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.