game, then left for NHL camp with Colorado, missing Saturday's battle with the Americans. In fact, just to be able to ice three lines for the two games, Seattle brought back two young players who were with the team at training camp two weeks ago, but had been sent home.

In the lineup both days were 16-year-old right wing Ian Briscoe, a fifth round pick from the 2014 Bantam Draft, and this past spring's third round bantam selection, 15-year-old left wing Connor Pyne. Neither of those players were with the team last week at the Everett preseason tournament and I doubt they'll stick with the club much longer, heading back home as players trickle back in from NHL camps. Both did sign their WHL Standard Player Agreement but they are more a part of the future then the present. Indeed, Pyne, because he is just 15, is ineligible to play in the WHL this season. So, Seattle played 63 minutes Friday with just 15 skaters and then had one fewer in the lineup Saturday.

Despite the short bench the T-birds were right there in both games. Friday they took Kootenay to overtime before falling in the new 3-on-3 OT format, 3-2. Saturday, all reports indicate that against a fairly veteran Tri-City lineup they were pressing in the third period before falling 3-2. Statistically in this tournament, with so many of the top end players missing, the players you expect to step up did. Seattle scored four goals in the two games and they were scored by Nolan Volcan, Nick Holowko, True and Kaden Elder. Those four players are all entering their second season in the WHL and their role this season will be to provide secondary scoring. The second year players, including Osterman who had an assist, accounted for seven points (4g, 3a) in the two games.

More encouraging was that, with such an abbreviated roster, the T-Birds only allowed a combined six goals against in the two games and it took overtime in one game for that to happen. Head coach Steve Konowalchuk has stressed team defense from the very first day he arrived on the scene and now he has a group of players with the right mindset. They have bought into his program to the point that, even when the star players are absent, the players who are here stick to the systems, whether they are 18-years-old or 15. In two games with their depleted roster Seattle only allowed an average of 24 shots per game.

You would think that a team that is undermanned would run out of gas by the third period. Statistically though, Seattle outshot its two opponents by a combined 22-12 margin in the third period/overtime. This speaks to another aspect stressed by Konowalchuk; conditioning. He wants his players to be able to play as hard and fast in the final five minutes as they do in the first five minutes. You want to play for Konowalchuk, you better be at your optimal physical fitness level.

Still nothing has been decided in the goaltending battle between Taz Burman and Logan Flodell. Each got one start in Kennewick and each allowed just three goals against with that skeleton crew in front of them. I'm guessing with just one preseason game remaining, they will each play a period and a half then it will be up to the coaching staff to pick a starter for the season opener September 25th up in Vancouver.

With the two setbacks at the Toyota Center Seattle's preseason mark falls to 2-2-1. Winning is always the ultimate prize, whether regular season or preseason but more importantly putting players in roles they won't normally be in and getting them accustomed to the speed and pace of the WHL was just as important this past weekend.

A couple of notes regarding our radio broadcasts. We will be airing the final preseason game next Friday vs. Victoria. Our broadcast will start at 7:30 pm on 1090 The Fan. Then, on Wednesday, September 23, on the eve of the regular season, I'll be joined by T-birds beat writers Andy Eide of and Tim Pigulski of for a one hour round table Thunderbirds season preview. The roundtable season preview show will air at 6pm on 1090 The Fan. An encore presentation of the preview show will air on Thursday, September 24, at 8pm.

See you Friday at the ShoWare Center. Game time 7:35!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

One Step Closer

The first weekend of preseason hockey is complete as the Thunderbirds left the tournament in Everett with a 2-1 record. Seattle will now turn its attention to Kennewick and a pair of preseason games next weekend at the Toyota Center. First up is a Friday afternoon date with the Kootenay Ice followed by a Saturday evening tilt with the Tri-City Americans.

It will be a significantly pared down roster when Seattle travels east. Nine T-birds are headed to NHL camps this week and Elijah Brown, the 15 year old first round Bantam Draft pick this past May, departed for his Edmonton home. Brown is not eligible to play with Seattle this season. Meanwhile the team could also be without Donovan Neuls who was injured in Sunday's 5-2 win over Spokane. The severity of his lower body injury is not yet known. If he can't go it will leave the T-birds with just eight forwards and five defenseman for the two games in Eastern Washington. At least the young players can't complain about a lack of ice time!

It is difficult to gauge the results from the Everett preseason tournament games. All six teams participating put out a different lineup each game, sitting veterans and mixing and matching line combinations and defensive pairings. This is a tournament where youth is definitely served as young players get their first taste of the WHL. The Spokane Chiefs for example have made it a habit of leaving their oldest players at home when they come to Everett each year for this tournament and this season was no different. The Chiefs have four 20 year olds listed on their roster and not one played in any of their three games.

Seattle lost the tournament opening game Friday, getting blanked 2-0 by Tri-City. This was a scoreless game, with both teams looking like it was their first real game action in a while, until The Americans scored a shorthanded goal with just over three minutes remaining. They added an empty net goal late to seal the deal. The Thunderbirds were sloppy all game long with their shots as a majority of them missed the net while at other times they showed a propensity to try and be too cute with the puck. My biggest take from this game was the play in goal of Taz Burman who was stand up solid in making 32 saves.

Saturday afternoon against Victoria was a more focused effort. For one, they were much better in the physical play department as they exhibited a strong forecheck. Keegan Kolesar, who missed all the training camp scrimmages and looked a tad rusty in the opening game versus Tri-City, was much better against the Royals and finished up with three assists in the 5-3 win. Kolesar played the first two games on a line with Alexander True and Gustav Olhaver. That is an intriguing combination with an average physical dimension of 6'3" and 212 lbs. Also on Saturday, defenseman Sahvan Khaira showed he's ready to tackle more ice time this season, contributing a goal and an assist. Goalie Ryan Gilchrist got his first taste of the WHL and posted 27 saves to earn the win.

Sunday was more of the same against Spokane. Ryan Gropp last saw game action in Game 6 of last spring's playoff series versus Portland but he showed no ill affects from a minor injury that kept him out of training camp scrimmages, combining with his linemate Mathew Barzal for five points (2g, 3a). Meanwhile Seattle's other top line of Nolan Volcan, Scott Eansor and Jamal Watson ended with a similar line on the stat page (2g,3a) to finish off a strong weekend for that trio. In goal Logan Flodell didn't face many shots, picking up the win with a 16-save effort.

I mentioned in a previous post that the jump from a 17 year old to an 18 year old in this league is a significant one. Defenseman Ethan Bear falls into that category. If what I saw this weekend is any indication, he's ready to move his game to the next level. Most significantly what I saw from him in the two games he played in Everett was a more physical player then what I remember from the past two seasons. I think that comes from being more confident in your ability and he seemed to play more confidently.

Of course as I wrote earlier, this is a tournament where young players get a good deal of the ice time and Seattle's youngsters took advantage. Unlike what will happen during the regular season, the young players get significant time on the power play and penalty kill. This tournament is a great chance to see these players in all game situations. One young player really jumped out at me. Just as I was during the training camp scrimmages, I continue to be impressed with the play of 16 year old Matthew Wedman. He pays attention to detail. Most importantly, by playing both ends of the ice, he gets himself in position to affect the play. He's going to earn himself significant playing time.

After a sluggish training camp I thought Wyatt Bear picked it up and was solid in the two games he played. He is listed at 6'1" 227 lbs. He still needs to refine that body but he can be a very physical player. Last season he got in to three games with the T-birds as a 15 year old and didn't look out of place. Like Wedman, time on Seattle's 4th line shouldn't be a problem for the Manitoba native.

Two other rookies who should figure into Seattle's plans this season are a pair of defensemen; 17 year old Brandon Schuldhaus and 16-year old Jarret Tyszka. I would figure these two will rotate into the team's third defensive pairing with Khaira. At the moment, Schuldhaus is the more physical of the two and plays a more conservative, steady game while Tyszka offers a bit more of an offensive upside. Tyszka still has some growing to do to fill out his lanky frame but you can see his potential as he develops over the next couple of years to be a high end, offensive defenseman. All three; Khaira, Schuldhaus and Tyszka, had good and not so good moments this weekend but their growth will have Seattle's back end in good shape for the next 3-4 years. The common denominator to all three? They are not one dimensional players. They have the skills to be good at both ends of the ice.

Overall, it was a good weekend for the Thunderbirds.