Monday, December 18, 2017

A Tale of Two Weekends

Seattle's final four games going into the Christmas break were like night and day.  First there was night. Two games, two losses and 15 goals allowed.  Next came day.  Two games, two wins and 15 goals scored.  Despite the ugliness of the first two games Seattle still earned five of a possible eight points and goes into the holiday break on a two game winning streak and both above .500 and sitting in a playoff spot.

Last weekend against division opponents Tri-City and Spokane we saw a Seattle team we really hadn't seen much the first half of the season.  The compete level was off.  There were too many breakdowns.  Missing two veteran defenseman in those two games certainly had its affect as both Austin Strand and Aaron Hyman were unavailable.  The T-Birds were full marks for their roaring, three-goal comeback late in the third period against the Americans that got the game into overtime before they lost.  But that may only have masked the team's shortcomings on the weekend.  The next night in Spokane, after a solid first period, they fell back into the bad habits of the previous night and were drubbed 9-2.

Two games left before the eight day break.  Which Seattle team would show up?  Fortunately it was the team we witnessed through much of the first half.  The team that, win or lose, played hard for 60 minutes.  Seattle put up a solid first period against Prince George at home on Friday, and though they were back on their heels a bit in the second, finished with a dominate third period in a 5-3 win.  That win came with Strand back in the lineup but without Sami Moilanen who was the team's leading goal scorer entering the weekend.   It also came with Tyler Carpendale sidelined after suffering an injury in practice that week.

Then came the rematch in Spokane against the Chiefs, a Chiefs team riding a two-game winning streak with those wins coming against the top two teams in the Western Conference. I think scoring a goal just 20 seconds in helped get Seattle over any worries about the drubbing they took the week before.  Even after Spokane tied the game shortly after that first goal, Seattle played add-on and eventually exacted their revenge with a convincing 10-3 win.  A total team win in the last game before scattering home to celebrate the holiday with family as 15 of the 18 skaters registered a point.

What a nice early Christmas present for many of the rookies on the roster who earned the first point of their WHL careers, and in the case of Nikita Malukhin, his first two goals.  Holden Katzalay, Sam Huo and newly signed Mike MacLean all earned their first assist.

The happiest T-Bird after that win Sunday over the Chiefs was probably former Chief Matt Berlin.  The Seattle goalie earned the win against the team with which he started his WHL career.  The most exhausted T-Bird was probably Nolan Volcan who puts in a tireless effort every night.  Any energy he had stored up is completely spent by the time the weekend was over. He left it all on the ice both nights.

My T-Birds three stars for the first half:

Third Star:  LW Zack Andrusiak.  We knew he had a scoring touch but with a deep offensive team a year ago, we didn't get to see it on a consistent basis during the Thunderbirds championship run.  But really, who had him on the cusp of 20 goals and leading the team in that category after 33 games?  He's nearly a point a game player with 30 points (17g, 12a).  He's already nearly tripled his point total from last season.

Second Star:  D Austin Strand.  The 20-year old has done his best to pick up the offensive punch lost with the departure of Ethan Bear.  He's done his best to emulate his former teammate while on the power play where he has registered 10 of his 12 goals.  Like Andrusiak he is nearly a point a game player (12, 20a) with 32 points, making him one of the top scoring defenseman in the WHL.  His work has paid off.  He signed an entry level NHL deal with the L.A. Kings early this season.

First Star:  LW Nolan Volcan. He leads the team with 36 points in 33 games and punctuated his first half with a five point night (1g, 4a, +4) Sunday in Spokane.  He plays in all situations, he plays physical and he plays to win. The best word to describe him is "relentless".  He served as captain when Turner Ottenbreit was out of the lineup a few games early in the season which is no surprise.  He leads by word and deed and is a great example for the younger players of what hard work can do for your game.  Five minutes after a game he looks totally exhausted.  Ten minutes later he looks like he's ready to go another sixty minutes.  You can't play the way he plays if you don't love the game.  His passion for hockey bleeds through.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

No Game of Horseshoes

Being close only counts if your goal is the silver medal.  Maybe you like a close shave.  And as the old saying goes, closeness only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.  This past nine days Seattle has been close, right there 'til the end in five of six games.   In the six games the goal totals are thus:  Opposition 17, T-birds 16.  All they have to show for it though, are three out of  12 points and a 1-4-1-0 record.  The biggest culprit?  Opponents scored nearly half those 17 goals (8) in the third period or later.

Close wasn't good enough.  A win equals two points in the standings, a moral victory equals zero.  Seattle let too many points slip away in the last seconds of games.  They were gut wrenching, soul crushing losses and points lost that you can't get back.  The worst thing you can hear after a defeat is "you outplayed them and deserved a better fate".  That's akin to kicking someone when they are already down, adding insult to injury. It means there were too many self-inflicted wounds.

Fortunately there is still a lot of season to play and this team is young and resilient.  Despite the cringe worthy late losses, they are still playing .500 hockey.  Those last second losses haven't deterred them from getting right back on the horse the next game and battling, full throttle, looking for a better result.

For the first eight games of the season the Thunderbirds averaged about 25 shots per game.  In the 16 games since, they've averaged 31 shots per game.  In the first eight games Seattle averaged 3.1 goals per game.  In the next 20 games, with their shot total increasing by six shots a games, their scoring has slightly decreased to 3.06 goals per game.  As Sami Moilanen might say, it all comes down to the finish.  Seattle has to just keep grinding and doing a better job of scoring off rebounds and on loose pucks around the opponents net.

Saturday night at home was Seattle's sixth game in nine nights and the first five had been on the road.  It was also their fourth games in five days.  It showed.  They were sluggish most of that game and seemed sapped by the third period and for one of the few times this season their compete level wasn't up to their standards late in a game.  To see the compete level drop off for this team this season is so rare it was clearly noticeable the final 20 minutes of that loss to Kamloops.

It came less then 24 hours after one of their better sixty minute efforts Friday in Kennewick in a 5-1 win over Tri-City.  That was vintage Thunderbirds with their very aggressive and physical game dictating play.  It's how they play most every night, even if they don't always get a result like they did against the Americans.

And stinging, late second losses aside, that is what makes this team fun to watch.  They compete.  They play to the whistle, they stick to their systems and that puts them in a position to win most nights, even if they don't.  They do it with a lot of young players slowly taking on bigger roles on the team.

My T-birds Three Stars for the six game stretch:

Third Star:  G Matt Berlin.  Berlin was in net for the only two games Seattle earned points in, the win in Kennewick and the overtime loss in Vancouver.  Playing in four of the past six games he registered a 2.73 GAA with an .895 SVPCT.

Second Star:  W Tyler Carpendale/W Dillon Hamaliuk.  This rookie duo combined to score four goals the past three games.  Not only did Carpendale record his first WHL goal Wednesday night up in Kamloops, but he scored again the next game in Kennewick.  He also chipped in with an assist.  He also has the best middle name in hockey; Fletch.  Hamaliuk meanwhile, seems to create 2-3 good scoring chances for himself each night but has been a bit unlucky so it was nice to see him pot two on the power play.  They are both big bodied, physical players but boy, can they both skate.  Move over Starsky and Hutch, here come Hammer and Fletch!

First Star:  W Zack Andrusiak.  Five goals in 60 games last season, Andrusiak already has 14 in just 28 games this go 'round.  He is now second to Moilanen (15) on the team in goals scored.  The coaches knew he had a scoring touch.  What is impressing them most about his play so far this season is his improved 200 foot game.  No where is that more evident then in the past six games as he registered four goals and was +4.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Volcan-ic Tipping Point

Seattle got back into the win column Saturday night with their first shutout win of the season, a 2-0 blanking of Everett at the accesso ShoWare Center.  The win earned them a split of the weekend home-and-home series with their division rivals after falling Friday, 3-2, up at Xfinity Arena.  The home win snapped a five game winless skein for the T-birds who suffered some frustrating losses in a series of very winnable games.

Even with the win, Seattle continues to miss out on scoring chances despite their ability to create opportunities for more goals.  It hasn't helped that one of their top offensive weapons, Sami Moilanen, has missed most of the last four games with injury.  But even without Moilanen in the lineup, the T-birds continue to create scoring chances, even with a younger group of forwards picking up Moilanen's ice time.  Still, the T-birds scored just four times on the weekend and all four goals came off the stick of veteran left winger Nolan Volcan.

The scoring foibles of this team remind me of another young Thunderbirds team from five years ago.  The 2013-14 T-birds featured a set of five fresh faced rookies by the names of Barzal, Gropp, Bear, Kolesar and Eansor who combined to play 288 games that season.  They had some veterans leaders as well, but it took making midseason trades for more veteran forwards to bump up that team's goals per game average to 3.3.  

This year's team currently sports a 3.04 goal per game average and to get it up to 3.3 or higher, I would suspect the improvement will come from in house, not via trades. The group of rookies this season is much larger then the 2013-14 rookie group.  Already this season Seattle's primary group of eight rookies (Hamaliuk, Lee, Terretta, McNelly, Carpendale, Huo, Katzalay and Malukhin) has played a combined 102 games.  that doesn't include Ian Briscoe's 13 games because Briscoe, who  played in 20 games last season, doesn't technically qualify as a rookie this season.

This year's rookies are being asked to carry more of the freight then that 2013-14 rookie class.  While this year's team does feature solid veteran forwards like Volcan, Moilanen, Donovan Neuls, Blake Bargar and Noah Philp, that 2013-14 team had Alexander Delnov, Branden Troock, Roberts Lipsbergs, Justin Hickman, Mitch Elliot and eventually Jamien Yakubowski, Sam McKechnie and Russell Maxwell (not to mention an 18 year old Shea Theodore on the back end) to carry most of the load.

I could be wrong, but my impression is that the Thunderbirds are willing to go through the expected growing pains this season with this young group and I doubt they are looking to add more veteran players.  They seem fine with putting these rookies out in key situations such as the power play or penalty kill, or out on the ice late in close games.  The expectation is that it will expedite their development.  We're almost one third of the way through this season and this team, with this young roster, is playing at a .524 winning clip and you can certainly argue they've been in most games 'til the end and could have won a few more then the 10 they have so far.

There is no question that the early ice time for players like Hamaliuk, Carpendale, Lee and Huo is paying off.  They are all better players now then they were in late September when the season began.  Much of that is confidence.  They're more sure of themselves and their roles on the team.  It's also confidence from the coaching staff that is willing to play them in all situations.  But there is still much to learn.  I would guess some of these young players started to doubt themselves a little during the losing streak. Hopefully, they learned valuable lessons about the need to keep grinding to work your way out of a slump.

The expectations that were on the T-birds team the past couple of seasons of playing for and winning championships, are not on this year's team.  That doesn't mean expectations on these young players aren't high.  Their job is to embrace the culture of winning created by the team the past four years.  That means playing the right way, playing a 200 foot game and taking no shortcuts.  It means earning your ice time by putting in the work off the ice and in practice that prepare you for a 72 game season.

The one aspect of Matt O'Dette's coaching that is a direct carry over from the Steve Konowalchuk era is this:  veteran or rookie, you're not guaranteed anything.  Age, draft status or what you did in Midget or Bantam hockey or your stats from last season don't automatically put you in the lineup.  It's all about competition and earning your ice.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past weekend:

Third Star:  C Matthew Wedman.  Weds is starting to remind me a little of Alexander True and not just because of their similar builds.  True did a lot of things well but it took him a while to find a consistent scoring touch.  There were so many times when True was in the right place at the right time but just couldn't bury a loose puck around the opposing goal.  Wedman is still looking for that scoring touch too.  But he plays a big man's game, has improved his skating a good deal over last season and makes a living around the other team's net.  Scouts still have to be intrigued by his size.  If he can starts scoring consistently he'll have more eyes on him.  

Second Star:  G Matt Berlin.  Seattle could have lost that game Saturday to Everett in the first period were it not for Berlin.  While the rest of the club got off to a slow start, Berlin stood tall and stopped 12 shots, kept the game scoreless and finished with a 27 save shutout, the second of his T-birds career.  When your goalie is playing well, you want to reward the effort.  Saturday Seattle did and Berlin was a big reason the T-birds snapped the losing streak.

First Star:  LW Nolan Volcan.  Volcan erupted for four goals this weekend. That was every goal Seattle scored in 120 minutes of hockey.   In fact by himself, he outscored the entire Everett team in the two games, 4-3.  He is now a point a game player with 22 points (10g, 12a) in 21 games.  He is so much more then his offensive numbers though.  He's the Tasmanian Devil, a non-stop whirling bundle of energy.  The T-birds currently sit third in the league on the penalty kill and his willingness to block shots with any body part is a big key.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Lost Weekend

Seattle came off seven straight games on the road, winning five of them, and promptly lost the first two games of a three game home stand.  While they found two different ways to lose those games, there was one common thread between them; missed opportunities.

Going into the last two games, the T-birds were actually averaging 3.3 goals per game.  Considering the amount of fire power they lost from last season's team, that had to be a better then expected goal production number this early in the season.  Unfortunately they could only muster two goals on the weekend in suffering a pair of losses.

It certainly wasn't for lack of chances.  In the two games on the weekend, the T-birds generated a combined 69 shots on goal, or an average of 35 shots per game.  This is in keeping with a trend that started 10 games ago when Seattle's average shots per game jumped up from 25 per game over the first ten games of the season to an average of 33 since.

And we're not talking about a lot of shots and no scoring opportunities.  It wasn't just a case of Seattle throwing pucks on goal from anywhere on the ice.  A good percentage of these shots were high percentage chances.  Just in their Friday night 4-0 loss to Tri-City, the T-birds coaches graded out 24 of their 43 shots as "Grade A" scoring opportunities. That means over 50 percent of their shots put them in a position to score.  While the shots were fewer in Saturday's 4-2 loss to Kamloops, the ten bell scoring chances were still there, even after they lost leading goal scorer Sami Moilanen to injury early in that game.

Sometimes a shot that's not a shot on goal is also a scoring chance missed.  There were numerous  times over the weekend where Seattle missed the net with a shot or, even more frustrating, hit the post or cross bar. But the biggest culprit was failing to get sticks on loose pucks in and around the crease, the shot never taken.  Credit the opposition for winning those battles and clearing the danger.  In some instances it's a case of bad puck luck for Seattle.  They're in position for a rebound but the bounce goes the other way.  But at some point the T-birds have to start winning there fair share of those second chance opportunities.

When you are in the midst of a mini-scoring drought, it might be that one ugly goal, that crazy carom or redirection that gets the offense humming again.  You create that with hard work and that is something this team does have going for it.  Hard work is what gets you 24 scoring chances in a game against one of the top teams in the league.  So far in 18 games, there has not been an instance of this young team taking a night off.

There were a lot of reasons given, I thought of them more as excuses, as to why Seattle had a goal waved off Saturday versus Kamloops.  I watched the play unfold right in front of me and never saw the Blazer goalie try to cover the puck outside the crease.  He just muffed it as he tried to scoop it and play it to his defenseman.  He flubbed the scoop and ended up flicking it into his crease and then it was knocked in to his goal  When a goalie makes an error like that, he shouldn't get bailed out by the officials.  That "quick whistle" (never heard a whistle) cost Seattle not just a goal, but a point in the standings.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star:  W Ian Briscoe.  Healthy and playing with more confidence, he is earning the trust of the coaching staff.  As a result he's even getting special teams ice time.  He filled in for Moilanen on the power play Saturday and earned an assist, his first point of the season.   A gifted offensive players at lower levels of hockey, he's learning to play at both ends of the ice with effectiveness.

Second Star:  W Dillon Hamaliuk.  It's hard to believe he came out of the weekend with nary a point.  No one creates more offensive chances for himself and his linemates the way Hammer does.  He is a bit snake bitten right now but you get the feeling once he scores his next goal, the flood gates will open.  While the focus is on the present, one can't help but salivate at the potential he has for the future.

First Star:  W Blake Bargar.  I know we're only 18 games into the season and there is lots of hockey still to play but the 19 year old Torrance, California native has already exceeded expectations after Seattle obtained him in the offseason from Victoria.  A year ago he compiled ten points in 61 games with the Royals.  This season he already has six points in 18 games, including four goals, just two off his total from last season.  It's his well rounded game that makes him a team leader.  He plays in all situations and is becoming one of the team's top penalty killers.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Ready for Home

Seattle just completed one of their most successful extended eastern road trips in years with a 2-0-1-0 record the second half of their trek through the Central Division.  As a result, the T-Birds end a stretch of seven straight on the road by going 5-1-1-0.  Hindsight being what it is, if you look back on some of the results that didn't go the team's way, you realize how close they came to going 7-0.

In their only regulation loss against a Central Division team this season, a subpar second period put Seattle behind, but they battled back well enough in the third period to get within a goal against the Kootenay Ice before an empty net goal sealed their fate in a 4-2 loss.  In their overtime loss to end the trip in Medicine Hat, the T-Birds hit at least two posts/crossbars and a questionable non-penalty call directly led to the Tigers third goal.  Put those two issues together and that had Seattle chasing the game.  Instead of lamenting the situation, Seattle came on strong with a pair of late goals to tie it up, earning a point, before falling early in the OT.

Before their October 21st home game versus Moose Jaw, head coach Matt O'Dette broke up his top line of Volcan-Neuls-Moilanen in order to spread more offensive production up and down the line up.  At the time, Seattle was averaging just about 25 shots per game.  Since then, the T-Birds have had over 30 shots a night in seven of eight games, including a high of 39 twice.  One could argue fatigue, travel and playing their fifth game in seven nights is the only reason they didn't hit that 30 shot mark in Edmonton.  Even so, Seattle still averaged 32.4 shots over that eight game stretch, an improvement of seven shots a game. That may not sound like much but they went 5-2-1-0 over that span and actually outshot their opponent in the three games they didn't get the win.

Only once in their last seven games have the Thunderbirds had their top six defenseman on the ice and available for all 60 minutes.  In a couple of instances the T-Birds played with just their top three defensemen available.  Often they had three rookie defensemen in the lineup.  In Edmonton they utilized 15-year old prospect Ty Bauer, limited his shifts and still won the game.  The strength of this team entering the season was going to be the return of five of their top six d-men from last season's championship team. Yet Seattle just went through a critical stretch of the season with many of those top defensemen unavailable and came out with a winning record.

That is a testament to the coaching staff's ability to coach up the young defenseman as well as make it clear to the forwards they have a responsibility in the defensive zone.  Often on the road trip an opponent's scoring chance was thwarted by a backchecking center or winger.  There were also time's when the other team scored because of a missed assignment by a forward in the defensive zone.  It's all part of learning to play the 200 foot game.

The trade of Luke Ormsby to Everett and the departure of Elijah Brown, who left the team because he was unhappy with his ice time, has opened the door for other young forwards to get more ice time.  Three of them have really stepped up and taken advantage of the situation. The more ice Sam Huo, Tyler Carpendale and Ian Briscoe get, the better they play. Briscoe in particular is benefitting as he is now seeing time on the power play as well.  While he didn't officially earn an assist on the play, Briscoe's forecheck late in the game versus the Oil Kings, created a turnover that led directly to Zack Andrusiak's game-winning goal.

Do vets really help rookies develop?  Maybe it works both ways.  The Seattle coaches put veteran Donovan Neuls on a line with two rookies the second half of the road trip.  The last few games Neuls has been centering a line featuring 17-year old rookie Dillon Hamaliuk and the 16-year old Huo.  Neuls, who hadn't been scoring early in the year, put up a three-game goal scoring streak.

I think the popular sentiment is that Seattle is biding it's time in goal until Carl Stankowski returns.  But with  no definitive return date for Stankowski, the T-Birds current goaltending tandem of Matt Berlin and Liam Hughes are giving the team the opportunity to win every game.  Hughes has really settled in since Seattle acquired him at the start of the season from Edmonton.  he ended up starting four of the six games against the Central Division and went 3-0-1-0.

Thanks again to all the former players and parents who jumped onto our broadcasts during the road trip. All brought their own unique spin to our coverage of the games.  It's always great to meet up with former players such as Steve Chaffin and Travis Toomey, and see how they've matured into adulthood.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the second half of the road trip:

Third Star:  Goaltender Liam Hughes.  He went 1-0-1-0 in his last two starts, 3-0-1-0 on the trip and has now improved his overall record on the season to 4-2-1-0.  The road trip was a great chance for the coaches to get him lots of time between the pipes and get a better feel for his game going into the meat of the schedule.

Second Star:  LW Nolan Volcan.  In the last three games on the trip Volcan picked up four points (2g, 2a) and was +4.  He plays a complete game and is very aggressive on the forecheck which helps create turnovers. His motor starts in fifth gear and never stops.  After a bit of a slow start in the scoring department  he is now close to averaging a point a game with 15 points in 16 games.

First Star:  D Austin Strand.  After finishing the first half of the road trip with a late, game-winning goal in his hometown of Calgary, he started the second half of the trip by scoring a goal and adding an assist in a win against his former team in Red Deer. He added a big power-play goal in the 3-1 win in Edmonton and had an assist on the game tying goal in Medicine Hat.  He picked up four points (2g, 2a) and was +2 the final half of the trip and now is second in the league with eight power-play goals.  He's also second in the WHL among defenseman in scoring with 22 points (9g, 13a) which also tops his own team's leaderboard.  Don't be surprised if NHL scouts are taking notice.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Three Up, Three Down the Road

Halfway through their six-game road trip through the WHL's Central Division, the Thunderbirds sport a 2-1 record following back-to-back wins in Calgary and Lethbridge.  The two wins were a terrific response after Seattle dropped the first game of the nine-day journey last Friday in Cranbrook, 4-2, to the Kootenay Ice.

In reality, the T-Birds have played their last four game on the road.  Before heading east they made a stop in Everett and beat their division rivals, so Seattle has won three of four in what will eventually be seven straight on the road. 

Conventional wisdom would argue that a young, rebuilding team should struggle on the road where, as the visitor, they don't get last change and the chance to line match. But so far Seattle has bucked convention and are 4-2-0-1 through their first seven road games.  While it is still early, 13 games into a 72 game season, the T-Birds have yet to fall below .500 and it is that road record that is keeping them above break even. 

The team just finished their first 3-game-in-3-nights weekend of the season and you could argue they were better at the end then they were at the beginning.  Their 7-4 win Sunday in Lethbridge over the Hurricanes was their best 60 minutes of hockey so far on the trip.  In each of the first two games Seattle had one subpar period.  In the loss to Kootenay it was the second period when they surrendered three goals, fell behind and never caught up. 

Saturday at the Saddledome in Calgary it was the third period that almost proved the team's undoing.  They allowed three goals to the Hitmen, which erased Seattle's 3-0 lead, a lead they had built by dominating 5-on-5 play through the first two periods.  Thanks to Austin Strand's last minute marker, the T-Birds pulled out a 4-3 victory. Sunday in Lethbridge, while the team was certainly not perfect, they were more consistent from period to period. 

When you lose you want to improve on the mistakes you made in that loss and apply the lessons learned to the next game.  Friday in their loss to the Ice, Seattle had issues with puck management with too many turnovers.  For the most part, they cleaned up that issue in the next two games against the Hitmen and Hurricanes.  From my rather untrained eye, it certainly seemed Seattle controlled the puck for large segments of those last two games and had very few turnovers.

Seattle is currently the healthiest they've been this season.  Initially it didn't appear it was going to be that way for this road trip after both Jarret Tyszka and Aaron Hyman were hurt in the Everett game.  Both missed the Kootenay game but were back in the lineup by the time the team reached Calgary.  Meanwhile, Tyler Carpendale, who suffered a training camp injury, made his season debut Saturday night.  At the moment, only Carl Stankowski remains on the shelf. 

Carpendale certainly showed no rust in the games he played this past weekend.  He's a big bodied, power forward type who can muck it up and seems to excel in those puck battles along the boards. He also seems very willing to go to the front of the net. 

Another young player who showed some positive signs this weekend was Samuel Huo.  He just missed scoring his first WHL goal Sunday.  He had a couple of real good chances in front of the 'Canes net.  He seems to read the ice well, and not just in the offensive zone but in the defensive end as well.  For a young player, he made a couple of nice back checks in both Saturday's and Sunday's game.

It might be the emergence of players like Huo and Carpendale, along with Dillon Hamaliuk, and the need to develop younger guys like Holden Katzalay and Nikita Malukhin, that cost Luke Ormsby ice time and, eventually, a roster spot.  In this league that often happens when a younger player passes you on the depth chart.  Make no mistake though, Ormsby was a consummate team player and didn't complain.  He was the local kid thrilled to be a part of the local team he had watched growing up. He will always be a part of that first championship team in club history.  His name is forever etched on the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  He just saw the writing on the wall this season. I know he'll work hard to earn his ice with the Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL. 

Let's hope this is a trend.  In each game this weekend the T-Birds basically doubled their goal out put from the previous game, going from two to four to seven goals.  Overall, they tallied 13 goals in the three games, which is an average of just over four goals per contest.  More encouraging is that Seattle continues to create a ton of scoring chances each night.  Because of the youth of their forward group there will still be nights when they struggle to finish but at least they've been consistently creating opportunities to score every game.  It is frustrating to watch sometimes as they leave a rebound sitting in the crease rather then burying it in the back of the net but often we're talking about a 16 or 17-year old battling a 19 or 20-year old on the other team for that loose puck.

Red Deer, Edmonton and Medicine Hat remain on the trip. One more win guarantees a .500 swing through Alberta.  Two more and the team would equal their win total from last season's trip through the Eastern Division. Considering the roster change over from last season, to get to at least .500 on the trip would make it a success. 

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star:  C Donovan Neuls.  Seattle needs Neuls to score to be successful and he potted goals in the last two games of the weekend, hopefully a good sign moving forward.  Despite the lack of offense he always plays hard at both ends of the ice and continues to be solid in the face off circle and the team's best penalty killer.

Second Star:  D Austin Strand.  Strand had the big last minute goal Saturday night in his hometown of Calgary, helping Seattle snatch victory back from the jaws of defeat after blowing a three-goal third period lead.  He also sored in the loss to Kootenay and added three assists on the weekend.  He's averaging well over a point a game on 7g, 11a through 13 games.

First Star:  LW Zack Andrusiak.  It's been a great start to the road trip for the Yorkton, Sask. native highlighted by his hat trick Sunday versus Lethbridge.  He added an assist for a four-point night.  In the three games on the weekend he finished with six points (4g, 2a).  He's already tied both his goal total and total points from last season.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Heading Down the Highway

After a 1-1weekend, the Thunderbirds are ready to embark on their longest road trip of the season, their bi-annual trip through the Central Division of the Eastern Conference, a trek that will have them play six games in just nine days.

The journey actually begins Wednesday with a bus ride up to Cranbrook, B.C.  That's where they'll begin the action with a Friday night game against the Kootenay Ice.  The battle against the Ice marks the start of a 3-games-in-3 nights weekend.  The T-birds will be in Calgary to face the Hitmen on Saturday before a Sunday stop in Lethbridge versus the Hurricanes.

Seattle gets a slight respite before resuming the trip next Wednesday in Red Deer against the Rebels, followed by a Thursday game in Edmonton as they take on the Oil Kings.  The trip ends in Medicine Hat on Saturday, November 4th versus the Tigers.  The T-birds finally make their way back home in time for a November 10th game at the accesso ShoWare Center for their third meeting of the season against divisional rival Tri-City.

By the time the Central Division road trip ends, the T-birds will have played seven straight games on the road.  It started this past Sunday up in Everett with a well earned 4-3 win in the first of ten meetings this season with the Silvertips.  The win completed a two game weekend that began Saturday with a frustrating 3-1 home ice loss to Moose Jaw.

Seattle played extremely well both nights.  In fact, I actually thought the effort in the home loss to the Warriors was slightly better then the road win over the 'Tips.  The team was more consistent over the course of the sixty minutes in the loss, then they were in the win.  They certainly created more ten bell scoring chances against Moose Jaw then they did against Everett.

A late neutral zone error, and their inability to cash in on those  numerous scoring chances, is what did in the T-birds in the loss to Moose Jaw.  They played well enough to earn at least a point in that game, and in fact were 75-seconds away from overtime, when a costly, late miscue turned into a game winning goal for the Warriors.   Add to that, the T-birds hit a post just seconds earlier.  If that Zack Andrusiak shot is an inch lower, Seattle is up 2-1.  Alas, the hockey gods did not smile upon the T-birds at that moment.

The Moose Jaw game was eerily similar to the game Seattle played against Victoria a week earlier.  Just like versus Moose Jaw, Seattle created plenty of scoring opportunities against the Royals but failed to capitalize and it resulted in a 6-1 loss.  These are the so called teachable moments for so many of the young players who occupy so many spots on the roster this season. When you think you are doing enough, the situation may actually call for just that extra bit of effort.  So often it can be the difference between winning and losing.

Seattle's penalty killing has been exceptional in the early going this season, but even the best penalty killing teams will have an off-night.  That happened to the T-birds Sunday up at Xfinity Arena as the Silvertips cashed in on three of six power play chances.  But because Seattle was the better team 5-on-5 they were able to keep the 'Tips from generating much at even strength.  Meanwhile the T-birds struck for three even strength goals and added one power play marker of their own.

In the second period Sunday Seattle got into some penalty trouble.  They were also upset with the officiating.  Their emotions started to get in the way of their game.  They got to the end of the second period tied at 2-2 and then used the intermission to collect themselves and get their emotions in check.  As a result the T-birds were able focus on their game and came out and dominated the first half of the third period and built a two-goal lead.  It was enough of a cushion to carry them through the back end of that game.

With injuries and penalties Seattle played a good chunk of the final 20+ minutes in Everett with just three available defensemen, prompting them to move their jack-of-all trades forward Donovan Neuls back to the blue line for a few shifts. He held his own and Seattle held off Everett down the stretch.

Despite the 1-1 record on the weekend, Seattle's two goaltenders combined to stop 62 of 67 shots.  Both Liam Hughes Saturday and Matt Berlin Sunday, did what you ask your goalie to do, give your team a chance to win.  This weekend the opposition scored just two even strength goals, three were scored with Seattle shorthanded and the other was into an empty net.  I like their chances when that happens.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star.  The goaltenders, both Liam Hughes and Matt Berlin.  As stated above they put their team in a position to win.  Hard to fault your goalie when he only allows two goals against as Hughes did in that loss to Moose Jaw.  Against some pretty potent offensive players Hughes showed a really good ability to track the puck.  Berlin did a good job Sunday of getting onto pucks and letting his centers win defensive zone faceoffs. He seemed to eat up every puck that got remotely near him.  I don't recall too many second chance opportunities for Everett in that game.

Second Star.  W Sami Moilanen.  One goal, two assists and a +2 rating on the weekend for the feisty Finn who also delivered some massive checks, particularly Saturday against Moose Jaw.  Moilanen continues to prove that size doesn't matter, heart does.  In the fist ten games of this season (nine goals) he is almost half way to his goal total of 21 goals in 70 games last season.  So far in his 80 game T-birs career, the 18 year old has already amassed 57 points.

First Star:  W Dillon Hamaliuk.  The 17 year old rookie had quite the weekend, registering the first 2-goal game of his WHL career Sunday in Everett.  He added an assist on Saturday as well and finished with a +3 rating in the two games.  Listed at 6'3", 182 lbs. and growing, when he gets moving, he's like a locomotive roaring down the tracks.  The offense was great, and hopefully a sign of things to come, but watch him play both ends because he's very cognizant of needing a 200-foot game. He does a good job of getting back up ice into the defensive zone.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What the Blazes? A Giant Win

In an early season schedule with very few games, Seattle got a taste of what's to come when they played three games in four nights this past week.  Despite a stumble at home in the first game, the T-birds came out of the week with a pair of wins and four points.

The ten spot allowed to Portland in the loss last Saturday is concerning but not as much as you'd think since the Winterhawks have been scoring at will against most of their opponents. It's not just a Seattle thing.  Seattle did not play well though, especially after an early Zack Andrusiak goal put then on top.
Portland's game is up tempo, push the pace, run and gun hockey.  For it to work they have to have puck possession.  To minimize it, you have to eliminate turnovers.  Way too many Seattle turnovers in that game.  The T-birds still scored five goals and that should be enough to win most nights.  This was not one of those nights.  In their two games against Portland, Seattle has allowed 17 goals against.  In their other five games, they've only allowed 11.

The T-birds didn't get the best goaltending in that loss either. But both Matt Berlin and Liam Hughes bounced back with solid efforts in Seattle's two wins.  Berlin made 32 saves Sunday in Kamloops, in a 4-3 win over the Blazers, and Hughes earned his first win as a Thunderbird on Tuesday with a 33 save effort (plus two more in the shootout), in a 3-2 win over Vancouver at the accesso ShoWare Center.

Seattle is getting solid early season play from their special teams.  The power play is clicking at just under 31 percent on 8-for-26 success.  The T-birds have been shorthanded 30 times in the first seven games but have only surrendered seven goals and two of those were scored while the opposition was skating 5-on-3.  

The T-birds got down to the 20 year old roster limit by placing Tyler Adams on long term injured reserve.  Adams needed hip surgery and has gone back home to Regina where he'll face a long recovery. By not releasing him Seattle could bring him back at some point later this season, although I'm not sure whether this type of surgery will allow Adams to play again at this level. 

Seattle GM Russ Farwell has made many under-the-radar trades over the last five or six seasons.  Taran Kozun comes to mind, but the Kozun deal still cost Seattle two players and two fourth round draft picks.  Meanwhile, Adams only cost Seattle a prospect, Mckenzie White.  Adams addition seemed to settle down the Thunderbirds when he came over last December. He became a multi-purpose tool as the T-birds were able to use him up and down their top four lines.  The ability to plug him in anywhere in the lineup when other players were out was a key to Seattle's run to the championship.

You don't want to toot a rookie's horn too loudly so early in the season.  You wouldn't want them to start reading their press clippings and begin thinking they've got it all figured out.  I don't think Dillon Hamaliuk is the type of player who would let praise go to his head.  At least for now it appears he's found a spot on the T-birds second line with Noah Philp and Matthew Wedman.  First and foremost, he works hard at both ends of the ice.  He's strong on the boards and in the past couple of games has shown a knack for being around the front of the net when pucks are there.  His game still has a lot of developing left but he's on the right track.  Along with another rookie, defenseman Jake Lee, Hammer leads the team with a +3 rating.

The good news for Hamaliuk is that, while this is his 17 year old season, he is a late birthday and thus not eligible for the NHL draft until the spring of 2019.  This means he still has two seasons to impress the scouts, instead of one.

My T-bird Three Stars for the week:

Third Star:  Defenseman Jarrett Tyszka.  The Montreal Canadiens prospect
 had four assists in three games and is currently riding a five game point streak.  He has taken on a bigger role this season on the Seattle power play and that is one reason it is currently top five in the WHL.

2nd Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  Four goals in the three games and now has eight on the season to lead the team.  In fact, as of Thursday his eight goals tied him with three other players for second most in the WHL.  The native of Finland looks very comfortable out there at the start of his second season in North America.

First Star:  C/W Noah Philp.  Snake bitten in the first few games of the season with his new team, he's come on lately and picked up five points (2g, 3a).  Listed as a center by trade, he is playing wing on the second line with Wedman the pivot.  He, Weds and Hamaliuk have created some very good, early season chemistry. Facing defeat, his shootout goal against Vancouver Tuesday pushed the T-birds fortunes around.  Had he missed, Seattle would have lost.  By scoring, he gave Andrusiak, and Hughes, a chance to win it.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

One and One Equals Two

In their first multiple game weekend of the season the Thunderbirds earned a split, winning at home Friday and falling on the road Saturday, thus earning two points and leaving the month of September with a 2-1-0-0 record.

There were equal parts good and not so good elements in both games.  Friday, in their 5-1 win over Prince George at the accesso ShoWare Center, the T-birds had a solid start and 25 minute into the game had built a four goal lead.  As so often happens in a game you dominate on the scoreboard early, players start getting away from the structure of their game plan and start looking for individual reward. This got Seattle into trouble with turnovers and penalties.  It almost allowed the Cougars back into the game.  Seattle survived and earned a 5-1 win.  Hopefully a lesson learned by the young team going forward.  A similar scenario against a stronger team might result in a different outcome.

Saturday down in Portland the Thunderbirds compete level kept them in the game well into the third period before a few negative elements of their game caught up with them.  A postive?  Surprisingly, while deploying an entirely new top unit from a year ago, the T-birds power play has been solid in the early going and provided them with both goals against the Winterhawks. 

One negative?  Puck management, especially on breakouts.  Seattle just turned the puck over too often in all three zones on the ice.  Part of that was due to Portland's aggressive nature.  They employ a very good forecheck and use speed and quickness to create an in-your-face style to get Seattle off pucks.  This is all the more reason then for the T-birds to pay attention to the small details that go into puck management.

The effort was there from Seattle but effort does not always equal execution.  There was a need for the T-birds to make better passes and a better job of carrying the puck out of the defensive zone.  It's not the amount of shots on goal by Portland that will be worrisome to the coaching staff, it will be the amount of extra puck possession time given to the Winterhawks by the lack of consistent puck management by Seattle.

These are some of the growing pains this team will go through with their young forward group.  Its a need to be more consistent from shift to shift.  It's no surprise that Seattle's first and second lines, their older lines, were more consistent with the puck in both games. The bottom six forwards, the young first and second year players, are getting their on the job training. The goal?  To be better tomorrow then they were today, to be better at the end of the season then they are at the beginning.

One young forward whose game I liked this weekend was Dillon Hamaliuk.  Hammer actually caught my eye at the start of last season too when, as a 16 year old, he played in 17 regular season games and recorded his first WHL goal before being sent down when all the older players like Ryan Gropp, Mat Barzal and Keegan Kolesar returned.  He did come back up and play in two postseason games, including the Chynoweth Cup clinching Game Six in Regina.

Listed at 6'3" and 182 lbs, the Leduc, Alberta native may still be filling out his frame but he is already a physical presence.  He's a strong battler along the boards and seems well on his way to becoming a prototypical WHL power forward.  In fact, Seattle has a number of young players who seem to fit that same physical mode.  The T-birds currently have nine rookies on the roster, either 16 or 17 years old, who average 6'2" and 189 lbs. and they are still growing.  They offer lots of promise.  Of course size means nothing without the skill and that is the task before these players, to develop their game to best utilize that size.

I have no problem with the third period Turner Ottenbreit hit on Joachim Blichfeld being called a penalty. Bang-bang play and in real time you have to give the official the right to make that call as he sees it.  I don't believe it was a check to the head though.  Interference was probably the more proper call as it looks like the puck is past both players at the point of contact.  But after seeing the replay from two different camera shots, Ottenbreit never leaves his skates, tucks his right arm into his body and delivers a shoulder to shoulder check.

The pass up ice put Blichfeld in a vulnerable position.  He's reaching for the puck with his head down.  Ottenbreit's job is to separate the player from the puck and prevent him from entering the defensive zone cleanly.  It's a timing play and Otto's timing may have been off by a mere fraction of a second. Is it a dirty play?  No.  Is it an intent to injure play?  No.  It's a hockey play.  To not make the hit would be asking Ottenbreit to give Blichfeld a potential breakaway opportunity.  Does Ottenbreit play the game on the edge?  Yes, but so do most of those who play this game.  The WHL, and hockey in general for that matter, would like to get those high hits out of the game.  Player safety should be paramount but its a contact sport and the hit delivered by Otto is taught throughout the game.

What isn't up for debate is the response by Portland's Alex Overhardt.  In the heat of the moment he races up ice to deliver a two-handed baseball bat-like swinging slash to the back of Ottenbreit's knees.  This is not a hockey play.  This is a play with one purpose, intent to injure.  Suspend Ottenbreit because you deem him a repeat offender?  Fine, but Overhardt deserves a suspension as well.  A crime of passion is still a crime. Do I think Overhardt is a dirty player?  No, he got caught up in the heat of the moment and tried to deliver frontier justice.  But the league needs to come down hard on his actions otherwise, they are condoning it. You can't complain about the Ottenbreit hit then look past Overhardt's actions.  That would be the height of hypocrisy.

My T-birds three stars for September:

Third Star:  Goalie Matt Berlin.  Carl Stankowski injured?  Call the Wall.  All Berlin does with Stankowski on the sideline is win games or earn Seattle points in the standings.  He's now 9-2-2-0 in his T-birds career which isn't yet one year old.  That includes 2-0 and 64 saves on 68 shots to begin the new season.

Second Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  The Sipoo, Finland native is off to a strong start in his second season, scoring four goals in three games, including a hat trick in Friday's win over PG.  What sometimes gets lost in his offensive numbers is his ability to play a complete 200-foot game and be a strong penalty killer. He's a definite candidate to represent Finland this winter at the World Junior Championships.

First Star:  Defenseman Austin Strand. Through three games he's Seattle's top scorer, averaging two points per game with six points (2g, 4a) and a +3 rating.  At least early on he's filling the void on the power play created by the departure of Ethan Bear.  His second power play goal Saturday in Portland was WHL Plays of the Week worthy.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Rise Into the Night

Any way you slice it, this opening night was one for the ages.  Not four months but forty years in the making.  If you were going to put on a show for the old fans, the new fans, the hockey aficionados and the hockey novices, the old owners and the soon-to-be-new-owners, this was it.

It had a little bit of everything starting with a red carpet arrival on a gloriously sunny early fall day.  There was the obligatory video montage recap of the run to the Championship along with the traditional introduction of the entire roster and coaching staff.  This all helped to get the sold out building fired up, as if any firing up was needed for the 6,000+ who were ready to burst.  But there was so much more before that final horn sounded on the first of 72 games this season.

There was the return of recently "retired" assistant coach Tyler Alos to carry the Chynoweth Cup onto the ice.  A terrific choice.  Alos, a former player as well, who had been with the team through some of the franchise's darker days, who then helped oversee their climb to glory.  A perfect bridge from past to present.  What a sight to see him walk through the darkness of the Zamboni gate through fog and laser lights and onto the ice with the Cup.

Then came,what most fans, especially the long suffering fans, had waited for.  The raising of not one, but two banners for a second straight home opener.  First, the franchise's third Western Conference Championship banner, the second in as many years.  A little appetizer before the main course.  Like the other two, a banner made up of a white background with T-birds-blue print to proudly proclaim their 2016-17 conference victory.

It was followed in sheer contrast by the franchise's first ever WHL Championship banner.  The dark blue background, with white lettering, setting it apart, as it should be, from the other banners in the accesso ShoWare Center rafters.  With a spotlight shining on it front and back, it slowly rose up into the night. And as it inched higher and higher the voices of the raucous, sellout crowd rose with it.  On the big screen the in-house camera panned the players standing at center ice and you could almost see the adrenalin pumping into their veins.

That might have been enough for most, but there was still the game to be played.  A night like this deserved a Hollywood ending.  It would have been hard to write a better conclusion to this night then to have it punctuated in the way Seattle won so many games a season ago, on their journey to the top of the WHL mountain; a comeback win.

It was Star Wars-esque in the way it played out and, at least on this night, the Tri-City Americans were more then willing to play the part of the Evil Empire to Seattle's rogue band of rebels.  The heavily armed Americans, ranked 7th in the CHL Top Ten preseason poll, delivered the first blow on a 5-on-3 power play. It was much like the Death Star destruction of Alderaan with thousands of voices silenced.  The T-birds, undeterred, gamely fought back to take a lead with a pair of markers midway through the first, thanks to a couple Tie Figher Pilots, Andruskiak and Moilanen, veterans of the Clone Wars, also known as the WHL Playoffs.  Late in the first period though, Tri-City would pierce the bow of the Millennium Falcon and tie it back up.

In the second period, just when it looked like Seattle was ready to reclaim the lead the shot instead hit the deflector shields.  No only did the Dark Side fend off the attack but they caught the T-birds with a flesh wound, scoring shorthanded.  The Americans were back up, 3-2.  Now it was the Rebel Alliance's turn and Han Solo, in the guise of Elijah Brown, slipped through the forest of Endor and answered back for Seattle to tie the game at three as the two sides headed into the Mos Eisley spaceport cantina for a rest up ahead of the final battle of Good versus Evil.

The third period began.  As the Death Star rounded the planet, ready to destroy the rebel base, a young Jedi named Jake Lee summoned the Force, most assuredly from his missing mentor Turner Ottenbreit, and with computer systems off, unleashed a perfect strike into an exhaust porthole only two meters wide.  It was like shooting womp rats back home in his T-16.

In the end the Empire was licking their wounds. We know they were beaten but not defeated and will come back for another battle or two. But the rebels too, showed they will not disappear into a galaxy far, far away.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Whirlwind Offseason Complete

Has there ever been a four month period in Seattle Thunderbirds history like the one the franchise has just experienced?   It started last May with the team winning their first ever WHL Championship and concluded this week, on the eve of a brand new season no less, with the team announcing the franchise has been sold, pending approval by the City of Kent and the WHL Board of Governors.

In between, the team saw head coach Steve Konowalchuk exit in June, taking a position as an assistant coach with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks.  In July assistant coach Matt O'Dette was named as Konowalchuk's replacement.  At the same time it was announced that assistant coach Tyler Alos was leaving the organization to pursue an opportunity outside hockey.

That prompted the hiring of two new assistants, Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer to join O'Dette on the Seattle bench.  There was the usual offseason activity such as the trade of Anthony Bishop to Victoria for Blake Bargar and the signing of the team's top three picks from the spring Bantam Draft.  Then came the injury to Carl Stankowski at camp with Canada's U-18 team that will keep the T-birds goalie on the shelf until November.  Just before training camp head scout Dan McLean accepted a job with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins and Mark Romas was chosen as his successor.

Even the building the T-birds play in got an updated name, now known as the accesso ShoWare Center.  There were a couple more minor trades that brought Noah Philp and Liam Hughes to the organization.   Last week it was announced the Thunderbirds would be honored down in Olympia by Governor Jay Inslee for their 2017 Chynoweth Cup win and Thursday Turner Ottenbreit was announced as this season's team captain.

But the T-birds saved the biggest news for last.  A little over 24 hours from raising their Championship banner, they announced the tentative sale of the team to Dan Leckelt and Lindsey Leckelt, Co-CEO’s of Silent-Aire, a company, which according to the team's website engineers and manufactures custom HVAC solutions for data centers, institutions and industrial facilities with over 50 schools alone in Washington State utilizing Silent-Aire equipment. Silent-Aire also engineers and manufactures equipment for the world’s largest hyper scale data center companies.  The company has bases in Seattle, Edmonton, Phoenix, Virginia and Ireland.

The prospective owners aren't hockey neophytes either.  Both played minor and pro hockey and are owners of the Stony Plain Eagles Senior AAA hockey team as well as the Spruce Grove Jr. A Saints.

If approved, it will mark the first ownership change in club history in nearly two decades.  In the early 2000's Russ Farwell, Colin Campbell and their group purchased the club from Bill Yuill.  They then built it into a profitable, championship caliber, Major Junior franchise in the WHL's biggest market.  That's not an easy task considering the other options in the region vying for the sporting public's dollar.  They worked with the City of Kent to cultivate a partnership after moving into the ShowWare Center in 2009.   They essentially turned over a good chunk of their fanbase from their KeyArena days.   They've embraced their new community and region and the community has embraced them back.

If the sale is approved, both Farwell and Campbell will stay on in their roles as General Manager and Assistant General Manager and continue to help oversee what they have built.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Net Gain

With presumptive starter Carl Stankowski on the shelf with injury until late October/early November, Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell swung a deal for goaltender Liam Hughes.  Farwell sent a 2019 fourth round Bantam pick to the Edmonton Oil Kings in exchange for the 18 year old netminder.

Hughes, a native of Kelowna, B.C. played in seven games last season for Edmonton, posting a record of 1-4-2-0 with a 3.26 GAA and a save percentage of .895.  He went 0-1 in two preseason games this September. 

Hughes was selected in the seventh round of the 2014 Bantam draft.  Hughes will most likely compete with Matt Berlin for ice time until Stankowski is healthy enough to return.  I would surmise T-birds brass wants to see young 16 year old Cole Schwebius get more seasoning, as well as more ice time, possibly with a Junior A team, although it is possible Seattle could start the season with three goalies on the roster and keep Schwebius for a week or two.

The addition of Hughes now gives Seattle four signed goaltenders in their system.  As short as three weeks ago the T-birds only had two and one, Stankowski, was injured.  Schwebius, a 2016 10th round Bantam selection signed just before the start of the preseason.  While his preseason numbers aren't stellar, he competed well and looks like he will be part of the future in goal.

By dealing for the 18 year old Hughes, Seattle didn't have to pay too steep a price, surrendering just the 2019 fourth round pick.  While there are a few free agent 20 year old goalies, such as Cody Porter and Mario Petit, looking for roster spots in the WHL, acquiring one would have cost Seattle one of their current 20 year olds in either Donovan Neuls, Tyler Adams, Turner Ottenbreit or Austin Strand. That would have been a steep price to pay for essentially two months of service.   As it is the T-birds will have to trim or trade one of those from their roster at or before the 20 year old cutdown date.  I'm sure they didn't want to have to depart with two of that group.

Meanwhile Hughes, at age 18 still has three years of WHL eligibility left.


Friday, August 25, 2017

Starting Over

Now that the rookie prospects portion of training camp is complete, it is time to turn the attention onto main camp and the job of building the 2017-18 Thunderbirds roster.  The biggest task?  Finding a way to replace over 350 points now gone from last season's championship club.

Seattle has a strength to build around.  They return five of their top six defenseman from the team that captured the Chynoweth Cup.  Of course, that one defenseman not returning won't be so easy to replace.  Ethan Bear is the reigning WHL Defenseman of the Year, was an integral part of the T-birds very successful power play and was one of the top scoring defenseman in the league each of the past two seasons.  Those will be big skates to fill.

Still, the team returns a good mix of veterans and young and up and comers in their blue line crew.  They are led by a pair of 20 year olds in Turner Ottenbreit and Austin Strand along with 19 year old Aaron Hyman.  Returning for his third season with the club is 18 year Montreal Canadians draft pick Jarret Tyszka while fellow 18 year old Reese Harsch enters his second year with the team after a solid rookie campaign.  

To fill the spot vacated by Bear the T-birds will use a combination of 2016 first round bantam pick Jake Lee and 17 year old Tyson Terretta.  While those two are officially entering their rookie seasons, both actually made their WHL debuts last year.  In fact Lee not only made his regular season debut with the team last season but also played in two playoff games as a 15 year old, twice taking the ice in the Western Conference Final versus Kelowna.

With the five players returning and the two rookies, Seattle essentially ices a group of defenseman with the same average age of the group that led them to the WHL title last spring.

Goaltending should be in good hands with 17 year old Carl Stankowski, who played every minute of Seattle's WHL playoff run, and 19 year old Matt Berlin. The unknown is the situation with an injury Stankowski suffered this summer while training with Canada's U-18 team.

The biggest question mark for the T-birds will be the forward group.  Look, no team is going to replace the likes of Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Scott Easnor, Keegan Kolesar and Alexander True in one offseason.  Those are five players expected to play this coming season in either the NHL or AHL.  Those five were a once-in-a-generation group that, along with Bear, led this team to their first ever WHL championship.  Still, it took two to three seasons to develop their chemistry and reality says it will take a few seasons to develop the next generation of T-bird forwards.

They should have a solid top line centered by 20 year old Donovan Neuls, flanked on the wings by fourth year player Nolan Volcan and 18 year old Finnish import Sami Moilanen.  What the T-birds need to do is cobble together a second, third and fourth line from a group of youngster led by 18 year old center Matthew Wedman and 2015 first round bantam pick Elijah Brown.

First year head coach Matt O'Dette and his new look coaching staff of Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer, will be looking for returning players such as Zack Andrusiak, Luke Ormsby and Ian Briscoe, along with newly acquired Blake Bargar, to take the next step in their development while infusing the lineup with a number of rookies such as Dillon Hamaliuk,Tyler Carpendale, Holden Katzalay, Russian import Nakita Malukhin and 16 year old Cody Savey.  The good news?  All but Malukhin and Katzalay have had a taste of the WHL.

I would also expect the team to keep a couple more untested 16-year old forwards, depending on which ones sign.  Two potential candidates are 2016 draftees Eric Fawkes and Nakodan Greyeyes.  I also wouldn't be surprised to see the team make a September trade for an 18 or 19 year old forward with WHL experience.  I'm not saying it will happen, because it all depends on cost in terms of draft capital and prospects, but should such a player become available I would expect General Manager Russ Farwell to at least kick the tires.

The team also has a decision to make on winger Tyler Adams who played a prominent role the second half of last season after being acquired from Swift Current in December.  Adams is one of four 20 year olds in camp fighting for three roster spots.  If Adams is retained, one of Neuls, Ottenbreit or Strand would have to be traded or released.  It may come down to which three of that foursome have the most value to this year's team as opposed to which of the four garners the most return in a trade.  This is a decision that probably won't be decided until the mid-October 20 year old cut down date.

One more thought as we embark on main camp and, next weekend, the preseason.  This will be my 17th season broadcasting Thunderbirds hockey.  Over that span I've seen firsthand the cyclical nature of the WHL.  Players come and players go as they push through in hopes of developing into pros.  Heck, the 20 year old players on the roster my first season with the club back in 2001, are now in their mid-30s.  When I began, my son was a one year old.  He's now entering his senior year of high school.  During that span a few hundred players have worn the Thunderbirds jersey, some for as many as five seasons and some maybe for as little as five games.

It has started to hit me though, how special this last group that just passed through, truly was. That I  won't see Barzal out there on the ShoWare Center ice to fire that last puck during pregame warmups.  I won't hear Kolesar's full-of-confidence, bellowing voice chirping someone, rookie, vet, it didn't matter, from the back of the bus or that, try as I might, I've missed my chance to turn Eansor away from the Denver Broncos and into a Seahawks fan.  There won't be any smiling, laid back "how's it goin'" greeting from Gropper any more as I walk down the hallway back near the locker room in search of a player interview and no more True lurking tall over everyone as he taped his stick outside the equipment room, his game face seemingly always on.

But what really made me think about this most recent passing of the torch was the noticeable absence of the dozen or so Bear jerseys and the many Bear family members who annually seemed to descend upon the ShoWare Center for the start of training camp these past five years.  It seems like only yesterday those six players arrived on the scene and blazed a trail to a championship and now, they're gone.

Man, I miss those guys already.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Helping Hands

As we get closer to the start of training camp and a new hockey season, the Thunderbirds have completed their new look coaching staff for 2017-18.   There are just two holdovers from the staff that brought the franchise its first ever WHL Championship.  Matt O'Dette is back, albeit in a new position, being elevated from assistant coach to head coach with the departure of Steve Konowalchuk to the NHL's Anaheim Ducks. Ian Gordon remains as the team's goaltending coach.

Gone, along with Konowalchuk, is Tyler Alos.  After four seasons as a T-birds player and four more as a T-birds assistant, Alos has taken a full-time job outside of hockey, although he will keep a toe in the water, I mean on the ice, by taking a part-time coaching position with the Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL. 

I do want to take a moment to thank Tyler.  Both in his playing days and his time as an assistant coach he was always available for an interview.  I particularly appreciate him coming on our post-game show the past four seasons after home games, especially after a loss.  He never made excuses or ducked tough questions.  He was well spoken, both on and off mic.  He never missed a chance to praise an unsung player for putting in hard work and doing the little things that made a difference in a game.  It was enjoyable to watch his transition from player to coach and to see his evolution as an assistant coach as he took on more responsibility each season. He did this while taking advantage of the WHL's education program, attending college classes (even if they were through WSU, go Dawgs!).  He was integral to the success this team had the last four years and he will be missed.

With O'Dette elevated to head coach and Alos leaving the organization, the T-birds spent the summer seeking two replacements. In early July Seattle hired Kyle Hagel to take over as the primary assistant coach, basically filling the role O'Dette occupied the past four seasons.  Hagel comes to the T-birds after a nine year playing career, primarily in the AHL, including one season as a teammate of O'Dette's in Fresno.

This week the T-birds completed the coaching hires with the addition of Castan Sommer, who will take over the Alos role.  LIke Hagel, Sommer joins Seattle directly from the playing ranks, having spent last season with Kallinge/Ronneby, a Division 1 team in Sweden.  The year before that he was with the ECHL's Manchester Monarchs.

While the 32 year old Hagel is new to the coaching game, Sommer, who turns 26 in late October, has some experience in that department having served as a skating coach at the San Jose Sharks Development Camp in 2016.  Both of the new assistants also played four seasons of college hockey.  Hagel, a native of Hamilton, Ontario attended Princeton while Sommer, a Shrewsbury, Massachusetts native matriculated at Holy Cross.

The Thunderbirds also made one player move this past week.  General Manager Russ Farwell sent 19 year old defenseman Anthony Bishop to the Victoria Royals in exchange for 19 year old right winger Blake Bargar.  The deal allows Bishop to play his natural position back on the blue line. In his only season with Seattle, Bishop split time between defense and forward but probably skated more as a forward. 

Playing on the wing, Bishop was getting ice time so he didn't complain and in the end, it got his name on the Chynoweth Cup.  His preference though, is to be a defenseman and I'm sure that's how the Royals plan to use him.  In Kent, it may have been difficult for him to crack the top six defensemen this coming season with five veterans returning (Turner Ottenbreit, Austin Strand, Jarret Tyszka, Aaron Hyman and Reese Harsch) plus at least two highly regarded rookies (Jake Lee and Tyson Terretta) needing ice time as well.

In return, Seattle gets the Californian, Bargar.  I'm just theorizing here but it is my guess that Bargar gets a role similar to what the T-birds envisioned for Tyler Adams when they acquired Adams at the trade deadline last season from Swift Current; an older forward to play on the third or fourth line and protect some of the younger players.  Of course, because of injuries, Adams seldom played that role with the Thunderbirds, often playing on the first or second line.  While Adams made the most of it, knock on wood that isn't the case again this season with Bargar in that role.  It would mean the T-birds once again are dealing with injuries to top end players.

So, less then a month before players begin reporting for training camp, the T-birds new look coaching staff is in place.  Despite the 90-plus degree temperatures of early August, the ice is now back in at the Accesso ShoWare Center.  It's just about time to get down to the business of hockey.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

You Bet, it's O'Dette

I don't know if it was the worst kept secret in Thunderbirds history, but I would suspect very few are surprised that Seattle General Manager Russ Farwell has tapped Matt O'Dette to succeed Steve Konowalchuk as the team's head coach.

O'Dette spent the past four seasons as the Thunderbirds primary assistant coach, Konowalchuk's right hand man.  Along with assistant coach Tyler Alos and goaltending coach Ian Gordon they formed a coaching staff that took the franchise to heights they've never experienced.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and by promoting O'Dette the T-Birds franchise will have as much coaching continuity as is possible, after you lose the main man, as they transition off their championship season.

O'Dette has head coaching experience on his resume, having served as a head coach in the ECHL prior to joining Konowalchuk's staff.  He won't be overwhelmed by the increased responsibilities. But the reality is, it is his experience as a T-Birds assistant coach that put him above the pack in the coaching search.  It was his time working with the players he inherits on this team, and the familiarity he has with the younger players coming into the fold this next season, and the next few season's beyond this one, that made him such an attractive candidate to follow Konowalchuk as the main man behind the bench.

One of O'Dette's main roles the past four seasons has been to handle the defensive corps.  Since his arrival in the South Sound, the T-Birds have been one of the top penalty killing teams in the WHL as well and that too was an area he handled in the Konowalchuk regime.

He was a defenseman in his playing days in the OHL, AHL and ECHL.  In 1994 he was drafted into the NHL by the Florida Panthers.  During his time with the T-Birds he's helped mold two WHL Defenseman of the Year Award winners in Shea Theodore and Ethan Bear.  Since arriving in Kent, he helped those two, and now Jarret Tyszka get drafted into the NHL, while another, Turner Ottenbreit, has attended three NHL development camps.

There is a tendency to read into that then, that O'Dette would then be a "defensive-minded" coach.  But remember, all three of those NHL drafted players mentioned are 200-foot players. Theodore and Bear are the two highest scoring defensemen in franchise history and were among the top scoring defensemen in the league throughout their WHL careers.

I would not expect there to be too much change in the way the Thunderbirds play under O'Dette, compared to how they played with Konowalchuk at the helm. O'Dette played a significant role in shaping the T-Birds style of play the past four years and he learned a good deal working with Kono.  The key will be finding  a couple of assistants to add to O'Dette's staff who fit the T-Birds style.

O'Dette begins his head coaching tenure with the T-Birds in a similar fashion to how Konowalchuk began his, with a roster in transition.  Like Konowalchuk, O'Dette will have some solid WHL veterans to work with but will get the opportunity to develop a roster over the next two seasons that will feature a lot of fresh faces.  Gone is the core group of Barzal, Eansor, Gropp, Kolesar and Bear that led this team the last four seasons.  O'Dette will get to build a new core group to carry this club.  The one major difference for O'Dette is those veterans and even some of those younger players he inherits, know what it takes to earn the title "Champions".

Another bit of history was made with the O'Dette hire.  He becomes the first head coach in franchise history to have a Twitter account.  Don't expect a lot of tweets though.  Even before being named head coach, his tweets were few and far between.  No surprise that his tweets are all team or hockey related.  His last one?  Congrats to ! Absolute steal of a pick by the .   That was after Tyszka was drafted by the Canadiens back in June.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Who's Next?

For the second time in less then a decade, the Seattle Thunderbirds franchise is at a crossroads.  The team is in search of a head coach to lead them going forward. The situation today is both eerily similar and vastly different then it was in the spring of 2011.

In the spring of 2011, the T-bird had just finished up their second consecutive non-playoff season.  As a result General Manager Russ Farwell parted company with head coach Rob Sumner after seven years behind the bench.  They were an older team that year but lacked more then a few top end players.  The team knew that they would still have some veterans back the next season but would be transitioning over the course of the next couple of years and becoming younger and more reliant on that young talent.

And now, here we are today in another transition period, after the man who replaced Sumner, Steve Konowalchuk leaves for a job in the NHL.  Instead of coming off back-to-back non playoff years though, the T-birds are coming off consecutive appearances in the league's championship series, including winning it all this spring.  But like 2011, while the team still has some quality veterans returning for next season, over the next couple of years they will be transitioning, becoming younger and more reliant on that young talent.

In the spring of 2011 they captured lightning in a bottle and found the perfect marriage between coach and roster when they chose Konowalchuk to lead them from the bottom of the WHL standings to the top.  Each season under his leadership they got better and as we noted above, it culminated in the franchise's first ever Chynoweth Cup.

The question becomes, can they capture lightning a second time because this next hire is just as important as the last.  The core group of players who helped lead the franchise to its greatest successes is now gone.  Younger players are standing by ready to take their place.  The S.S. Thunderbird needs a captain to get them all rowing in unison and in the right direction.

Over the course of his coaching tenure with the T-birds it seemed that the organization brought in players who fit what Konowalchuk wanted for his roster. While that may have some truth to it, let's give the players credit for adapting to his coaching style and the coach credit for adapting his systems to the talent he had on his roster.  He convinced his players they could succeed with his style.  That's the trick isn't it?  To find that perfect balance between player talent and coaching acumen.  Konowalchuk was able to find that balance.

My memory is a bit sketchy but what I seem to recall from the Konowalchuk hire back in the spring of 2011 is that he wasn't necessarily aggressively seeking the job.  That instead Farwell identified him as someone who would fit well as a head coach at the WHL level and he convinced him to take the position.  Farwell, to use a word you here a lot in politics when political parties are seeking out candidates, "vetted" Kono.

I like that word, "vetted".  It means to investigate someone thoroughly, especially in order to ensure that they are suitable for a job.  I'm guessing Farwell has already received dozens and dozens of inquiries into the T-birds coaching vacancy. Once again, he must do some vetting of those candidates.  Once again he has to find the perfect match between roster and coach.  Once again he has to find that one candidate out their who has that "it" factor that separates the also-rans, the run-of-the-mill coach, the average coach from the great one who can lead a roster of young men to be their best.  He doesn't have to find a Konowalchuk clone, just someone with the same Konowalchuk qualities.

The time frame to make the hire is much smaller then it was in 2011.  Konowalchuk's decision to move on came well into the offseason.  Most teams, at all levels, have completed their hires for next season. T-birds training camp is just two months away. So yes, there is a sense of urgency but Farwell has been around the block a few times.  He knows he can't rush to make this hire just for the sake of hiring someone.  Getting it right is more important than getting it done.

For the second time in less then a decade the T-birds franchise is at a crossroads.  Which path will they choose as they move forward?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Kono is Gono

You know the old expression, "Time flies when you're having fun?"  Well the last six seasons of Seattle Thunderbirds hockey have seemingly flown by in an instant.  They've been six fun years.  I had a front row seat watching this team come out of a couple of seasons of a non-playoff funk and build towards a championship caliber team.  Winning hockey is fun hockey and it's a lot more fun to be around a winning atmosphere.

Steve Konowalchuk made it that way. Oh, it wasn't all fun and games with Kono at the helm.  He demanded a lot from his players.  He ran tough, grueling practices.  At times he was matter-of-fact brutally honest with his players and that included high NHL draft picks.  But he did it without throwing any one player under the bus.  In the locker room, on the bench or on the team bus was as far as it went.  Never in a radio interview, never in the newspaper or on any blog on the internet.

He stressed that to be a champion you had to practice like a champion, you had to train like a champion.  It wasn't just about the sixty minutes on game nights.  It was also about what you did leading up to game nights to prepare yourself.  He constantly emphasized to his team you can't take shortcuts.  That was something he never did as a player, and never did during his T-birds coaching tenure.

He took losses hard but instead of letting a defeat eat away at him, he used it as motivation, as fuel to make himself a better coach and make his players a better team.  He passed that along to his players. That's a big reason why, in his final season behind the T-birds bench, his team captured the franchise's first ever WHL Championship.   Individually he may not have had the deepest, or most talented roster, but he had the best team.  He got players to buy into their roles.

Not a lot of coaches get to leave on their own terms.  What's the adage?   Coaches are hired to be fired.  But Konowalchuk leaves the T-birds as a champion, heading back to the NHL as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks after six seasons in Kent.  He leaves with a resume filled with more accomplishments then any previous coach in Thunderbirds history.  If you ask those who've been around the team the past six years for one word to describe him I think 10 out of 10 would say "competitor".   He has a drive to succeed at whatever he does.  He has set the bar high for who ever takes over.

But there is nothing left for him to prove at this level, he's reached the mountain top of the WHL.  By next October, seven banners will hang from the ShoWare Center rafters.  It took well over 30 years to earn the first three.  Konowalchuk brought the next four into the building in just six years.  He helped create a winning culture.

It seems it was just yesterday that I was interviewing Kono up in the Heritage Bank Lounge at the ShoWare Center after he had been announced as the T-birds new head coach shortly after the 2010-11 season had ended.  A lot of ice has melted since then, and there were hundreds of off mic chats and on the record interviews along with countless bus rides and team meals along the way.  Yep, time flies when you're having fun.

A Real True-per

The annual CHL Import Draft took place Wednesday morning and as expected, Seattle used one of their two allotted picks. The T-birds, selecting 56th overall in the first round of the two round draft, chose Russian winger Nikita Malukhin.  Malukhin is a 2000-born player, listed at 6'2" and 202 lbs., going into his 17 year old season. With Sami Moilanen in the fold, the T-birds passed on their second pick.

Statistical information on Malukhin is limited.  He apparently played for Kazan Irbis in the Russian Junior League last season, tallying six points (2g, 4a) and was a +4 in just 28 games played.  It would appear Kazan is the name of the town and Irbis is a trucking company that sponsored the team.  Kazan is located approximately 11 hours east of Moscow on the Volga river. 

According to Google,  "Kazan is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan, Russia. With a population of 1.2 million, it is the eighth most populous city in Russia. Kazan lies at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers in European Russia.".  So, now you know.

Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell indicated in comments made after the draft that Malukhan will report to the T-birds saying "He is excited to be coming to the WHL".  Farwell described Malukhan as a skilled forward with good size and that he has real potential to be an exciting forward in the WHL.

To get a better sense of the kind of player the T-birds latest Import selection is, you can watch this video clip of him scoring a goal:  But to get a better idea, we'll have to wait for training camp in late August.

What does this mean for the big picture?  Well, as we've suspected ever since the T-birds season ended at the Memorial Cup in Windsor back in late May, Alexander True will not be returning for his 20 year old season with Seattle.  In fact Farwell told blogger, and my partner on the radio broadcasts, Tim Pigulski, that True's agent informed him that he was close to signing a pro contract.  So, instead, the T-birds two imports will be the 17 year old Malukhan and 18 year old Moilanen, who will return for his second season. 

It makes since. The T-birds are going into a reload/rebuild process and will be much younger next season.  Drafting Malukhan gives them a player they can add to the rebuild, someone who could potentially be with the organization for three seasons much like True was after they selected him in the 2014 Import Draft out of Denmark.  

Malukhan will be added into the mix of 2000 and 2001 born players who will make up the bulk of the roster for the next three years. And there will be plenty of "bulk" among those 2000-born forwards with Malukhan, 6'3" 202 lb. center Tyler Carpendale and 6'1", 201 lb. left wing Dillon Hamaliuk.  Remember, those are their current heights and weights.  I'm sure all three have yet to finish growing.  Heck, that trio of 17 year olds just might be your third line.

So we can now officially say goodbye to True.  It's still possible he could play another year for the T-birds.  Think back to the Roberts Lipsbergs situation a couple of seasons ago when he was brought back from the pro ranks as a 20 year old to replace the injured Justin Hickman for the second half of the 2014-15 season.  But for that to happen the T-birds would have to suffer a significant injury to one of their 20s plus jettison one of either Malukhan or Moilanen.  That's what you call the worst-case-scenario.

We've mentioned on this blog recently the Fab Five who led the T-birds the past four years (Barzal, Bear, Eansor, Gropp and Kolesar).  True was also a big part of that core group, though he only played three seasons in Kent.  He deserves similar recognition as those five for bringing the T-birds their first ever WHL Championship.

In his three seasons with the T-birds True registered 84 points (45g, 39a) in 169 regular season games.  He was at his best though in the playoffs.  In 44 postseason games he produced 34 points (20g, 14a).  In 11 Championship Series games, going back to the Final last spring against Brandon, True scored eight goals and none were bigger then his game winning overtime goal in Game 6 of the 2017 WHL Championship Series versus Regina.  It is the biggest goal in franchise history, earning Seattle their first Chynoweth Cup.  Additionally, three times while a Thunderbird True also represented Denmark at the World Junior Championships.

I'd still like to see True get a crack at an NHL training camp.  Maybe he will this fall.  He's attending the San Jose Sharks Development Camp the first week of July.  He's certainly more then capable of playing professionally in Europe but I think he has the frame and skill for a pro career here in North America.  He's a solid face-off guy and strong on the penalty kill.

The big Dane gave the T-birds three tremendous seasons and his last goal as a T-bird gave Seattle fans a first ever championship.  The image of him standing and watching his game winner hit the back of the net while Regina players are sprawled down on the ice all around him, will be etched in our memories forever.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Tyszka Takes the Fifth

Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Jarret Tyszka becomes the latest member of the organization to hear his name called at the NHL Entry Draft.  The Langley, B.C. native went in the fifth round, 149th overall, to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday in Chicago.

Tyszka, of course, will attend the Canadiens development/rookie camp this summer then will be off to main camp in September.  After that, it is back to Kent for his third season and a bigger role with the Thunderbirds.

Tyszka's selection continues a recent trend.  Seattle has had a defenseman chosen by an NHL team every other year over the past five years. In 2013 it was Shea Theodore going in Round One to Anaheim. Two years later, 2015, it was Ethan Bear being selected in the fifth round by Edmonton and now here in 2017 Tyszka is picked by the Canadiens. 

So, with that in mind, now that Las Vegas has a team in the NHL, I might go down to catch a game and while there, put a few dollars down on, oh, maybe Jake Lee to be selected in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. 

Speaking of Las Vegas, the Golden Knights have a bit of a Thunderbirds flavor to their roster.  Former T-bird goalie Calvin Pickard was selected in the expansion draft off the Colorado Avalanche roster, the aforementioned Theodore was picked up by the Knights in a trade with the Ducks and on Day Two of the NHL draft, Las Vegas traded a second round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Keegan Kolesar.

Along with Tyszka, 216 other players were chosen in this weekend's NHL Draft.  That seems like a lot but in reality it's not, when you consider their are now 31 NHL teams.  Among those eligible to be drafted more probably didn't hear their name called then did with each team having, on average, just seven selections

Among those not chosen was draft eligible T-birds Finnish winger Sami Moilanen.  I saw a number of mock drafts that projected him as a sixth round pick but in the end, he was passed over. His size probably worked against him.  I would not be surprised though to hear he gets invited to some team's rookie camp this summer.   Moilanen was a bit of an unkown coming into this season, his first in North America, but with an extended playoff run with Seattle he should have gotten enough scouts' eyes on him that one team will give him an invite.  NHL teams are always looking for that diamond in the rough.

I saw a stat that says only 12 percent of players drafted in rounds 3 through 7 ever have a meaningful NHL career, which for the sake of their study was considered to be 200-plus games.  Even being a first round pick is no guarantee of success at the NHL level.  In some draft year's less then 50-percent of first round picks have made a career at the NHL level.

Seattle's Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson was among the members of the T-birds staff who were in Chicago this weekend for the NHL Draft.  No doubt he was there to talk with players and/or their agents ahead of next week's CHL Import Draft.  The Import draft is slated for Wednesday at 8 a.m. Seattle time.  The T-birds have the 56th pick in Round One. 

Both of Seattle's current Import players are eligible to return for next season but the prevailing thought is that Alexander True, who would occupy both a 20 year old roster spot and an Import roster spot, is ready to move on to the pro ranks.  If Seattle makes a selection with that 56th pick Wednesday, that would certainly mean True will not be returning to Kent.

There is also no indication that Moilanen won't return for another season with the T-birds, so I wouldn't anticipate Seattle using their second round pick Tuesday which is 116th overall.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The X(s and Os) Factor

Before I put the Thunderbirds 2016-17 championship season behind and look to the future, one final commentary on how this team got to the peak of the WHL mountain. 

To do that I do need to look at the T-birds just completed less then stellar showing in the Memorial Cup.  Well, not so much a look at how they fared in Windsor, but who they were up against.  First, let me acknowledge that I just didn't see a lot of the fire in the T-birds in their three Memorial Cup losses that I saw from this team all season, and especially in the 2017 WHL playoffs.  The team was physically present at the WFCU Centre, but mentally, I think they were absent.

But you also have to acknowledge that in Windsor, Seattle faced three teams with better, deeper rosters and that is getting to the heart of what I'm about to write; that the Thunderbirds won the 2017 WHL Championship because their coaching staff, specifically head coach Steve Konowalchuk, got the most out of what he had to work with.  It's a whole lot easier working with a team full of the most talented players.  They can cover up for a lack of top end skill further down the roster.  It takes some strong coaching to mold together a team of hard workers and grinders into championship material. 

Let's look at the eventual Memorial Cup winners, the Windsor Spitfires.  Despite not advancing out of the first round of the OHL playoffs (beaten in a seven game series by the defending OHL and Memorial Cup Champion London Knights), the Spitfires brought to the Memorial Cup a roster that featured ten NHL drafted players, including three first rounders and another in Gabriel Vilardi, who could go top five in the upcoming NHL draft and a goaltender in Michael DiPietro who could be the first goalie taken in the 2017 NHL draft.  Their rosters also included three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders.  Of those ten NHL draft picks on the Spitfires roster, six of them were acquired at some point via trade.  In other words, the host team loaded up for this Memorial Cup run.

After a 68 game regular season, Windsor played just seven playoff games and had a six week layoff to get healthy and rested for the Memorial Cup.  One of the reasons given for the Spitfires fifth place finish in their conference and early playoff exit was injuries.  Apparently Windsor couldn't play through them.  Seattle played a 72 game regular season plus 20 playoff games, had top players out of the lineup for long stretches and had less then a week between winning the WHL and their first game in Windsor.  

Now, let's take a look at the runner up at the Memorial Cup, the OHL Champion Erie Otters.  The roster the Otters brought to Windsor only featured eight NHL drafted players, and only one, Dylan Strome (the Memorial Cup MVP), was a first round pick, albeit third overall in 2015 by the Arizona Coyotes.  Erie did have three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders.  Of those eight NHL draft picks, two were acquired via trade. 

Finally, the team that eliminated Seattle from the Memorial Cup, the Saint John Sea Dogs, topped them all with 10 NHL drafted players and one NHL signed free agent on their roster and like Windsor, three of them were first round picks.  Four of them were 4th rounders.  Also like Windsor, nearly half of those NHL drafted players were brought in via trade as the Sea Dogs loaded up for their championship run. 

Now, let's take a look at the Thunderbirds roster.  Seattle featured just four players drafted into the NHL, all taken in the same 2015 draft.  Every one of them drafted and developed by Seattle.  Not one picked up in a trade.  They include a first round pick in Mat Barzal, a 2nd round selection in Ryan Gropp, a 3rd rounder in Keegan Kolesar and 5th round pick Ethan Bear.  They had a few players in Scott Eansor, Turner Ottenbreit and Aaron Hyman who have been invited to one or two NHL rookie/development camps, but none are signed.  They have a couple of players in Jarret Tyszka and Sami Moilanen who could have their names called in this next NHL draft but most likely not in the top half of the draft. 

When it came to strengthening this team for the run to the Chynoweth Cup, and the subsequent trip to the Memorial Cup, T-birds General Manager Russ Farwell certainly didn't "load up" in the manner of his cohorts in Windsor, Erie and Saint John.  Seattle didn't acquire any NHL first rounders prior to the trade deadline.  In fact Farwell didn't add one NHL drafted player to his roster in either of the past two seasons as Seattle twice made a trip to the Chynoweth Cup Final. 

What did Seattle do to make themselves better at this year's trade deadline?  They sent a third round Bantam Draft pick to Calgary for Hyman and swapped out Brandon Schuldhaus for Austin Strand in a deal with Red Deer.  Before that it was picking up Tyler Adams from Swift Current.  That's it.  Nothing along the lines of a blockbuster deal.  No bringing in a Julius Nattinen or a Graham Knott as Windsor did, no acquiring a Warren Foegele or Anthony Cirelli as Erie did and unlike Saint John, no trading for a Julien Gauthier.

Okay, so that's the Memorial Cup opposition.  What about in the WHL?  Well again Seattle's moves to get them the Ed Chynoweth Cup certainly weren't on the scale of Prince George which added a second round NHL pick in Brendan Guhle, a 5th round NHL selection in Radovan Bondra and a potential first rounder in Nikita Popugaev.  They didn't trade for a 40+ goal scorer in Reid Gardiner or a 3rd round NHL pick in Carsen Twarynski like Kelowna did.  And their roster couldn't match the seven NHL drafted players that Regina featured including a third rounder, Josh Mahura, acquired at the trade deadline. 

Unlike Portland did a few years back, there was no bringing in big guns like a Matt Dumba or a Seth Jones to strengthen the team for a championship run.   No trading away first round picks for a chance to win it all like Saskatoon.

Instead Farwell gave Konowalchuk and his staff role players.  Smaller pieces to finish the puzzle. It was up to Konowalchuk to make them champions. And he had to do it while some of those NHL drafted players missed games due to illness and injury.  He had to work them into a championship team while they combined to miss 309 games.  He had to do it while not having a full roster for nearly two dozen games.  He did it without either of the team's two 2013 first round bantam picks on the roster.   He did it by mixing and matching and using 4th liners on the 3rd line, 3rd line players on the 2nd line and sometimes 3rd liners on the 1st line. 

No one player epitomized what Konowalchuk and his staff could do with a player more then Reese Harsch.  The same Harsch who, in his only appearance as a 16 year old a season ago looked like he didn't belong at the WHL level, then was molded into a top six defenseman on a WHL Championship team a year later.    The T-birds didn't "load up" to win their first ever championship, they were "coached up".  It wasn't about who they were as individual players but about what they were together as a team.  No weak links.

And that chain of 25 players, that looked like it could break so many times during the course of the season and the playoffs, was held together by a coach and a coaching staff that wouldn't allow them to be pulled apart. 

You know what question it seems I got asked more then any other this postseason and during the Memorial Cup?  There were plenty about Carl Stankowski and his amazing postseason run.  Quite a few times I was asked about that "got-to-see-him-to-believe-him" player Scott Eansor.  But the question I seemed to get asked the most?  How is it Steve Konowalchuk isn't the WHL Coach of the Year? 

I don't have an answer to that question.  And Konowalchuk probably doesn't care he was overlooked.  Afterall, he may not have a voted-upon award but he does have a well earned championship.