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?