Since returning from the Christmas break, Seattle skaters have combined to miss over 50 games due to injury. Not just any players either, we're talking three top nine forwards in Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman. 111 points out of the lineup many nights with that trio unavailable and it coincides with the busiest time on the schedule. 24 games in 50 days with much more to come.
That doesn't even factor in the 17 games Keegan Kolesar missed the first half of the season or all the time out of action for young goaltender Carl Stankowski or rookie winger Wyatt Bear. And we're only talking games missed due to injury so I haven't included the combined 32 games the T-birds didn't have Mat Barzal or Alexander True because of NHL time or time spent at World Juniors.
Yet all I hear in some circles is that Seattle is a one line team. I hear that the T-birds better hope nothing happens to any of the players on that top line because if it does, boy, they'll be in trouble. Is Seattle the only team in the WHL with a top line? Isn't that statement true for any team? Why would it only apply to the T-birds? Take away one or two of the best players on any team for a month or two and you would expect them to stumble, right?
Only, Seattle hasn't stumbled. The record will show that without Barzal in the lineup the T-birds are a .500 team. But when Barzal was missing, so was Kolesar for a portion of that time, so was True for six games. Seattle played a couple of games without their top two centers. Go ahead, check the box score January 6th vs. Everett. No Barzal, no Eansor yet Seattle won. Do you know who scored in that game for the Thunderbirds? Donovan Neuls, Luke Ormsby and Zack Andrusiak. Not exactly first line players. From December 17th to January 8th, the T-birds went 5-1-1-0 WITHOUT Barzal in the lineup, but yeah, they're a one line team.
The point is, Seattle is NOT a one line team. Most definitely their top line of Kolesar, Gropp and Barzal is very likely the best line in the league but, when healthy, this team rolls four lines very effectively. The problem as you know, is they aren't healthy. For much of the past month and a half, they've only been able to roll three lines most nights and their second and third lines are makeshift combinations featuring fourth line players and guys, who when the team is at full strength, would be healthy scratches. Two thirds of their second line have been out of lineup yet with that and the other injury issues, they are 18-2-0-1 since December 31st and 20-3-1-1 since Christmas. Sure, they are going to rely more on that top line under that situation, what team wouldn't? But you don't play 16 games over .500 while dealing with long term injuries to key personnel if you are just a one line team.
You catch yourself thinking sometimes lately, I wonder how they'd be doing over this stretch if they had a healthy Eansor, a healthy Wedman and a healthy Volcan? Or what would their record be if they didn't miss Turner Ottenbreit for a game and a half or have to play four games while dressing just 17 or 16 skaters? You contemplate how much further along would they be if they didn't have to bring up a couple of 15 year olds to fill out the roster for a few games? Then you realize, wait, they're winning in spite of this. Hard to improve on winning.
Only once in that stretch has that short bench caught up with them. That was Monday afternoon in Kelowna, playing their fifth game in seven days with no days off in between because of travel, when they were unable to hold a late 3-2 lead. You could see they didn't have any legs left the final 8-9 minutes of that game but still were just eight minutes away from another "W". The team's response to that loss? They said they needed to dig deeper, keep their intensity longer and hold on to their desperation. No excuses, only disappointment they couldn't get it done. One time over the course of 50 days, playing on average a game every other day with a depleted lineup, they had a hiccup. If you want to complain about that, you're too much of a perfectionist.
My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:
Third Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect has put his early season injury behind him and is starting to pile up the points. Nine points in the last four games (4g, 5a) including another game winning goal, his fifth this season. As a result he is now averaging a point a game (40 games, 40 pts.).
Second Star: LW Ryan Gropp. The Kamloops native and New York Rangers draft pick is hotter then a cup of McDonald's coffee right now. Goals in eight straight games and 31 points over his last 14 games. In his last four games he has 11 points (5g, 6a). On the season he now has 61 points in 51 games.
First Star: Center Mat Barzal. Simply playing the best hockey of his Thunderbirds career the second half of this season, highlighted by a six point night Saturday vs. Portland. His big week earned him both WHL and CHL Player of the Week honors. There are a lot of really good hockey players in the WHL including future NHLers. Barzal is just a notch above them at the moment. He is now averaging over an assist per game in his career with Seattle (196 assists in 192 games). Despite playing in just 31 games so far this season, he is second on the team to Gropp with 58 points.