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 Sportsnet.ca and Tim Pigulski of mynorthwest.com 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!