Sunday, December 18, 2016

We'll Have a T-bird's Blue Christmas

That was an important win for Seattle Saturday night to close out the unofficial first half of the season.  Going into the Christmas break on a high beats the alternative of being gone for ten days with a four game losing streak hanging over your head.  It was a fight to get that win but props to the team's leadership for grinding their way to that 3-0 blanking of Tri-City and giving T-bird fans a nice early Christmas present. 

With the exception of a lopsided loss in Kelowna back on December 7th, Seattle has been competitive in every game so far this month.  It hasn't equated into enough wins as the T-birds are just 4-4 so far in the month but in seven of the eight games they've been in position to win or at least earn a point.

Consistency continues to be an issue.  Some nights it's the lack of a timely goal and on other occasions its the want of a timely save.  Seattle's up and down power play has let them down in some instances and in rare situations that need of just one more penalty kill has eluded them.

The good news is that the majority of Seattle's season still lies in front of them.  Unlike some teams, Kamloops and Tri-City for example, the T-birds reach the Christmas break having only played 33 games, not 36 or 37.  They won't begin the second half of their schedule until New Year's Eve down in Portland.    They still have another four or five games to play without two of their top three centers (Barzal, True) but they've shown they can compete without those two in the lineup. 

One player Seattle will not have for the second half of the season is Layne Bensmiller.  Bensmiller suffered a lower body injury after just seven games and has not responded well enough through treatment to resume playing.  Instead he'll go home to Alberta and use the second half of the season to rehab so he can resume his career next year.  At 19 years of age, he has one more year of WHL eligibility so he could be in the mix for a 20 year old spot with the T-birds in 2017-18.

The Bensmiller situation certainly explains why the T-birds found it necessary to acquire 19 year old Tyler Adams from Swift Current.  The early returns on the newest Thunderbird are positive if not glowing. In chatting with Adams it is clear he knows what his role is with this team.  He's not going to be relied on for offense.  He's going to be an energy player who brings a little physical edge to the roster. 

Right now he's playing on the third line and playing well.  He may stick as a third liner but when Barzal and True return, Adams gives the coach's option to use him up and down the line up.  He, Luke Ormsby and Matthew Wedman showed good chemistry in the win over the Americans. 

I've seen comments on this blog that put a good amount of blame for some of Seattle's first half issues on goaltending.  Let me say that I think Rylan Toth would be the first to tell you he can be better, that he's had an inconsistent first half performance.  The reality is though, that Toth enters the break with the sixth best GAA in the league.  Sure, you can argue that this is more of a team stat and that the real measure of a goalie is his save percentage and right now that doesn't look good for Toth sitting under .900.

But Seattle's goalies don't face a lot of shots.  So, for instance, if you give up two goals on just 18 shots, your save percentage is going to be .888.  Three goals on 24 shots?  .875.  That doesn't look good.   Unfortunately while allowing so few shots against, too many are top end scoring opportunities. 

Yes, you want your goalie to make that one big, game saving stop, something I'm sure Toth would readily agree with.  But look at the last week and you'll see he did that. In the two games in Prince George alone, Toth faced two shorthanded breakaways from Jesse Gabrielle.  He stopped one of two.  That's actually pretty good in that situation.   He stopped a point blank chance Saturday night versus Tri-City when the game was still 1-0.  Seattle overpassing the puck is leading to turnovers and odd man rushes.  As a result the T-birds just give up too many of those Grade A chances. 

Seattle has enough fire power though, that they should win most games when only allowing two or three goals against.  In my opinion, Seattle's biggest issue the first three months of the season hasn't been goaltending.  No, it has been their inability to finish prime scoring opportunities.  Most nights Seattle is outchancing and outshooting their opponent.  Too often the first half of the season they were getting 40+ shots a night and losing.  A prime example was a 4-3 overtime loss in Kamloops.  Seattle had 50+ shots and 29 were ten bell scoring chances, yet they lost.  Finish a few more of those top end scoring opportunities and no one is talking about Seattle's goaltending. 

When you lose 2-1 or 3-2 I find it odd to place all the blame on goaltending.  You win as a team, you lose as a team. 

Despite their inconsistency over the first 32 games, Seattle still hits the break four games above .500 and just seven points out of the third spot in the Conference with games in hand.   There is still the trade deadline and a chance to improve the roster. 

Their best player, Matt Barzal has played in only 13 games, less then half their schedule.  Keegan Kolesar less then that.  They counted on more games from Bensmiller, another WHL veteran. The T-birds have winnable games on the schedule before Barzal and Alexander True return from World Juniors. They need to find a way to win those games.  I believe their best hockey is ahead of them.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend. 

Third Star:  LW Tyler Adams.  Tough thing to do, play one night for another team, in another town, get the news after the game you've been traded then board a plane to a new city and be asked to contribute big minutes with a new team your unfamiliar with.  Adams kept it simple, provided the energy his coaches asked from him.  In doing so he endeared himself to his new teammates and quickly became a fan favorite.

Second Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  It's not just the offense as the Finnish rookie now has 11 goals and 25 points in 30 games.  It's how physical he plays with his 5'8" frame. No opponent is too big too throw a check at.  No opponent is too strong to strip a puck from.  Would have loved to see him get invited to the Top Prospects Game.  Seattle was denied on four breakaway chances this weekend.  Not on the fifth where Moilanen scored shorthanded against Tri. 

First Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Neuls is like the utility player in baseball.  He can play a variety of positions well. With Barzal and True gone he moved up from third line winger to center the team's top line.  He was excellent on the PK in both games and earned a big assist on the Moilanen shorty. I was most impressed by how often he planted himself in front of the opposing goal, something Seattle has lacked this season. 

Merry Christmas to all! 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Point-ing in the Right Direction

Seattle ends November and opens the month of December by taking five of a possible six points from their last three games. A few too many casual moments in the first of those three games cost them another point, even though they were up against one of the CHL's top goalies. By gaining 18 of 22 points in their last 11 games, Seattle is now just three points out of third place in the Western Conference with three games in hand. It's is eerily similar to where they were in the standings last season at this time.

Seattle opened the week on the road in Kamloops against the Blazers and goaltender Connor Ingram. Ingram has been invited to Canada's World Junior selection camp and I've heard buzz he could be Canada's #1 goalie for the tournament that begins just after Christmas. The T-birds knew they would have to work to score on him, but work they did. Seattle put 55 legitimate shots on goal and upwards of 30 of them were grade "A" scoring opportunities. Ingram made a number of acrobatic stops and a few pucks caromed of posts and crossbars but the effort from Seattle was there.

I didn't take issue with Seattle only scoring three goals on those 55 shots. Where I was more concerned is that Kamloops scored three even strength goals on three rather egregious defensive zone sins by the T-birds. The 'Birds limited the Blazers to just 21 shots in the game. Most of those came in the third period but Seattle allowed two goals against in just nine shots through the first two periods. Maybe Seattle had so much puck possession and spend 90 percent of the game in the Kamloops end of the ice, they forgot about defensive zone responsibility. Still Seattle earned a point in the overtime loss and road points are hard to come by. So far this season, the T-birds have earned 18 away points out of a possible 30.

Seattle didn't play quite as well two nights later at home against Kootenay and once again were forced into overtime. This time Scott Eansor ended the suspense with the T-birds first OT winning goal of the season (in 4 games). I can't read into the players heads, but I know they read the standings and probably saw a five win Kootenay team on the schedule and thought the game wouldn't require the same kind of effort they put out versus Kamloops. Seattle had a slow start and, I think, lacked a bit of intensity. That changed when they found themselves down a goal after two periods. Seattle was pretty much in control the remainder of the game. They outshot the Ice 17-3 in the third period and found a tying goal on the power play before Eansor's extra time heroics sealed the win.

Saturday night may have been the team's most complete effort of the season in a 7-1 demolishing of the Central Division leading Medicine Hat Tigers. It started in net with Rylan Toth playing his best game as a T-bird. He wasn't tested much but he made a number of quality, confident saves including one off the opening faceoff. Seattle then began their barrage by scoring on their first shot, courtesy of Ryan Gropp. The T-birds then not only killed off two Tigers power play chances but held the WHL's best power play unit to zero shots. Shortly after each of the two Medicine Hat power plays ended, Seattle scored. That can be demoralizing to an opponent.

Instead of letting off the gas with that three goal lead, Seattle continued their onslaught in the second period with three goals from three different goal scorers. And while they didn't score on the power play (they only had three PP chances), that too looked dangerous.

Up by six going into the final period might seem an ideal time to coast to the finish line but I appreciated how the team stuck to the game plan, continued to attack, continued to block shots and added to the lead with a second Donovan Neuls goal.

My T-birds Three Stars of the week.

Third Star: C/W Matthew Wedman. Wedman is normally on the third line with Alexander True and Donovan Neuls. On occasion this past week Coach Konowalchuk has pushed him onto the first line with Mat Barzal and Ryan Gropp. Whatever line he's been on this week, he has produced. He's really starting to use his size and physicality around the opposing goal. As a result he finished the week with five points (1g, 3a) and was +4.

Second Star: D Ethan Bear. Bear is riding a five game goal scoring streak and in that streak he has two game winners. He compiled six points in three games this week (3g, 3a), averaging two points a game. He is now currently second on the team in scoring to Eansor and is approaching point a game status for the season.

First Star: Center Matt Barzal. No coincidence that Seattle's success over their past 11 games coincides with Barzal's return to the lineup. Since he rejoined the team from the NHL they are 8-1-2-0. The trick will be for them to keep it up when he leaves here shortly for World Juniors and won't return until early January. Over his last three games he's earned eight points (1g 7a) over his last five games he has 15 pts. (2g, 13a).

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Pass the Gravy, then Pass the Puck

A busy Thanksgiving week saw the Thunderbirds play four games in five nights and come away with three wins. The Turkey Week success finds Seattle a season best four games above .500 as they head into the final game of November, Wednesday up in Kamloops. And while it has taken them a bit to find their legs and chemistry, the T-birds are now 6-1-1-0 since the return of Mat Barzal and Keegan Kolesar to the lineup.

Minus getting shutout Wednesday in Everett, Seattle has started to find it's offense, although even in that road loss to the Silvertips, they still put 37 shots on goal, including 18 in the first period. In their three wins they tallied 15 goals scoring exactly five times each night in besting Edmonton, Tri-City and Victoria. They have been at their best offensively early in games outshooting opponents in the first 20 minutes by a 2-to-1 margin in the past four games (60 shots to 30) while outscoring them in the first period over that stretch, 9-2.

This is occurring even though the team is still not at 100 percent health. Seattle's top two goalies are on the shelf and Layne Bensmiller hasn't played in over a month. As I said in my last blog post I don't expect Seattle to have its full roster available consistently until after World Juniors in early January. Seattle will play about 6-7 more games before they lose Barzal to Team Canada and Alexander True to Team Denmark. But, as they proved the first month of the season, they are capable of winning games with big guns absent from the lineup.

Even with Bensmiller unavailable Seattle has shown, especially the past two games, what they are capable of when their top three lines are playing at their optimal level. After a sluggish start since being reunited, the combo of Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar is starting to hit their stride, accounting for 10 points (4g, 6a) and a +10 in the wins over the Americans and Royals. Not to be outdone, the line of Volcan-Eansor-Moilanen chipped in 8 points (3g, 5a) and were a combined +8. In the Tuesday win over the Oil Kings the T-birds third line did the damage and a week ago third line center Alexander True was the WHL Player of the Week as Seattle went 3-0-1-0.

I'll be curious to see where the coaches put Bensmiller once he is healthy. Initially I'm sure he'll be slotted on the fourth line until he gets back up to game speed. Once he is back and ready to take on more and more ice time, does the 19 year old stay on the fourth line or will he be elevated to the third line with True and Donovan Neuls? Matthew Wedman has been pretty effective on that third line and has made a case to stay there. It is a good problem to have. Either way let's hope Bensmiller gets healthy soon. the T-birds could use him when Barzal and True are gone next month.

I really liked the way Luke Ormsby played the last two games. Ormsby registered his first WHL point last December in a game at the Toyota Center in Kennewick. A return trip there Friday must have created a familiar spark. He had a consistent and solid game against the Americans and followed it up with a good effort at home Saturday against Victoria. Playing on the fourth line with Elijah Brown and Bryan Allbee, they were able to keep the Royals in their own end, creating offensive zone face-offs for Seattle's top lines.

Once Seattle has all their parts, namely the return of Bensmiller, the competition for ice time on that fourth line is going to be intense. If Ormsby can continue to play the way he did in the past two games he'll be hard to keep off the ice.

Remember back when Seattle's penalty kill surrendered 12 power play goals in the first eight games of the season and languished dead last in the league on the PK? Since then the T-birds penalty killing units have only given up eight power play goals over a 16 game stretch and have climbed up to #7 overall in the WHL. The power play is still inconsistent, ranked at #15, but going in the right direction after converting on three of seven chances the past two games.

After a slow start, Seattle is now above .500 both at home and on the road. More importantly Seattle already has gotten their longest road trip out of the way with a successful 4-2 trek through the Eastern Division at the start of November. The other taxing road trip on the schedule comes up early next month between December 7th and 10th, a three game trip that will take them first to Kelowna for one and then up to Prince George for two.

In the sports draft dictionary (unabridged edition of course) under the definition of BPA, or best-player-available, there should be a picture of Sami Moilanen. When everyone had Seattle filling a perceived need, and drafting a defenseman with their pick in last summer's CHL Import Draft, the T-birds instead went against popular conjecture and chose Moilanen, a 17 year old, 5'8", winger from Sipoo, Finland. He was taken with the 49th pick. He's on the cusp of being a point a game player with 21 points (7g, 14a) in his first 22 games. He's currently 6th in WHL rookie scoring while playing fewer games then everyone ahead of him on the list. In his last six games he has 10 points (3g, 7a)and is +5.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Thanksgiving Week:

Third Star: Goalie Matt Berlin. Recalled from Sherwood Park of the AJHL when Carl Stankowski came back from the U-17 Challenge with an injury, Berlin was going to back up Rylan Toth. Then Toth got dinged in the first period Wednesday in Everett and Berlin, all of a sudden, became "the guy" in goal. In eight periods of hockey, including two starts, he allowed just three goals, stopped 57 shots, went 2-0 and posted his first ever WHL shutout. Toth appears ready to return soon. I don't know yet about Stankowski's status but either way, Seattle knows they can rely on Berlin when called upon.

Second Star: Center Scott Eansor: Eansor scored his fifth goal in five games Tuesday at home in the win over Edmonton. His goal scoring streak was only snapped by the crossbar the next night in Everett. He started a new point streak by accumulating three assists in two games this weekend. He and his linemates, Moilanen and Nolan Volcan, still get the task of shutting down the top scorers on other teams but their offensive production this season shows other team are having a hard time shutting them down. Late in Saturday's game with Seattle comfortably up 5-0 over Victoria, Eansor was on the ice blocking shots to help preserve Berlin's shutout.

First Star: Center Mat Barzal. You knew it was just a matter of time before Seattle's line of Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar would get it going. Barzal, of course is the catalyst. He earned first star honors in each of Seattle's last two wins. He picked up three assists in Kennewick versus the Americans, then did himself one better by adding a goal to his three assists Saturday at home against Victoria. Seven points and +4 in those two games. Even when he's not scoring Seattle is a better team with him in the lineup. In the eight game since his return from the NHL the T-birds are 6-1-1-0. In 16 games without him they were 7-8-0-1.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Points Well Taken

Seattle may have had their three game win streak snapped Saturday with the overtime loss in Portland, but they still earned a valuable point and have accumulated 15 points since they left on their eastern road trip a little less then one month ago. That includes seven of eight points in their last four games.

And yet, as well as they have played the past three plus weeks, and it has been their best hockey of the young season, they are still not playing their best hockey. Two of their top players, Mat Barzal and Keegan Kolesar are still re-establishing their chemistry with Ryan Gropp on the top line. If you've watched the first three games since their reunion, you can see they are still a bit out of sync. And that should be no surprise since they've had little practice time together. Barzal had not seen much game action while up in the NHL, and Kolesar has only been skating for the past couple of weeks since having surgery that cost him the last six weeks.

Personally, I think the team is playing "okay" at the moment because of this and other factors. "Okay" is a relative term in this instance though. For some other teams the way the T-birds have played the past month would be considered the top of their game. For this Seattle team though, I think they know they have another level they can reach. Despite that, they have picked up the pace offensively, scoring 18 goals in their past four games in compiling a 3-0-1-0 record in that span. Once they find their cohesion, specifically on that top line, their offense should start to produce at an even better pace. Realistically, that may not happen until early January though. In less then a month Seattle will lose both Barzal and then the red hot Alexander True to World Junior competition.

While it won't be like last winter when the T-birds lost their top three centers to the WJC, they are still losing two of their top forwards. They have enough depth to get through it in good shape, but there will be stumbles along the way. There are a couple of things Seattle will have this time around that they didn't have late last December through early January; Scott Eansor and Sami Moilanen. This pair are two of the best 200 foot players in the league.

On the weekend Seattle's offense did it's job. The T-birds put up a combined 85 shots in their two games and scored eight goals. You would take that every weekend. They took advantage of the power play to score three. They did this and didn't get one goal from their top line. See what I mean by them not yet being in sync? That line is going to start going and it won't be at the expense of the two other Seattle lines that are scoring right now.

At the other end Seattle allowed just 49 shots against in the two games but surrendered eight goals against. How? Well, because the quality of scoring chances they gave up were too high. This was a result of the T-birds mismanaging the puck in their own end, specifically on their break outs. Simply put, they turned the puck over way too often. It would be one thing if those turnovers were caused by an opponents strong forecheck, but the reality is that in most instances, they were unforced turnovers caused by Seattle's own recklessness with the puck. I just thought Seattle was too cute with the puck at times coming up ice and they paid the price.

Look at a few of Seattle's best games in terms of shot totals. Saturday they outshoot Portland 46-28, last Friday they limited Calgary to just 16 shots while registering 28. Back on October 11th, they outshot Spokane 45-20. The T-birds record in those three games? 0-2-0-1. Shots don't often tell the whole story of a game but they do show who has the puck on their sticks more often. In all three instances, Seattle turned the puck over enough to give the opponent high end scoring chances, what the coach calls "ten bell' chances. It's an area Seattle must clean up going forward.

The scoresheet will say the T-birds lost the game Saturday in overtime, but in reality, they lost it in the second half of the first period. After dominating Portland in the first ten minutes, not allowing the Winterhawks a shot on goal, Seattle left their game on the bench after the mid-period media timeout. They started turning the puck over, taking penalties and as a result surrendered two goals. It was a tale of two teams. The Seattle team that played the first ten minutes was lights out and the one that played the second half of the period, couldn't find the light switch. Hopefully that ten minutes of complacency is a reminder that there are no times in this league you can take your foot off the gas.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: Defenseman Turner Ottenbreit. He has quietly gone about becoming the T-birds best overall defenseman the first month and a half of the season. He's playing smart and physical, blocking shots at key moments and is chipping in offensively. He registered three points in the two games on a goal and two assists.

Second Star: Winger Sami Moilanen. After missing two-plus games with an upper body injury he returned to the lineup and picked up right were he left off. He recorded four assists in the two games. He continues to win puck battles against players much bigger then he is. He constantly gets his shot on target, especially quick one timers.

First Star: Center Alexander True. Is anyone in the league hotter right now then the big Dane? True is now tied with Scott Eansor for the goal scoring lead on the team with 10 after registering five goals in his last three games. In four games this past week he also chipped in with three assists and was +4. That's two points per game over that span and he is now just four goals off his total from all of last season.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Split, but no Sunday

Playing for the first time since returning from their successful eastern road trip, the Thunderbirds earned a split in their two games this past weekend. Seattle dropped a 3-1 decision at home to the Calgary Hitmen but rebounded nicely Saturday in Langley for a 5-3 win over the Vancouver Giants.

Maybe Calgary just has Seattle's number; similar to how the T-birds seem to always beat Victoria lately. The T-birds and Hitmen only meet once a season but each of the past two years Seattle has dominated Calgary for large stretches but still found a way to come away empty handed. Seattle has now lost five in a row to the Hitmen, and all but one have been by a single goal.

Friday night Calgary wasn't able to mount much of an offensive threat through two periods. Seattle's forecheck kept the puck mostly inside the Calgary end of the ice for the first two periods. Unfortunately the T-birds did themselves no favors by not converting on their chances, but also by not making their chances dangerous enough. The one thing the Hitmen did do well was get in the way of shots and clog the slot, keeping Seattle mostly to the outside.

As that game wore on it started to feel more like one of those contests where, if you let the inferior team hang around, they gain confidence and all they need is one break. Calgary got it late in the 2nd period with a last second power play goal. Then a Seattle turnover early in the third led to a second goal and the T-birds never recovered. This game wasn't as one-sided in terms of scoring chances as some of Seattle's other frustrating losses, where their inability to finish their chances costs them either a point or win in the standings. More concerning was the fact Calgary put up such little fight it was disconcerting that the T-birds couldn't do enough for the victory.

One issue for Seattle versus Calgary was the injury that cost them Sami Moilanen over the last two periods and an injury to Donovan Neuls that cost him a couple shifts in the second period. Seattle had to scramble to piece together line combinations but never found the right chemistry the final 40 minutes. In contrast, on their six game road trip east, Seattle was essentially able to keep their four line combinations together for the duration. It's been a bit of an exaggeration but in Steve Konowahuk's five-plus year tenure as head coach in Kent, he has probably had a full, healthy roster for a grand total of one week.

The T-birds roster got a boost the following night up in Langley when Mat Barzal played his first game with the team since he was returned to Seattle by the NHL's New York Islanders. Even the best player in the league will show some rust from a lack of playing games and Barzal did show some. After all, he played just under 20 minutes combined in two NHL games over a month's time. Over the past two weeks, all he has been doing is practicing and not with his Seattle teammates, but with NHLers.

It is clear Barzal put in the offseason work in order to do all he could to stay at the NHL level. He is stronger and, if it's possible, seems faster then he did last spring in the WHL Final. He really isn't that far off from being an NHL regular, so the T-birds are fortunate to get him back for one more season. Once again opposing team's are going to have to pay lots of attention to him. That will open up space for his teammates as was evident on Seattle's first goal from Ethan Bear Saturday. And once again his teammates are going to have to be alert that at any moment, a Barzal pass will be coming their way. There were probably three other times when he threaded a pass through traffic, set up a teammate perfectly for a scoring chance, only to see that chance flubbed. Keep your head up.

With Barzal back, he and Scott Eansor will share the role of team captain. Big stick tap to Eansor for leading this team through the first month of the season, playing break even hockey with some big components missing from the lineup. Not wearing the "C" against the Giants didn't affect his game. His strong third period (1g, 2a) gave Seattle the cushion to earn their 8th win.

When the T-birds finally do get healthy, Konowalchuk has some interesting pieces to work with up front. Conventional wisdom says you just reconfigure that top line from last season that produced 91 goals. No question that Barzal with Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar has ready-made chemistry. And the Eansor-Nolan Volcan-Donovan Neuls line, back together against the Giants, produced a seven point night (3g, 4a) and were a combined +7.

But there is a wild card at play here as well, and he goes by the name of Sami Moilanen. He's a dynamic 200 foot player. Similar to Barzal, he makes players around him on the ice better. His injury Friday puts a bit of a monkey wrench into the works so hopefully it is a short term absence, but there is some thought that if you put him on the ice together with Barzal, they would be a combined handful for opposing teams. Of course the two have never met, let alone skated together. We have no idea how they would fit together, if at all. Moilanen didn't make the trip to Langley and Barzal, who didn't attend T-birds training camp and met the team bus outside the arena before Saturday's road game, has not been in Kent since last spring. First things first is a meet-and-greet between the two new teammates.

Of course on the trip out east, Seattle put Moilanen on a line with Eansor and Volcan and that worked to the tune of averaging four goals a game. Just keeping that line together would be another easy decision. And Moilanen is so versatile he could play on a third line with Alexander True and one of either Matthew Wedman, Elijah Brown or, a when healthy, Layne Bensmiller.

It's too early to be a trend but it does raise they eyebrow a bit if not yet setting off alarm bells but in their last two home games Seattle has scored a total of two goals. In their last two road games Seattle has scored a total of 10 goals. Overall, in eight home games this season Seattle has scored just 12 times. That's just 1.5 goals per home game. Pretty easy to figure out why Seattle has a sub .500 home record at the moment.

Meanwhile in nine road games the Thunderbirds have scored 30 times (3.3 per game) and have an above .500 record currently away from home. I think the biggest reason for this is that Seattle has been, for the most part, a healthier team for away games then they have been for home games. One thing that Seattle does, regardless of venue though, is on average, game in and game out, they are outshooting their opponents.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: Goalie Rylan Toth. Toth started both games and went 1-1. He allowed five goals but with the possible exception of the third goal to the Giants, it would be very difficult to scrutinize those goals and put the blame for them on his shoulders. In the first two periods in the win over Vancouver he was the best Seattle player on the ice, making 19 saves on 20 shots including three point blank stops on one sequence after a Seattle turnover. In the Friday loss to Calgary he made an incredible initial save on the eventual game winner. The problem again was a terrible turnover that essentially gave the Hitmen a 2-on-0 opportunity.

2nd Star: Defenseman Turner Ottenbreit. Was his solid self in the defensive zone both games. Let's give the 19 year old Yorkton, Saskatchewan product some kudos too for helping in the development of his defensive partner, rookie Reese Harsch. Harsch's game is made a bit easier by having the savvy veteran back with him. Saturday against Vancouver Ottenbreit quietly put together a three assist night. His game got overshadowed by the return of Barzal but it deserves to be recognized.

1st Star: Center Scott Eansor. Very graciously accepted the idea of sharing the captaincy with Barzal. As captain he didn't make excuses for the loss to Calgary then without the "C" on his jersey versus the Giants almost single-handedly won the third period, and the game for Seattle. He leads the team in scoring at nearly a point a game (7g, 9a, 16 pts.) through 17 games and is also the team's +/- leader at +5 while continuing to shutdown opposing team's top offensive threats. Case in point, Saturday in Lagley the Giants Ty Ronning and Tyler Benson produced one assist between them and were a combined -3.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Warm Prairie Greeting

What a very terrific road trip through Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Oh, and the hockey was pretty good too! For the most part Seattle was greeted by sunshine and temperatures hovering near 60 degrees (F) at each of their six stops along the way. I say "yes" to shirt sleeve weather in late October and early November on the eastern swing! Maybe not having to worry about biting cold and snow as you step off the bus makes it easier to focus on hockey because a very focused group of T-Birds went 4-2 playing six games in nine days.

It is natural when you have that kind of success that competitive, passionate hockey players will lament the ones that got away, rather then focus on the wins. Certainly with a fortuitous bounce or two Seattle could have gone 5-1 or even 6-0. That's how well they played on the trip. Steve Konowalchuk always says the good players hate to lose more then they love to win; that they think more about the goal they allowed then the one they scored. Of course you strive to be as perfect as possible. Big picture though, this team won four of six on the road playing its best hockey so far this young season.

And once again it was another year in which Seattle played through their longest road trip of the season at less then full strength. No Keegan Kolsear, no Layne Bensmiller and for most of two games, no Ethan Bear (and, if you believe he's coming back to the team at some point, no Matt Barzal). Those are all 19-year old players, your veterans, and three NHL drafted players. No problem though as young second year players and first season rookies stepped up to fill the void.

Youngsters like Dillon Hamaliuk and Reece Harsch recorded their first WHL goals, goals they earned through hard play throughout the trip. Second year center Matthew Wedman, challenged by his coach to take his game up a notch, recorded four assists in his last three games. Rookie Finnish import Sami Moilanen continues his adjustment to the North American game, coming off the road with five points (2g, 3a) and a stitched up cheek. Meanwhile second year defenseman Jarret Tyszka, playing a good chunk of the trip with a swollen face courtesy of a high stick to the mouth, averaged a point per game with six assists, helping pick up the slack the last two games in Bear's absence.

Of course to win, the best players on your roster have to be your best players on the ice. When Seattle was winning their four games and coming oh-so-close to winning two others, it was because of the play of guys like Bear, Ryan Gropp, Nolan Volcan, Turner Ottenbreit, Alexander True and Scott Eansor. That fivesome accounted for 32 points in the six games (14g,18a), led by Eansor's seven (5g, 2a). Eansor capped off his last trek to the prairies with the most unique of hat tricks, getting three goals by scoring shorthanded, even strength and on the power play, in the final game.

Were the Thunderbirds in agreement with the officiating on the Ethan Bear first period penalty in Brandon that essentially cost them their best defenseman for most of the final two games? Of course not. They agreed there was a foul committed but certainly didn't think it warranted being called a match penalty, which it originally was, or a five-minute major, which it was eventually changed to. Do they think it warranted a one game suspension? No. But, it is as they say, what it is. No use crying over spilt milk. Without Bear in the lineup for two and a half periods against the Wheat Kings Seattle still came within a cross bar and a late spectacular save from getting at least a point out of that game. They did miss Bear on the power play that night, going just 1-for-10. Then on short rest, and Bear out of the lineup again, they came back the next night with their best, and most complete game of the trip, winning 5-1 in Moose Jaw.

Early season special teams struggles seem to be behind the T-Birds now. The power play had risen from the depths to sit at 10th in the league at one point on the trip, only to be knocked back to 14th by that 1-for-10 night in Brandon. The penalty killing, which cost Seattle a few games early in the season and wallowed dead last in the league for the first month of the season, has climbed out of the cellar and is currently 15th. Both aspects of the T-Birds special teams should continue to rise, especially once they get Keegan Kolesar finally into the lineup and Layne Bensmiller back from his injury.

A stick tap to Anthony Bishop. A defenseman by trade Bishop, whom Seattle picked up from Saskatoon in the Logan Flodell trade, has been seeing extensive time on the wing for Seattle's fourth line in the absence of some injured players. He did a pretty good job of it too. When Bear went out, the coaches moved Bishop back to the blue line the last two games and he responded well. In those two games back on the blue line he finished at +1 on the team's third defensive pairing. Seattle's coaches will always put their best players on the ice, players who have earned their ice time in practice. This is why Bishop gets time up on a forward line but when they needed him back on the blue line he stepped up.

Speaking of kudos, thanks to all the T-Birds fans along with T-Birds parent and family who followed the team on their travels and made a few of those games out East seem like Thunderbirds home games. Well done!

Having not seen WHL game action since he was a part of the Spokane Chiefs back in late September, before a trade brought him to the Thunderbirds, there was definitely some curiosity to see how Matt Berlin would react to his first start in goal for Seattle. Berlin made sure all that hard work in practice paid off with a 29 save effort in the win over Moose Jaw. Berlin came within eight minutes of debuting with a shutout. He was at his best in the second period helping Seattle kill off three Warrior power plays, then stoned a Moose Jaw breakaway, with a terrific glove save, with Seattle nursing a 2-0 lead. With Carl Stankowski ready to return from the U-17 Hockey Challenge, is Berlin headed back to Junior A or will his effort Saturday keep three goalies on the roster? Inquiring minds want to know!

Also returning from the U-17 tournament will be 16-year old rookie Elijah Brown. Brown was off to a very good start for Seattle before he left, recording four assists and a +2 rating in nine games. In his absence other young forwards stepped up, particularly Hamaliuk. As a result, competition for ice time among those young players, Brown, Hamaliuk, Luke Ormsby, Ian Briscoe, Zack Andrusiak and MacKenzie White, will only intensify. When Kolesar, Bensmiller and eventually Wyatt Bear (and potentially Barzal) get healthy and/or return to the lineup, ice time for those players will be at a premium. Let's see who steps up to the challenge.

My Three Stars for the road trip:

3rd Star: Winger Nolan Volcan. The Edmonton product registered six points (3g, 3a) in six games. He was his physical self as well on the trip, throwing the body and finishing just about every check. What I really like though was his focus on shooting the puck any chance he got. There are times Seattle gets too cute with the puck and overpasses, letting scoring chances slip away. That has not been the case with Volcan who seems to have adopted a "shoot first" approach.

2nd Star. D-man Jarret Tyszka. Had he been available for all six games it would have been Ethan Bear, who was on pace for just over a point a game on the road trip. Instead, with Bear out most of the fifth game and all of the sixth game, it was Tyszka, fat lip and all, who stepped up with a point-a-game effort, registering six assists. With Bear gone Tyszka moved onto a d-pairing with Turner Ottenbreit and Seattle didn't miss a beat. Can't help but think he helped his draft stock for next spring's NHL Draft, not only because of how he played but that he did so playing through injury and not missing a beat.

1st Star: Center Scott Eansor. Not only is Eansor scoring, with seven points on the trip, but he continues to get tasked with shutting down the other team's top scorers. On the trip, Eansor and his linemates blanked the likes of Reid Duke, Noah Gregor, Simon Stransky, Austin Glover and Lane Pederson. Sam Steel of Regina was held off the scoreboard until a late empty netter while Adam Brooks only found the net on a late power play. More and more Eansor is buzzing the front of the opposing goal. He should be able to pot some greasy goals as he did on his third goal at Mosaic Place.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Hit and a Miss

Before the Thunderbirds began their two game weekend homestand, they first resolved their 20 year old situation. Seattle traded Cavin Leth to Prince Albert in exchange for 18 year old right winger Zack Andrusiak and a 2018 third round Bantam pick. So, Seattle got down to the league mandated roster limit of three 20 year olds. No sooner had they done that though, then Ryan Gropp comes up with a lower body injury and is unavailable for either game. So within a span of a few days the T-birds went from having 4 healthy 20 year olds to just two.

To complicate things further, Seattle was also without 19 year old winger Layne Bensmiller, who also came up lame with a lower body injury. Then Andrusiak's arrival was delayed enough that he wouldn't make the lineup for Friday night's game against Portland. This of course was on top of longer term injuries to forwards Keegan Kolesar, Wyatt Bear and Mackenzie Wight. Every team goes through injuries over the course of the season and for Seattle, it seems that time is now.

So Seattle entered the weekend's first game with just 10 forwards available for the first game and just 11 for the second, Saturday night against Kelowna. To help the situation, the T-birds coach's moved defenseman Anthony Bishop up to a forward line both nights. So, Seattle went with six rookie forwards in both contests plus Bishop to augment their forward attack. All things considered then, to come out of the weekend 1-1 is sort of a small victory.

From the midway point of the first period of their game back on the 15th up in Everett until the five minute mark of the second period Saturday versus the Rockets, Seattle had allowed just one goal, a power play goal, over a span of 132 minutes. Unfortunately it is what happened before and after those 132 minutes that did them in, allowing Everett three goals in the first 11 minutes of that game and then giving up five goals to the Rockets the final 35 minutes Saturday night.

This past weekend may have featured their best 60 minutes in the 3-1 win over the Winterhawks, but we probably also saw their worst 40 minute stretch when they were outscored by Kelowna the final two periods, 5-1. The affects of the shortened bench may have caught up with the team Saturday. After a solid opening period versus Kelowna the T-birds effort and energy seemed to steadily decline the last two periods. Turnovers began to pile up, shots starting missing the mark and players started getting away from team concepts and trying to do too much individually.

Seattle continues to struggle to finish scoring chances. The T-birds put 65 shots on goal this weekend, many of which could be considered quality scoring chances, and could muster only 4 goals and one of those was into an empty net. Even in the win over Portland they missed on scoring opportunities that could have pushed their slim one goal lead. The biggest concerns continue to be a lack of production on the power play and lack of second chance scoring or goals off rebounds.

Despite these issues, Seattle continues to hover around .500 and has played just nine games. They are using a younger roster then they probably anticipated having to employ. The silver lining is these young players are getting baptized into the WHL at a faster pace then expected which, theoretically, should pay dividends by seasons end. Meanwhile, re-enforcements are on the way. Gropp, Bensmiller, Kolesar and others will get healthy and return to the lineup and the potential of a Mat Barzal return from the New York Islanders is still out there.

In their nine games Seattle has played seven different opponents (They faced Portland three times) and Sami Moilanen is the best import player I've seen so far. That does come with an asterisk because Eetu Tuulola was hurt and didn't play when the T-birds faced Everett. Still, the draft eligible Moilanen, who had his four game point streak snapped in the loss to Kelowna, is a dynamic 200 foot player who is only going to get better, especially when this team is healthy. When the import draft rolled around early this past summer the conventional thinking was Seattle would select a defenseman to help fill a void with the loss of both Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf. Credit GM Russ Farwell with finding the best player he could, regardless of position, and credit the team's scouts for discovering this gem.

Andrusiak had his debut delayed 24 hours but he gave a good accounting in the Kelowna game. In a game where Seattle surrendered five even strength goals, he ended the night +1. He definitely appears to be a Konowalchuk type player; quick, aggressive and plays 200 feet. Congrats to Ian Briscoe on his first WHL goal in the loss Saturday. Briscoe almost scored opening night down in Portland, only to be denied by the cross bar. In and out of the line up since, his late game blast against the Rockets was a no-doubter.

Nine of Seattle's next 11 games will be on the road beginning with six straight against the Eastern Division teams. It will seem like old home week as the T-birds face former teammates in Swift Current, Saskatoon and Prince Albert plus a WHL Final rematch against Brandon. Hop on the bus Gus.

My Thunderbird Three Stars for the weekend, which are based essentially off the first four periods because, well, the last two periods were not star worthy:

3rd Star: D Ethan Bear. Bear got his first goal of the season in the win Friday against Portland and it turned out to be a game winner. I thought he was the best player on the ice most of the night.

2nd Star: G Rylan Toth. Before his defense let him down the last two periods against the Rockets, Toth was the primary reason Seattle had surrendered just one goal over the previous 132 minutes. He was at his best in the third period Friday night protecting a one goal lead in an eventual 3-1 win over Portland.

1st Star: W Nolan Volcan. He had a big first goal against Portland and then played fast and physical the rest of the night. He also drew a couple of penalties against Kelowna. Unfortunately Seattle couldn't capitalize on the power plays. He also helped Seattle revive it's penalty kill, which has now killed off four straight, which is a mild accomplishment considering the early struggles in that department.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Not a Special Weekend for T-birds

Like the great storm that never materialized, the Seattle Thunderbirds offense continues to be AWOL in the early going this season. As a result the T-birds drop to 2-4-0-1 on the season after seven games. Through those first seven games Seattle has produced just 16 goals, or only slightly better then two per game. This is despite the fact Seattle is outshooting their opponent in all but two games, and in one of those games they were only outshot by one.

Before I sat down to write this blog update, I read Regan Bartel's piece on the Kelowna Rockets slow start ( Kelowna is just 3-7-0-0 through ten games with a good nucleus returning from a team that advanced to the Western Conference Final last season. In a lot of instances in his article, you could replace "Rockets" with "T-birds". It sure seemed he was writing about Seattle. What caught my eye though was his comparison of this season's start to the start the Rockets had back in the 2010-11 season. Bartel wrote, "That year, the team was also 3-7-0-0 after 10 games but would eventually come together for a 43 win season and would earn a BC Division banner in the process." You might also recall a few years back when Portland began the season 1-10 and roared back to capture the Western Conference Championship. I'm not saying Seattle will follow a similar path this season, but two games under .500 after seven games is no time to panic.

What is worrisome is Seattle's special teams, usually a strong point under head coach Steve Konowalchuk, looking so fractured early on. The power play can look dynamic at times, then disjointed at others. Saturday night in Everett was a good example of the inconsistency of the power play. The T-birds got the games first chance on the man advantage and had a lot of possession in the Everett zone. But there was too much perimeter play and not enough shooting. They then converted on PP chance #2. On subsequent power play chances in the game though, the T-birds rarely got set up to even take a shot. As a result they finished 1-for-8 in a game they lost, 3-2. Seattle has enough weapons to get the power play on track. It has to start with better puck management. The passing of the puck at times has been subpar. They need to have a shooter's mentality as well and they need to crash the net.

The penalty kill may take a bit longer. Cavin Leth has been a big part of the PK since coming over midway through last season, but Seattle has had to sit him twice because of the 20 year old situation. Meanwhile there is no Jerret Smith or Jared Hauf, mainstays of the penalty kill the last three seasons. So there are new players in new or bigger roles on the PK this year and it will take time to adjust.

Improvement on the power play will help the offense. The other area of improvement needs to come 5-on-5 when Seattle is getting lots of puck possession but not taking advantage of it. Too many shots from the outside, not enough traffic in front of opposing goaltenders and the aforementioned passing errors are keeping Seattle off the scoreboard. These aren't questions of scheme or system but more to focus and effort. Seattle was credited with 112 shots in their last four games but only scored eight times. They left a lot of second chance opportunities, or greasy goals, on the doorstep.

Team defense 5-on-5 is really right where it has been the past few seasons. Other then allowing 35 shots opening night in Portland, Seattle hasn't allowed over 30 shots in any game and as mentioned above are outshooting opponents. the T-birds have given up just 25 goals in seven games, almost 1/3rd came in one game and only 14 have been scored at even strength. team defense and goaltending are not the issue. Sure, they can improve in both areas, and will as the season goes along, but it is the offense that has to pick it up. Surely Seattle is missing Keegan Kolesar but he's out for a month, so it is up to those in the lineup to pick up the pace.

It's still early. Seattle hasn't even reached 10 games played yet and won't for another two weeks. But at some point it will be too late to be still too early.

T-birds Three Stars this week:

Third Star: C/W Elijah Brown. Brown is listed as a center but because he's earned ice time, Seattle is playing him on a wing. Quick, fast and apparently fearless, Brown has shown no inclination to shy away from physical play from much bigger players. If you're a smart hockey player, size often won't matter. Brown has good hockey smarts.

Second Star: G Carl Stankowski. He got just one start and it was a 3-2 shootout loss Friday to PG. Still, while not facing a ton of shots, he made key saves in the third period to get the game to overtime and helped Seattle earn a point. After watching him play, if you see him in street clothes after the game, you'll swear it can't be the same guy. He plays so big in the crease. Very quiet and every bit of the 5'9" 159 lbs. he is listed at, makes you realize just what a talent this young man is. I think mentally he is well beyond his 16 years of age playing a demanding position.

First Star: RW Sami Moilanen. The Flying Finn is riding a hot hand right now. He has scored goals in the past two games and added a couple of assists for a three game point streak. He is listed at just 5'8" but he plays much bigger. As dynamic as he is on the puck, he plays a 200 foot game and has been stellar as of late on the back check and in the defensive zone. No matter what his best attribute may be, he's just plain fun to watch when he's on the ice. You will notice him.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Good News, Bad Scenario for the T-birds

While Seattle was busy the past few days preparing for a U.S. Division showdown Tuesday night against Spokane at the ShoWare Center, rumors began to be whispered that 20 year old winger Ryan Gropp was going to be returned to Seattle by the NHL's New York Rangers. The rumors turned into reality Monday when the Rangers made it official.

Just last week New York had assigned Gropp, their 2015 second round draft pick, to their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. It didn't appear Gropp, who signed his three year entry level contract with the Rangers back in January, would be spending another season in a Thunderbirds jersey. This move does and doesn't surprise me. The fact he was signed, the fact New York doesn't have a lot of highly drafted youngsters in their system (they've been void of first round picks the last few years having traded them away) and the fact signed, high draft picks are rarely sent back to play their 20 year old season at the Major Junior level, would have you thinking the chance of a Gropp return to Seattle was slim. Not to mention the Rangers also had the option of sending him to their ECHL affiliate, the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.

But there are lots of hockey people and scouts who come through the ShoWare Center over the course of a season and someone with a lot more hockey acumen then I, mentioned to me late last season don't be surprised if Gropp does get sent back for another year with the T-birds. He didn't think Gropp was physically mature enough yet to hold up to the rigors of a full season in the AHL. And it may be just that. Gropp has the physical frame you want in an NHL player. He's listed at just under 6'3". The Rangers may want him to add more weight and learn to play a more physical game. He's already a gifted offensive player, with great skating ability.

So why the WHL and not the ECHL? I think back in Seattle he will play both with and against other highly skilled NHL prospects, more so then he would have at the ECHL level. They also know that with the Thunderbirds he'll get top line minutes. Most NHL teams only have an agreement to provide a few players to their ECHL affiliate. The rest of the ECHL roster is made up of free agents and the ECHL owners pay them to play. The NHL team doesn't have as much control over the ECHL team like they do their AHL clubs.

So getting Gropp back is unexpected good news for Seattle, right? Afterall, this is your top goal scorer from your run to the WHL Final returning for one more season. But it does present a dilemma. In the WHL you can only carry three 20 year old players on your roster for the bulk of the season. Seattle now has one too many. They have approximately two weeks to decide which three they'll keep. Knowing GM Russ Farwell, he'll try to resolve the situation sooner rather then later so that whichever player is the odd man out can get to a new team quickly and not have it drag out and affect their game.

What are Seattle's options? Well, the four 20 year olds are Gropp, captain Scott Eansor, winger Cavin Leth and goaltender Rylan Toth. All four would bring back a fair to decent return in a trade. But which one goes?

I'd be surprised if it was Gropp. This is a player Seattle drafted in the first round of the WHL Bantam Draft back in 2011. They waited patiently on him while he decided whether he would play NCAA (he had verbally committed to North Dakota) or come to the T-birds. He eventually decided on Seattle and joined the team one month into his 17 year old season. The T-birds then helped develop him into a second round NHL draft pick. He's coming off back-to-back 30 goal seasons. With Keegan Kolesar out with injury and no certainty of Mat Barzal being returned by the New York Islanders, Seattle needs Gropp's offense.

I think Eansor being traded would actually be a bigger shock then sending Gropp out. He is currently the number one center on your roster, not to mention you just named him team captain. He plays in all situations and is integral to your penalty kill and he is adept at shutting down opposing team's top scorers. Like Gropp he's a guy you developed in your system after bringing him in as an undrafted player three years ago.

Seattle paid a significant price meanwhile to acquire goaltender Rylan Toth. Not only did you send Red Deer a third round bantam pick to get him, but you traded away the only other goalie on your roster with WHL experience when you subsequently dealt Logan Flodell to Saskatoon. Dealing away Toth would leave you with the barely tested 16 year old, Carl Stankowski, as your #1 netminder. Seattle has high hopes for Stankowski but I doubt they believe he is ready to carry the load now. With Gropp back, Kolesar eventually back from injury and the possibility of Barzal returning at some point, this team is built to win now. You do that with a quality veteran goalie like Toth.

The other option is to deal Leth. All he has done is become an integral part of this team since being acquired last January at the trade deadline. he has developed a tremendous chemistry with Alexander True and newcomer Sami Moilanen. He teams up with Eansor quite often on the penalty kill. He's the type of player Steve Konowalchuk values; a fast skater who plays a 200 foot game and to top it off, his mom drives a tractor! Leth has also become part of the leadership in the Seattle locker room. Seattle envisions him having a productive offensive season as well.

This is the tough part of the WHL, having to trade or release a player because the rules say you have to, not because you want to. The balancing act is doing what is best for the team while trying to do well by the player.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The More things Change...

...The more they stay the same. A year ago Seattle beat the Victoria Royals in all four head-to-head games during the course of the regular season. Three times last season the T-birds won by a 4-2 score, and on the other occasion, Seattle was a 3-1 winner against the eventual Scotty Munro Trophy winners (best regular season record). Fast forward to the first of four games between the two teams this season, Friday night at the ShoWare Center, and a much different looking Seattle team beat the Royals in similar fashion, 3-1. In fact, the Thunderbirds have won their last six games against Victoria and are 6-0-0-1 in the last seven versus the Royals, dating back to March 2nd, 2015.

Last season, in outscoring Victoria 15-7, the T-birds got ten of those 15 goals from their top line of Keegan Kolesar (6), Mathew Barzal (2) and Ryan Gropp (2). Move the calendar ahead to the 2016-17 season and that trio is not in the Seattle lineup. No matter, as Alexander True (2) and Nolan Volcan (1) pick up the scoring. It should be noted that last season in their series against the Royals True and Volcan had four of the five goals that Kolesar/Barzal/Gropp didn't score. Still, Seattle accomplished another win over the Royals despite not having nine of their top 15 scorers from a season ago in the lineup Friday.

Meanwhile, the Royals, despite returning a roster featuring 11 of their top 15 scorers from a season ago, could muster just one goal on 29 shots. Friday night Seattle thwarted the Royals on 5 of 6 power plays including their first four. A season ago it was a similar story as the Royals could muster just 2 power play goals, on 22 chances, in the four games.

It was just a matter of time before we saw the Rylan Toth we expected to see when Seattle acquired him from Red Deer just before the start of the season. First, it was a team effort by the Thunderbirds to surrender a total of six power play goals in his first two starts. But you got the feeling that Toth, being the competitor he is, was a bit tired of giving up those power play goals. Friday against Victoria he was Seattle's best penalty killer in the first period when the Royals were awarded the games first three power play chances. His work in the crease set the tone. Seattle fed off that and used it as momentum to score two goals early in the second and they never looked back.

Secondly, Toth didn't have a preseason. Other then practice, he barely played in game action at Rebel's camp. His last significant playing time had been last May in the Memorial Cup. My guess is no one benefited more from the week of practice between that 6-1 loss to Portland and the Friday game versus Victoria as much as Toth did. He was finally able to acclimate himself to his new teammates and his new surroundings.

Can Alexander True keep it going? I'm not asking if True is going to average a goal a game as he is doing through the first four games of this season. Remember though, a year ago the big Dane had a good start to the season with four goals in the first month, then went into a prolonged scoring slump. It wasn't until the second half of the season that he found the back of the net again. One thing that should help him keep the scoring touch going forward this season is the presence of a playmaker, like Sami Moilanen, on one wing and a speedy Cavin Leth on the other wing. The biggest help in that department though, should come from True himself. Now a 19 year old in his third season in the league, he's bigger, faster and harder to play against down low.

From the strange but true department: In their two wins this season Seattle has dressed seven defensemen and just 11 forwards. In their two losses, they went with just six d-men and 12 forwards. What does that say? Well, I think it is a message to the young forwards that are not getting ice time that winning offensive zone puck battles, back checking and defensive zone responsibility are key factors if you want to play for Steve Konowalchuk.

A year ago through the first four games of the season, Seattle was 2-1-1-0 with one of their two win coming in a shootout. So, sitting currently at 2-2-0-0 going into Tuesday's home game against the Spokane Chiefs, the T-birds are not far off the pace they started with last season. As they did a year ago Seattle again has had to get through the early part of their schedule with key players missing. This time around it might be a little longer before the T-birds get those missing players back. We know Kolesar is out for at least another 4-5 weeks as he recovers from supra-umbilical hernia surgery. 20 year old Ryan Gropp, of course, is not returning. As expected, the New York Rangers assigned him to their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack, earlier this week. The bigger question still remains on whether the NHL's New York Islanders return Barzal to Seattle.

Seattle did make a trade Friday, acquiring 18 year old goaltender Matt Berlin from Spokane in exchange for a conditional draft pick. With 16 year old goalie Carl Stankowski expected to be named to play for Canada at the U-17 Hockey Challenge in early November, Seattle was in the market for a 3rd netminder. The T-birds will be in the midst of a six-game road trip during Stankowski's absence and will need someone to back up Toth. After trading Ryan Gilchrist to Lethbridge Seattle did not have another signed goalie in their system. I'm not sure if Berlin, who was 1-1-2-0 in just seven games with the Chiefs last season, will join the T-birds immediately and start practicing with the team or if Seattle will wait until they are out east to add him to the roster.

The T-birds could also lose Elijah Brown to that U-17 challenge. Roster announcements are expected this week. Meanwhile, the T-birds were rewarded for a solid 2016 Bantam Draft when five of their draft picks were chosen to play for their provincial teams at the U-16 Hockey Challenge. First round pick Jake Lee will play for Team Alberta, 2nd rounder Eric Fawkes, along with 6th round selection Nakodan Greyeyes, will suit up for Team Manitoba while a pair of 3rd rounders, Alex Swetlikoff and Layton Ahac will be teammates on Team B.C.

Just one game on the weekend so the three stars are pretty easy to choose:

3rd Star: W Sami Moilanen. He took a silly tripping penalty in the first period but then the crafty Finn atoned for his sin as he picked up his first two points of the season with a pair of nifty assists against the Royals. He's not just good on the puck but also showed his willingness to play physical, to back check and at times, be a pest against Victoria. Let's not forget that earlier in the week the NHL's Central Scouting listed him as a C prospect for next spring's NHL Draft, a rating he can certainly improve as the season goes forward.

2nd Star: G Rylan Toth. His big glove save on Victoria's first power play was a tone setter. It was the equivalent of him announcing his presence with authority. It was early in the game but it gave you the feeling that he was not to be denied his first win as a T-bird. He did what you would expect from a 20 year old goalie at this level of hockey. He made the spectacular as well as the routine save. Every time Victoria threatened early in that game, he shut the door.

1st Star: C Alexander True. With No Gropp, and for the time being at least, no Barzal and no Kolesar, Seattle needs someone to pick up the scoring. True potted two against Victoria including the game winner. He was a crossbar away from a hat trick and now has a three game goal scoring streak. He looks more determined this season and that confidence is paying off. But it wasn't just his scoring that helped lead Seattle to the win. he was physical and very defensive zone-responsible.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

T-Birds Raise Banners, Now time to Raise Their Game

It was a mixed bag weekend for Seattle. The Thunderbirds picked up their first win of the season, beating the Vancouver Giants 4-2 Friday night in Langley. Unfortunately they were mostly uneven in their play in the home opener Saturday and fell to Portland, 6-1.

The Thunderbirds were full marks for the win over the Giants. Matthew Wedman, who essentially missed all of the preseason with a lower body injury and sat out the season opener down in Portland last week as well, made a splash in his season debut by scoring twice. Meanwhile another youngster, rookie goaltender Carl Stankowski made his WHL debut a winning one with 15 saves. Stankowski also played about half the game Saturday, although not by design. Still, if you talk with the coaches and the Seattle hockey staff, the 16 year old isn't here just to observe. They plan on playing him. It may not be a 50/50 split with the 20-year old veteran Rylan Toth, but I would not be shocked if Stankowski start 20 or more games.

Even with the well deserved win Friday I still don't think the entire roster is on the same page yet. Three games is not a lot of game action to form an opinion on how the season will go, but through nine periods of hockey there has been too much inconsistency. The loss to Portland Saturday is Exhibit A. Seattle had a strong start and spent a lot of the first half of the first period in the attacking zone. No reward for that though. They had enough shots but nothing too dangerous and no second chance opportunities. When they did get a chance they didn't finish.

Once again Seattle was not overly undisciplined. They actually had more power plays on the night then did Portland, 7-5. But to put it kindly, Seattle's special teams right now are, well, a mess. Missed assignments seem to be the main culprit on their penalty kill. Slow puck movement seems to be the major problem on the power play. Both are correctable and another week of practice should help (fingers crossed). And just to clarify, that 2.9 magnitude earthquake centered in Maple Valley, was not head coach Steve Konowalchuk addressing his team after the loss. Yes, he's not happy with their performance thus far but he also knows what these players are capable of and believes they will get it going in the right direction.

Seattle only allowed three 5-on-5 goals this weekend. They only allowed 43 shots in two games. Those are hallmark stats of this team over the past 2-3 seasons under Konowalchuk. Those are small indicators the team is following the right path. Young players like Wedman, Elijah Brown, Stankowski and even Dillon Hamaliuk, are taking advantage of playing time. Some of the vets needs to amp up their game. It's not panic time, it's step-up-to-the-plate time.

One issue the T-birds have right now is the lack of a true #1 line. I'm not saying they don't have that currently on the roster, but that none of the players on the roster have been first line players yet for Seattle. There are adjustments being made in the roles some of the players are now in. I think the Volcan-Eansor-Neuls line has been solid in that first line role but they are still adjusting and will have their ups and downs through the first part of the season.

Former T-birds captain Jerret Smith took in the game Friday in Langley. Smith, who finished out his Major Junior career last spring, was down in Kent in early August as an instructor at the Thudnerbirds hockey school. He is set to attend the University of British Columbia and play collegiate hockey for that group of Thunderbirds. The start of his season will have to wait apparently as Smitty finally had surgery on the shoulder he injured last February. That really goes to show the character of the player and why his leadership was so valuable last season as he played the last two months with an injury that required surgery.

It was 11 years since the Thunderbirds last raised a banner. Saturday they raised two. The first time they've done that since moving into the ShoWare Center back in January of 2009. To say they did it right was an understatement. Terrific presentation. Let's hope they make that a habit.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Undefeated Season Vanishes on Opening Night

Seattle dropped their season opener down in Portland Saturday, 7-3, a final score that was not indicative of what was a much closer game. The game was knotted at 3-3 past the midpoint of the third period when the Winterhawks scored to push back on top for good with just under eight minutes remaining.

About a minute later it appeared Seattle's Cavin Leth was held as he was about to skate past a Portland defenseman onto a loose puck just outside the T-birds blue line but the referee either didn't see the play or didn't feel it was enough to warrant a holding or interference penalty. So, rather then Seattle being on the power play down a goal, play continued. Moments later Seattle was assessed a bench minor for too many men on the ice. Portland capitalized with their second power play goal of the game and the two goal deficit was too much for Seattle to overcome. The 'Hawks would add an empty netter and one more goal late to round out the scoring.

You've probably heard this before; you can't win a game in the first period but you can certainly lose it. Missed chances early came back to bite Seattle in the end. Ian Briscoe could have started his WHL career off with a bang but instead it started with a "ping", as in he pinged one off the crossbar early in the first period. Too bad too, because it was a nifty play to go to his back hand after getting the Portland goalie to go down. Briscoe is a guy who put up solid numbers in AAA Midget a season ago. He registered 19g, 22a and 41pts. in 44 regular season games with the Winnipeg Wild then was a point a game player in their playoffs (4g, 6a, in 10 games). That early close, but not quite chance may be a sign this 17 year old rookie's game will translate well to the WHL level.

Briscoe wasn't the only one to miss the mark. Seattle had three or four other quality first period scoring chances and others throughout the game but in most instances missed the net. And it wasn't just rookies, it was older players as well. Layne Bensmiller, Scott Eansor, Leth and Sami Moilanen all had their opportunities. The T-birds had just one power play in the game and it came in the first period. Lots of offensive zone time with the puck on that 5-on-4 situation, and about four shots on goal, but they couldn't convert. Special teams, as they often are, ended up being the difference in the game. Seattle was 0-1 with the man advantage while Portland went 2-4.

The T-birds weren't particularly undisciplined but a few stick infraction (a slash, a hook and a high stick) are certainly avoidable. A bench minor with new faces and young rookies in the lineup for the first time is not too uncommon but these are issues that need to be addressed this week in practice. Why were the Thunderbirds the beneficiary of only one power play on the night? Their lack of a physical game was a major culprit. Playing physical and strong along the boards often draws penalties on your opponent. There wasn't enough of that from the T-birds Saturday night.

In the first period the T-birds were able to get contribution from all four lines, despite being held off the scoreboard. Over the final two periods they became too reliant on their top line of Eansor, Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan and unfortunately, it was some of the other veteran players who were AWOL over the final 40 minutes. Remember, two points in game one mean the same as two points in game 36 or game 72. Preseason is over, it's all business now.

Don't fault Rylan Toth too much for allowing six goals on 34 shots in his T-birds debut. One, I understand from goaltending coach Ian Gordon that Toth had not played in any meaningful game action since the first week of preseason while still a member of the Red Deer Rebels. That was just half of one game, playing 28 minutes on September 2nd against the Edmonton Oil Kings. The Rebels participated in the Tri-City preseason tournament in Kennewick the following weekend but Toth didn't travel with the team. Of course the next week he was traded to Seattle and was in transit when the Thunderbirds played their final two preseason games against Everett. So Toth's last game action before facing Portland was three weeks ago.

Two, Seattle had too many missed defensive zone assignments as forwards, both rookies and vets, were caught puck watching on Portland's 3rd and 4th goals. Head coach Steve Konowalchuk stresses backchecking and defensive zone responsibility and was not a happy camper postgame because of those lapses. Twice a Winterhawks player skated the puck behind the Seattle goal and on both occasions forwards failed to cover the player in the slot. Toth had little chance on those two quick one timers.

Luke Ormsby came up last December for a cup of coffee with the T-birds and played in all of four games as a 16 year old. He registered one assist in a game in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans as we got a glimpse of his speed and offensive ability. Saturday down at the Moda Center, the Monroe, WA. native showed off both of those assets again in registering his first WHL goal, getting in behind the Winterhawk defense on a break and then not giving up on the puck after an initial save to score on the rebound. Like the 17 year old Briscoe, the 17 year old Ormsby can provide an offensive threat, but also like Briscoe, the work he needs to do is to improve his game in the defensive zone.

With that goal Ormsby, I believe, becomes the first Washingtonian player since Spokane native, and current assistant coach, Tyler Alos, to score a goal for the Thunderbirds. Is he the first "local" player to do so? Time to check the record books. I believe he's the first player from the Puget Sound region to be on the Seattle roster since goaltender Doug Bonner (1992-96), who hailed from my hometown, University Place, down near Tacoma.

Don't sleep on Donovan Neuls and his ability to have 30 or more goals this season in his 19 year old year. The jack-of-all-trades forward from Grenfell, Sask. potted two opening night. Skating with Eansor and Volcan again this season should provide him with plenty more opportunities to light the lamp. Remember too, with a full roster, that line would be the T-birds second line most nights, not their number one line.

Defenseman Anthony Bishop, obtained from Saskatoon in the trade that sent Logan Flodell to the Blades, made his T-birds debut as well down in the Rose City. Touted as an offensive-defensemen, I was actually more impressed with his defensive zone play. Time and again he used solid positioning to break up a Portland chance or steal the puck back for the T-birds. He wasn't perfect as he got beat once and had to take a slashing penalty to break up a Portland scoring chance, but hopefully as he gets more comfortable with his new teammates and D-partner, he will only get better. Have the T-birds stolen another diamond in the rough from Saskatoon, ala Turner Ottenbreit, with the acquisition of the Kelowna native?

I like the new hybrid icing if for no other reason then at least twice in the game Seattle used their speed to negate what would have been an icing call against them. In one instance it led to a scoring opportunity from Eansor.

In summary, opening night 2016 reminded me a lot of opening night 2015 when Seattle faced off against the Giants up in Vancouver. Seattle fell behind in that game, fought back on a couple of occasions to tie it but could never get the lead, then lost on a late power play goal. They rebounded to win nine of their next 11 games, going 9-1-1-0. Deja Vu' anyone?

Seattle's three stars opening night:

3rd Star: I'll give it to Luke Ormsby for collecting his first career WHL goal. I liked the fact he never gave up on that puck and willed it in past the goalie. His mindset there seemed to be he wasn't going to be denied.

2nd Star: Scott Eansor. He did shoot wide on a glorious scoring chance but was all over the ice as usual. The T-birds newest captain was officially credited with just one assist by games end, but I think he should have two and wouldn't be surprised if one is added upon video review.

1st Star: Donovan Neuls. Great way to open the season, scoring a pair of goals. His goal that tied the game early in the third was all about patience, tenacity and good hands.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Break Out the S'mores, it's Camping Time!

After the shortest offseason in franchise history, just a little over three months, the Seattle Thunderbirds are set to gather again Tuesday for training camp ahead of the 2016-17 WHL season. For the second straight camp very few roster spots are up for grabs as the Thunderbirds return a large nucleus from their 2016 Western Conference Championship team.

But, unlike a year ago, that doesn't mean there won't be intense competition for the few roster spots that are available. Even after Josh Uhrich announced earlier this summer that he would not return for his final season of eligibility, the T-birds still have 13 potential returning forwards. That number includes seven 1997 born (19 yr. olds) players. Meanwhile, Seattle has seven other signed forwards who are looking to make the roster, for the first time on a full-time basis. That's 20 players battling for, what will eventually be pared down to, 14 spots. Something's gotta give.

Either way, the forward position has very few question marks coming into camp. Certainly the numbers suggest they won't need to trade to strengthen that group. The one question that looms large though, is the fate of Mat Barzal. Does he play one more season with the T-birds or does he make the roster of the NHL's New York Islanders? A recent article on projects him making the Islanders roster this season. I've also read and heard commentary that says he needs to refine his defensive game and could use one more season at the WHL level. The decision though, isn't up to internet articles or armchair prognasticators. It's up to the Islanders and Barzal. Either way, those are the only two options for him, New York or Seattle, and we may not know the definitive answer until early November. Stay tuned.

The bigger questions going into camp concerns the group of defensemen and the goaltending situation. No question the loss of 20 year olds Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf leaves a big void on the blueline. Not just for the veteran presence and the ton of minutes they logged on the ice each game, but their unquestioned leadership off the ice will be hard to replace as well. Seattle should have a solid top five in Ethan Bear, Turner Ottenbreit, Brandon Schuldhaus, Jarret Tyszka and Bryan Allbee. The coaches will need to find a reliable 6th and 7th d-man they can rotate in with the veteran Allbee, on that third pairing. Can they find that among youngsters Jared Pelechaty, Reece Harsch and Kabir Gill or will they need to look outside the organization for someone with more experience?

After spending most of the past 18 months as the primary back up to a 20 year old netminder, the number one goaltending job is Logan Flodell's as camp opens. The only question about Flodell is whether he's up to that challenge of being "the guy" 50-60 times this year. He's had solid numbers so far in his season and a half with Seattle. He sports a 26-15-4-1 record with a career GAA of 2.78 and a SVCPT of .901 along with three shutouts. Remember, he did that while rarely getting back-to-back starts.

I think we forget that 2015-16 was Flodell's first full season in the WHL. It seems he's been here longer then that because he was drafted the same year the T-birds picked 1997 born mainstays Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear, Donovan Neuls and Luke Osterman. Flodell wasn't on the roster as a 16 year old because the team preferred he play full time at a lower level. The same was true in his 17 year old season. He started that year playing Junior A hockey in Saskatchewan while Seattle went with the tandem of Taran Kozun and Danny Mumaugh in net. It wasn't until over halfway through the 2014-15 season, after Mumaugh left the team, that Flodell was brought up to be the number two goalie behind Kozun, appearing in just nine games. A season ago he began by sharing the goaltending duties with Taz Burman, before Burman was traded for 20 year old goalie Landon Bow, who took over the number one role.

So often in this league, goalies don't hit their physical and mental maturation until their 19 year old season. Kozun was a prime example of that. Seattle is hoping that's the case with Flodell, who has two untested youngsters in Ryan Gilchrist and Carl Stankowski, nipping at his heels. I think the team's plan after drafting Flodell in the 3rd round, back in 2012, was to bring him along slowly with the idea of having him ready for the #1 job this season. So in that sense, they are on target with his progression. It's just that his development was sped up by the unexpected departure of Mumaugh two years ago.

So what are the other questions that need to be answered in training camp and the subsequent preseason? Let's start with the top heavy forward group. With Barzal, and most likely Scott Eansor and Kolesar, having extended stays at NHL training camps, other veteran forwards should get ample playing time through the preseason schedule to show what they can do with increased responsibility. Players like Garan Magnes, Osterman, and Owen Seidel will be asked to step forward because newcomers like Sami Moilanen and Elijah Brown are in the mix for regular shifts this season and are primed to take ice time away from one or two of those older players.

Meanwhile younger forwards such as Wyatt Bear, Ian Briscoe, Luke Ormsby and Mckenzie Wight are all now 17 years old. Bear and Wight have been signed to WHL education contracts for two years. Briscoe signed just before the start of last season and Ormsby signed last December. These are guys chomping at the bit to play in the WHL. They have yet to make their impact on this team, albeit that's been tough to do on a roster deep with talented forwards ahead of them on the depth chart. Combined that group of four players has suited up for only 13 games of WHL action and nine of those games belong to Bear. They should all get the opportunity through training camp and the preseason schedule to state their case for a full-time roster spot. It means there will be some intense competition for the last one or two forward spots on the roster, a competition that could last through October.

It's a little different on the back end. Five of the six roster spots for defensemen would appear to be spoken for but when Bear and Ottenbreit are away at NHL training camps, the T-birds will be left a bit thin in their defensive corps during the preseason schedule, particularly the two games they'll play in Kennewick. This should give Pelachaty, Harsch and Gill ample ice time to state their case for one of those final two roster spots available on the blueline. The absence of Bear and Ottenbreit for preseason could also give the T-birds brass a chance to get a longer look at 2016 top Bantam draft pick Jake Lee. Lee is not eligible to play full time with Seattle this season but he has already signed his Standard WHL player agreement, thus he's eligible to play in preseason games.

The Thunderbirds could also have up to four or five 16 year old defensemen in as training camp invitees. Will any standout enough this week to earn a second look like Pelachaty did the past two camps? The undrafted Pelachaty had such a good camp last year, and the previous year, that he not only earned a spot with the organization, he got into a couple of games this past season and even scored his first WHL goal. Undrafted winger Nik Holowko did the same the two camps before and now is a potential top six forward with the team going into the 2016-17 season. Those are the kind of stories that make training camp so intriguing. Who will be this year's Pelachaty or Holowko?

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Twenty Questions

Josh Uhrich won't be returning to the Thunderbirds for his final season in the WHL. Instead he's opted to get started with the next chapter of his life and that means putting hockey aside. This doesn't come as a surprise to me. Uhrich hinted to me after Seattle acquired him last December from Saskatoon that the 2015-16 season could be his last, telling me you never know if you'll be playing in this league at age 20. I think having been traded a couple times in his WHL career and not being drafted into the NHL, he had a good grasp on his future in the sport. I'm glad he got to enjoy a ride that took him and Seattle all the way to the WHL Final. Until last spring, he had never experienced the WHL postseason. And enjoy it he did. No one on the team had as much fun on that ride to the Championship Series as he did, showing up for every game, every series, every postseason practice, bus ride or flight with a big grin on his face. I think he knew then it was his final hurrah and he soaked it all up. He capped it off by scoring twice in his last WHL game.

With Uhrich announcing his retirement at the ripe old age of 20, it left the Thunderbirds roster with just two returning over-age players for the upcoming season in the form of forwards Scott Eansor and Cavin Leth. That's one short of the WHL maximum for 20 year old players on a roster.

Technically Ryan Gropp is eligible to return for his 20-year old season but being a signed prospect of the NHL's New York Rangers, it is more likely that he spends the season with their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack or even the ECHL's Greenville franchise, which has an affiliation with the Rangers. The Rangers could still return Gropp to Seattle if they thought it was best for his development but usually NHL team's look to get their more valuable prospects playing against older players as soon as possible. Would I be shocked if Gropp was sent back to the WHL? No, but it so rarely happens to 20 year old, signed NHL draft picks that the odds of it happening are pretty slim.

Of course there is still the chance the 20 year old Eansor could sign a pro deal and not return to the T-birds either. I don't think that scenario is likely to play out even though Eansor has been at development or training camps the last two summers with the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. I think Eansor's situation is similar to Jamal Watson last year. The longer Watson stayed at training camp last September with the Canadians the more worried many T-birds fans were that he would sign a pro deal with them and be assigned to one of their minor league clubs. Watson was eventually returned to Seattle and finished out his major junior eligibility with, first the T-birds, and then the Swift Current Broncos, after a mid-season trade. After he was returned to the T-birds Watson told me he never came close to signing a deal with Montreal and that his plan all along was to play out his final year of junior eligibility.

When you are an undrafted, free agent 20 year old WHL player, it seems your best course is to play out that final WHL season. If you have a strong enough year on the ice you may have numerous NHL teams bidding for your services come March, rather then just one team. Then you can take the best offer. It is a gamble and doesn't always work out. Watson didn't have the season he had hoped for, mostly because of injury, and as far as I know hasn't signed a pro deal yet. But a number of overage WHLers have parlayed a strong final season of Junior into a pro contract. Former T-bird defenseman, and current San Jose Shark, Brendan Dillon is a prime example. By the end of his 20 year old season with the Thunderbirds he had scouts from a number of NHL teams on his tail before signing with the Dallas Stars.

A few years before that former T-bird Gregg Scott actually signed his first professional contract with the Maple Leafs at the start of his 20 year old season but still came back to Seattle and played as an overager before embarking on his pro career. I could see either of these scenarios playing out for Eansor.

So, at the moment, it appears the only T-birds locks for returning as 20 year olds are Eansor and Leth. What does General Manager Russ Farwell do about that third, open spot? Make a trade? Pick up a player who gets released at the overage deadline? One problem is the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, wasn't a very strong or deep one, and not just for Seattle, but league-wide. Like Gropp, the best players from that draft are signed to pro contracts and off to begin their professional careers. After that, it appears to be slim pickings.

Logic would suggest that since Seattle graduated out two veteran defensemen (Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf) from last season's Western Conference Championship team, Farwell will fill the void by trading for a 20 year old d-man. Easier said then done. Take a look at rosters around the WHL heading into training camps later this summer and you will see a dearth of 1996 born players, let alone quality veteran '96 born defensemen. For one, most teams seem to have only three overagers on their current rosters. Any team with a surplus seems to have surplus forwards, not defensemen.

If you think your team is a contender and you have a quality 20 year old d-man, you're not going to trade him. If you're not sure your team is a contender, you're going to wait until the January trade deadline before dealing. If you don't believe your team is a contender this coming season and you have a quality 20 year old defenseman, well you have yourself a very valuable commodity. How much in the form of current players, current prospects or future draft picks is a G.M. like Farwell willing to spend to acquire a 20 year old defenseman?

Could the T-birds management convince an undrafted college defensemen who's currently on their 50 Player Protected List to play as a 20 year old in the WHL? I think the days of pulling a quality collegian away at that age have passed. Players at that age are just less inclined to give up two more years of a full ride scholarship. The T-birds would probably have better luck with say, an NHL drafted, 19 year old college defenseman on their PPL, deciding to sign a pro contract and thus losing his NCAA eligibility and his NHL team assigning him to Seattle. This is what happened last season with Jack Daugherty in Portland.

I'm sure Farwell and his scouts will exhaust all avenues in regards to filling that final 20 year old roster spot, but there is no rule that says you have to have three overage players. Just go back to the 2013-14 season. Seattle played the second half of that season with just one 20 year old on the roster, Mitch Elliot. In fact they spent the first half of that season with just two overage players, Elliot and Seth Swenson, after shipping Jesse Forsberg to Moose Jaw just before the season kicked off. At mid-season Swenson was then dealt to Lethbridge in the Russ Maxwell trade.

You can do that, play with less then the maximum 20 year olds, when you have a bevy of young talent that needs the ice time and is as good or better then any 20 year old you could acquire. With just one 20 year old on the roster for a good portion of that season, the T-birds went 41-25-2-4, finished second to Portland in the U.S. Division then won a first round playoff series over Everett before bowing out in Round Two to Kelowna. That club featured five youngsters getting their first real taste of WHL potseason; Mat Barzal, Ethan Bear, Keegan Kolesar, Gropp and Eansor. Those five would be instrumental in leading Seattle's charge to the WHL Final this past spring, using experience they might not have gotten had Seattle had two more 20s on the roster in 2014.

Does Seattle have similar young talent on the roster going into this season that they may ride with just two overage players? Certainly I think they have enough forward depth to absorb the loss of Uhrich. They added Sami Moilanen in the Import draft. The Finnish forward was recently listed on the 2017 NHL Draft Futures List. Matthew Wedman, who is also on that list, enters his second season looking to build off a solid rookie campaign. Signed 17 year olds Luke Ormsby, Wyatt Bear, Ian Briscoe and Mckenzie Wight will all battle for ice time and a roster spot while 16 year old Elijah Brown, the team's 2015 top bantam selection, appears ready to have a strong rookie season. Two other 16 year old forwards, Connor Pyne and Dillon Hamaliuk, could also be in the mix. Meanwhile American-born Baker Shore, a 2014 draft selection could be a wild card if he opts to go the WHL route.

What about the blue line crew? The returning veterans are 19 year olds Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit. They could be one of the top d-pairings in the league. 17 year old Jarret Tyszka, like Wedman and Moilanen, is on the 2017 NHL Draft Futures List. He and fellow 2015-16 rookie, and now 18 year old, Brandon Schuldhaus should be able to build off strong freshman campaigns. The big question mark is the third defensive pairing. Bryan Allbee, who will be 19, fills one spot. After that it is a couple of untested youngsters in Jared Pelachaty, Reece Harsch and possibly 16 year old Kabir Gill. If Farwell gets everyone, including Barzal, back from NHL camps and believes his team has another run to the Final in them, it might be in the team's best interest to fill one of those top six defensemen spots with a 20 year old veteran.

The good news is, I personally don't see filling that final overage position as a pressing priority. Seattle isn't in the position yet of making a deal just for the sake of making a deal. You're not looking to acquire a 20 year old just so you can have three on the roster. You are looking for a player who is going to make your team better. I think there is enough talent on the team to let it play out. Certainly if they can get a deal done before the season, that's a plus. But they can also wait until the overage cut down date in mid-October or until the trade deadline in January. Furthermore, a deal doesn't have to be for a 20 year old. I think they have enough surplus talent and assets that they can come up with a deal that could net them a top end 19 year old d-man.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this plays out.