The news came early Sunday and then again late Sunday night. Two key pieces to the Thunderbirds roster were being returned.
First it was announced that the Saint John's Ice Dogs of the American Hockey League had released Jamal Watson. Watson had been sent down to the AHL team after a solid camp with the NHL's Montreal Canadiens. There was some concern from the T-Birds faithful that Watson, obtained by Seattle from Lethbridge in an offseason trade, would be offered a contract and stay with the AHL club. I never got the impression from the T-Birds brass that they shared that concern. I think Watson's goal is to earn an NHL deal and he probably realizes his opportunity to do that is improved if he comes back to Seattle and puts up a monster season as a 20-year-old in the WHL. I don't think an AHL contract offer was a serious consideration at this time in his career. Next year maybe, but not right now.
Then later Sunday night, while the T-Birds were mounting a ferocious comeback in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans, word came that the New York Islanders, who had just finished up their preseason schedule earlier in the day, were sending Matt Barzal back to Seattle after his very successful first NHL training camp. I believe that with all the talent the T-Birds have on their roster this season, Barzal is still the straw that stirs the drink.
And there was even some more positive news as Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk told ESPN 710 reporter Andy Eide that last year's leading scorer, Ryan Gropp, was getting closer to returning to action. Gropp has missed the T-Birds first three games with a lower body injury that has him currently listed as day-to-day. There is a chance we see all three in the lineup next weekend but at the very least, Watson and Barzal will play.
So, Seattle gets through the first two weekends of WHL action in relatively good shape despite the absence of what would be considered three of their best, if not their three best, offensive weapons. Seattle stands at 1-1-1-0 after three games, in which they produced offense by committee, and in the loss opening night up in Vancouver and last night in Kennewick, they had a chance at the end to win or pull out a point. I think, under the circumstances, they'll take that and move along.
Without the three players we've mentioned in the lineup, Seattle is still averaging nearly 4 goals a game (3.66) and while it is a small sample size there are six players on the roster who are averaging a point a game or better. I think adding Barzal, Watson and Gropp into the mix should allow them to keep up that scoring pace. The one thing the players who have been here need to do is continue to play well and not expect the burden of scoring to fall on the shoulders of those three returning players.
What one thing has me worried about this team early on? I tell you what doesn't worry me and that is the goaltending. More on that later. What does worry me is the slow starts in the first two road games. You don't want to be coming off the bus not ready to play but in both early road tests, Seattle has been slow to get going, falling behind and ended up chasing the play. To their credit they came back to tie the game in each instance but it is a recipe for disaster if you do that every night on the road. There has to be a sense of desperation as soon as you hit the ice. I'm not sure the reason behind it but I'm sure the coaches will address that issue specifically in practice this week. Seattle's hallmark last season was team defense but through the first three games this season that team defense has been inconsistent.
I'm seeing a lot of consternation about the goaltending of Taz Burman and I'll tell you right now, Burman is not the problem. I repeat, he is not the problem! In his two starts he's faced a combined 27 shots in the first period; 13 opening night in Vancouver and 14 Sunday versus Tri-City. Unfortunately, too many of those shots he's faced are quality scoring chances. Yes, you do need your goaltender to make a big save a couple of times each game to deny a quality scoring chance. The problem for the T-Birds is that they are allowing almost every shot Burman faces to be a quality scoring chance. Burman is not going to shrink away from the responsibility he has. He knows he's the last line of defense. But the T-birds team defense has to stop constantly leaving him out alone on an island with opposing shooters.
How great was it to see Alexander True have what may have been his best game as a T-Bird Sunday as he helped spark the T-Birds comeback from a five-goal deficit? I think True was just rounding into form midway through last season when he suffered an upper body injury that cost him approximately 30 games the second half of his rookie season. I think that injury cost him an outside chance of getting drafted into the NHL this past June and at the very least, kept him from getting an NHL camp invite this fall. He added muscle to his 6'4" frame this offseason and it was very evident on his shorthanded goal at the end of the second period, fighting off a defender as he bore down on goal. More games like that from True equals more opportunities to win for Seattle.
The Thunderbirds rookie class this season is not as big as the 11 rookies who broke in with the team a year ago. Personally, I don't consider Gustav Olhaver a rookie. He's an older player who is already drafted into the NHL and has played internationally. Meanwhile through three games the foursome of Matthew Wedman, Wyatt Bear, Brandon Schuldhaus and Jarret Tyszka are a combined +4 while contributing one goal and three assists.
Wedman's play in particular could re-shape how Seattle configures its four lines when healthy. I think originally the T-Birds coaches were planning on Donovan Neuls centering the fourth line and that could still happen. But they may also have enough confidence in Wedman now that he center's the fourth line and Neuls could play the wing on the third line. Wedman can answer that question by continuing to play well and consistently. Stay tuned.
Yes, 3-on-3 overtime is exciting and fans are going to love it. But I don't know, maybe I'm old school, I don't mind games ending in a tie. I think the overtime is "gimmicky". It would be like baseball finishing off with a home run Derby rather then playing extra innings. Of course, when the T-Birds win a few overtime games, I'll change my mind.
My three T-birds stars for the opening three games:
3rd Star: Alexander True. True really has played well in all three games but finally got rewarded for it Sunday with a three point night against Tri-City (2g, 1a). He was the spark that got the T-Birds five goal comeback started. He has stepped up his physical play and continues to be a key face off guy.
2nd Star: Logan Flodell. Had a terrific first start against Prince George in the home opener, stopping 27 of 28 shots. While most of his saves were fairly "routine", he also showed good lateral movement in making a few of the spectacular variety. He came into the game Sunday and while he got credited with the overtime loss, kept Tri-City at bay while Seattle came roaring back from that five goal deficit.
1st Star: Scott Eansor: In the absence of the Big Three, Seattle looked to players like Eansor for scoring and he delivered with four points (2g,2a). He continues to be strong at both ends of the ice. He and his line did a top notch job of shutting down Prince George's potent top scoring line Saturday. His success the first half of the season will determine if he has a spot on Team USA for World Juniors in late December/early January. So far, so good.