With Sunday's 6-1 win over Vancouver the 2016-17 regular season comes to an end and it's on to the playoffs. How competitive was the regular season in the Western Conference? Well, Seattle didn't know who their first round playoff opponent would be until AFTER their final game concluded. Tri-City overcame a late two goal deficit and roared back to tie Everett, then win in overtime. That win , coupled with Portland's loss to Spokane Sunday, means Seattle will face the Americans in the opening round.
Amazingly, seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams finished the regular season with 40 or more wins, led by Seattle with 46. Only Victoria, with 37, failed to reach the 40 win plateau and late injuries and illness helped cripple their chance at those 40 wins. It should make for a very competitive first round out West.
Seattle, of course, fell just short of their goal of winning their second straight U.S. Division banner and the conference's top seed, falling just a couple points short. Everett earned that top seed, but what an amazing second half by the T-birds to come roaring up from the back of the pack. At one point Seattle sat in last place in the U.S. Division and well back in the conference standings too.
The season both went as many predicted but also the script kept getting re-written as the T-birds made their push toward the top of the standings. Most felt that with top players away with NHL teams to start the season, Seattle would use the first half to bring along a lot of young players and tread water while waiting the return of their stars. While they unexpectedly had Ryan Gropp returned to them by the New York Rangers, an injury delayed the return of Keegan Kolesar and Mat Barzal remained with the New York Islanders for two months.
The T-birds hovered around .500 while playing competitive hockey night in and night out until those players came back. No sooner were Kolesar and Barzal back with the team, Seattle promptly loss Barzal and Alexander True to World Juniors. Despite that, Seattle went into the Christmas break with a record four games above .500.
The expectation was Seattle would begin to soar up the standings the second half with their full compliment of players back by early January. While that climb up the ladder did indeed happen, it wasn't accomplished so easily. As soon as Barzal and True returned, the injury bug hit.
In no particular order, Seattle lost key players to long term injury. Scott Easnor, who was leading the team in scoring when the season reached mid-January, would miss two months. Other key players soon followed him to sick bay including Matthew Wedman who missed almost as much time as Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Jarret Tyszka. Ethan Bear was out for a week. Keegan Kolesar was absent for a few more games. Tyszka got healthy and then was hurt again and unavailable until the final weekend. Fellow defenseman Reese Harsh was sidelined for much of March and of course their best player, Barzal, missed the final five games, just as Seattle was battling for the top of the conference. Did I mention Seattle played the final week without their number one goalie, Rylan Toth?
In all Seattle players missed well over 200 man games this season. Most of those were missed the second half. How did the team respond to the adversity? Twelve times in the final 35 games, or one third of those games, Seattle dressed either one or two players under the limit. They went 11-1 in those games. Three or four times the 18th dressed skater was a 15 year old call up who only saw two or three shifts. They used three different goalies the final five games and went 4-1.
Seattle played 39 games after Christmas. In 11 of those games they had no Barzal. I've heard many outsiders opine that without Barzal, Seattle would be in trouble. In those 11 Barzal-less second half games, the T-birds posted an 8-2-1-0 mark. Seattle also posted a winning record with no Eansor for much of the second half, a winning record in games without Volcan, and a winning record in games without Wedman. For most of the second half they had four or five players on the shelf and over 100 points out of the lineup. When one player went down, another stepped up.
39 post Christmas games under less then ideal conditions, starting back in the pack in the Western Conference standings and the T-birds went 29-6-3-1. They earned points in 33 of those 39 games. In the end that remarkable feat brought them within an eyelash of the division banner and the conference top seed.
He probably won't even be in the conversation but how can you not consider Steve Konowalchuk for WHL Coach of the Year? Because he had players such as Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar, Easnor and Bear on his roster I'm guessing he'll be overlooked.
It's easy to dismiss the thought of choosing him for the award when you're said to have some of the best players. Pretty easy to stand behind a bench with top talent sitting in front of you, right? But those players alone missed a combined 92 games. And yet Seattle still won more games then any team in the Western Conference and the third most in the league. Why? Because the coach taught those players at the end of the bench to believe in themselves, to believe in each other and to believe in him.
This isn't about coaching a team to victories when they are expected to win, it is about coaching a team to victory when they're expected to lose. The T-birds could have easily fallen off the pace and blamed injuries to top personnel. Instead they made no excuses and buckled down and worked with the players they had available and didn't worry about those players who were up in the stands. That's a direct reflection of the coach.
You can play the what-if game. What if Eansor and his point per game average hadn't missed so many key games? What if Barzal and his over a point per game average was available Saturday night at home against Portland? What if Kolesar hadn't gotten hurt at training camp with the Columbus Blue Jackets back in September? What if the referee hadn't lost sight of the puck and was too quick to stop play back on January 20th up in Everett, negating an easy Luke Ormsby tap in goal that would have tied the game late in the third period and probably earned Seattle one more point, if not two, in the standings?
It's all water under the bridge now. Celebrate the accomplishment and don't dwell on what might have been. Time to move on to the postseason. To get ready for Tri-City and their potent attack. If the motto for the season was "Climb the Ladder", then the goal for the playoffs is to "Finish the Mission." As great as the run through the playoffs was last spring, the loss in the league final was a bitter pill to swallow. The majority of the players from that team are back for another crack at it and their focus is on raising the Chynoweth Cup. Let the journey begin.
My T-birds Three Stars for the 2016-17 regular season:
Third Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Gropp was expecting to play his 20 year old season with the New York Rangers AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. Instead, to the surprise of most, the Rangers sent their 2015, signed second round draft pick back to Seattle for one final year of seasoning in the WHL. Gropp could have pouted and sulked but instead he embraced the opportunity to come back to the T-birds, work on his 200 foot game, become one of the team's top penalty killers and still post another 30-plus goal season.
Second Star: D Ethan Bear. Bear rode the high expectations of producing another big offensive season from the back end into his final campaign with Seattle and didn't disappoint. The Edmonton Oilers prospect registered 28 goals, 70 points and a +34. Like Gropp, his offensive game overshadows the improvements he's made in his 200 foot game. He's constantly on the ice against the opposing team's top scorers. He is now the T-birds all-time leading goal scorer among defensemen in franchise history.
First Star: C Mat Barzal. Seattle made the Coquitlam, B.C. native the first overall pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, a position that comes with lofty expectations and a lot of weight on the shoulders of a teenager. He didn't disappoint and has completely lived up to the billing over the course of his four year T-birds career. Talent is only part of the equation with the New York Islanders 2016 first round draft pick. His makeup is talent plus dedication plus desire. He works at improving his game both on and off the ice. In just 41 games this season he registered 79 points. He spent two months this season in the NHL and another month representing Canada at World Juniors. Despite not playing a full season with the T-birds he should be under consideration for the WHL player of the year honors. The conversation for best player in Thunderbirds history also cannot be held without his name in the debate.