Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Race is on

Another WHL trade deadline has come and gone and a number of players have new addresses as teams bolstered their rosters for the playoff stretch run. Mainly though, a lot of players around the league are just letting out a sigh of relief now that the deadline has passed.

Seattle was busy on the trade front and this coming Thursday I'll chat with T-Birds GM Russ Farwell, on the Weekly Seattle Thunderbirds Coach's show, about the moves he made to strengthen the club for the second half of the season. So tune in at 6 pm Thursday on 1090 The Fan.

The T-Birds trades were like playing with dominos, one deal falling into the other; sort of a chain reaction. Even though they were announced in a different order, the key acquisition was goaltender Landon Bow. Seattle needed to shore up their play in between the pipes. It had been too inconsistent the first half. But in order to bring in Bow, Seattle had to send out a 20-year old. The options were two 20-year old defensemen, Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf, or 20-year old winger Jamal Watson. Now, if you're shoring up your back end by bringing in the goalie, you don't jettison one of your top two d-men. That would be a lateral move.

So unfortunately Watson was the odd man out. So Watson is dealt to Swift Current, along with goalie Taz Burman, but that leaves a hole on your second line. To fill that, Seattle sent defenseman Sahvan Khaira to the Broncos for winger Cavin Leth. Leth is almost a Watson clone; fast, and a 200-foot player who can chip in offensively. I think the one edge for Leth is he may be a bit more physical than Watson. It was a very simple solution to just plug him in on the second line with Volcan and Eansor and not miss a beat.

Of course by trading away Khaira, Seattle was now thin on their blue line, down to just five healthy defensemen with Jarret Tyszka on the shelf for at least a month with an injury. So the T-Birds remedied that by sending a 5th round draft pick to Kootenay in exchange for Bryan Allbee. While Khaira had just started to come into his own, Allbee is a year older and will play a similar role. He'll be on the third pairing and can also slot into the second power play unit. He can carry the puck up ice and doesn't appear shy about taking shots.

Add in the Andreas Schumacher deal that went down right after Christmas and the Josh Uhrich trade in early December and I believe Seattle has improved their depth while adding experience as they got a little older in the process. The T-Birds played two games this weekend, winning them both, with a fourth line that featured two 19-year olds. Before the deals Seattle's fourth line was usually a couple of rookies and a second year player.

One unfortunate note for the T-Birds is the loss of Owen Seidel for the second half of the season, with an upper body injury. Seidel was really starting to impact games as he got more consistent ice time. To fill his roster spot Seattle made one final move Sunday, acquiring 18-year old LW Garan Magnes from Edmonton for a seventh round draft pick. This move gets Seattle back to 14 forwards and gives them depth going forward.

Seattle accomplished all these moves, plus the return of their top three centers from World Juniors, without surrendering top end assets. The biggest asset they give up that could impact the future is a conditional second round draft pick to Swift Current in the Bow deal. Other than that Seattle still has all their signed prospects and their first round draft choices.

Overall, there weren't many blockbuster deals in the WHL this season. The one team that made the most noise was Red Deer, but as host team they are the only WHL club guaranteed a spot at the Memorial Cup in May, so that makes sense but they did pay some hefty prices to ensure they would have a competitive at the Cup. Meanwhile a look a the WHL standings will show that every team in the Western Conference is still within striking distance of a playoff spot and out East is almost as tight with 10 of 12 teams having a legitimate shot at the postseason. I think a lot of general managers were reluctant to trade away their best players with the playoffs still within reach.

On the ice this past weekend, with Seattle back at full strength after playing most of the past month shorthanded, the T-Birds took two from two division rivals. They beat Portland Friday then won a hard fought battle against Everett Sunday thanks to Matt Barzal's overtime beauty. As close to a complete effort both nights, with everyone contributing, as you can get. I would expect, as the returning players and the players added via trade, get back into the swing of things 100 percent, the play will only improve.

My T-Birds three stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: Center Scott Eansor. Back to playing a 200 foot game, check. Back to killing penalties, check. Back to winning faceoffs, check. Back with a big grin after winning a bronze medal with Team USA at World Juniors, check. His line was the big offensive producers versus the Winterhawks.

2nd Star: Center Matt Barzal. Like Eansor, Barzal had a strong World Juniors for Team Canada. He also hadn't done much skating since Canada's loss to Finland in the quarterfinals. As a result probably not 100 percent in the win Friday over Portland, but he was at his best Saturday against the Silvertips. Gonna put the paycheck on the line and say his OT winner is going to be in the Top 10 plays of the week. His first goal was just as pretty. Nice to see him looking to shoot more.

1st Star: Goalie Landon Bow. When you're THE big trade deadline acquisition, that has to put pressure on you. When you get traded and thrown right into the fire against your new team's top two rivals, that amps the pressure up even more. When your perform at the top of your game both nights, that's priceless. 56 shots faced, 53 saves made and two win

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