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.