Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

That's not the way the Thunderbirds wanted to go into the Christmas break. Seattle had a goal of reaching .500 and being in a playoff position. Unfortunately a winless three game weekend put the kibosh on that. The weekend summed up Seattle's first half woes. Injuries, poor puck management and a, mostly, ineffective power play were some of the culprits in the T-birds going into the break on an 0-2-1-0 skid.

Just when it appeared the team was back to good health, the team promptly lost Noah Philp and Loeden Schaufler to injury. Then, as expected, Ondrej Kukuca departed for Team Slovakia's World Junior Championships training camp. A more seasoned team might be able to overcome those losses. We saw it a few years back on Seattle's run to a WHL title. But this team is very green, the third youngest team in the WHL. The lack of experience among Seattle's depth has been key to their below .500 record. Young players are learning the hard lessons on the fly. What might have worked at the bantam or midget level because of your talent, won't work in the WHL where you're facing the top junior players. In due time the experience being gained through these hard lessons should pay off. Right now, it's called growing pains.

There are bright spots despite the struggles. Seattle's top line is doing what is expected of them. They are carrying the freight offensively for a team that can struggle to score goals. Nolan Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Zack Andrusiak have combined for 96 points (45g, 51a) in 31 games. On a team that allows more goals than it scores, they are a combined +21.

Usually when talking about a team Most Valuable Player, you look at the top scorers. There is certainly a lot of value in offensive production. But when debating who has the most value to the team's success, you can make a convincing argument for Philp. If not the MVP, he might at least be the linchpin between the team's success and failure as they suffer when he's not in the lineup. Having that experienced, second line center creates more consistent secondary scoring and it takes pressure off the bottom six in that forward group that is made up of many first and second year players. There is no question they are a better team when Philp is healthy. His absence affected the effectiveness of Dillon Hamaliuk, who often played on Philp's wing.

Two draft eligible Thunderbirds have made it to the "B" rankings (2nd-3rd round prospects) of the most recent Central Scouting rankings for the upcoming NHL draft. In addition both those players, Jake Lee and Hamaliuk, have been invited to participate in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game slated for Red Deer, Alberta in late January. Meanwhile some of those rookies are starting to shine with a couple of defensemen, Tyrel Bauer and Simon Kubichek, front and center. Because of injuries to veteran blue liners Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch, Seattle was forced to play the 16 year old Bauer in 29 of the first 31 games. I can tell you that was not the plan when the team gathered for training camp in August. Very rarely though, if ever, did you feel Bauer's youth was exposed. The goal scorers get all the headlines but Bauer quietly reached the holiday break with five assists, including two in the final two games, and a +4 rating. There may be no flash or sizzle to his game but if you want a very coachable, rock solid, smart, physical defenseman, Bauer is all that and more.

Meanwhile, Kubicek, who played the first half still a 16 year old (his 17th birthday is December 19th), was most often used along with the 17 year old Lee as the team's number one defensive pairing. Not only is Kubicek adjusting to a smaller ice surface but he's overcoming a language barrier and living in a foreign country, far away from his Czech Republic home. Despite that he reached the break with 14 points (7g, 7a) and a +5 rating. He's in the infancy of his T-bird career and should, like Bauer, only get better.

We are also seeing what a healthy Tyler Carpendale can do. Carpendale was actually with the team through their 2017 postseason championship run, although he didn't play. He was with the team at the Memorial Cup in Windsor as well. Injury cost him all but nine games a season ago and he spent much of the first two months this season on the shelf too. We've been waiting for him to make his mark and it seems, now that he's healthy, he's ready. Knock on wood.

I'm not excusing the team's first half performance, nor am I giving up on this season. While we can look forward to how the younger players develop and how that might affect the team's long term future, players like Volcan, Andrusiak, Wedman, Liam Hughes and Philp aren't concerned with that. They are playing to win today. In some cases, this is their last season in the WHL, possibly a last chance to catch the attention of a pro scout. They want to finish their time here as winners.

You can't restart the season but you can take a step back and reset and go after the second half the way you wanted to go after the first.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Doctor Will See You Now

The old joke during Steve Konowalchuk's six year tenure as Thunderbirds head coach was that he had a complete, healthy roster for all of maybe six games. A bit of an exaggeration but not too far off the truth. To that his replacement, Matt O'Dette says, "Hold my beer." Not one game since taking the job prior to last season has O'Dette had a completely healthy roster. So when we say this past weekend was the T-Birds at their healthiest this season, they are still not 100 percent healthy with Cody Savey out with a lower body issue. And now, after Saturday night, it looks like you can put Loeden Schaufler on that injury report as well.

But with a, for-the-first-time-this-season, mostly healthy lineup this weekend we saw what this team can do. Sure they only got a split of the two games. In fact they've played only.500 hockey their last four games. But the two games just played were six of their most complete periods of hockey this season. They were the better team on the ice both nights, first by large stretches in their 4-1 win over Tri-City Friday in Kennewick and then by a slight margin Saturday in the 2-1 loss to Everett. They put a combined 86 shots on goal. The 44 shots Saturday were more shots against the 'Tips then they had in their first two games against Everett combined (17+26=43). Getting 44 shots on the Everett net in one game is almost unheard of.

There are those who will say, stop using injuries as an excuse, but the facts don't lie. With Jarrett Tyszka, Noah Philp, Payton Mount, Tyler Carpendale and Reece Harsch in and out of the lineup, with Jaxan Kaluski playing almost one-handed, the T-Birds struggled. Too much had to be asked of their young, inexperienced players. With those previously injured players in the lineup together for the first time all season, Seattle showed they can compete with anyone. They were a controversial goal away from earning at least three of four points.

Yes, it was not all rosy this weekend. There are no moral victories. 86 shots over two games should net you more then five goals. They need to finish more of those Grade A chances. Seattle has to get the power play figured out too. We know they're capable. We saw them score an average of five goals a game during an October four-game winning streak. We saw them pot 13 power-play goals over a six game stretch earlier this season. They only have five in their other 21 games.

I checked Seattle Athletic Trainer Phil Varney for any new gray follicles in his beard after Saturday night's game. Varney was diligent in his duty, helping Tyszka recover from his upper body injury and get on the ice for the first time this season. And what does Tyszka do once finally back on the ice? He promptly gets involved a couple of very physical altercations both nights, including a fighting major in the first period of his first game.

Now available for Christmas, a WHL Wheel of Suspensions Dartboard, darts included! I think you can find it on Amazon for $29.95! Free shipping! If you can crack the WHL's player suspension code, please, send me the winning lottery numbers too! Seriously I'm flummoxed by it.

All those players coming back into the lineup are key cogs for Seattle's top lines or top D-pairing. The one player showing his worth that may not get the notice of the others is Carpendale. Since missing nine games he's responded with four points (3g, 1a) and plays the aggressive, physical style that Seattle's coaches preach. In reality he should have four goals. He scored one in the third period Friday in Kennewick. The problem is the referees, the goal judge and the video review judge didn't see the obvious. Injuries have cost him too many games the past two seasons. Here's to hoping he can stay healthy because when on the ice he affects games in Seattle's favor. He could be that quintessential late bloomer, in the Brenden Dillon mode. He may not be on any Central Scouting lists but he should at least be registering a small blip with some NHL scouts.

You be the judge:
69.1 Interference on the Goalkeeper – This rule is based on the premise that an attacking player’s position, whether inside or outside the crease, should not, by itself, determine whether a goal should be allowed or disallowed. In other words, goals scored while attacking players are standing in the crease may, in appropriate circumstances be allowed. Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. The rule will be enforced exclusively in accordance with the on-ice judgement of the Referee(s), but may be subject to a Coach’s Challenge (see Rule 78.7).
For purposes of this rule, “contact,” whether incidental or otherwise, shall mean any contact that is made between or among a goalkeeper and attacking player(s), whether by means of a stick or any part of the body.
The overriding rationale of this rule is that a goalkeeper should have the ability to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player. If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

Italics are mine for emphasis. Do I have a slight bias? Sure, but that looked like interference with the goaltender to me. There are no coach's challenges for interference with the goaltender in the WHL but why not? They have overhead video camera's zeroed in all the goals in all WHL rinks. They have a video review judge at all WHL games. Time to flip the page to 2018.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the week:

Third Star: Got to give it to goalie Cole Schwebius for recording his first WHL win Friday in Kennewick. The only goal he allowed was a PP goal on a redirection. There was nothing too overtly spectacular about his sixty minute winning effort, it was just solid goaltending. He made the necessary saves. He's only played in five games but his numbers, a 2.62 GAA and .915 save percentage, are solid too.

Second Star: C Matthew Wedman. Just everywhere on the ice this past week, earning points, hitting, winning puck battles, causing havoc in front of opposing goalies and dominant in the face-off circle. Even more impressive, He's +11 on a team that has allowed more goals than they've scored and he probably logs more minutes then most of his teammates.

First Star: W Zack Andrusiak. The T-Birds do, at times, struggle to score. They don't have a lot of "natural" goal scorers on the roster. Andrusiak is one of the exceptions. He's a goal scorer and that's what he's been doing lately. Hat tricks in back to back games recently he now has potted 19 on the season, far and away tops on the team. And while we do consider him a "natural" goal scorer with his quick shot, he does put in lots of work to hone that skill.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Baby Steps

I know it may be hard to see or even quantify statistically, but the young T-birds are making progress. Actually, there is some quantifiable evidence as Geoffrey Brandow (follow him on twitter @GeoffreyBrandow), a real junior hockey stats geek if ever there was one, has pointed out that Seattle's rookies are second in the WHL in points produced, trailing only Moose Jaw. Now for a lot of teams those rookie point totals get skewed by Imports, especially a 19 year old Import. That does factor in with the T-birds as 19 year old winger Andrej Kukuca is the team's leading rookie scorer with 17 points. But rookie defenseman Simon Kubicek, Seattle's other Import, is still just 16 and won't be 17 until December 19th, and he is the second leading rookie scorer with 10 points.

Payton Mount has been limited, due to the U-17 tournament and injury, but he has seven points in 14 games. Graeme Bryks and Tyrel Bauer have three points each and both Jared Davidson and Cody Savey have recently earned their first point in the WHL. Six other players classified as rookies, have played for the Thunderbirds this season. I would put money on a few more young players making their WHL regular season debut at some point this season.

The measure of these rookies early on isn't done through the points they earn though, but in their adjustment to a higher level of hockey, a faster and more physical game. It's adjusting to team schemes and systems, something most of these players didn't have to worry about at lower levels. When you see their ice time jump, you know they are progressing. It is a sign the coaches trust them more now then they did at season's beginning. Davidson and Savey are prime examples of that. Their minutes have increased. It hastens their development. They're still going to make rookie mistakes. Their response to those mistakes is key. they have to learn from those errors and correct them. It's a season long process. Remember, these two players weren't even drafted. They were essentially free agents listed by Seattle and brought to training camp, where they earned their spots on the roster. They are now significant pieces of Seattle's future.

Another key piece to Seattle's future was on display this weekend as well. 2018 second round Bantam pick, 15 year old Lucas Ciona, got into his first three WHL games. Physically, Ciona looks nothing like a 15 year old. Listed at 6'2", 193 lbs., I think he's so well conditioned he could play at this age in the WHL. I'm not saying he'd stack up the points but he could stand up to the physical rigors, playing on the third or fourth line. Alas, at age 15 he's only eligible for five games until his midget season concludes. He didn't register a point in those three games but he held his own. The one shift that stood out for me was him on ice Friday against Calgary's 19 year old Mark Kastelic, the league's second leading goal scorer. There was Ciona in a battle with the 6'4" Kastelic along the boards in the Seattle zone, banging away, tying him up and not letting him get off the wall with the puck. He's just a strong kid.

We've already written about the benefits of all the extra ice time rookie d-man Tyrel Bauer is getting in the absence of Jarret Tyszka. When Tyszka is finally cleared to play, and hopefully that's soon, don't expect Bauer to sit often, if at all. He's carved out a spot in Seattle's top six defensive rotation. Despite the struggles to win games recently, Bauer is still +3 on the season. We're barely through November and you almost want to take that "rookie" label off Bauer. You shouldn't. He's still just 16 years old. He's still going to make rookie errors. Once again though, you quicken his development by letting him make and learn from those errors. The T-birds did it with Shea Theodore and Jared Hauf. They did it with Tyszka and they did it with Jake Lee. Three of those are, or are going to be, NHL draft picks. Bauer is in line to follow that same trajectory.

Three has not been a magic number for the T-birds. They just lost three straight, winnable games and in each case the third goal was the "goal too far". It put Seattle in too deep a hole from which they couldn't recover. They didn't quit after those third goals from their opponents, but they couldn't dig out of those multi-goal deficits. I liked the effort in Portland Saturday in the 4-3 loss the best. Here's why. It was their third game in four nights, going up against a rested, healthy opponent that hadn't played in three days. After a struggle to get out of their own end the second half of the first period, they made adjustments and kept it simple the rest of the game. When they appeared to be running out of gas late in the third, they found a final push to make it a one goal game late and they put themselves in position in the final seconds to tie it. It didn't happen but the effort was there.

My T-birds three stars for the week:

Third Star: C Nolan Volcan. Just continues to do Nolan Volcan things, even when not scoring, he's affecting games. If the T-birds young players want to know how to affect games when the puck isn't on your stick, watch Volcan. He's totally engaged in 200 feet of ice. Like Scott Eansor before him, he's that player you don't want to play against because he never takes a shift off.

Second Star: W Zack Andrusiak. Seattle is struggling to score, everyone that is, except Andrusiak who now leads the team with 15 goals following his hat trick Saturday. Goals in six straight games and seven of his last eight. His job is to score goals and that's what he's doing.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. Now the team leader in points with 21 (8g, 13a) with a +7 rating. He's been driving the engine lately. Centering the first line, winning faceoffs, scoring, playing physical and playing in all situations. Seven points in his last six games. If there wasn't a Volcan on this team, I'm guessing he'd be your captain.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

And We're Back.

The Thunderbird offense finally busted out Saturday in a 6-4 win over Portland. The win snapped a seven game winless skid, a streak in which the T-Birds scored just eight goals and no more then two in any game. Prior to Saturday night, the last time Seattle posted a "W" was October 27th, a 5-1 victory over the Vancouver Giants up in Langley.

Maybe the win over Portland shouldn't be too surprising despite the seven game skid. You could see the offense starting to come around the previous two games, both losses to Spokane. Seattle put a combined 73 shots on goal in those two games. They created a dozen scoring opportunities against the Chiefs each night. Just in the third periods alone against Spokane the Thunderbirds had a combined 35 shots on goal, but scored just once. They weren't finishing their chances. They weren't getting to rebounds and scoring greasy goals. Saturday against the Winterhawks, the T-Birds scored three of their six goals off rebounds. Four of the six were scored from inside the "house", that area just outside the crease.

We mention often Seattle's youth and the growing pains associated with a young team. Saturday night against Portland that youth experienced a bit of growth spurt. Down early 2-0, it was Seattle's young corp that sparked the comeback. Sixteen year old rookie Jared Davidson's first WHL goal lit the fuse, getting the T-Birds back in the game by putting back in a rebound. That rebound came off an initial shot from fellow 16-year old rookie, defenseman Tyrel Bauer. The T-Birds tied the game minutes later when 17-year old second year player Sam Huo banged home yet another rebound. This came after an offensive zone face off win by yet another 16-year old rookie, Payton Mount, who earned an assist on the goal. By the way, the night before in the loss in Spokane, another rookie winger, 17-year old Cody Savey earned his first WHL point with a third period assist.

18-year old winger Tyler Carpendale still seems like a rookie. That's because he got into only nine games as a rookie last season before an injury that required surgery sidelined him the rest of the way. An injury sidelined him again early this year and he missed eight games. He returned to the lineup with a vengeance this weekend, recording a goal and an assist in the two games. More importantly he helped set the tempo by playing the "T-Bird way", an aggressive physical brand of hockey. He gave the team energy both nights as he looked to be making up for lost time. On a line with Huo and Mount they seemed to be on the same page all night.

Able to roll four lines allowed Seattle to get their top line players out of a scoring funk. Matthew Wedman picked up three points (2g, 1a) versus Portland. Nolan Volcan earned three assists and put another shot off the crossbar. Andrej Kukuca ended the night with a goal and an assist while Zack Andrusiak completed the weekend with a pair of goals and now has lit the lamp in four of the last five games.

Seven of the eight goals scored by the T-Birds this weekend were even strength. The eighth one was scored shorthanded. Seattle still hasn't got their power play back on track and are mired in a 1-41 stretch with the man advantage. Injuries have affected the power play as Seattle has lost Noah Philp and now Reece Harsch and as of yet hasn't had Jarret Tyszka in the lineup. Still, they are creating chances. Too many shots lately are missing the net, which I think is a sign of guys pressing. But better traffic around the net could help. They need to take the goalies eyes away.

Hockey is a funny game. Goalie Liam Hughes was probably better in most of the losses during the losing streak then he was in Saturday night's win. A couple early shots got behind him, shots he usually stops. Great to see the offense pick him up. I will say there are lots of goalies who'd kill to have a 51 save effort on an "off night" like Hughes had. In the end he did what goalies are asked to do, give your team a chance to win.

No team wants to experience a seven game winless streak. It's very hard to make up lost ground. Despite that, when it was over, the T-Birds find themselves only a game below .500 with lots of hockey ahead of them.

With the return of Mount from the U-17 Challenge and Carpendale back from injury, Seattle coaches have cobbled together line combinations that look like they can get them through the absence of Philp. You want to be productive up and down the lineup so opposing team's can't focus on just shutting down your top line. The task is to get Saturday's effort each night. If you can get offense from the third and fourth lines more consistently, opponents have to game plan for that. The first test will come this Wednesday against Vancouver.

Maybe it was just me but for the first three weeks of the season Sam Huo looked lost. He just didn't seem like the same player who had such a solid rookie campaign. Then head coach Matt O'Dette moved Huo off the wing and inserted him at center. Since then Huo has been a different player. Centering the third or second line has put him closer to the front of the net. It's given him more responsibility, especially in the defensive zone. Maybe it forced him to concentrate more or maybe it's taking better advantage of his skill set. Doesn't seem like that big of a move, but it may have saved his season. Confidence is hard to quantify, but Huo seems like a much more confident player then he did through much of October. Scoring three goals will help that. Tip of the cap to O'Dette and his staff for watching the video and putting a player in a better situation for success.

Seattle's two wins this season against Portland have come without their two oldest defensemen, Tyszka and Harsch, in the lineup. With both those players sidelined they beat Portland opening night, 5-3. They did it again Saturday night. Seattle has potted 13 goals in three games against the Winterhawks, outscoring them 13-9 in the season series. Tyszka heads to Montreal this week to get a checkup on his injury from the Canadiens medical staff. The T-Birds hope when he returns, he's a step closer to returning to the lineup. The biggest beneficiary of the Tyszka/Harsch absence has been Bauer. Did anyone notice the young Canmore, Alberta native ended the weekend with a +3 rating?

My T-Virds three stars for the week:

Third star: C/W Jared Davidson. It wasn't just that he recorded his first WHL goal this weekend. It was the timeliness of the goal. Seattle, in the midst of a seven game skid had just surrendered two early goals to Portland. The T-Birds were in a fragile situation. They could have hung their heads and wilted. Davidson's goal got them back in the game. It gave them back their mojo. It put them back on their toes instead of on their heels. The undrafted Davidson was the surprise of training camp, making the regular season roster when most pundits didn't see that coming. Just you watch, that first goal will be the first of many in his T-Bird career. He reminds me a bit of Greg Scott, another undrafted player who had a pretty good career with Seattle. Only Scott didn't make the roster until he was 17.

Second Star: W Zack Andrusiak. For Seattle to win consistently, they need Andrusiak to score consistently. He was their leading goal scorer a year ago. He now leads the team in goal scoring again this season with 10, including four in his last five games. His breakaway goal in the third period Saturday essentially iced the win over Portland. Goal scorers are usually streaky. Lets hope Andrusiak is in a hot streak that continues this coming week. He can play up and down the lineup which helps spread the offense.

First Star: C/W Jaxan Kaluksi. Very quietly Kaluski has been Seattle's best player the past week. It may not put his name on the scoresheet a lot, he had two assists in the three games, but his work rate is off the charts. He's also found some chemistry with Andrusiak on the second line. He's showed his versatility playing both center and wing. He's a tremendous penalty killer. Twice Friday in Spokane he stripped the puck away from the Chiefs best player, and a #1 NHL draft pick, defenseman Ty Smith, while the T-Birds were shorthanded. The first time he did it, it led to a shorthanded Andrusiak goal. His presence is most obvious winning puck battles in the corners. There is a reason he now wears an "A" on his jersey. The coaches trust him, very much in the vein of a Nolan Volcan.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


A few years back, when the Thunderbirds would lose a Scott Eansor to injury they had an Alexander True they could move up from the third line to center the second line. When Keegan Kolesar would miss time on the first line with an injury, they could plug in that spot with a Donovan Neuls. Right now, as the team goes through some injuries to top nine forwards, they don't have a True or Neuls to fill that void. Now, they may have a future True type, or a Neuls-in-training somewhere on the roster, but they are younger players, rookies. They haven't gotten the seasoning yet that True and Neuls got behind older players. When True and Neuls were 17 year olds, WHL veterans like Jamien Yakobowksi and Sam McKechnie were on board to help get them through the growing pains. In other words, the T-birds had more experienced depth back then.

So, why should this season be any different? Well back then Seattle had a veteran roster, nearly top to bottom, that would eventually lead them to two conference championships and a league title. As well, their younger players were named Barzal, Gropp, Bear and Kolesar. You can look at most WHL rosters and see an asterisk by any player deemed a rookie. Now some of those asterisks go by the names of import players who are 18 or 19 years old. Technically they're rookies but in reality are older players. Seattle's own Andrej Kukuca falls into that category. But I categorize most "true" rookies in the league as 16 and 17 years olds with no or limited WHL games under their belts.

The T-birds currently have nine such players on the roster. 16 year old rookie Payton Mount is an exception because the former first round bantam pick is further along in his development that he is a top nine forward. Of course, he's currently away representing Canada at the U-17 tournament. He's also the exception, not the rule. The other eight are the players the T-birds are plugging into spots in the lineup when older players are going out. Players still developing their games to fit in the WHL.

The best case scenario would be to let those players develop their games by rotating in on the fourth line, or in the case of a blue liner, either as a seventh defenseman or on the third d-pairing. They'd be healthy scratches some nights and getting a lot of their work in during practice. But injuries have scuttled those plans. With Noah Philp out, Seattle has had to move 2nd year forward, 17 year old Sam Huo up to the second line. He's been given significant power play minutes as well to fill the void left by the injury to Philp. The domino affect is that rookie Graeme Bryks moves from the fourth to the third line and 16 year old rookie Jared Davidson now centers the fourth line.

It means acquiring Brecan Wood from Moose Jaw to create more competition for minutes. While Wood is 18 years old he was used sparingly by the Warriors, in fact when Seattle acquired him he was playing in the AJHL with the Spruce Grove Saints. So he comes to Seattle and immediately starts getting more minutes in a new system. Of course this all happens with Tyler Carpendale, another top nine forward, sidelined with injury and Mount away at U-17. It is essentially like having to replace your third line with rookies and new acquisitions. Oh, and you're probably going to have to do it against what could be argued is the best division in the league, the U.S. Division.

And we haven't even touched on the defensemen group that is currently employing three 16 year olds and has only one player over the age of 19 currently skating. All this while their most experience d-man, and the only NHL drafted player currently on the roster Jarret Tyszka, continues to sit out with injury. He hasn't played a single minute yet this season.

When Seattle was relatively healthy and everybody was in their right spot in the pecking order, they went 6-2-2-0. When the injuries and subsequent line juggling cropped up they went 1-6. That's the difference between a more experienced bottom six forward group with a more seasoned blue line and one like Seattle has right now, very, very green. It's also the nature of the beast. The WHL is cyclical. Seattle is still coming down from their championship run.

The roster has almost completely turned over from May 2017. Only four players with significant roles remain from the Chynoweth Cup winning team. One (Tyszka) is out with injury, another (Zack Andrusiak) was a 4th line winger that season. Reece Harsch was a rookie on the third D-pairing and Nolan Volcan was an 18 year old third line player. Players move through the WHL pretty quickly and rosters turn over every three years.

Now the T-birds also have a bit of a whole in their 2000 and 2001 age group. After a season and a half with the team, Seattle traded the disgruntled 18 year old Elijah Brown to Medicine Hat last season. He was the team's 2016 first round draft pick. They got a couple of high draft picks in return, including a second round pick they used last spring, a selection they used on Conner Roulette. Roulette, a player who has shown terrific offensive ability at lower levels, is signed but at 15 years old is not yet eligible for full-time duty in the WHL.

The second round selection that spring was goalie Carl Stankowski. Stankowski was a significant piece to the 2017 championship run but his health and injury situation has been well documented and he was traded to Calgary this past summer so he could deal with that closer to home. In return Seattle got future considerations. The T-birds third round selection that year, forward Conner Pyne signed but didn't work out. Still, Seattle acquired d-man Loeden Schauffler from Kootenay earlier this season and Schauffler was taken just a few picks after Pyne, so you could argue the T-birds recouped that pick.

The T-birds didn't have a 4th round pick and their fifth round selection, Kabir Gil, opted for the NCAA route but they did get Dillon Hamaliuk in round six along with Carpendale. Seventh rounder Tyson Terretta played a season and a half with the team before deciding to leave hockey behind after an injury plagued career. It was a fairly decent draft but unfortunately the top of the draft, for very different reasons, didn't work out long term as T-birds

In the spring of 2016 Seattle had four picks in the first three rounds but nothing after that until round eight (they did trade back into round six but traded the rights to that player, Nakdodan Greyeyes, to Saskatoon for a future draft pick). Remember, to supplement their rosters for their playoff runs leading up to that championship season, Seattle traded away some draft capital, getting back players like Bow, Leth, Schumacher, Adams, Toth and Hyman and before that Jakabowski, McKechnie, Henry and Maxwell.

Meanwhile, with their 2016 first round choice they selected defenseman Jake Lee. Lee is already in his second season with the club and is listed currently as a "C" skater by NHL Central Scouting for the upcoming NHL Draft. When you don't have 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th round picks, picks traded away to build up your team for three playoff runs that led you to a league title, you probably want to hit home runs with those other high picks.

In Round Two Seattle chose a power forward type player in Eric Fawkes. In Round Three, with two picks Seattle opted for forward Alex Swetlikoff and defenseman Layton Ahac. Seattle went after the top talent available. But a selection in the draft is no guarantee, instead it just gives you exclusive WHL recruiting rights to that player. In the case of Fawkes, Swetlikoff and Ahac they all ended up verbally committed to NCAA programs. Sometimes you swing for the fences and hit a home run, other times you strike out. And before you think this is a "Seattle thing", look at some recent WHL drafts and you will see a number of teams who've lost high picks to NCAA programs. As they say, it is better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all.

Seattle did get Graeme Bryks and Cole Schwebius in later rounds in that draft, and then signed some solid list players who went undrafted that year including Sam Huo, Eric Ward, Cade McNelly and Cody Savey so the cupboard is not bare. They also traded Fawkes' rights to Kootenay for Schaufler and future picks. As well, they traded the rights of Swetlikoff to Lethbridge. You can't get back a 2016 draft pick. There is no flux capacitor or DeLorean time machine. No use looking back, you look forward at what you can control, that which is in front of you.

In the 2017 draft they grabbed Mount along with defensemen Tyrel Bauer and Luke Bateman with a few others still on their list. They signed a couple of promising undrafted players in Davidson and Matthew Rempe. Seattle has signed all but two of their selections from last spring's draft. Those signed players include a first rounder, two seconds and a third. They drafted and signed a local player, Mekai Sanders in the ninth round, a player they believe would have gone in the second or third round if he was better known in hockey circles. Currently Seattle has a first and two second round picks, and potentially two third rounders, in next spring's draft. That extra second rounder comes from Regina and should end up being at the top of round two.

So the reload has begun. That's down the road though. Right now the team has to fight their way out of this current scoring rut and five game losing streak. Younger players have to get more comfortable with unexpectedly bigger roles. Veteran players have to get back to where they were just a scant few weeks ago.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star: C Nolan Volcan. Yes, I know he hasn't scored a goal in nine games but he's still out there busting his butt every shift. He's probably more frustrated then anyone else on the team right now. I'm sure he knows he's missed a good 10-12 scoring chances over this five game stretch. And I still believe he's due to go on a scoring binge.

Second Star: D Owen Williams. If one player has stepped up his game in this stretch, I think its Williams. I'm just noticing him more out on the ice, and for the good things he's doing. Without Tyszka they needed someone to fill that void and Williams is looking more and more confident.

First Star: The goaltending. Seattle is not getting blown out over this stretch, games are probably closer because of the goaltending of Liam Hughes and Cole Schwebius. There have been moments in a few of these losses where Seattle could have gotten run out of the building. The goalies have not allowed that to happen.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

A Yo Yo Weekend

From the deep valley of their 7-2 home loss to Kamloops Friday to their high climbing 5-1 win Saturday in Langley over the Giants, it was an up and down weekend for the Thunderbirds as they head towards the end of October.

There's no sugar coating the five goal loss to the Blazers at the accesso ShoWare Center. Seattle put together another early two-goal lead then promptly surrendered seven unanswered for their first regulation home loss of the season. After killing off an early four minute Kamloops power play, that included a two-man advantage 1:41 in length, Seattle got their own chance to skate 5-on-3. They quickly scored twice before the game was 10 minutes old. It sounds strange to say but that might have been the worst thing to happen for the T-Birds. I think they got overconfident, not to the point they were cocky, but they seemed to be feeling good about themselves. It was if they said "They can't score on us with a two-man advantage, how are they going to score against us even strength?" And of course Kamloops did just exactly that seven times over the next 50-minutes.

Seattle just got too complacent and were too casual with the puck, especially in the defensive zone. It appeared they were coasting into plays rather then skating into them. They didn't bear down on scoring opportunities. More importantly they left their physical play in the tool box and got outworked for every puck.

No doubt the players got an earful from the coaches after the game and before the next on Saturday against Vancouver. Those speeches aren't often what you might imagine them to be. They are not fire and brimstone admonishments or undressing of a player or players. They are blunt reminders of what it takes to compete and win at this level. No matter what was said or how it was delivered, the message registered as the T-Birds put together a strong road effort in Langley for a the 5-1 win. How the win happened is the way you would expect it to unfold. With older players, the team leaders, showing the way. Nolan Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Liam Hughes were those leaders on Saturday.

Wedman is quietly averaging just over a point a game with 14 (5g, 9a) through the first 12 games. He's a big body, power forward type so it was no surprise both his goals against the Giants came from within five feet of the goal. More impressively, Weds is leading the team in plus/mimus at +11. He is winning 56 percent of his faceoffs as well. Volcan also sits at 14 points on the season and I contend he hasn't hit his offensive stride yet this season. I just think he still has a big offensive surge coming. He only has four goals so far. They're going to come. In the meantime he continues to play a 200 foot game. The T-Birds have killed off 19 straight power plays and no question he is probably their best penalty killer.

The six goals he allowed Friday before being pulled versus Kamloops weren't all his fault but it still wasn't his best game. So Saturday goalie Liam Hughes was looking for a bounce back effort. Boy did he get it with a 41 save performance against the Giants. His best work came in a 16 save third period, with Seattle down to five defenseman, taking too many penalties and back on their heels a bit as Vancouver tried to eat into the T-Birds three goal lead. They kept firing pucks at him, he kept kicking them out.

Some coaching decision sometimes sneak in under the radar, but the move by Matt O'Dette to have Sam Huo center the third line, rather then play the wing, paid off in a big way. Huo got is first goal of the season, a game winner at that, and I think playing center helped him focus on his responsibilities at both ends of the ice. Hopefully the fire has been lit for Huo after a slow start.

After Sami Moilanen opted to stay in Finland this season and play professionally, the T-Birds needed to fill the skates of a player who would have been penciled in for a potential 30-goal season. So, in the CHL Import Draft they took Andrej Kukuca with their first of two picks. Kukuca had been a prolific scorer back in his native Slovakia. The question was whether that would translate to the WHL. He did lead the T-Birds in scoring during the preseason but then got off to a slow start once the regular season started, going without a point in the first two games. He seems to have adjusted though, as he now sits tied for second on the team in scoring. He has 15 points in the last ten games (4g, 11a) with a +4 rating.

Just a reminder that defenseman Tyrel Bauer is still just a 16-year old rookie, probably not slated to see so much ice time at this point of his young T-Bird career. But pressed into heavy duty with injuries to the two 19-year old d-men, Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch, he's holding his own. Bauer has played regular minutes in all 12 games and there he was on the ice in the third period versus Vancouver, killing off penalties, helping protect that late lead. He may only have one assist, but he's +2. He's still a work in progress but he's getting ahead of the learning curve. Where is the 2020 NHL Draft? You might want to book a seat there. Good chance he and is T-Bird teammate Simon Kubicek have their name called. At the very least both are on the right path.

My three T-Bird Stars for the Saturday game in Langley (because, well you saw that game Friday against Kamloops didn't you?)

Third Star: Nolan Volcan. The captain doesn't have to score a goal to affect the outcome of a game. Big part of Seattle killing off six Vancouver power plays. He always seems to make a point of finishing his checks. I know this because I can hear them up in the broadcast booth. Volcan body checks have a certain sound to them...loud. And he chipped in with two assists.

Second Star: C Matthew Wedman. Scored twice and could have had more. The reason? He always goes to the front of the net. Also key on the penalty kill. One thing about that loss Friday to Kamloops; when he left the ice in the second period after being on the receiving end of a big open ice hit, Seattle was up 2-1. When he returned late in the second, Seattle was down, 3-2.

First Star: G Liam Hughes. Oh-so-close to that elusive first T-Birds shutout. Still turned aside 41 of 42 shots. Probably sad to see that Seattle has no more games in Langley this season. In two starts there he is is 2-0 with a 1.00 GAA and a save percentage of .972!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

An in Depth Look

The week started off well enough for Seattle when they registered their fourth straight win last Tuesday at home, a 5-4 decision in the first of three straight games versus Tri-City. Captain Nolan Volcan was a beast on the ice with a four point night (2g,2a). In the previous four games Seattle had scored 20 goals but not one of them came off the stick of Volcan. His performance Tuesday showed he didn't like being left out of the party. While they won the game, the T-Birds lost leading scorer Dillon Hamaliuk to an upper body injury in the first period. The T-Birds cobbled together new line combinations and, after surrendering a couple of two-goal leads, fought from behind for the win.

Even with no Hamaliuk in the lineup, things started off well enough Friday at the Toyota Center in Kennewick when the T-Birds once again jumped out to an early two-goal lead. For the second straight game though, Seattle got into some poor puck management and the Americans not only came back to tie it, but eventually got a late third period goal to take the lead enroute to a 4-2 win, thus snapping Seattle's winning streak. It didn't help matters that Seattle's power play was 0-for-4. Meanwhile, for the second consecutive game, the T-Birds lost a top six forward to injury as Payton Mount missed much of the second half of the game.

Saturday back at home for the third meeting between the two teams in a week, it would be Tri-City grabbing the early two-goal lead. Seattle continued it's recent struggles with the power play, failing on two lengthy 5-on-3's. Since two early power-play goals in Tuesday's win, Seattle is now 0-for-it's-last-13. Despite that they found a way to get the game even late in the third period thanks to a nice snipe off the rush by Matthew Wedman, before falling in overtime. The absence of both Hamaliuk and Mount was certainly felt in the game Saturday, but Seattle still generated plenty of chances to score more then the two they got. The T-Birds ended up with just 22 shots on goal because too many of their shots were wide of the target or easily blocked. On a number of occasions Seattle simply overpassed the puck, passing themselves out of a scoring chance.

The biggest takeaway from the three games was the T-Birds forward depth was tested and was just too inconsistent in trying to answer the bell. Some players, Cody Savey comes to mind, stepped up to the challenge but others did not. We've talked early in the season about how some young defensemen like Ty Bauer have flourished getting extra ice time because of injuries on the back end. This past week was a good chance for some of the young forwards to do the same and right now you'd have to give them an incomplete grade. Injuries happen. You overcome them with your depth. This weekend should be a lesson to the younger forwards about filling the void so the team doesn't miss a beat.

Despite the offensive struggles in the last two games, Seattle was in both games 'til the end because they got good, solid goaltending. Both Cole Schwebius Friday and Liam Hughes Saturday, gave their team a chance to win. Schwebius has played two games, two weeks apart, and allowed just five goals. His work between the pipes hasn't been supported by the offense as the T-Birds have mustered just three goals in those two games.

You wonder if scoring 20 goals in four games pushed some players off the game plan and away from the team systems this weekend? When it seems goal are coming in bunches everyone wants to pile up points. That can get you into bad habits, thinking offense before defense and players can stray from what's been working.

The first 10 games can be the first marker of the season, to look back and see where the team is at. Seattle has played to this point without their most seasoned defenseman, Jarret Tyszka. Reece Harsch, their second most veteran d-man missed all of training camp and preseason, then a few early games. Two still-16-year-old rookies in Bauer and Simon Kubicek have logged big minutes on the backend. Injuries have jumbled the forward lines, yet Seattle sits at 6-2-2-0. All things considered, that's a good start with plenty of room for improvement.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Week:

Third Star: RW Cody Savey. With Hamaliuk and then Mount out, the 17-year old rookie took advantage of the ice time this weekend. While he did not register a point he contributed with strong play along the boards and won a number of 50/50 puck battles. Friday night he drew two penalties on the Americans. Unfortunately Seattle didn't capitalize on the subsequent power plays. His play should help him earn more consistent minutes on the fourth line.

Second Star: The goaltending combination of Cole Schwebius and Liam Hughes. You ask your goalies to give your team a chance to win and that's what these two did this weekend. The #2 goaltending spot was a big question mark coming into the season but Schwebius has all but put those fears aside. Hughes will probably lament the two he gave up in the first period Saturday but he made some huge saves early in the third period that allowed Wedman to score the equalizer late.

First Star: C Nolan Volcan. Even when he's not scoring he's still the hardest working player on the ice. Good to see he's never satisfied with his game. He looked at video of himself from pervious games prior to this past week and saw he had more to give. He then went out and had a four point night Tuesday, proving himself right.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

"O" Yeah!

After scoring five goals in their season opening win over Portland back on September 22nd, Seattle's attack was limited to just six goals in their next three games and went 1-1-1-0 as a result. Head coach Matt O'Dette did some line juggling after that and the result is a three game winning streak in which the T-birds lit the lamp 20 times.

The biggest beneficiary of the line adjustments has been Noah Philp. The 20 year old center had not potted a goal through the first four games of the season while on a line with fellow overagers Nolan Volcan and Zack Andrusiak. Over the course of the winning streak, while centering a line with Dillon Hamaliuk and Payton Mount on his wings, Philp has recorded nine points, including six goals. On Wednesday in Kelowna he registered the first hat trick of his WHL career with a three goal first period. He would end that night with four goals in total. Philp is also becoming a key cog on the T-birds special teams. Saturday in the 7-3 win over Edmonton he scored two third period power play goals and also set up Hamliuk's shorthanded goal in the second period.

Philp seems to play well with younger players. A season ago when paired early in the season with then rookies Hamaliuk and Tyler Carpendale, his line flourished until Carpendale was hurt and lost for the season. Now with Hamaliuk and rookie Mount that line has accounted for 19 points during the winning streak (8g 11a).

What mixing up his line combinations from the first week of the season has done for O'Dette is create match up problems for opposing teams. If opponents focus on shutting down the top line of Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Andrej Kukuca, they still have to deal with the Philp-Hamaliuk-Mount line. Meanwhile Seattle's top sniper from a season ago, Andrusiak is waiting on the third line along with Jaxan Kaluski and Carpendale. You might ask, how can you put your top natural goal scoring threat on the third line? I think the key to all this has been the emergence of Kaluski. Kaluski was another of those under-the-radar moves made by Russ Farwell. At the trade deadline last season Farwell, who was still GM at the time, sent a 5th round draft pick to Moose Jaw to get Kaluski. Kaluski is becoming this year's version of Donovan Neuls, a versatile player you can plug in to different situations.

Kaluski was coming off a long layoff due to a broken ankle the previous season (ironically, suffered in a game against Seattle). As a result he hadn't played much hockey the previous two seasons, suiting up for just 62 games. Upon his arrival in Kent he was relegated to mostly fourth line minutes the second half of last season as he got back up to speed. Fully healed from the start of training camp, Kaluski is playing with confidence and he's getting earned ice time on the penalty kill as well as his regular shifts on the third line. His ability to move from the wing to centering the third line makes the reshuffling of the lines possible and you can't do that without being able to handle the extra responsibilities that comes with playing center. Through seven games he has three points (1g, 2a) and is +2. The three points is half his WHL point total from his previous two years (those 62 games) in the league. Kaluski's play has helped Andrusiak maintain his offensive production now that he's on the third line. In the last three games Andy has six points (4g, 2a) including Saturday's game winner.

Speaking of healed and ready to go, Carpendale missed 65 games his rookie campaign last year. He was just starting to get rolling, with points in his last five games prior to being sidelined. But scoring is not his main role. He has one assist so far this season in seven games. After starting the season on the fourth line, he has moved up to the third line and his job is to use his 6'3" frame to be physical and create space on the ice for Andrusiak and Kaluski.

I wrote previously that Seattle's current top defensive pairing of Jake Lee and Simon Kubicek could well be the top d-pairing in the league in a couple of seasons when both enter their 19 year old seasons. The two may not wait that long. Combined they have racked up 13 points (5g, 13a) in the last three games along with a +5 rating. Again both are in their 17 year old season, although Kubicek doesn't officially celebrate his 17th birthday until December 12th.

How amazing was it to watch Hamaliuk find a fifth gear and blow past the Edmonton defense to take a Philp pass on his shorthanded goal against the Oil Kings? If you stepped in some drool on the upper concourse after that it was probably left there by some of the NHL scouts in attendance. A 6'3", 200 lb. power forward who can move like that, and have the soft hands to finish, a very rare combination.

On the strength of their 9-of-16 power play success the last three games, and Portland going 0-for-9 with the man advantage Sunday versus Everett, Seattle currently sits atop the WHL leaderboard on the power play. They are clicking at 30-percent with the man advantage. Most of that damage lately has come from the #2 unit featuring Philp, Hamaliuk and Lee.

By the way, the T-birds are doing their damage in the early going with minimal offensive production from their leading scorer from a year ago. Volcan has just six points through seven games. You know he's going to get going though and I fully expect him to be one of the team's top point producers at season's end. He did have two assists Saturday and his play has helped get Kukuca off the snide. He affects games in so many other ways, including the penalty kill, the forecheck and just standing up for his teammates. That Seattle is 5-1-1-0 before he gets his offensive game going should speak volumes for the rest of the roster.

Watch out Cade McNelly, Jared Davidson has arrived! The 16 year old 5'10", 164 lb. undrafted rookie picked up his first fighting major late Saturday against the Oil Kings.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star: D Simon Kubicek. Technically still 16 years old, plays like he's 20. Registered his first WHL goal Wednesday in Kelowna, then added three more. His point shot is a little reminiscent of Ethan Bear's, don't you think? Although I'm not sure Bear was as consistently accurate as Kubicek has been at this early stage of his WHL career. His late birthday gives him an extra year to impress the NHL scouts as he's not eligible for selection until June of 2020. Hmmmm, just in time for a Seattle NHL franchise??? One can dream, can't they?

Second Star: D Jake Lee. Lee, who is eligible for the NHL draft in nine months, helped his draft stock with seven assists in the last two games. The stat sheet looks nice with those numbers next to his name, but it is his all-around game that impresses. Very solid in the d-zone and he thinks the game so well. By no means is he a perfect player yet. That only means he's going to keep getting better. The early season injuries to Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch have put him in the spotlight, as part of the T-birds number one d-pairing, and he (along with Kubicek) have stepped up to the plate and delivered.

First Star: C Noah Philp. He registered the first hat trick of his WHL career Wednesday and in fact would end the night with four markers. For an encore he potted two power play goals Saturday. Those two goals, early in the third period turned a one goal game into a 6-3 lead and gave Seattle the room to coast to the 7-3 win. He also had a big assist on Hamaliuk's shorthanded goal. He has good speed, an accurate shot and is a top penalty killer, not to mention he has been money in the face off circle. Another subtle trade acquisition that is paying big dividends.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

The Young and the Restless

When last season ended, the average age of Seattle's top six defenseman was 18.7 years old.  The average age of Seattle's six defensemen in the lineup Saturday versus Kelowna was 16.6 years old.  With 19-year olds Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch out with injury there was no one older than the 18-year old Owen Williams in that group of six Saturday and Williams just turned 18 less then two weeks ago.

Payton McIsaac won't be 18 until the day after Christmas. Jake Lee turned 17 in July. Simon Kubicek doesn't celebrate his 17th birthday until December 19th.  Tyrel Bauer has been 16 for all of six months and Luke Bateman had a 16th birthday less then a month ago.  Had he not been suspended, the still 16-year old Cade McNelly (his 17th birthday is October 17th) would have most likely played both nights.

The T-Birds defense was only slightly older when Harsch was in the lineup the previous night in Everett.  The average age of the group against the Silvertips was just barely over 17 years old (17.1).  Seattle's defense is not just young, but they are green with very few games of WHL experience under their belts.  Yet over the past three games the T-Birds have surrendered nary a 5-on-5 goal.  The last 180:17 minutes of  minutes of hockey and the goals against have been five power-play goals, one empty-net goal and one 3-on-3 overtime goal.  One of those power-play goals came at the tail end of a seven minute penalty kill for Seattle against Portland last weekend and another was in the last 30-seconds of a three minute Kelowna power play Saturday.

As rough as Seattle's breakouts have looked early this season, when the puck is in their defensive zone for extended periods of time, they are keeping shots to the outside and keeping the front of the net fairly clear of traffic.  In just slightly over 300 minutes of hockey this season the T-Birds have surrendered just three 5-on-5 goals and two were scored in a seven minute span opening night.  While it would be silly to think they will keep up that pace over the course of the season, it is still a remarkable feat.

The T-Birds goaltending has been a big reason for that along with veteran forwards being responsible in the D-zone, but that young group of defenseman are doing their job too.  If you've ever been in the military, you are familiar with the acronym OJT, on the job training, and that is exactly what many of these young d-men are getting.

Speaking of goaltending, on the weekend Seattle's goalies stopped 82 of 85 shots faced.  Start right there when you want to know how the team earned three of four points in the two games.  It started up in Everett Friday night when, in his WHL regular season debut, Cole Schwebius denied 38 shots in the 2-1 overtime loss to the Silvertips. Not bad for a 2016 10th round bantam pick.

After missing that game with a lower body issue, Liam Hughes showed no ill effects Saturday with his 44 save performance.  Hughes now sports a 3-1 record with a stellar 2.00 GAA and a save percentage of .947.  Hughes is yet to record that first WHL shutout, but it's coming, but lets also realize that shutouts are really a team stat.  Hughes has given his team a chance to win in all four of his starts.

Dillon Hamaliuk continues on his 68 goal pace for the season.  Five games, five goals.  In reality he should actually have more. he's been denied at least twice in the early going by an opposing goalie's  goal-robbing save or a rolling puck.  There were NHL scouts in the building Saturday and they had to like what they saw from both Hamaliuk and Lee, two first year draft eligible Thunderbirds.  The pair combined for two goals including a game winner.

I keep getting asked the status of Tyszka, who is still working through concussion symptoms after suffering from a head shot in a preseason NHL game last month.  The answers is, I don't know but when there is a TBD (to be determined) behind your name on the weekly injury report, you can assume it's probably long term.  The question now is whether Seattle is comfortable enough to continue throwing out that young group in Tyszka's absence, or do they need to spend some assets to look for a more experienced defenseman to help get them through the first part of the season?

It was nice to see the power play, which struggled early to find a rhythm, strike for three goals against the Rockets. There is still work to be done as the passing still is not as crisp as it needs to be, but the effort Saturday was a step in the right direction.

Am I the only one who sees the confidence in rookie Payton Mount grow with each game he plays, each shift he takes? Once he fully understands he belongs here, he's going to start producing. It's like Hughes and the shutouts.  He's on the verge.  Speaking of 16-year old rookies, we've only gotten small doses of him in the early going but center Jared Davidson makes the most of his ice time.  He's quick, willing to battle for pucks and has shown an ability to win face offs.  Definitely another player to watch develop over the next four seasons.

My T-Bird Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star:  LW Dillon Hamaliuk.  A timely goal late in Everett to get the game to overtime, earning the T-Birds a crucial point in the standings.  It's becoming his signature goal scoring move, a power drive to the net in tight space with a deft finish.  Saturday he scores the game winner on the power play against Kelowna.  Going back to last season he now has goals in six straight regular season games.

Second Star:  G Cole Schwebius.  A road start versus a divisional rival in a hostile environment for  a team that doesn't particularly play good hockey in front of you.  38 saves later you're the main, if not only reason your team steals a point in a game they had no business getting to overtime. Welcome to the Dub.

First Star:  G Liam Hughes.  Unable to go Friday, Hughes got a hold of some recovery water and showed no sign he had been suffering a lower body injury just 24 hours earlier.  44 saves on the night and feisty as ever.  With the game in hand he still came up with some incredible saves late as the Rockets skated 6-on-3 after a couple of last minute Seattle penalties. 113 saves on 118 shots in his last three starts. Only one of those goals scored against him was even strength.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Finding Out Phase

Three games into the new season and it's still a learning process as we try to discover what this current incarnation of the Thunderbird will be.  They sport an early above .500 record of  2-1-0-0, though they've yet to put together what I think head coach Matt O'Dette would call a complete sixty minutes of hockey.  It's been three winnable game and they've managed to win two.

Here are a few of my early season takeaways:

Second year winger Dillon Hamaliuk is discovering that self confidence and a belief in your skills can lead to good things.  I thought at times last season he played with some hesitation.  I'm not seeing that so far this go round.  It's fun to watch a big power forward skate with the puck in tight spaces as he did in all three games.  He's becoming what I always thought Brendan Troock would be, but never fully did become in his tenure with the T-birds a few years back, a power forward whose skating and puck handling ability makes him hard to play against. That will start opening up ice for his linemates.

It's only three games but Hamaliuk has already elevated his game from his rookie campaign a year ago and he's only going to get better as the confidence grows. After pulling the T-birds within a goal in the third period in Portland he almost tied it minutes later on a gorgeous power move to the net, only to be denied off his backhand as the puck rolled just wide after he got the goalie down and out.  Six points (3g,3a) through three games and a +5?  That's a 136 points pace!  Certainly that's not sustainable but half of that ( 34g, 34a, 68 pts) might be a too conservative estimate.  Seattle brass has always had faith in Hamaliuk.  Remember, in the Championship series two years ago against Regina, they brought him up after his 16 year old season ended, to log a few shifts in the first game.  It got his name engraved on the Chynoweth Cup.  Now, the rewards for their faith in him are starting to pay off.

The three power play goals allowed to the Winterhawks aside (two of those goals were a bit "flukey"), Seattle appears to have a solid, deep group of penalty killers.  Nolan Volcan and Noah Philp lead the way but Zach Andrusiak is no slouch and guys like Jaxan Kaluski, Graeme Bryks and Tyler Carpendale showed their mettle shorthanded too. Then throw in all the young defenseman who are out there and it can be a very green, but affective group.

When on the power play Seattle spends a lot of time in the attacking zone.  Unfortunately they are only 2-for-17 in the early going with the man advantage.  At times they may have hesitated to shoot but I think the real culprit was not jumping on second chance opportunities.  You get the feeling though that once they get a couple in, the damn will burst.  I expect their power play to be a real weapon for them.

The Thunderbirds have played so far without the services of their most veteran and seasoned defenseman, Jarret Tyszka, still out with concussion symptoms.  They've only had their other 19 year old d-man Reece Harsch for two games and that comes after missing all of training camp and preseason.  He's still shaking off some rust. They've used two 17 year old rookies and one 16 year old rookie quite a bit in the early going.  Despite that I haven't seen glaring holes in the back end.  Certainly areas to work on but in three games Seattle has allowed only three even strength goals.   The combination of a pair of 17 year olds, Jake Lee and Simon Kubicek, have been eating up monster minutes.  Think about this, Seattle is going to get three full years out of that pairing.  By the time they hit their 19 year old seasons, there may not be a better tandem in the WHL.

Seattle may have found a perfect third line to hopefully compliment their top two.  The combination of Bryks centering Kaluski and Payton Mount showed an eager willingness to play the 200-foot game.  Saturday in Portland they created scoring chances by moving the puck up ice efficiently and taking it to the net.  Friday in Langley, Kaluski drew two straight penalties against the Vancouver Giants.  One of them led to a crucial Seattle power play goal that ended up being the difference in a one goal game.  Being hard on the puck, he drew another penalty against Portland.  He has a little Scott Eansor in him.  The coaches showed enough confidence in Bryks to have him take some key late game faceoffs.  The 16 year old Mount earned two assists on the weekend and showed flashes of his cerebral game and playmaking potential. I think they're good enough that Seattle coaches won't be worried about throwing them out there against an opposing team's top line.

Home or road, O'Dette showed little concern over line matching.  He believes in his top two lines and if the third line continues to perform, it makes his job a little easier.  With the way Bryks has played early, the T-birds appear strong down the middle with Matthew Wedman, Philps and Bryks centering those three lines.  If they can get Sam Huo going they're set on all four lines, but rookie Jared Davidson is an option there too.

Not much to say, nor needs to be said about goaltender Liam Hughes.  To paraphrase a former NFL coach, he is who we thought he was.  A solid start to pick up where he left off last season. One of the best things you can say about a goalie is his play between the pipes gives his teammates the "want" to play well out in front of him.  That's Hughes in a nutshell.  The only question in goal is how Cole Schwebius will perform when its his turn.  Hughes can't play all 68 games so Schwebius will need to show he can handle the reins when called upon.

A few notes:  Matthew Wedman making his goals count early on, has both of the game winners.  Late in games, whether protecting a lead or chasing for an equalizer and rookie 16 year olds Mount and defenseman Ty Bauer are getting ice time and not looking out of place.  I love that.  D-man Cade McNelly played under control vs. Vancouver and Seattle won.  McNelly got a little, shall we say "exuberant" versus Portland and the T-birds lost.  He can be physical and effective without being out of control.  He's still learning how to skate that fine line.  Jake Lee is going to open even more eyes by the end of the season.  He's going to get drafted but I think he's going to go earlier then expected because he's going to log a lot of minutes.  Just a smart hockey player.  

My T-birds Three Stars for the first three games:

Third Star:  LW Nolan Volcan.  The team captain leads by example.  Three points through three games on 2g,1a but I believe he's just getting warmed up and hasn't hit his stride yet.  Was a workhorse on the five minute penalty kill at the end of the second period down in Portland. Still plays like a pit bull.

Second Star:  G Liam Hughes.  Was a deserved first star in the road win against Vancouver with 31 saves on 32 shots.  A pair of crazy bounce power play goals belied how well he played in the loss to Portland on a 38 save night.  Often times it isn't how many saves you make but how timely are those saves.  he has a knack for making the key save in a key moment.

First Star:  LW Dillon Hamaliuk.  He still is working on his consistency but could you have had a better start to your first season of NHL draft eligibility then Hammer had in the first three games?  Going back to the last game of the 2017-18 regular season, he now has a four game goal scoring streak under his belt.  A couple of goals he just missed might have been prettier then the pretty goals he scored.  There are times in the game you're waiting and waiting for him to erupt, then boom, he goes Mount St. Helens on you.  

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.