Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Puck Stops Here

It would have been interesting to see what a Liam Hughes-Carl Stankowski goaltending tandem could have done together with the Thunderbirds this season.  We'll not get that opportunity though, after the announcement Tuesday that Seattle has traded Stankowski to the Calgary Hitmen for a draft pick and the rights to a U.S. born prospect.  The goaltending job, at least the number one spot, now belongs to Hughes.

The T-birds/Stankowski relationship is like that of star-crossed lovers who can't overcome the obstacles to making the relationship a long lasting one.  Instead, all we got was that one, shining moment.   If Mat Barzal and  Ethan Bear were the superstars of the T-birds 2017 WHL Championship team, Stankowski was the surprise revelation.  The barely 17 year old netminder started all 20 playoff games that spring in place of an injured 20 year old Rylan Toth, and went 16-4 on the way to a Chynoweth Cup.  He almost stole the playoff MVP honors from Barzal with his effort.

And that's what Stankowski will be remembered for as a T-bird; that glorious playoff run, because, well, that's all there is. In two years with Seattle Stankowski spent more time injured, more time away from the organization getting treatment or rehabbing, then he spent with the team.  That's no fault of his.  Injuries are part of the game and some are more significant then others. Then there were other health issues that again are no fault of Carl's.  Just more a matter of genetics.  The reality though is that over the course of a two year career with the club, he played in only seven regular season games.  He missed all of last season to health issues, not even making it to training camp and barely dropping by the rink near season's end to say hello to his teammates.

Because of Stankowski's absence the T-birds were forced to make the trade for Hughes last September and then later for Dorrin Luding two months later.  It was his long term 2016 injury that necessitated the trade that brought in Matt Berlin.

Those three goaltenders played in a combined 90 regular season games the past two seasons while the Thunderbirds waited, and waited, for Stankowski to heal up.  Individually all three saw more regular season ice time as T-birds then did Stankowski.  Luding got into 17 games in just over half a season with the club.  So far, after just one season as a T-bird, Hughes has played in 36 regular season games, plus five postseason games, and Berlin was in net for 37 games in just over a year with the team.  In fact, if not for the injury to Toth, we may have seen very little of Stankowski in a Thunderbirds jersey.

But what we saw in that playoff run was legendary.  There is no erasing the important part Stankowski played in T-birds history.  It started in the very first playoff game against Tri-City when he stopped a number of third period breakaways to preserve a Seattle lead.  It was besting Everett's Carter Hart in a second round sweep.  It was a near shutout performance in both Game 3 and Game 6 of the Western Conference Championship Series ,on the road both times, against Kelowna.  It was a crucial early save in the overtime of the sixth and decisive game against Regina in the Championship Series.  Even then though, Stankowski was apparently playing at less then 100-percent.  That's what his dad told Any Eide this spring in an article posted at mymorthwest.com.

And it's those health issues that still concerned the T-birds.  So they reached a crossroads with Stankowski.  Do they gamble he'll stay healthy or do they move on?  They made the choice to move on.  Only time will tell if they've made the right decision.  Stankowski still has three seasons of WHL eligibility left.  I hope he can or has already figured out a way to stay on the ice.   His dream is to be an NHL goalie and  I'm rooting for him. I want him to overcome those health issues.  If it were not for those health issues, there would be no need to trade him, if not for those health issues there would have been no need to acquire Hughes, or Berlin, or Luding.   If not for those health issues, the return on this trade would have been greater.

But Seattle made the deal from a position of strength.  They aren't in the same quandary they were the past two seasons that necessitated trading for three goalies in a 13 month span.  First and foremost they have Hughes, the 19 year old who had a strong second half.  Strong enough that he finished among the league leaders in save percentage.  They have two, young signed prospects in 17 year old Cole Schwebius and 16-year old Eric Ward, and just spent a 2018 third round bantam pick on Thomas Milic.  Seattle has now traded three goalies (Berlin, Luding and Stankowski) in the last seven months.  You don't do that unless you have confidence in the young prospects coming up through the system.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Sign(ing)s

When it was announced that former Thunderbird Alexander True had signed an NHL deal with the San Jose Sharks Wednesday morning, it meant seven players off the T-Birds 2017 Chynoweth Cup winning roster are now under contract to NHL teams.  True spent last season, his first as a pro, playing in the Sharks system, but on an AHL deal with the San Jose Barracuda.  The new contract just signed is an entry level NHL deal.

Earlier this year True's former Seattle teammate, Scott Eansor, inked a two-way deal with the New York Islanders. While Eansor is likely to be on the roster of the Islanders AHL affiliate the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for a second season, he's now officially part of the Islanders NHL family.

A day before the announcement of the True deal with San Jose, it was announced that last year's T-Birds captain, Turner Ottenbreit, had inked his first professional contract with the Colorado Eagles, the AHL affiliate of the NHL's Colorado Avalanche.  Of course during last season another T-Birds defenseman, Austin Strand, signed an entry level deal with the NHL's L.A. Kings.

Besides all being part of that T-Birds WHL championship roster, what else do those four players have in common?  They were all signed as free agents.  Not a one of them was an NHL draft pick.  It means that after they were passed over in the NHL draft, they didn't stop working to reach their dream.  And True and Eansor initially signed AHL, not NHL deals, but they weren't satisfied and used their first year as pros to improve their stock.

Having a rink side seat every night of their T-Birds careers, it was easy to root for these four players as they grew not only as players but young men.  Those undrafted guys are like the underdogs and we seems to always root a little harder for the underdog.  We know they haven't yet reached their ultimate goal of actually playing in the NHL, but these signings are another successful step along that journey. I don't have a crystal ball that will tell me if that journey will, in the end, be a success, but having seen how hard they have worked to get to this point, it's hard to not imagine them reaching that goal.

Not every player is fortunate to get drafted into the NHL like Mat Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear were.  But like the Eansor's and True's of the world, those players still have to prove their worth every day.  They are all on the same footing now, not necessarily equal in skill, but they all have the same shot.  Draft status no longer matters.  As much as we rejoiced in the NHL debuts of Barzal and Bear, tell me you aren't stoked for the chance to see Eansor or True take a shift in an NHL game?  Tell me you don't expect Ottenbreit to someday follow True's lead and turn that AHL deal into an NHL contract?

Add in the signing of Sami Moilanen to a pro deal in his native Finland and that makes nine players from the championship roster who have signed pro deals.  The signings may not be done.  Defenseman Jarret Tyszka is looking to impress the Montreal Canadiens, the team that drafted him in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL draft, and earn a pro contract in their system. Younger players like Jake Lee and Dillon Hamaliuk are entering their first season of draft eligibility. Maybe an undrafted player will emerge this season and follow the path of Eansor, True, Ottenbreit and Strand by impressing an NHL scout enough that they earn a pro deal.

If nothing else these most recent signings should show that being passed over in the NHL draft is not the end of the road.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

An Import-ant Draft

For the first time in a few years, the Seattle Thunderbirds used both of their picks in the annual CHL Import Draft. The T-Birds needed to fill the slots on their roster previously occupied by Sami Moilanen, who signed a pro deal back in his native Finland, and Nikita Malukhin, the Russian winger Seattle chose not to bring back for a second season.

Before we get to the two players the T-Birds selected let me put down a few thoughts about Moilanen and Malukhin.

Here's the one thing you need to know about Sami. After Seattle lost the 2016 WHL Championship series to Brandon, they still brought back a solid core to compete for a title in 2017.  At training camp that August, before the start of the 2016-17 season and just a few practices into camp, I asked then head coach Steve Konowalchuk what could be the difference between losing the title in 2016 and winning it in 2017.  Along with his roster of core players being a year older, one of the first things he said to me was in 2016 they didn't have Moilanen.  He had only seen Sami skate at a few sessions but he already knew he was going to be an impactful player and provide the team with needed depth up front.
Of course Seattle would go on to win the WHL Championship in 2017 and Moilanen had a big goal in the Game 6 clincher.  He had a terrific rookie campaign.  Still though, because of injuries last season, I don't think we ever saw the full potential of Moilanen. He got hurt just before going to prospects camp last summer with the NHL's Colorado Avalanche and never got the chance to show the Avs what he could do.  He had a terrific start to last season then got hurt in December at training camp with Finland's U-20 team, an injury that cost him a chance to play at the World Juniors.  He came back in time for the playoffs, then was hurt in the opening round loss to Everett.

I think those injuries were a huge reason he decided to forego a third year with the T-Birds and go back home and start earning a paycheck rather then continue as an amateur.  He was undersized but didn't shy away from physicality but it almost made the injuries inevitable.  His size, or lack there of, seemed to make him play with a chip on his shoulder. I'll always remember him as the missing piece that completed the puzzle that led to championship.

Malukhin was Seattle's lone selection in the 2017 Import Draft.  I never got the sense that Seattle brass were counting on him to be the next great T-Birds player from Russia.  I think from the very beginning they took a "let's bring him over and see what he's got" very reserved approach with him.  He had size and a heavy shot.  He was a very quiet and polite young man.  I think his foot speed and skating were his biggest liabilities.  Malukhin is the poster child for the CHL Import Draft.  You just don't know what you've got until they get here and then you hope for the best.  Teams are relying a lot on word of mouth.  He wasn't a bad player, he just didn't fit at the WHL level.

Which brings us to Seattle's two newest import players, Slovak winger Andrej Kukuca and Czech defenseman Simon Kubicek.  I know close to nothing about either.  I can read their stat pages and try to formulate an opinion, but that's it.  I've never seen them play, yet they are going to be counted on to fill a couple of significant gaps on the T-Birds roster for the 2018-19 season.

The 19-year old Kukuca is going to need to be a top six, if not top three forward.  He's going to have to be this year's Moilanen and produce offense.  Without his injuries Moilanen was on a 30+ goal pace last season as an 18-year old.  He would have been projected to potentially score 40 this season with the T-Birds as a 19-year old.  Can Kukuca fill that void?  His numbers from playing in Slovakia say he's an offensive talent.  Will that translate to North America?  That's a lot of pressure for a young man who won't meet his new linemates until late August.

There's not as much pressure on Kubicek.  Seattle does have a lot of returning d-men but they also lost two big-time veteran contributers in Turner Ottenbreit and Austin Strand.  Still, Kubicek's arrival is going to ratchet up the competition for both ice time and roster spots among the T-Birds d-corps. Kubicek is, like Seattle second year d-man Jake Lee, entering his 17-year old season, but he's a late birthday and won't be NHL draft eligible until 2020, one year after Lee is most likely drafted.  His inclusion gives the T-Birds a nice group of d-men to grow together over the next few seasons.  It could be him, Lee, Reece Harsch, Owen Williams, Tyson Terretta, Cade McNelly and Ty Bauer together for the next 2-3 years.  This coming season, veteran Jarret Tyszka is on hand as well.  There's not a lot of elbow room in that d-man room.  Will someone get elbowed out?

One thing I noticed about Kubicek playing back in his native Czech Republic?  It appears he got consistent opportunities to play with and against older players, including four games on the Czech U-20 team as a 16-year old.  He's participated in international competition, so while young, he has some seasoning.  He's the same height as the older-by-two-years Kukuca (6'2") but already 20 pounds heavier.

The label every player selected in the import draft gets is "potential".  Let's see if that potential gets realized, beginning this September.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Future Earnings

The 2018 WHL Bantam draft has come and gone and when it was done Seattle had added nine prospects to the fold.  As always, it will be a few years before we know the impact these young players will have on the franchise as none of them are eligible to play full time with the T-Birds until the 2019-20 season.   Among their picks, the Thunderbirds selected six forwards.

That includes first round selection Kai Uchacz.  Uchacz, from De Winton, Alberta was said, by those who follow Western Canadian Bantam players closely, to be a "fast riser" among his age group.  In other words he had a very good bantam season that got him a lot of notice.  Uchacz was captain of his Okotoks Oilers Bantam AAA team, putting up 42 points, including 25 goals, in 33 games. Like three of his fellow draftees, Uchacz also participated in the Alberta Cup where he put up 12 more points (8g, 4a) in just five games. 

Seattle's Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson, said the mandate going into the scouting process is to find players who project out to be good, two-way, 200 foot players.  “We just want to bring in guys that work hard, good skaters, good hockey sense and they have some character."  But in the top rounds there seemed to be another theme.  Find guys who can light the lamp.  With their two second round selections, their own and one obtained in trade from Medicine Hat, Filson and the T-Birds selected two players who combined to earn 159 points in 64 games.  Edmonton product Lucas Ciona registered 48 of those points in 30 games playing for the Northern Alberta Extreme Bantam Prep team. Ciona would seem to be a playmaker as 35 of his points were assists.  Winnipeg's Conner Roulette was Seattle's other second round choice.  All he did this past season was break Jonathan Toews record for points in Manitoba.  Yes, that Jonathan Toews, the one who has led the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup titles.  There is no guarantee that it will translate to the WHL level, but Roulette had 52 goals and 49 assists for 101 points in 34 games with the Winnipeg Hawks Bantam AAA team. 

The T-Birds entered this year's draft without a third round pick. They did have two on the books for next year's draft though.  It appears they used one of those, plus a 2018 sixth rounder they obtained from Red Deer in the Austin Strand trade to acquire the Rebels 2018 third rounder.  With that pick Seattle chose Coquitlam, BC goalie Thomas Milic.  Playing this past season with the Burnaby Winter Club Bantam Prep team, Milic was 13-7 with a 2.06 GAA and .925 save percentage.  Filson likened his style to current T-Birds netminder Carl Stankowski. The T-Birds have done well as of late when drafting goalies in the third round or higher.  Stankowski (2015) and Calvin Pickard (2007)were second round selections and Logan Flodell (2012) was a third round choice.

This move made me curious.  Scouts, I'm sure, have an idea of the depth of not only this draft but of next year's draft as well, both in terms of overall talent and by position.  Seattle could have held on to that 2019 pick for next season and had two third rounders, to go along with their first and two seconds.  Are they making an educated gamble that Milic will be better then any goalie they could have had with one of those five picks in the first three rounds next spring?  Or is the thinking that it is better to use those high 2019 draft picks on forwards and defensemen because the strength of next years draft will be in one of those two positions, so get the high end goalie now?  If you want to be a scout, a GM or a Director of Player Personnel, I'm sure these are things you take into consideration.

Seattle picked their first defenseman of the draft in round four, plucking Roblin, Manitoba's Aiden Brook off the roster of the Parkland Rangers Bantam AAA team.  Brook was described as a big, strong two-way defenseman.  He comes from good blood lines.  His brother Josh, also a defenseman, went fourth overall to Moose Jaw in the 2014 draft then was taken in round two (56th overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft by the Montreal Canadiens.  Meanwhile brother Jakob, a winger, was a 2017 second round pick of the Prince Albert Raiders. 

Seattle went back to the point-producing forward well in the fifth round adding Sam Popowich from Camrose, Alberta.  Playing with the Camrose Red Wings Popowich produced 45 points (19g) in a 34 game season.  In round seven the T-Birds picked defenseman Noah Barlage, another player with good WHL bloodlines.  In 2016, his older brother Logan was the fourth overall pick in the first round of the bantam draft, going to Swift Current.  Logan, a forward, was the centerpiece of a blockbuster trade between the Broncos and Lethbridge Hurricanes this past winter.  Noah may have some room to grow.  He's currently listed at 6'0" but brother Logan is now 6'4".
For their last two selections Seattle again chose a couple of forwards.  Eighth rounder Reid Schaefer is described by Filson as a "hard-nosed power forward who makes room on the ice for his teammates."  The Spruce Grove, Alberta native played last year for OHA Edmonton Bantam Prep where he had 23 points in 27 games.
And with their last selection of the draft Seattle kept it close to home by choosing Gig Harbor native Mekai Sanders.  This past winter Sanders played with the Detroit Compuware 14U and put up 18 points in 20 games.  Like most US born players, you don't know what path he will take in his hockey career.  Will it be the WHL or NCAA?  But at least his mom was excited to have Seattle choose him, tweeting a picture from 2014 of Mekai with his late grandfather from his playing days with the Junior Thunderbirds.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Draft is on Tap

This week the Western Hockey League will hold its annual Bantam Draft as the 22 teams will choose the stars of tomorrow.  The Seattle Thunderbirds will have three of the top 35 picks.  They choose tenth overall in round one and will have two selections in round two.  They have the 32nd pick which is their own, and the 34th pick, a selection they acquired from Medicine Hat in the Elijah Brown deal.

The T-Birds do not have a third round pick.  That belongs to Swift Current.  It was the price Seattle paid two years ago to acquire goaltender Landon Bow at the 2016 WHL trade deadline. At the time of the trade it was a conditional second rounder going back to the Broncos.  Apparently the conditions weren't met and it reverted to a third round choice.

Bow of course would help lead Seattle to the WHL Championship series that year against Brandon, a series they would lose in five games. Seattle would return to the WHL Championship last spring and claim the Chynoweth Cup for the first time in franchise history, besting Regina in six games.  Once again Seattle surrendered a third round pick to help strengthen their team for the playoffs.  They acquired defenseman Aaron Hyman from Calgary.  But that third round pick was originally Price Albert's, one Seattle got in the Cavin Leth trade.

Now, there were other deals made along the way to improve the T-Birds roster for their two runs to the league final, but the highest price they paid in both instances was a third round draft pick, one of which wasn't even their own.  I emphasize that point to make this point; the best way to build a championship caliber team is through the Bantam Draft.  I'm not saying it is the only way, I'm saying it is the best way.

Look at three of the four teams remaining in the postseason heading into the week of April 30th.  Everett, Swift Current and Tri-City paid steep prices for their deep playoff runs.  At a minimum, all gave up at least one first round bantam draft pick. All three gave away young prospects. Other teams, who have since been eliminated from the postseason, paid big prices for a shot at the holy grail too.  Teams like Portland, Regina, Victoria and Moose Jaw all made splashy trades at the deadline that cost them either first rounders or young prospects and in most cases both.  A year ago it was Prince George selling the farm for a chance at the Cup.  Meanwhile in two runs to the Chynoweth Cup Finals Seattle never sent their first rounder, or for that matter their second round pick, away in a trade. They didn't mortgage the future. Because they drafted well, they didn't need to.

You could argue Seattle lost first rounders along the way too.  That is true but it wasn't because of a deal to help them win their first ever WHL title.  Seattle had two first round picks in 2013 but neither of them made an impact on the team.  Defenseman Dante Fabbro never signed, foregoing the WHL for the NCAA.  Winger Kaden Elder was with the team until being dealt to Swift Current in December of 2015 in exchange for Owen Seidel.  That trade was made to accommodate a dissatisfied 17 year old Elder who was not happy with his ice time on Seattle's fourth line.  Unfortunately Seidel, after a promising start with the T-Birds, got hurt and retired from the game just before the start of the 2016-17 season.

Again a disagreement over ice time led the T-Birds to trade 2015 first round bantam pick Elijah Brown this winter to Medicine Hat in exchange for a second and a third round draft pick but Brown was still on the roster for their Championship win.

Of the players on Seattle's Cup winning team, 17 of 24 were either drafted or listed by the T-Birds.  14 were bantam draft choices, two were import picks and one, Scott Eansor was a listed player.  Ten of those players were selected in either the first or second round of their bantam drafts.  Two were first round Import Draft selections.  I'm no math expert, and I'm sure someone out there will point that out to me after reading this, but I believe that is about 66 percent of that roster coming out of the bantam draft and 42 percent of the championship roster built through the first two rounds.  The draft is key!

The players they acquired in trade?  Hyman, Turner Ottenbreit, Rylan Toth, Tyler Adams, Austin Strand, Anthony Bishop and Zack Andrusiak.  Only two of those players they traded for cost Seattle a draft pick, Hyman and Toth.  You could argue though that the acquisition of Hyman really was at the expense of Leth.  Remember before the start of the 2016-17 season Seattle traded Leth to Prince Albert for Andursiak and a third round pick, then sent the third round pick to Calgary in January 2017 for Hyman. 

In a January trade with Regina T-Birds GM Russ Farwell turned Hyman into a 2019 second round pick and young defenseman Owen Williams.   The T-Birds also got a draft pick back in the Strand trade, acquiring the defenseman in December of 2016 along with a sixth round pick from Red Deer for Brandon Schuldhaus.

Four years of Ottenbreit was acquired from Saskatoon for a few months of 20-year old Adam Henry.  Seattle sent prospect Mackenzie Wight to Swift Current for Adams.  Acquiring Toth and having a young Carl Stankowski made former third round pick Logan Flodell expendable prior to last season.  He was dealt to Saskatoon for Bishop.  Bishop subsequently was dealt to Victoria for Blake Bargar.

In the past I've mentioned how Seattle has found gems late in the draft.  Recently graduated out Donovan Neuls being a prime example.  There have been others such as current defenseman Reece Harsch or even a guy like Lane Pederson, a former fifth rounder who spend most of his WHL career with Swift Current.  Plain and simple though, Seattle built their Chynoweth Cup winner specifically through the top of the draft, then didn't sacrifice future drafts to supplement it. 

Which brings us to this week and the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft.  Three picks in the top 35.  A draft that, if you listen to those in the know, may not have tremendous superstar power throughout, but is thought to have tremendous depth. 

Three picks in the top 35 doesn't guarantee success.  Twice recently Seattle had a similar scenario.  In 2012 they ended up with Barzal, Kolesar and Bear.  In 2013 they selected Fabbro, Elder and Nolan Volcan.  You might rush to say in one instance it worked out and in another they fell a bit short.  I will argue they got the picks right in both instances.  At the time of the 2013 draft they had no way of knowing Fabbro would spurn them for the NCAA or that Elder would ask for a trade two years later, primarily because Seattle had a team full of older, quality forwards.

No one bats a thousand but the T-Birds have made more contact then not when they swing away at the draft recently.  Four of those six players mentioned are now NHL draft picks and two of them, Barzal and Fabbro were first round NHL selections. Barzal and Bear are already in the NHL with Barzal soon to be named the NHL's Calder Trophy winner as 2017-18 NHL Rookie of the Year. 

Kolesar, property of the NHL's Las Vegas Golden Knights,  just finished a strong season in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves. Volcan, will be the T-Birds captain next year and is on the path to earning a pro deal. He's already been to and had a solid NHL camp with Pittsburgh.  Meanwhile Elder is currently helping Swift Current as they chase a WHL Championship.  Let's also not forget that Seattle's first round pick before those two drafts, 2011's Ryan Gropp was drafted into the NHL, and their first round pick after those two drafts, 2014's Jarret Tyszka, was as well.

The scouts have done their work. If the T-Birds can have similar success with their first three picks later this week, they will be well on their way to continuing to build upon the culture of winning they have created. Remember too, not only does Seattle have three selections in the top 35 picks this year, but next spring, barring trades, Seattle could potentially have five picks in the first three rounds.  That includes their own first, second and third round choices, plus Regina's second rounder obtained in the Hyman trade and a conditional third rounder from Medicine Hat acquired in the Brown deal.  So Seattle conceivably will end up with eight players from the top of the next two bantam drafts.  That could constitute the core of a championship contender.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Coaching Game

When Steve Konowalchuk took the reins as Seattle's head coach nearly seven years ago, one of the reasons he cited for accepting the position was the chance to work with and develop raw, young players into professionals.  Working with the younger players in the Colorado Avalanche system was something he had done a little of while on that staff of the NHL team.  Coming to Seattle allowed him to do it full-time.

He was pretty good at it too.  Mat Barzal was going to be an NHL player but Konowalchuk showed  him that talent alone was not enough.  In conversations with media at various times during his rookie season with the New York Islanders this past year Barzal often cited the influence of Konowalchuk on his total game.

Barzal was the no brainer in the group though, almost pegged as a surefire NHLer before Kono even arrived in Seattle.  Konowalchuk's biggest fingerprint might be on guys like Scott Eansor and Alexander True, a couple of undrafted players who signed AHL deals.  Like Barzal he showed them as well that it takes more then talent to make it at hockey's highest level.  He instilled a work ethic in them that says you can't cut corners.

In his last four years behind the Seattle bench, Konowalchuk had a secret weapon to help him in developing those players.  that secret weapon was Matt O'Dette.  O'Dette too had his influence on those players.  As the primary assistant coach, he was in charge of the defensemen. Two of them, Shea Theodore and Ethan Bear, earned WHL Defenseman of the Year honors under his tutelage.  Both were drafted into the NHL and both are now NHLers.  Then there is Austin Strand, recently signed by the NHL's L.A. Kings, and Turner Ottenbreit who has hooked on with the AHL's San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche affiliate) for the end of their season.  O'Dette has had a significant impact on the development of their game as well and it continued after Konowalchuk left.  

O'Dette also was responsible for the penalty kill under Kono and Seattle's PK has been fairly consistently a top ten penalty kill team in the WHL over that span, often in the top five.  So, O'Dette had cache before he took over for Konowalchuk behind the bench this season.  So how did he do bringing all that out in the open his first year at the helm?

Let's start with this, in the end coaches are always going to be judged by wins and losses.  In his first  season O'Dette took a team devoid of the star players it had the previous four campaigns and led them to a 34-28-8-2 record and into the first round of the playoffs.  It's one season but he had them playing winning hockey. You can check that box in his favor.

He accomplished that record with a staff lacking in coaching experience.  The only guy standing behind the T-birds bench with any previous coaching on his resume when this season began was O'Dette.  His two assistants were coaching neophytes.  The previous season both Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer were still pro hockey players.  So O'Dette wasn't just coaching the players, he was also coaching up the coaches.  He had a hand in picking his assistants then integrating them into his systems. 

Personally, I think it went seamlessly.  First, it appears he picked the right guys.  Both Hagel and Sommer are enthusiastic, fresh voices who can smartly articulate the message to the players.  In retrospect I think it was a good idea to get two guys just entering the coaching profession to work with a roster featuring a lot of young players pushing their way onto the Thunderbirds roster for the first time. Guys like Sam Huo, Holden Katzalay, Payton Mount and Graeme Bryks are the recipients of that new positive energy Hagel and Sommer are bringing.   Would it have worked with a more veteran roster featuring NHL drafted players like Barzal, Bear, Kolesar and Gropp?   I'm not so sure.

As we know, O'Dette's first year as head coach featured a roster with no Barzal, no Bear, no Kolesar, no Gropp, no Eansor and no True.  He had some solid returning vets in Ottenbreit, Strand, Donovan Neuls, and Nolan Volcan but when the year started he had just one NHL draft pick on the roster, Montreal Canadiens fifth rounder Jarett Tyszka.  Eventually Strand would sign his deal with the Kings but that would be it. Then at the midseason trade deadline Seattle dealt away 19 year old defenseman Aaron Hyman and not long after that 18 year old d-man Reece Harsch went down with injury and missed 19 games.  All of a sudden Seattle was dressing three rookie defenseman every night.  Did they take some lumps?  Sure they did but O'Dette and his staff kept them glued together well enough to get that postseason spot.

The goaltending situation has been well documented too.  Look, when you come into your first year as head coach thinking the one position you don't have to worry about is goaltending and it ends up being the position you worry about the most, it would be easy to panic. Instead O'Dette handed the job to whoever was healthy that night and put faith not just in them, but the team around them until he could settle on a number one guy.  The coach believed in his players and that gave them the ability to believe in themselves.  To paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, hockey is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.  A good coach recognizes that.

At the end of the day there is no way you can look back on this past season and say this team underachieved.  If anything most pundits and fans would say the team surpassed what they thought they would have accomplished.  It was a transition year that, frankly, I think went better then expected.  You knew they would be integrating in a lot of young rookies but to do it and still finish above .500 and in the postseason is a win-win.

If you're still not sold on Matt O'Dette and the job he did, here's something to chew on.  In their first round playoff series against Everett, the 8th seeded T-birds lost to the first seeded Silvertips in five games.   That's expected to happen.  Eight seeds just don't upset one seeds. In that series, the T-birds, with their one NHL free agent and one NHL drafted player (who missed the last two games of the series by the way) scored ten goals and allowed 22. 

Now, I'm not saying that is anything to write home about.  But by comparison, in the second round it was the Portland Winterhawks turn to face that same Everett team.  This was a Portland team that many experts believed would compete for a title this season.  That Portland team finished with the second best record in the Western Conference and fourth best regular season record in the entire WHL.  It was the very same Portland team with seven NHL draft picks on the roster, including four first rounders, along with a free agent goalie who also had signed an NHL deal. Like Seattle, Portland lost their second round series to the Silvertips in five games.  How many goals did they score?  Nine, one LESS then Seattle  How many did they give up?  21 just ONE fewer then the T-birds.

My point here is to draw attention to just how well Matt O'Dette did his first season behind the bench, when he could take a lesser roster then one loaded with NHL prospects, such as the one down in Portland, and essentially produce the same results.

It's just one season and there are no guarantees the second will be better then the first.  But I'm looking forward to watching O'Dette and his staff grow together with this young team.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The To Do List

Now that the season has ended and we've said goodbye to the players we know won't return next season, what's next for the Seattle Thunderbirds?  What are the priorities this offseason?  Will there be a battle for the three 20 year old spots or will that be settled before training camp? Is there going to be a goaltending controversy?  Inquiring minds want to know!

First up for the T-birds is the annual WHL Bantam Draft in early May.  Seattle has the 10th overall pick in the first round and two more picks in the middle of Round Two.  They have at least one pick in each remaining round.  Seattle Director of Personnel Cal Filson and his staff are busy finishing up their scouting and finalizing their draft board.  With a month to go, there is still a lot of scouting to do, with tournaments all over Western Canada and the U.S.  How does this pool of talent stack up against recent drafts?  Only time will tell but the T-birds are in good position to come away with some quality talent early in the selection process.  Filson told me earlier this week that there are some high end forwards at the top of the draft and there should be good depth among defenseman throughout draft day. 

Much of the work to be done between now and next fall is up to the players already on the organization's depth chart, especially the younger guys on the roster. Specifically there are a number of young guys who need to use this offseason to improve physically and get stronger.  In that regard it is an important offseason for players such as Sam Huo, Dillon Hamaliuk, Holden Katzalay, Owen Williams and Tyson Terretta to name a few.  They have shown flashes of their hockey talent and the potential is there but they need to get physically stronger to be more consistent over a long 72-game schedule.  The talent is there to make another playoff run in 2018-19.

As an example, and this is my own opinion, by March the physical exertion needed over a six month season seemed  to take it's toll on Hamaliuk.  That's not a surprise.  He was a 17 year old rookie playing mostly on the second line, often going up against older, more physically mature players.  Hamaliuk was an ironman, playing in all 72 games and he surprised many by finishing 6th in rookie scoring in the WHL with 54 points (15g, 39a).  A focused offseason and he could certainly bump those numbers up in year two, especially knowing it is his first year of eligibility for the NHL Draft.  He is one of those players on the roster who have length but now need to add muscle to his frame.  No one is asking these players to live in the gym the next five months but they need to pay heed to their offseason workout program provided to them by the team.  

One player who just got better and better as the season progressed and had a terrific five game postseason was rookie defenseman Jake Lee.  the 2016 first round bantam pick is a smart young man, both on and off the ice. He has a boatload of confidence to the point he's even a little cocky.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, in moderation.  The best players always have a little edge to their game and Lee certainly has that.  I'm not comparing the two talent-wise, but Mat Barzal had that characteristic as well.  Of course Barzal backed it up with his play on the ice.  Lee is just one season in and  is still in the proving-it process.  Lee did take on a bigger role after the trade of Aaron Hyman midseason and he took advantage and flourished.  Lee is the type of player you can build a core group around for the future.  Like Hamaliuk, Lee  too will be going into his first year of NHL draft eligibility so the 2018-19 campaign is an important one for him.  

One rookie who gets lost in the discussion is Tyler Carpendale.  Carpendale started the season rehabbing from an injury, then played in only 19 games before he suffered another injury that cost him the rest of the season.  Nineteen games is not a big sample size but I liked what I saw.  Carpendale was just getting going when his season was cut short.  He had scored all of his points (2g, 3a) in the six games prior to the injury.  This is a big power forward type who skates well and can punish players with his physical game. He was listed at 6'4" and was 197 lbs. when last season began.  I imagine he'll be bigger at the start of next season.  I think a healthy Carpendale would have affected games the second half of the year so I'm anxious to see him healthy again.  

What about the 20 year old situation?  Seattle has five players eligible for three spots.  Nolan Volcan is a lock, unless he signs a pro deal although even that doesn't preclude him from returning.  You can probably go ahead right now and sew the "C" on his jersey. He's the captain.  Volcan was the team's leading scorer (tied with the graduating Donovan Neuls) and second in goal production with a career best 32.  His trajectory says he could pot 40 next season.

Zack Andrusiak was tops on the team in goals scored with 36 and third in total scoring with 74 points, just two points back of Volcan and Neuls. He is the most "natural" goal scorer on the roster and like Volcan has the potential to be a 40 or even 50 goal scorer.  He'll be a critical element to the power play.  His 11 power play goals were second to the graduating Austin Strand's 14.  That type of offensive production is not easy to find so it is hard to imagine him not on the roster next season as a 20 year old.

That leaves one spot up for grabs among Noah Philp, Blake Barger and Mike Maclean.    Philp was the most consistent of the three mentioned and finished with 50 points.  Bargar is both a strong leader and a strong penalty killer whose season was interrupted by a late season injury.  Maclean was the feel good story, a 19 year old rookie who made the most of a half season in the WHL and is well liked by his teammates.  I'm guessing the third overage comes from the above trio. 

The one caveat?  All five of those candidates are forwards.  Seattle loses two of their best d-men in 20 year olds Strand and Turner Ottenbreit.  The most seasoned returning defenseman is 19 year old Jarret Tyszka, who enters his fourth campaign with the club.  Another 19 year old, Reece Harsch, will enter his third year.  After that it is all second year players and rookies.    Might Seattle look to add a veteran leader back on the blue line by acquiring a 20 year old defenseman to supplement that young group?  My initial thought is to say no and the team will let the young defensemen soak up the ice time.

It could also depend on how much confidence the brass has in the young forwards.  The T-birds have a bevy of wingers who are chomping at the bit, wanting more ice at the WHL level.  Besides those mentioned above, you have others such as Graeme Bryks, Payton Mount and Cody Savey. If they're going to be on the roster next season they're going to need ice time.  Could it come at the expense of a third 20 year old forward?  Seattle acquired two 19 year old forwards in Bargar and Philp early last season to help out with some veteran presence, then brought in MacLean in December.  All had a positive impact. They also added Jaxan Kaluski from Moose Jaw in a January trade and he'll enter his 19 year old year next fall.   They could do the same again this coming season and save that third overage spot for a defenseman if they feel they are too green on the blueline .  

Then there is the goaltending conundrum.  Seattle went through a tumultuous season in net because of injuries.  Three goalies who all got a minimum of 15 starts.  The biggest question mark is still the status of Carl Stankowski who missed the entire year.  Is he back next season and is he ready to go from day one?  Can the Thunderbirds rely on his health?  We know what he's capable of when healthy. He's an elite goalie at this level and has a championship ring to prove it.  Meanwhile,  Liam Hughes dealt with his own injuries the first half of the year but when healthy for the second half he showed he could handle the load and be a solid number one guy. There are probably a few teams still alive in the postseason, and a couple others who have been eliminated who, in hindsight, would have loved to have spent a 4th round bantam pick on Hughes as the T-birds did last September.  His second half numbers were among the best in the league.  

I guess the question is, can Seattle juggle the two and will those two be happy splitting time in net when both believe they are number one guys?  It's not like the franchise hasn't done that in the past. Go back to 2007-08 when Riku Helenius and Jacob DeSerres split goaltending duties and both finished with 20+ wins, sub 2.45 goals-against-averages and  both had save percentages north of .915.  At the time Helenius was a first round NHL Draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning.  The T-birds also have a capable number two goalie on the roster in Dorrin Luding and a couple of signed prospects in Cole Schwebius and Eric Ward.  

Unlike a year ago when Seattle lost nearly 400 points from the roster when the season was done, this time around the T-birds lose only between 200-230 points.  The T-birds potentially will have five of their top eight scorers back for next year in Volcan, Andrusiak, Matthew Wedman, Philp and Sami Moilanen.  Throw in Hamaliuk and of their top six point producing forwards, only Neuls won't be back next year.  Wedman's numbers were much better the second half, compared to his first half.  28 of his 47 points came after December, including 11 of his 17 goals.  Remember, this was a two and a half month stretch in which Seattle played primarily against the tough U.S. Division.  He was trending in the right direction. 

The same can be said of Philp, whose biggest contribution seemed to be his positive impact on the young forwards on the roster. He played often on a line that featured either Huo or Hamaliuk and often both.  Philp recorded 20 of his 50 points in the last 25 games of the season.  It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Philp is a point a game player next season if he's back as one of the team's three 20 year olds.  Philp is similar to the outgoing Neuls in that he can play on the wing or at center and can hold his own on both the power play and penalty kill. 

Meanwhile, hopefully Moilanen stays healthy next year.  He was on a 35 goal and 64 point pace before those injuries cost him 22 games, primarily in the second half.  There is no question he has 40 goal capability.  It's also no coincidence that when he was in the lineup Seattle scored at a higher per game rate. The T-birds offense was near four goals a game with him on the ice.  When he suffered the injury and missed February and part of March the goals per game average dipped to around two.  The dip in offense is not only because the team missed his scoring either.  His absence made the power play inconsistent.  His willingness to play a physical game and win puck battles creates turnovers that lead to scoring from other players.  

The two big point producers the team will have to replace are Neuls and Strand.  I think they replace that Neuls production with improvement from Hamaliuk who finished 10th on the team in points.   Hopefully a full season of Carpendale takes up some of that slack.  A healthy Moilanen and more consistent offensive production from Wedman will help.  If the third 20 year old is one of those forwards expect more points from that spot as well and a few other second year players should improve on their point totals. There is no reason to think Seattle can't do what they've done the past two years and score 250 goals or more.  

Strand and his 25 goals from the blue line will be harder to make up. Seattle does have a candidate on the roster in Jarret Tyszka.  Tyszka had an up and down season but still had 40 points (8g, 32a).  If the Montreal Canadiens prospects wants to earn a pro contract then he'll need to pick up his game next year and with no Strand or even an Ethan Bear on the roster anymore, he should get every chance to do that.  Obviously teams at the next level see he has talent or he wouldn't have been drafted by an NHL team.  He needs to have a good offseason and up his production in 2018-19.  He doesn't have to be Strand.  He doesn't have to be Bear.  He has to be the Jarret Tyszka Seattle used a first round bantam selection on in 2014.  We have seen glimpses of his high end game.  Now we need it for 72 games.  

Seattle surrendered far too many goals against.  That was a byproduct of a young roster, often times not as physically mature as the opponent.  The fluctuating situation in goal was also a contributing factor. But at times Seattle also got away from one of their core principles:  take care of the defensive zone first.  More attention to the d-zone, better puck management, a settled goaltending situation and another year in the system for the young players hopefully will cut down on the goals allowed.  

There are always unknown variables during the offseason that will affect next year's roster.  A surprise trade that brings a player in or sends a player out.  Maybe an unexpected signing of a list player or draft choice the team took a flyer on or a young player who took his offseason seriously and dramatically improves his game. I know you're all waiting for the second coming of Scott Eansor, right?   Until that happens though, these are the players Seattle has going into their offseason.  It's a solid group with loads of potential.  The question is, will they realize it?

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Good '97 Goes Well in a Cup

And that, as they say, is a wrap.  The book has closed on another season of Seattle Thunderbirds hockey.  This time, far too soon of course. The last two go-rounds, the T-birds stretched their season deep into May.  This time they could only make it to the last day of March.  Such is the nature of the beast.  The organization built up a championship roster over the course of four years and now they are in a reloading cycle.

How ironic is that Seattle's best period of hockey in the playoff series versus Everett might have been the turning point, only not in their favor.  After a road split to open up the best-of-seven the T-birds came home with home ice advantage in their back pocket.  They roared out of the gate in Game 3 and blitzed the Silvertips with 24 shots and an early power play goal.  They spent most of that period in the Everett end of the ice.  Yet when the period was over, despite how dominating they were, the game is tied 1-1.  Psychologically I think Seattle never recovered.  They should have had the lead going into the intermission.  they put Everett on their heels, yet it was not enough.  Seattle never got close to winning again.

Many pundits and prognosticators didn't believe in this team when the puck dropped on the season back in late September.  They didn't think they had the horses left after a Chynoweth Cup run to even make the postseason this spring. Many didn't think they could withstand the roster purge and a coaching staff makeover and still be competitive.  They were wrong.  The team competed every night.  They battled in the toughest division in the league and still came out with a winning record.  Every other team in the division was a buyer at some point this past season, adding veterans for a possible title run.  Seattle was a seller. They added pieces for the future, not the present.  They played without knowing who would be their number one goalie until January and still battled their way into the second season, as brief as it was.

How would they score after losing over 350 points from their championship roster?  They returned only one player who scored more then 20 goals the previous year.  That player, Sami Moilanen, potted 21 goals in 2016-17 and would be limited to just 22 goals this time around because he missed one-third of this year to injury. Yet the T-birds scored nearly as many goals this season (250) as they did last season (253).  Five 20 goal scorers emerged from the shadows and a majority of them should be back next year.

Among those who will not return is Austin Strand.  The 20 year old defenseman surprised many with his 25 goal performance this season.  His junior eligibility complete, he now heads to the pro ranks with a WHL championship ring on his finger. His year and a half in a Seattle jersey helped the undrafted d-man earn a free agent contract with the NHL's L.A. Kings.   Strand came to Seattle in a December 2016 trade with Red Deer, one of the final pieces needed for the T-birds run to the Cup last year. In two and a half seasons with the Rebels, Strand amassed all of seven goals.  In his season and a half with the T-birds he scored 33 then added five more in 25 playoff games.   Hashtag, change-of-scenery.

The end of the season over the weekend also just about closes the door on one of the best bantam drafts in recent Thunderbirds history.  The 2012 draft, the Mat Barzal draft, those '97 born players.  Donovan Neuls was the last player on the roster from a draft class that was used as the foundation for a championship.  Eight players from that group would make the roster at one point or another.  Only Logan Flodell remains in the league now, playing in goal for the Lethbridge Hurricanes who advanced to Round Two out East.  Four of those players are now playing professionally, two of them in the NHL. 

Meanwhile, Neuls went out with a career year, tying Nolan Volcan for the team lead in scoring with 76 points (22g, 54a).  Neuls though, was at his best when it mattered the most.  In 49 playoff games he registered 39 points (13g 26a). None of his 13 postseason goals were bigger then his overtime winner in Game One of last year's Championship Series against Regina.  When you hear the term "team player", you should think of Neuls.  He played every position on the ice in his T-birds career except for goalie.  And with the injuries the team suffered this season at that position,  who knows how close he may have come to going between the pipes. Center, wing, and yes even defenseman, he played it.  On the power play or penalty kill, tasked with shutting down an opposing team's top line, for four seasons Neuls was Seattle's Swiss Army Knife.  They should have used that to etch his name on the Chynoweth Cup.

We think of Turner Ottenbreit as a member of that Seattle draft class and in a way he was.  He too was drafted in the spring of 2012, albeit by the Saskatoon Blades.  He was the fourth to last player chosen, some 200-plus picks after the T-birds selected Barzal with the first overall pick.  Yet it is hard to imagine the T-birds winning as they did the last four seasons without number four patrolling the blue line.  His acquisition early in the 2014-15 season didn't set off any alarm bells. It was no blockbuster deal. Seattle had too many 20 year olds, Saskatoon had an open roster spot so the T-birds sent overage defenseman Adam Henry to the Blades and got the young Ottenbreit back in the deal.  333 games later, Otto leaves the organization an all-time fan favorite (any player who is despised by every other division rival is a fan favorite for life) but more importantly, he leaves a champion.

As my collegue Andy Eide over at mynorthwest.com pointed out to me, had that trade never been consummated, had Ottenbreit never left the Saskatoon organization, he would have not played one minute of playoff hockey in his WHL career. Saskatoon has missed out on the postseason for five straight years. Instead he comes to Seattle, plays in 49 playoff games, wins a division banner, two conference championships, a Chynoweth Cup, plays in the Memorial Cup and is captain his final season. Not bad for a 12th round bantam pick.  A textbook example to never give up on your dreams.

With the graduation of these three players and a few others who won't return next season, another layer is peeled away from that group that brought the franchise its greatest success.  We say goodbye to Donny, Strander and Otto the same way we said goodbye to Keegs, Barzy, Scotty, Gropper, Truzy and Bear last year and Smitty and Haufer, among others, the year before that.  They're gone but not forgotten.  No longer able to watch them up close day-to-day, we will follow their careers now from afar.  Once a T-bird, always a T-bird.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Lets Make like A Cheap Pair of Pants and Split

Two games into the first round of the playoffs and the series between Everett and Seattle is tied at one game apiece.  After a sub-standard performance in Game 1, Seattle bounces back in Game 2 for a 5-4 overtime win thanks to a beauty of a goal by Zack Andrusiak.

Games 3 and 4 now head to the accesso ShoWare Center. Seattle earned the road split to wrestle away home-ice advantage but that will only mean something if they protect home ice.  I'm not sure home-ice advantage means what it used to in postseason play.  Look around the rest of the WHL and through Saturday road teams, the lower seeds, won seven games opening weekend.  The T-Birds always get a boost from their rabid fans at the ShoWare Center.  Let's hope that is the difference this Tuesday and Friday. Come early, come often, be LOUD!

In Game 1 Friday, Seattle didn't seem as ready as Everett for the start of the series.  The Silvertips came out very aggressive.  The T-Birds struggled at times with puck management.  It led directly or indirectly to goals against.  Yet the turning point came early in the second period when Seattle, down just a goal, had a chance to tie things up on the power play.  Instead they turned the puck over.  It led to an Everett shorthanded goal and Seattle never recovered from that 2-0 deficit, eventually losing 4-1.

It was a slow start in Game 2 as well.  Everett had the first seven shots on goal and converted on an early chance.  Unlike Friday night though, Seattle took advantage of an early power play to tie the game and get the ice tilted back in their favor.  Austin Strand scored on the power play and soon after Sami Moilanen poked home a rebound giving Seattle their first lead.  After that it was back and forth until Andrusiak's overtime heroics.

Of note in this series, Seattle has scored six goals and they've come from five different players. Only Andrusiak, who had the T-Birds lone goal in Game 1, has scored twice.  By contrast Everett has scored eight goals and half of them have come off the stick of Garrett Pilon.  Patrick Bajkov has scored twice.  That's 3/4ths of their goals from their top line.  Seattle needs to keep up the balanced offenvise attack.

Everett gets the special teams nod in Game 1 since they scored the shorthanded goal.  Seattle earns the edge in Game 2 with a pair of power play goals, while limiting Everett to one on five chances.  So far in the series the T-birds have limited the Silvertips to just one power-play goal and that came with the 'Tips skating 5-on-3.

Shots on goal through two games heavily favor Everett 95-59.  Take that with a grain of salt.  Shots are typically inflated up in Everett.  I literally saw Liam Hughes cover up a loose puck on the side of the Seattle net and a SOG was added to the Everett tally. I will say that the 'Tips have had more puck possession, especially in Game 1 and that is what concerns Seattle more, not inflated shot totals. 

Everett does dump a lot pucks toward the net, which is what I would do as well and it is what Seattle should do against Carter Hart.  They did more of that in Game 2 then they did in Game 1.  No surprise that it led to a five goal outburst and a win.  This is the third time in the last three postseasons that the T-Birds have scored five goals in a playoff game against Hart. It is not easy to do but Seattle should have the confidence they can score on him.  In 11 playoff games versus Hart, the T-Birds have recorded 35 goals.  It takes a mindset that they have to consistently drive the net.  It may not be the first shot or the tenth shot that beats him but if you keep shooting, eventually you'll get pucks in. 

I think a lot of players think Hart can only be beaten with a perfect shot, so they sometimes are reluctant to shoot or teams overpass against Everett which leads to blocked shots, blocked passes and  turnovers.  The T-Birds need to use the KISS method, Keep It Simple Seattle.  Shoot, shoot and shoot some more.  Get traffic and get the greasy goals.

If the Thunderbirds are too pull off the upset, they'll need more of Game 2 and less of Game 1.  Limit the mistakes, the unforced turnovers and take fewer penalties.  I didn't think either goalie was at their sharpest in Game 2.  We'll see which one is on their game Tuesday in Game 3.  With that being said Hughes has faced more scoring chances and has come up with some key saves for Seattle.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the first two games:

Third Star: D Turner Ottenbreit.  Monster effort in Game 2 with three points (1g, 2a) while logging lots of ice time, especially after Seattle lost d-man Jake Lee for a good chunk of the game after he took a knee on knee hit.  Seattle played that entire third period with just five defenseman and Ottenbreit seemed to be the one taking up that ice time.

Second Star: G Liam Hughes.  He's been credited with 87 saves in two games, far and away more then any other goalie in the early postseason.  I don't think he's even played his best yet but Seattle would be in an 0-2 hole without him. He has that ability you want from your goalie to shake off a bad goal and come back with a key save.

First Star: LW Zack Andrusiak.  Andrusiak now has three playoff goals in his last five playoff games versus Everett and Hart, dating back to last spring.  Seattle's leading goal scorer in the regular season is also leading them in playoff goals.  His overtime winner Saturday put on display his offensive attributes; good skating, good puck handling, a nose for the net and a deft scoring touch.  You want your best goal scorer to have confidence he can score from anywhere on the ice.  Andrusiak is not lacking in that confidence.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

And so it Begins

Playoffs, the second season, the postseason.  Whatever you call it, it's here.  The 72-game regular season completed and it is time for Seattle to begin the defense of their 2017 WHL Championship.

Unlike last season, and even the season before, the T-birds do not go into the playoffs as one of the favorites to win it all.  As the eighth seed, they are the decided underdogs, especially in Round 1 where they face the Western Conference's top seed, Everett.  I don't make predictions.  It would not shock me though if Seattle won the series against the 'Tips, but if they do it, it will be an upset.

As for the just completed regular season,  I think most who adjudicate such things would say Seattle exceeded expectations.  It is well documented that the T-birds lost over 300 points from their championship team.  In the cyclical world of Major Junior hockey, this was to be a "rebuilding" year. Yet they finished above .500 playing in what arguably could be the toughest division in the WHL.  It's a 72-game schedule.  Seattle played 22 of those games, almost one-third, against the top two teams in the conference, Everett (10) and Portland (12).

Going into the campaign many of us wondered where the offense would come from with Barzal, Bear, Gropp, Kolesar, True and Eansor gone.  Yet when the season ended the T-birds put 250 goals on the board.  that is just three fewer then they scored with that group I just mentioned, last season.  

They made the playoffs despite not having their presumptive number one goalie, Carl Stankowski, all season.  They went to goaltender-by-committee much of the season with different goalies suffering injuries at various times.  Things finally settled down with the emergence of Liam Hughes. Down the stretch with a playoff spot and playoff seeding on the line, Hughes won six games against some of the best offenses in the conference, often facing 40+ shots nightly.

They got back to the playoffs because players who had been role players in the past, third and fourth line muckers, stepped up and led the team.  Players like Donovan Neuls, Nolan Volcan, Austin Strand, Zack Andrusiak and Turner Ottenbreit, among others, not only took on bigger roles, but they embraced them and all had career seasons. Meanwhile, young rookies such as Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee and Sam Huo became major contributors right from the start.  Looking ahead, Seattle will have seven of their top ten scorers back next season and 11 of their top 15.

The coaches probably didn't enjoy watching the team give Tri-City eight power plays in that meaningless, last regular season game but I appreciated watching all the ice time the rookies and young players got against the Americans, who iced a fairly veteran lineup, in that 5-2 loss.  The T-birds rested over 270 points in that game and hit a couple of posts so it could have been a closer game at the end.  I was intrigued by the play of Cody Savey who headed back to Canada after the game to join his Junior B team for the playoffs.

On to the playoffs, or second season or postseason...whatever you call it!

My T-birds three stars for the regular season:

Third Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Finished tied atop the team's scoring leaderboard with 76 points with a career year featuring 22 goals and 54 assists.  In four seasons with the T-birds he played in 283 regular season games and finished with 180 points (57g, 123a) and +30.  Not bad for an 8th round bantam pick.

Second Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit.  Seattle's captain had to adjust his game at the start of the season after being suspended for a hit in last year's Championship Series and another early this season.  He did exactly that without neutering his physical game.  After starting his WHL career as a Saskatoon Blade's 12th round Bantam pick, he spends nearly four season with the T-birds, playing in 284 regular season games and scoring 108 points (24g, 84a) while finishing a remarkable +76.

First Star:  W Nolan Volcan.  With 76 points he tied Neuls for the scoring lead on the team.  His 32 goals were second to Zack Andrusiak's 36, but double his previous best of 16 from last season.  Unless he signs a pro deal this offseason, he should be back to lead the team as a 20 year old next year and most likely wearing the "C".  He is a pitbull on the ice, plays in all situations, hits like a pile driver and never gives anything but 100 percent and could be a 40 goal scorer next season.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Picking off Points

A 2-1-1-0 week may not, on its surface, sound like a big winning week but in reality Seattle earned five points and a huge three points against the two top teams in the Western Conference and greatly improved their chance of nailing down a playoff berth.

Playing twice against Portland and once versus Everett, with two of those games on the road, Seattle came within a whisker of earning points in all three games while not necessarily playing their best hockey, at least not for a full 60 minutes each night.  Those two teams are a combined 88-38-3-7 on the season and 15-3-0-2 in their last twenty games.

Seattle began the week with an impressive comeback overtime win Tuesday against Vancouver.  Down 4-1 in the second, Seattle roared back for a 5-4 victory.  It was a theme for Seattle this past weekend; never giving up and fighting back.  They did it again Friday in Portland.  After squandering a 3-1 lead and falling behind 4-3, the T-birds got a huge late goal to force overtime before eventually winning in a shootout.  Saturday in Everett they gave up the game's first goal but found an equalizer in the second period and held on to at least earn a point in an overtime loss.  Sunday the weary 'Birds again fell behind to Portland, this time 5-1, and fought back to within a goal late in the third.  Alas, they couldn't complete the comeback as the Winterhawks hit the empty net twice for the 7-4 victory.

Injuries are not an excuse, but a fact of life in sports, especially one as physical as hockey.  Seattle finally got  Reece Harsch and Sami Moilanen back in the lineup after absences of 19 and 14 games respectively, but are now dealing with the loss of Blake Bargar and Jaxan Kaluski.  Let's not forget the T-birds are playing much of the season without Tyler Carpendale.  Sure, he was in his rookie season, but he was starting to round into form when he was lost for the season.

These players on the shelf have done a couple of things. One, they've jumbled up the forward line combinations.  At the time of his injury Carpendale was beginning to find a chemistry with fellow rookie Dillon Hamaliuk.  Without Bargar, Seattle's special teams have taken a hit.  Kaluski was coming into his own and starting to feel comfortable on the ice with his new team when he was knocked out of the lineup.  Inject those three players into the lineup for any of the three games this past weekend and instead of three points, the T-birds may have earned four, five or six.

Secondly, and this is the silver lining to those absences, development of young players was hastened because of increased ice time.  Holden Katzalay, yet another 17 year old rookie, has really taken advantage of the situation and we've seen his game improve dramatically the past month.  He, Hamaliuk and 16 year old Sam Huo are being used in all situations.  It is making them better players now and in the future.  Even a player such as Graeme Bryks (yes, still yet another 17 year old rookie), who has only been with the team a short while, will benefit from the limited and unexpected ice he is getting.

No team goes through a season unscathed by the injury bug.  But Seattle hasn't played one game with a full, healthy roster.  As terrific as the deal Russ Farwell made to acquire Liam Hughes has been, how many more wins might Seattle have with Carl Stankowski between the pipes?  Even if it is just two or three more "W's", it could be a big difference in the standings in the tight Western Conference or U.S. Division.

So, while it's frustrating that the team hasn't won a game in regulation since January 19th, the fact they are in just about every game since then without some key players should give us hope.  11 times since that 7-2 win over Kelowna the T-birds have earned points in games by fighting for sixty minutes, earning points, whether it be one or two, by going the distance and them some.  All 11 of those OT/SO games the past two months have been against teams with winning records.  Four of them have been against conference leading Everett.  It also includes games against Portland and Swift Current.  Those three teams, the Silvertips, Winterhawks and Broncos, have three of the top four records in the WHL and the T-birds continuously find ways to get points from them because they never give up.  

That's a big reason why I admire what this team has done this season and the praise has to go to the players but don't overlook the work of the coaching staff, led by Matt O'Dette.  A 30-25-8-2 record may not jump out at you but all things considered, it's actually a quite remarkable feat.  Remember, Seattle graduated out well over 300 points off last season's roster.  Two of it's best players from a year ago, Mat Barzal and Ethan Bear, are now playing in the NHL.  Their leading goal scorer this season, Zack Andrusiask, had all of six goals on his resume prior to this year.  The core of the team is a veteran leadership of hard workers but in reality it's also a  group of 17 and 16 year old rookies.

Think about this,  Everett first year head coach Dennis Williams will probably be named the WHL Coach of the Year, at  the very least he'll get the Western Conference honor.  Without his #1, two time WHL goalie of the year Carter Hart the first two months of the regular season, the 'Tips were well below .500.  Meanwhile, O'Dette, without ever having his #1, Chynoweth Cup winning goalie Carl Stankowski, and using a goalie carousel of castoffs from other teams the entire season, has been above .500 most of the year and was never more then a few games under the break even point through the first couple of weeks.   That's making the most out of what you've got. That's coaching.

My T-birds Three Stars of the Week.

G Liam Hughes.  Hughes earned points for the team in all three games he started, going 2-0-1-0.  His best effort actually came in his only loss, the overtime setback in Everett in which he willed Seattle to a point with a 20 save effort in the third period as the T-birds were being outshot 20-1.  It took seven shots and a power play for the Silvertips to beat him on overtime.

C Noah Philp .  Philp scored a huge tying goal down in Portland after Seattle blew a 3-1 lead.  he then helped win it with a shootout goal.  His 47 points are more then double his previous best in the WHL with Kootenay two years ago.  In four games this week he registered seven points (2g, 5a) and was +3.  He's a plug and play player, fitting in comfortably on any line.  Hard to see him not back here next season as a 20 year old.

W Zack Andruskiak.  Andruskiak is a goal scorer who continues to work on his complete game.  Goal scorers can be streaky and fortunately for Seattle, Andrusiak is on a hot streak with seven goals in his last six games. This past week he record nine points (6g, 3a) as well as both an overtime and shootout winner.  He now leads the team with 30 goals, 24 more then he had in the WHL before the start of this season.

Monday, February 26, 2018

No LOL, T-birds Looking for "O", Finding "L's"

The Thunderbirds enter the final game of February this coming Tuesday riding a four-game losing streak.  All four setbacks have been in regulation, meaning they haven't earned a point in the standings.  As a result, their lead over Kamloops for the final Western Conference playoff spot is a tenuous six points.

There have been a lot of factors at play in this skid.  Injuries to Sami Moilanen and Blake Barger have jumbled up their forward lines.  For his part, Moilanen was averaging nearly a point a game (19g, 18a in 40 games) when he left a contest in Everett on January 26th with an upper body injury.  He hasn't returned to the lineup yet, missing 13+ games to this point.  Bargar and his 24 points (11g, 13a) has missed the past three games with no timetable yet for his return.  These are two wingers who play in all situations for Seattle.

A struggling offense is another reason for the team's recent lack of wins. With the exception of the four goals they scored in a 5-4 loss Friday in Kelowna, Seattle has struggled to crack the three goal mark in many recent games.  in four of their last five outings they have been held to two or less goals.  In four of their last nine games the T-birds have been held to a single goal.  Not surprisingly, all four of those games were losses.  This is a stark contrast to the months of December and January when Seattle was averaging over four goals per game. 

Part of this is puck possession, or lack there of.  Shots on goal are usually a good indicator of who has more of the puck possession and in 11 of their last 14 games, Seattle has been outshot. Even in the three games where they outshot their opponent, the T-birds are 0-3.  Some of Seattle's struggles from the early part of the season have returned late in the year, an inability to finish chances.  They're losing too many puck battles in front of the opposing goal as they look for rebounds and deflections.

Another issue?  Not closing the door.  Seattle hasn't won a game in regulation since a 7-2 win over Kelowna on January 19th. That's 16 games without a regulation win.  Since then the T-birds have played beyond regulation eight times, posting a 5-3 record in those games.  A number of those games, it was Seattle fighting back for a tie but on several occasions the T-birds couldn't hold leads, having to go beyond 60 minutes to earn the extra point.

This weekend Seattle found two different ways to lose games that should have earned them points.  Well, to be fair they found one way to lose, and one way to lose found them.  Friday in Kelowna Seattle battled from two goals down in the third to forge a 4-all tie, only to give up the late winner by allowing Kelowna to get behind their defense on an odd man rush.  Not very good situational hockey and it cost them at least a point and a chance at a win.  An 0-for-4 power play didn't help either, especially since they were surrendering two goals while on the penalty kill in a frustrating road loss in which Seattle had the early 2-0 lead, only to fall behind 4-2.

Saturday's frustration comes from playing a fairly smart game that was greatly infected by less then stellar officiating.  Wait, I mean affected by...no, no, I was right the first time, infected.  While Seattle's penalty kill was a perfect 4-for-4 against Everett, I thought a couple of the calls against Seattle were borderline, but, okay, will give it the benefit of the doubt and call those as correctly called penalties. But then let's be consistent with the calls. 

The non-call, on the obvious slashing in half of Donovan Neul's stick, was the seminal moment of the game.  It led directly to Everett's first goal.  Instead of Seattle being on the power play and up by a goal, the game is tied at 1-1. As soon as that sequence of events was over, slash-no call-Everett goal, you knew that goal would be the difference on the scoreboard and it was.   The excuse that the slash was at the bottom third of the stick is either a lie or wishful thinking.  The stick broke in the middle of the shaft.  That is the point of impact.  The evidence was lying on the ice for everyone to see.  If you missed the call, admit it.  So often the cover up is worse then the original crime.  Two things happened there.  The slash left Neuls without a stick to fight for the puck, essentially taking him out of the play, and it gave Everett possession of the puck in the Seattle zone.

You can argue Seattle still had enough time to win the game.  That they didn't do enough to over come that singular call.  That they missed a chance to tie on their only power play when they had the goalie beat but hit the post with the shot.   But I can argue that they did do just enough to get that game at least to overtime or a shootout.  They did enough to at least earn a point.  You can't have one team have to over come obstacles the other team doesn't have to deal with.  Seattle shouldn't have to argue the merits of a very easy-to-call slashing penalty.   As Abraham Lincoln would tell you, one play can alter the course of history.

T-Birds Three Stars for the Week:

G Liam Hughes:  Hughes may have lost both his decisions this week, a 4-2 setback Wednesday in Kennewick and the 2-1 loss Saturday to Everett, but he was the main reason Seattle was in both those games.  He faced a combined 84 shots in the two games, making 79 saves.  While his record may be .500, his .907 save percentage is among the best in the league

LW Dillon Hamaliuk.  The 17 year old  rookie from Edmonton had the first three point game of his young WHL career with a goal and two assists in the loss to Kelowna Friday.  In 61 games he has 35 points (14g, 21a) and leads the team in plus/minus at +10.   Just by comparison, Ryan Gropp, who was a first round bantam pick by Seattle in 2011, finished with 42 points (18g, 24a)  in 59 games and was -5 in his 17 year old season rookie season.  I'm not saying they are the same player , but I like the comparison because both are 6'3" left wingers who skate well.    

W Nolan Volcan.  In three games he registered four points (1g, 3a) and was +4.  He leads the team in both goals scored, with 26 and points with 62. The 26 goals are ten more then he had last season.  One of just two point-per-game players on the team, along with Donovan Neuls.  He's had the progression through his WHL career you expect, increasing his point totals each season.  Normally a left winger, he has been playing right wing the past week with the injuries to Moilanen and Bargar.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Long and Grinding Road

A taxing weekend for Seattle, playing three games in three nights, going 1-1-1-0 and earning three of a possible six points.  It was the third time in the past 24 days the Thunderbirds played three games in three nights.  It was also the second time they played three games in three nights in less then a month, where the team they were facing on the third night was only playing their second game.  No surprise that in both instances the T-Birds were out of gas by the third period.

Thank goodness that's over right?  Well, brace yourself because the team is about to embark on a stretch of four games in seven nights to end the month of February that will include a long travel day in between two road games.  Ah, the life of the WHL player!  And those three-in -three's on the schedule are not done.  Seattle has two more such scenarios on the schedule in March when they will play 10 games in 17 days.  Better eat your Wheaties!

All this with a playoff spot still at stake.  Despite the 1-1-1 record this past weekend, it was actually a positive result because the T-Birds gained two points on Kamloops, a team chasing them for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.  And Seattle is still within striking distance of fourth place Tri-City in the U.S. Division.  They are just a point back with a key showdown with the Americans in Kennewick this Wednesday. The two teams also meet twice more  in March. Despite the loss to Spokane Sunday, Seattle is just six points back of the Chiefs for third place in the division with two more games against them on the schedule.

Seattle has played Everett seven times this season now and has won four of those games.  They've all been down-to-the-wire battles. Three of the games, the last three, have gone past 60 minutes.  Of the four games decided in regulation, Seattle is 2-2.  Each team has won once in regulation by a single goal and each team has a two-goal regulation win.  There are three more games on the schedule between the division rivals, including Saturday's game at the accesso ShoWare Center.  Anyone want to guess as to how that game will go?

Not the best belated birthday present for Austin Strand Sunday.  His 21st birthday was Saturday and he spent it in Everett helping Seattle to a 3-2 shootout win.  A day later he was losing a few teeth and needing stitches after getting a high stick from Spokane's Riley McKay to the chops.  He had to leave the game until late in the second period.  Without him on the ice a scoreless game turned into a two-goal lead for the Chiefs.

One of the few drawbacks of my broadcast location in the southeast corner of the ShoWare Center is missing some details on play in the northeast area of the ice.  The crowd, the benches and the boards often impede my view.  When Strand initially went down, neither I or my broadcast partner Tim Pigulski could see what happened. A few texts I received said it was an inadvertent stick from a teammate.  After the game we found out otherwise.

Sunday, February 11th, Donovan Neuls gets slashed twice on a partial breakaway down in Portland.  No call.  Friday at home against Everett, Dillon Hamaliuk gets slashed skating the puck out of the Seattle end.  No call.  Then the high stick to Strand.  No call.  Every team "gets away with a few" and officials aren't perfect but those three non-calls are hard to ignore.  They affect outcomes of games.  Look how impactful the non-call on the Strand play was.

Speaking of Strand, what a past 14 months he's had.  Traded from Red Deer to Seattle on New Year's Eve 2016, he helps Seattle to their first ever WHL Championship last spring.  The season ends with his second straight trip to the Memorial Cup (Red Deer was the 2016 host team).  His strong first half to this season earns the undrafted d-man an NHL entry level contract with the L.A. Kings.  Meanwhile, he continues to rack up the points, hitting the 19 goal mark in Sunday's loss.  His 52 points are 20 more then he had in 74 regular season games last year.  Since arriving in Kent he has scored 27 goals and picked up 42 assists (69 pts.) in 91 games plus 14 more points (4g, 10a) in 20 postseason games.  He even added a goal in the Memorial Cup to his resume.  Contrast that to his first two and a half seasons in Red Deer (164 games) where he only tallied 41 points (7g, 34a).

For the latest on the Carl Stankowski situation, be sure to check Andy Eide's article over at mynorthwest.com.  I'm guessing at this point of the season, no one can be too shocked by the news that Carl is unlikely to return this year.

Once again, we have to remember this is a development league and that is part of what the Thunderbirds coaching staff is tasked with doing; developing these young players so they can further their hockey careers past the WHL level.  It's a two-way street.  Players need to take the coaching they get and apply it in games.  They need to play well enough to earn the confidence and trust of their coaches.  The coaches in turn have to trust that they've taught the players what they need in order to play in all situations.  The latest example of that is 17-year old T-Bird rookie Holden Katzalay.  A player who was often a healthy scratch through the first two-thirds of the season has been getting plenty of ice time recently.  He's earned the trust of the coaches to the point he is getting steady play on the penalty kill.   Still to come is his first WHL goal.  So close lately, so close!

My T-Birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star:  G Dorrin Luding.  With a little extra juice going up against his former team in Everett Saturday, Luding came up with a 41 save performance, including 21 in the third period.  He then stopped two of three in the shootout to earn Seattle a hard fought 3-2 road win.  Since joining Seattle in late November Luding's record is 6-6-1-0, but he's 6-2 in his last eight decisions.  Meanwhile he's quietly chipped in with two assists.

Second Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit.  The T-Birds captain ended the weekend with a goal and two assists.  His lone goal was a big one, tying the game Friday versus Everett that earned Seattle a crucial point in the standings.  With Strand out for a good chunk of Sunday's game he played a ton of minutes against Spokane.  Coming off their championship season, with six of the team's top players graduating to the pro ranks, The T-birds needed strong leadership for a young roster.  They are getting that from the Yorkton, SK native.

First Star:  D Austin Strand.  Two goals and an assist in the three games.  He registered a big power-play goal in the Friday third period comeback.  His absence on the ice for a good part of Sunday's game was noticeable, both on the ice and on the scoreboard.  Came back from that high stick to score the team's only goal.  His 19 goals is third in the WHL among all defensemen.  And he also celebrated his 21st birthday.