Sunday, August 30, 2015

On to Phase Two

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.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Training Camp by the Numbers

Monday players arrived at the rink for the first official day of training camp. The day's calendar consisted of check-in, getting mug shots taken and the usual height and weight check. On Tuesday players will hit the ice. With that in mind I offer up a little training camp primer as we go by the numbers:

76. That's how many players from throughout Western Canada and the Western U.S. are converging on the ShoWare Center this week. This is one of the larger training camp contingents in recent memory. With parents and other family members in tow, that's a nice little boost to the local economy. Good time to own a hotel.

9. The number of players the T-birds drafted in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft back in May, who are attending their first training camp with the Thunderbirds. That group is led by Elijah Brown, their first round pick out of Edmonton.

1. The T-birds made only one selection in the CHL Import Draft this summer. Gustav Olhaver, from Sweden, will be attending his first T-birds training camp as well. At 6'6", Olhaver will be the tallest player at camp.

18. That's the number of returning players and WHL veterans who will be at camp. That includes 11 forwards, 5 defensemen and 2 goalies.

6. The veteran of that veteran group is defenseman Jared Hauf. This will be his 6th and last T-birds training camp. The Calgary native was Seattle's first round pick in the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft.

5. Five players attending camp were drafted into the NHL back in June. Matt Barzal went in the first round, 16th overall, to the New York Islanders. Ryan Gropp was a second round pick of the New York Rangers. The Columbus Blue Jackets picked Keegan Kolesar in Round 3, Ethan Bear was a 5th round choice of the Edmonton Oilers while Olhaver went to the Colorado Avalanche in Round 7.

23. At some point the T-birds will settle on a regular season roster of 23 players. It might not be until early October though. With some players heading to NHL training camps, Seattle may actually have more then 23 players listed on the roster when the regular season begins. That number will be pared down to 23 when those NHL camp players return. Could they carry more then 23? Yes, sometimes you'll see a team with a 25 man roster but that's a lot of scratches every game night. Those players are probably better served playing every game at a lower level.

19. With the 18 returning or veteran WHL players, plus the addition of Olhaver, it would appear 19 of those 23 roster spots are all but locked up. Barring a trade it is hard to see any of those 19 players not on the regular season roster.

4. The number of roster spots still to be decided. Unless Seattle goes the trade route to fill one of those spots with a more seasoned player, it looks like there could be as many as four rookies on the final roster. My best guess is those four spots will be taken by two rookie forwards and two first year defensemen. Don't expect a player to come out of nowhere to grab one of those last roster positions though. The players battling it out are all known commodities to the coaching staff and most have been to one, if not two, previous training camps. All were scrutinized while playing at a lower level last season by the team's scouts or GM Russ Farwell.

17. That's how many 1998 (17 year olds) and 1999 (16 year olds) born players attending this camp are trying to make the roster for the first time, as a full time player. To be eligible to play full time you must be at least 16 years old. A 15 year old can play a maximum of five games during the regular season. They can join the team full time once their Midget team's season back home has concluded. For instance, last year, as a 15 year old, Wyatt Bear suited up and played in three games.

7. Of those 17 '98 and '99 born players who have never made the T-birds regular season roster before, seven have already signed their Standard WHL Player Agreement. They are forwards Wyatt Bear, Matthew Wedman and McKenzie Wight, defensemen Reece Harsch, Brandon Schuldhaus and Jerret Tyszka and goalie Ryan Gilchrist. Signing the agreement doesn't guarantee them a roster spot this season and conversely those players who haven't signed are not precluded from earning a roster spot. Some players wait until they have officially made the team before signing, as was the case with Luke Osterman and Nick Holowko last year.

3. Seattle will have three goalies in camp, Gilchrist, Taz Burman and Logan Flodell, battling for two roster spots. Both Burman and Flodell have WHL experience and probably have a leg up on the younger Gilchrist. The bigger question is which of the netminders will emerge as the team's number one option. Don't be surprised if it ends up similar to 2007 when Seattle went with a two-headed monster in goal. That season Jacob DeSerres (20) and Riku Helenius (22)combined for 42 wins, a 2.35 GAA and a save percentage of .918.

Let the fun begin!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Spencer Headed to Speedy Creek

With less then a week remaining until the start of training camp, the Seattle Thunderbirds pared down their glut of forwards by sending 1996 born Calvin Spencer to the Swift Current Broncos in exchange for a conditional sixth round draft pick in the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.

This move is really not a surprise. Even with the trade of Lane Pederson two weeks ago, Seattle still had too many signed forwards and not enough roster spots for all of them. Keeping Spencer would have been a luxury. He's a solid, two-way 19 year old who would have probably been playing on the Thunderbirds fourth line. The problem was Seattle has four or five younger forwards they need to get ice time and that ice time usually comes playing on the fourth line. Remember, the WHL is a developmental league and developing the young 16 and 17 year olds on the roster often comes at the expense of a 19 or 20 year old who is not among your top six forwards or top four defensemen.

The trade to the Broncos should benefit Spencer greatly. He should get top minutes most likely playing on their second line. But he'll also be one of their top penalty killers. Spencer, who came to Seattle as an undrafted 17 year old in the fall of 2013, can be a physical player who will work hard along the boards. He has some good hockey tools. He just needs more consistency in his game and getting more consistent ice time in Swift Current will help that. Calvin was also one of the most polite, good natured players on the roster and will be a welcome addition to the Swift Current locker room. I know we hear the term "character" tossed around a lot when discussing these players. I think the word integrity might be more appropriate. Whatever word you choose, Seattle definitely traded away a couple of players in Spencer and Pederson, who had a lot of it. That's a testament to how well the T-birds have drafted or recruited players recently.

The one thing Spencer is going to miss, being in the Western Conference, is playing twice each season in Prince George. In his T-bird career he registered eight goals and I think at least half were scored against the Cougars up at the CN Centre.

The trades of Pederson and Spencer will also make training camp a little more interesting. There are three signed 1999 born forwards, and at least one other who has yet to sign, who will be fighting for one or two roster spots. There are also a couple of signed 1999 defenseman and probably only one spot available for them. So, you're looking at six 1999 born players with a legitimate shot to make the roster but odds are there is probably only room for, at maximum, three of them, two forwards and one defenseman. If you're going to camp, keep an eye out on the battle among the 16 year olds for one of those few, coveted, rookie roster spots available.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Tinkering Before Camp

What's the old saying when you make a trade? You have to give up something of value to get something of value in return. Well, that is certainly the case with the latest trade by the Seattle Thunderbirds.

On Wednesday the T-birds sent Lane Pederson to Red Deer, along with a 5th round draft pick, in exchange for goalie Taz Burman. Pederson is listed as a center but showed versatility with Seattle last season playing on the wing as well. In 65 regular season games with the Thunderbirds he registered 20 points (8g, 12a). Going into his 18 year old season, his best is yet to come. There's no doubt he has the potential to be a 20+ goal scorer in the WHL. He'll now be doing that with the Rebels rather than the T-birds. Not only is he a very good hockey player, but he was also well liked in the locker room by his teammates and last season, on their swing through the Eastern Division, the entire team stopped off at the Pederson home in Saskatoon for a home cooked meal. That just shows he comes from a terrific family and Red Deer is getting a real asset.

That being said, the Thunderbirds are deep enough among their forwards to absorb this trade. I don't know where he pencils in on the Rebels roster, but as talented as he is, he was still a third or fourth line player had he remained with the T-birds this season. Seattle's top three centers are Matt Barzal, Scott Eansor and Alexander True. Don't forget former first round draft pick Kaden Elder, another center, is entering his second season with the team and Seattle also drafted Gustav Olhaver earlier this summer in the Import draft and he is listed as a center as well. Additionally, Donovan Neuls can play center if needed, so they're fairly well stocked at that position.

I've mentioned in the past that Seattle did well in the 2012 Bantam Draft, the 1997 born class. At year's end last season the top eight selections from that draft were on the T-birds roster, including Pederson who was taken in round five. But five of those players are forwards and that doesn't include Nick Holowko, another '97 born forward who was listed, then signed as a free agent. At some point that group was going to have be broken up. You have to make room for other young players from subsequent drafts. For instance, Seattle has three forwards from the 2014 bantam draft already signed; Matt Wedman, McKenzie Wight and Wyatt Bear. All three are eligible to play full-time in the league this coming season but you can't just stick them on the roster and healthy scratch then every night. They have to play a minimum number of games. Then there is Elijah Brown, the team's 2015 first round selection and another forward who they've already signed. He's not eligible to play in Seattle this season but will be in 2016-17. The T-birds are going to have to create ice time for him when he arrives so at some point trading one or two of the '97 born forwards was inevitable.

So, why trade Pederson and not one of the other '97 born forwards? Well it comes back to my opening sentence, you have to give up something of value to get value in return. Go back two seasons to the 2014 trade deadline when Pederson was in the T-birds system but not yet on the Seattle roster. The one player other teams were asking for in trade back then was Pederson. Other teams valued him even then as a 16 year old playing back home in Saskatchewan.

General Manager Russ Farwell held on to that chip and now, when the team needs goaltending depth after the graduation of Taran Kozun, he uses that asset to trade for Burman. Burman is also a 1997 born player. He was selected in the second round (30th overall) of that deep 2012 draft, going 17 spots ahead of the guy he's going to compete with for the starting job in Seattle, Logan Flodell. You don't go that high in the draft unless good, knowledgeable hockey people think you have upside. In his first two seasons in the league, Burman has been the back up in Red Deer. As a 16 year old two years ago, his first season, he backed up 20 year old Patrik Bartozak, the WHL's Goaltender of the Year that season, so he saw very little of the ice. Last season he posted a 9-5-1-1 record with a 3.08 GAA in spot duty. Now he's ready to make the next step.

Remember, goalies usually don't blossom at this level until their 18 or 19 year old season and now Seattle has two such 18 year olds to compete with each other for ice time. The '97 born players are still the strength of this team and that includes Flodell. This is a team that believes it can compete to be one of the top clubs in the WHL this coming season. This move was made to strengthen one of the few weaknesses they were perceived to have and they made it without weakening another area of the roster, rather dealing from a position of strength.