Monday, February 19, 2018

The Long and Grinding Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My T-Birds three stars for the weekend:

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Gone to the Dogs

Busy weekend.  Busy for the Thunderbirds too.  I'm a little late with the blog post because the in-laws were in town from Denver.  They are guide dog puppy raisers, through a program called Guide Dogs for the Blind.  They came up to the Pacific Northwest this past week to attend the graduation of one of their puppies into a fully qualified guide dog.   
Guide Dogs for the Blind has a main campus in San Rafael, California but they have a satellite campus in Boring, Oregon, not too far east of Portland.  The puppy my in-laws raised was matched with a sight impaired young woman from Southern Oregon and the graduation was held in Portland.  So that they could spend time with their grandkids, the in-laws flew into Sea-Tac, stayed with us, then drove down to Portland for the graduation ceremony, then came back up north.   
Unfortunately the hockey schedule didn't quite marry up with the graduation ceremony.  That took place Saturday while the T-birds were home versus the Winterhawks.  So my wife and kids drove down with her parents for the ceremony while I stayed home with our two dogs.  Then Sunday, after they came back, I hit the road to Portland for the final game of the weekend.  Two ships passing in the night.  At least I had company, with the always affable Andy Eide in the Pilot's seat (literally, Andy owns a Honda Pilot), for the ride down I-5.  
The in-laws spent a few more days with us but are now on their way back to the Mile High City. They are expected to return here in June for another graduation.  This time for a human.  Their oldest grandchild, my son Conner, will graduate from Stadium High School this spring.  I reminded my wife's parents before they left that kibbles and bits plus a chew toy will still be an acceptable gift for that graduation as well.   
You might wonder why I bring all this up.  Well, every time the in-laws have one of their puppies become a guide dog, I'm reminded of Chloe McDonald.  This young woman is a die hard T-birds fan who also happens to be legally blind.  She's at every home game. She doesn't have a guide dog, but I believe she has a guide dad!   She also listens to our radio broadcasts and follows our twitter feeds. So I think about her and others in similar situations, who rely on us painting a picture for them so they can follow the action.  It just goes to show that there are many ways to enjoy the great game of hockey.   
The T-birds meanwhile played four games over the past week and as expected, all four were close results.  Unfortunately Seattle could come up with only one win, last Tuesday's shootout victory over the Tri-City Americans.  Points are so important right now with just 17 games remaining.  The T-birds are battling Spokane and Tri for third place in the U.S. Division while also trying to fend off a challenge from behind, from the Kamloops Blazers, for one of those two Western Conference wild card spots.   
The one game Seattle may lament not earning two points from this past weekend is probably Friday's 2-1 overtime loss in Langley to the Vancouver Giants.  The T-birds dominated the game in every area but the scoreboard.  Seattle put 50 shots on goal but could find the back of the net just once against Giants goalie David Tendeck.  At one point early in that game the shots were 7-2 in favor of Vancouver.  The T-birds would outshoot the Giants over the final 50 minutes or so 48-14.   
The T-birds finished the weekend with the home-and-home against Portland.  Two winnable games. Seattle's offensive drought (4 goals on 121 shots over three games) continued in the 4-1 home loss Saturday.  The T-birds played most of that game without two of their best offensive weapons as Sami Moilanen continues to miss time with an upper body injury while Nolan Volcan left the contest in the second period with an apparent upper body injury of his own.  It was that second period that cost Seattle as the Winterhawks scored three times.  Seattle had a pretty strong first and played with great desperation in the third.  They actually ended up outshooting Portland 29-28.  
Without Moilanen and Volcan in the lineup down in Portland Sunday, Seattle still was in a position to pull out a win, or at least a point, but the lack of veteran depth without those two available caught up to Seattle in the third period and turned a 3-2 lead into a 5-3 setback, with the 5th goal into an empty net. 
Remember, on both nights Seattle was going up against a fully healthy Portland lineup that boasts seven NHL draft picks, including four first rounders.  Seattle did a pretty good job of skating toe-to-toe with them most of the weekend.  Through the first five periods the shot totals were even at 47-47, Portland had scored two more goals but one of those was an empty netter.  Seattle just couldn't answer the bell in that third period, particularly the last ten minutes. They were outscored 3-0 and outshot 17-4.  
Very disappointing that no penalty was called on Donovan Neuls partial breakaway Sunday.  Replay sure seemed to show him getting slashed not once but twice.  That's a scoring chance and I'm not sure how an official looks the other way on that, especially in what turns out to be essentially a one goal game.  

My T-birds Three Stars for the Week:

Third Star(s):  Forwards Payton Mount and Graeme Bryks.  More of the T-birds future was on display this past weekend.  2017 first round Bantam pick Mount earned his first WHL point Friday in Langley and the just-turned-16 year old was one of the best players on  the ice.  Not just one of the T-birds best players, one of the best players among the two teams.  He's now played in three games and has yet to look out of place.  The 16-year old Bryks, who actually started the season with Seattle and got into two games before going back to the AJHL to play with the Spruce Grove Saints, returned in time to score his first WHL goal, also in just his third WHL game, Saturday night against Portland.

Second Star:  C Matthew Wedman.  Weds scored a couple of goals in the four games and is now at a career best 13 on the season, more then doubling his career best of six goals each of the past two seasons.  He's also 15 points better then his 20 point season a year ago. Sometimes it seems Wedman has been a T-bird forever but he's still just 18 and his best hockey is still to come.  

First Star:  C Noah Philp.  Philp had a goal and a pair of assists on the week and he was instrumental in both Mount and Bryks first WHL points.  He seems to work well with the younger players as he also assisted on rookie Dillon Hamaliuk's 13th goal of the season.  Philp has already established career bests in goals and points, is used in all situations and is one of the T-birds best in the face off circle.  

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A Tin of Sardines

The U.S. Division continually shows itself to be the most competitive division in the WHL and this season is no different.  Entering the final 22 games of the schedule, Seattle is bunched tightly with the other four teams in the division.  Just 10 points separates first from fifth. The third, fourth and fifth place teams are only one point apart.

The T-Birds maintained a spot in the middle of the division this weekend despite a 1-2 mark in their three games, played in three nights.  It was a stretch that also saw Seattle play eight games in 12 days and 10 in 16.  The T-Birds came out of it with a 6-4-0-0 mark, allowing them to finish January with a 9-4 record, their second straight winning month of hockey.

Seattle gets a bit of a rest, a chance to recharge the batteries, with a rare five days between games. But it gets back to busy once they hit the ice again this weekend.  The T-Birds will play 12 games in 24 days between February 3rd and 27th.  It includes another three-in-three mid-month and seven game in 12 days the back half of February.  A lot of young players on the roster, who haven't had to concern themselves with such things in the past, are learning about proper nutrition, hydration and body maintenance with the busy second half of the season in full bloom.

It's the time of the season when the ability to stay healthy and recover quickly from one game in order to be ready for the next, could decide your final place in the standings.  Injuries are the great equalizer.  Seattle, like all teams, has had their fair share again this season.  I'm not sure I've seen a team get dinged at one specific position, maybe the most important position on the ice, as the T-Birds have this season in goal.  Yet despite multiple goaltenders on the injury list for long stretches, the team has persevered. Knock on wood Liam Hughes and Dorrin Luding, two players who weren't even on the opening night roster, stay healthy going forward.

Over the course of the three games this weekend, Seattle never trailed by more then a goal except the final 10 minutes of the weekend opener up in Everett and that came after they missed tying the game at 2-2, when they rang a shot off the cross bar, moments before allowing the third Everett goal.  Most of the weekend they were down by one goal, ahead by a goal or tied.  A lot of nail biting hockey. Expect more of the same going forward.  Seattle competes hard, they have all season.

Payton Mount, the T-Birds first round Bantam selection from last spring's WHL draft, made his Thunderbirds debut, playing in the last two games of the weekend in the absence of the injured Sami Moilanen.  Mount put on display what we saw from him in training camp back in late August/early September; hockey smarts.  Physical maturity was the only thing separating the just-turned-16 year old from the older players on the ice.  He doesn't make mistakes.  He's another name to put into that mix of youth that includes the likes of Lee, Hamaliuk and Huo.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star:  G Dorrin Luding.  After playing the role of back up the first two games of the weekend, Luding got the start Sunday in Kennewick against Tri-City and was doing all he could to keep the T-Birds ahead, 1-0.  He stopped numerous breakaways and odd man rushes.  He ended the night with 29 saves on 31 shots. Unfortunately his tired team ran out of gas in a 3-2 loss.

Second Star:  G Liam Hughes.  Hughes showed no signs of rust after missing five games to injury.  He jumped back in with a pair of starts against division leading Everett and went 1-1.  He actually outdueled the Silvertips Carter Hart.  Hughes faced more shots (69-53) than Hart and made 14 more  saves.  He topped it by besting Hart in Saturday's T-Birds shootout win by denying all three Everett shooters while Hart was beaten by Seattle d-man Austin Strand.

First Star:  C Matthew Wedman.  The third year player from Edmonton finished the weekend with three points (1g, 2a) and a +2 rating.  His power-play goal Saturday versus Everett tied things up in the third period, allowing Seattle to go on to win the shootout.  He's already established career bests in goals (11) and points (32).  He's trending upwards with 11 points in his last eight games.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Grin and Bear it, he's Otto-Matic

Somewhere former Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Jared Hauf is smiling.  A few years back when Hauf patrolled Seattle's blue line, the big d-man from Calgary somehow found himself on a breakaway, not once but twice.  On both occasions he was denied a goal.  When I asked him what his go-to move was in that situation he replied, "I don't have a go-to move".  Indeed, in 343 regular season games as a T-bird Hauf scored just 11 times. None of those goals were scored on a breakaway, nor did he ever get a chance in a shootout.

Fast forward to this weekend and one of Hauf's former teammates, current Seattle captain Turner Ottenbreit.  Like Hauf, Ottenbreit is known more as a stay-at-home defenseman but he does have some offensive upside with 21 goals in 259 games.  Yet until Friday night against Kelowna I'm not sure he ever had a chance to score on a breakaway. But there he was in the second period, corralling a loose puck just outside the T-birds blue line and heading up ice, a couple of Rockets in hot pursuit. As the Rockets players bore down on him, Otto let loose a shot and found the back of the net and a legend was born.

Now according to those who were there, as soon as he got to the Seattle bench he and his teammates were already lobbying for him to get a crack at it the next time the T-birds got into a shootout. Well, wouldn't you know 24 hours later Seattle found themselves in that situation?  Now, in the past, former Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk was rumored to have told the media that when it came to a shootout his strategy was "anyone but Otto".  And after Friday's breakaway goal against the Rockets, the assembled media asked first year head coach Matt O'Dette if that success would put Otttenbreit in the mix the next time a shootout situation arrived. His response?  "We might have to go pretty far down the list to get to him."

Well, I guess an eight round shootout is pretty far down the list.  Playing a hunch, O'Dette sent Ottenbreit out against Swift Current goalie Joel Hofer, to break a 2-2 shootout tie.  Otto admitted after the game to ESPN 710's Andy Eide that when his name was called, "it was kind of a shock" and "I didn't know what to do".  It was very similar to Hauf's "I have no go-to move" from a few years ago. So the big d-man from Yorkton, Saskatchewan just repeated his breakaway goal effort from the previous night and, lo and behold, he found the back of the net.  And when Seattle goalie Dorrin Luding stopped the Broncos last shooter, Andrew Fyten, the Ottenbreit goal stood as the shootout winner and Seattle secured it's fourth straight win and the Ottenbreit legend only grows bigger.

In their current four game winning streak the T-birds have accumulated 25 goals (technically 26 but the shootout win is recorded as a "team goal").  That's an average of 6.25 goals per game over the course of the streak.  Even when you add in the last loss Seattle suffered, a 5-4 setback in Portland back on January 13th,  they are still averaging 5.8 goals per game over their last five.    The offensive outburst over the last two months has pushed their goals per game average up from 3.03 to 3.76.  No coincidence that with the increase in scoring, the T-birds have gone 11-2-1-1 in their last 15 games, a stretch in which their goals per game average is over 4.5.  The streak has put them squarely in the battle for the top of the U.S. Division.

At the trade deadline earlier this month, three U.S. Division teams, Everett, Portland and Tri-City, were buyers, making big acquisitions to try and separate themselves from the pack in the Western Conference.  Seattle on the other hand, was a modest seller, trading away Elijah Brown and Aaron Hyman for young players and future draft picks.  Since the deadline though, the T-bird have gained ground on those three teams.

Before we get to my T-birds three stars for the week, I have a five-star honorable mention; you, the fans.  Back-to-back sellouts saw a combined 12-thousand-plus in the accesso ShoWare Center this weekend and the atmosphere was electric.  You can believe it when the players say they feed off the energy from an arena that is not only at capacity, but full-throated wild and crazy.  So, a big assist for the two wins goes to T-bird Nation, well done and see you Tuesday versus Brandon!

Now, the three stars for the week:

Third Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit.  The breakaway goal against Kelowna Friday night was enough to get him on the list but he topped that with the shootout winner Saturday versus Swift Current.  He also had an assist and was +5 in the two wins midweek up in Prince George. He now sits at +73 for his T-birds career.  Not bad for a former 12th round bantam pick acquired in a trade for an extra 20 year old.

Second Star: G-Dorrin Luding.   Pressed into service with the injury to Liam Hughes back on January 13th,  all he's done is start the last four games and go 4-0. It's one thing to twice beat a Prince George team that sits dead last in the Western Conference, but to prove he can handle the pressure, he picked up wins against the top team in the West, Kelowna, and the fourth ranked team in the entire CHL, Swift Current.  The rosters of those two teams are filled with NHL nine draft picks and four of the top 20 point producer in the WHL.   We all got a scare in the third period Saturday when he got kneed in the ribs, but he pushed through and earned the win.  Think about this, in three of the four games, the first shot he faced each night was an early breakaway.  He stopped three of the four.

First Star:  LW Nolan Volcan.  He recorded his first WHL hat trick Friday and followed that by scoring the Teddy Bear Toss goal on Saturday.  He leads the team in goals scored with 24 and is second in points to Donovan Neuls with 51, both career highs.  He finished the week with seven points (6g, 1a) in four games.  One of so many veterans on this team who lead by example, never giving less then 100-percent.  He wears an "A" on his jersey this season but you can bet, if he's back next season as a 20 year old, he's your captain.  

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Noting Special About the Weekend

To say the Thunderbirds usually reliable special teams faltered the past two games would be an understatement.  Oh-for ten on the power play and allowing six power play goals (in 11 chances) to the opposition.  Nine times out of ten that's gonna have you go oh-for-two on the weekend.

The first problem for Seattle?  Committing too many penalties. Most were very avoidable stick infractions or retaliations.  Discipline, discipline, discipline.  Seattle went into a weekend against the two teams atop their respective divisions in the Western Conference. Those teams probably got there because they have talent that can take advantage of their opponents mistakes.  Yet Seattle promptly gave both Kelowna and Portland gift wrapped power play chances.  In both instances Seattle fell into a two-goal whole after one period, mostly of their own creation, surrendering a combined three power play goals and one penalty shot goal.

It's very difficult to play catch up hockey, especially against top teams because once you get behind the eight ball, you practically have to play mistake free hockey the rest of the way to have a chance.

Now, we know, no team is going to play mistake free over sixty minutes.  Case in point; both Kelowna and Portland committed enough penalties of their own to give the T-birds a weekend total of ten power play chances.  Yet Seattle's power play, which was ranked seventh in the WHL prior to the start of the weekend, couldn't cash in. Look back on the team's recent nine game point streak in which they went 7-0-1-1.  They found a way to score at least one power play goal in most of those games.  Most nights it was the difference on the scoreboard. 

The T-birds special teams are in a funk.  Every team in the league will suffer a similar fate at some point over the schedule.  It's how quickly you can work your way out of such a funk that is the question that needs answering.

Seattle head coach Matt O'Dette has every right to be upset with the call/non-call on the collision between Portland's Skyler McKenzie and T-birds goalie Liam Hughes that knocked Hughes from the game Saturday early in the second period.  He has every right to be upset....with the WHL.

O'Dette's anger dates back to the game in Victoria in late November when Seattle defenseman Austin Strand drove the net with the puck and Strand, who was attempting to avoid contact, was pushed not once, but twice, by two separate Victoria players into Royals goalie Griffen Outhouse.  The referee in that game called a charging major on Strand, which, I believe, in itself was a laughable call.  It appears that since there is no five minute major in the rule book for goalie interference, they made up a charging penalty so they could justify a Victoria power play.  According to O'Dette the league backed their officials because, as O'Dette told 710 ESPN's Andy Eide, " We've been told the onus is on him (the offensive player) to stop, plain and simple.  Even when we've been pushed (into the goalie) we've been told (by the league) the onus is on our guy to stop."  

His anger probably stems from a play too, earlier this season when his player, Turner Ottenbreit, was the recipient of a two handed slash to the back of the legs, but no penalty was called.  When the T-birds sent the video to the league for supplemental discipline, they were told no supplemental discipline could be administered because there was no penalty called on the ice and no injury to Ottenbreit.  It didn't matter that video of the slash was posted all over social media for all the world to see.  If the officials on the ice didn't see it, it didn't happen.  O'Dette is perplexed by what appears to be inconsistency by, not the officials, but by the league. It seems they are all over the map when it comes to discipline.

It's one thing for the league to stand up for their officials, to back their guys in stripes.  I get it, those guys get lots of abuse as it is.  But they're big boys.  I run into most of them before most games and they are nice, friendly guys trying to make a career in a field that doesn't get much in the way of thanks or praise.  Many have a regular 9-to-5 job plus their role as a WHL official.  That's a lot to juggle. None of them are trying to purposefully "screw over" your teams.  But like all of us, they are not perfect, they are not infallible.  But it does no good for the league to seemingly cover up for them as if their spirits will be crushed if they have to admit they made a mistake.  If that's the case, they are in the wrong profession.

And for the record, I don't think the officials made a mistake on the McKenzie/Hughes collision Saturday in Portland.  McKenzie couldn't avoid the collision with Hughes because he was trying to avoid a collision with another Seattle player.  But they got it wrong in the Strand/Outhouse collision back in November and the league should have had the intestinal fortitude to have admitted it.  The league got it wrong by not imposing supplemental discipline in the Ottenbreit-getting-slashed incident too. In what league these days is supplemental discipline not imposed after the fact even when no foul is called?  The NFL does it all the time.  And why?  Because in this day when everyone and their brother has a video camera on their phone, you can't hide from visual evidence. The NFL gets it.  The WHL should too.  No need to make if so difficult.  Here's the video, here's your punishment.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Past Three Games:

Third Star:  D Owen Williams.  Williams, acquired at the trade deadline Wednesday from Regina in the Aaron Hyman deal, has stood out in his first two games as a Thunderbird. He picked up his first point with his new team, recording an assist Saturday in Portland.  Just 17, and a late birthday at that,. you can see huge potential in his game. He skates and handles the puck very well.  Lots of room to grow his game but off to a good start with the T-birds.

Second Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Neuls finished the week with a goal and three assists.  He has reached the 14 goal mark for the third straight season and his next goal will establish a career high.  He's already established a career best with 45 points, surpassing the 41 he registered a season ago.

First Star:  W Dillon Hamaliuk.  The big, rookie left winger from Leduc, Alberta scored three goals and added an assist to his point totals this weekend.  Even Tuesday when he did not register a point in a shootout loss to Portland, he was effective enough that he was named the game's third star. He now has 10 goal and 24 points on the season and has the second best +/- on the team at plus 7 (Neuls and Ottenbreit are each +8). Even better, he has developed terrific chemistry with fellow rookie Sam Huo.  One of the best skating big men on the T-birds roster in quite a while.  

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Deadline Dealings

The 2018 WHL trade deadline has come and gone and Seattle added to a couple of moves they had made earlier in the week with two more on Wednesday. The moves will help them both now and in the future.

I suppose after the moves you would categorize the T-birds as sellers this season.  They moved three players off the roster who were part of last season's Chynoweth Cup championship team. Two of those were veterans.  One of them, Aaron Hyman, had an assist on the biggest goal in franchise history, the Alexander True overtime game winner in Game Six of last spring's Final against Regina.  Hyman got the puck out from behind the Seattle goal, passed it up to Keegan Kolesar, who in turn passed it to True.  True of course scored and Seattle had it's first ever championship.

In return for trading away Matt Berlin, Elijah Brown and Hyman, the T-birds get back two future second round bantam picks, a potential future third round pick, a fifth rounder and 17 year old defenseman in Owen Williams.  Additionally, Seattle acquired Jaxan Kaluski, an 18 year old left winger.  He comes over from Moose Jaw for a 2019 sixth round draft pick.

Williams should get plenty of ice time on the blue line now that he's a Thunderbird.  With the trade of Hyman and the injury Tuesday to Reece Harsch that will keep him from the line up for the foreseeable future, the T-birds will lean heavily on their young, rookie defenseman, a group that also includes Jake Lee, Tyson Terretta and any youngster they may bring up to fill the void such as Cade McNelly or, in a pinch, Ty Bauer.

Meanwhile, Kaluski has not seen a lot of action over the past two seasons.  That's because he suffered a fractured ankle in a game back on November 5th, 2016.  Ironically, that injury came in a game against the Thunderbirds. He seems to be a player though, who will fit Seattle's physical style and will add depth to the third and fourth line the second half of this season.  He also adds forward depth to Seattle's 1999 born age group.  Prior to his acquisition Seattle only had two, Sami Moilanen and Matthew Wedman.

I know some fans wanted to see the T-birds unload all their veterans but General Manager Russ Farwell listened to offers but did not see the kind of return necessary to blow this team up.  This team did not have a veteran player on their roster that was going to command the type of return that a first round NHL drafted player such as a Jake Bean, Dennis Cholowski or Kyle Clague brought back to their clubs.  Once those teams spent heavy on those type players, they had no assets left to deal for Seattle's older players.  The fact the T-birds came out of the trade deadline with two extra second round picks as well as a good young player or two without dismantling the current roster, should be celebrated.

The T-birds are playing well, they are in a playoff spot and young players are learning from the older players what it takes to win at this level.  That experience will pay off in the long run.  More importantly, the organization believes they have drafted well and will continue to do so going forward.  There is young talent in the pipeline, some of which is on display every game night this season.

Furthermore, head coach Matt O'Dette, in his first season on the job, has done a terrific job behind the bench with this group.  He's earned the chance to take this particular group to the finish line. And those veteran, who helped bring this franchise it's first ever WHL championship?  They've earned the right to finish their careers as Thunderbirds.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Embracing the Culture

There's nothing like starting off the new year on the right foot.  Seattle did just that by winning their first two games of 2018 this past weekend, backing up a 6-4 road win in Kelowna Friday with a 4-1 win on home ice over Spokane Saturday.  The two wins give the T-birds a five game winning streak and points in eight straight games, a season best in both categories.

As a result of their recent streak the Thunderbirds sit a season high six games above .500 at 20-14-4-1 and with 45 point are just five points out of the U.S. Division lead with a game in hand on the current leaders, Everett.  Coming into the season with muted expectations off their championship run last spring, few pundits, if any had this team sitting where they are right now after 39 games. 

The teams sits where they are because they have done what they set out to do from the start of training camp.  The motto back then, and still is "embrace the culture", a culture of success and compete level that was created over the past four seasons.  It's an attitude and approach to put yourself in the best possible position to succeed.  It doesn't mean winning a championship every year.  It means taking no shortcuts, giving a full effort and sticking to the systems.

Could you argue Seattle is getting more bounces to go their way during this streak then they were getting earlier in the season?  Possibly.  But hard work often creates those favorable bounces or deflections.  So, if the breaks aren't going your way you still keep working hard and eventually, they will.

It's remarkable to think the T-birds have gotten to this point with what you could call an "unsettled" goaltending situation.  Stability in net is something that usually calms a team down.  But when training camp began, the team's presumptive starting goalie, Carl Stankowski, was out with injury.  He still is.  In his place the team has used three netminders and two of them have also come up lame at some point.  Yet Matt Berlin, Liam Hughes and Dorrin Luding stepped up to give the T-birds a solid presence between the pipes. In fact, I would say it was Berlin embracing that challenge that earned him the trade Monday to Kootenay.

That may sound odd, but I think Berlin earned that chance to go to the Ice and be a number one goalie through his hard work and dedication here with the T-birds.  He wasn't going to be here next season as a 20 year old.  Now he has that chance this season and possibly next, to be the number one guy with a new team.   Hughes is a year younger and Luding a year younger then that and the return of Stankowski is looming.  As well, Hughes has shown, since coming off injury, he can handle the load. Once again Russ Farwell looks the part of a genius, turning a goalie he acquired to be an emergency, two week back up last season, into a 5th round bantam pick.  Remember, all Seattle surrendered for Berlin was a conditional 9th round pick.

That which doesn't kill us, makes us stronger.  We've all heard that before.  It certainly applies to the T-birds during this streak.  In just about everyone of their last eight games Seattle has had to battle adversity, penalty issues, a few lost leads and their own mistakes and have found a way to stay composed and battle back.  A head coach who has his player's backs and leadership from veteran players who have been through the wars sure helps in that regard.  It seems when Seattle has to reach back for something extra you will usually find Turner Ottenbreit, Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan leading the charge.  Those are three players who have played late into May the past two seasons.

The trade deadline arrives this Wednesday.  As of this posting, Seattle has made just the Berlin deal.  Will they make another?  My hunch is no, or at least not a significant move like the ones we've seen from Tri-City and Everett.  Even with their veterans, Seattle is a young team building toward the future.  I could see a move for a third or fourth line forward to fill the void left by the departures of Elijah Brown and Ian Briscoe.

***UPDATE***Seattle has traded Elijah Brown to Medicine Hat.  In return they receive a 2018 second round bantam pick and a 2019 conditional third round pick.***UPDATE***

A lot of the chatter I've seen is that Seattle should sell off all their veterans and  take whatever they can get in return to speed up their rebuild.  Look, this isn't fantasy hockey.  Seattle is still looking at making the playoffs and having those veterans around is crucial to that goal.  You certainly don't undersell just to recoup something for a player who won't be back next season.  Plus, those vets are showing the way for the young rookies.  That is vital for their development.

But trading all the veterans to speed up a rebuild isn't practical because you need two to tango. For instance, trading a 20 year old player at this time of the year is difficult.  Most teams that are in the "in it to win it" mode are probably in that position because they already have three good overage players on their roster.  Trading for a 20 year old on another team means dumping one of your own good 20s. At best, that is a lateral move.   20 year olds are also a half year rental.  Contending teams prefer to add 19 or 18 year olds because there is the possibility you could get one or two more year of service from them.  If you're going to deal away draft capital or young prospects, you want to maximize your return.

We're seeing crazy high prices being paid in some of the deals that have gone down this past week.  Does Seattle have a player on their roster that would command such a return?  We'll find out but I think it would have to be one of those "offers you can't refuse" to get G.M Russ Farwell to depart with a key piece of the roster.

My Three Stars for the Weekend Sweep:

Third Star:  G Liam Hughes.  He probably would want a couple of the goals he allowed Friday in Kelowna back, but he made enough quality saves to earn the 6-4 win. He probably played his best game as a T-birds Saturday in the 4-1 win over the Chiefs, stopping 39 of 40 shots, including a Jarret Anderson-Dolan breakaway in the second period when the game was still just 1-0 Seattle.

Second Star:  D Jarret Tyszka.  Finished the weekend with three points on a goal and two assists and was +3.  After a slow start on the stat sheet, the Montreal Canadians prospect now has 27 points (6g, 21a) in 37 games.

First Star:  W/C Donovan Neuls.  Celebrated playing in his 250th game Friday by scoring twice against the Rockets.   His second goal that night stemmed the tide and tied the game up at 4-4 after the T-birds had lost a 3-1 lead and fell behind.  He followed up that performance with a three point night (2g, 1a) Saturday against the Chiefs.  He's now just a point behind Nolan Volcan for the overall points lead on the team. When you factor in his playoff action, he has now played 295 games in a T-birds jersey.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Merry New Year!

Seattle returned from the Christmas break and promptly earned seven of eight points, going 3-0-1-0 in the last four games of 2017.  Only a blown 3-1 lead in the third period in Spokane the first game back from the break, prevented the T-birds from a four game sweep. They had to settle for a point in an overtime loss.  Add to that their two wins before the break and the T-birds ended the year on a six game point streak, earning 11 of a possible 12 points by going 5-0-1-0 to close out December.  Oh well, if "if and buts" were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas.  Wait, I think we did have a Merry Christmas...and a Happy New Year too.

When the season started did you have Seattle four games above the break even mark and just seven points out of the Division lead on New Year's Day?  I take it you won the lottery too then.

Let's give props where props are due, the coaching staff.  Specifically first year head coach Matt O'Dette who inherited a team sans Barzal, Bear, Gropp, Kolesar, Toth, True and Eansor and a goaltending situation in flux. This team is currently four games above .500 and trending in the right direction because he has this team ready to play almost every night through the first half of the schedule.  No one knows how the second half will unfold or what their final record will be, but this team will be better when the season ends then when it began. Young players will have developed at a solid pace.  That's due to the coaching they get both on and off the ice, during games and during practice and that's because of O'Dette and his assistants Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer.

The one thing Hagel and Sommer bring to the table, that offsets their coaching inexperience, is their enthusiasm.  They both show a great desire to want to teach.  They believe in their players and are eager to help them improve as they strive for pro careers. Sometimes a fresh perspective can help a franchise stay at or near the top, or keep a winning atmosphere like the T-birds have created the last few seasons, from growing stale.

Those players mentioned above were all key cogs in Seattle's top tier special teams the past two seasons, yet without them the T-birds are still ranked among the best in the league in both the power play (8th) and the penalty kill (3rd) at the halfway point.  The past four seasons as an assistant under Steve Konowalchuk, O'Dette was the PK guru.  Despite being elevated to head coach his influence is all over the penalty kill.  Players, whether they are four year veterans or first year rookies, have bought into the program.  While implementing his own coaching style, O'Dette is smart enough not to fix what ain't broke, instead building on what Konowalchuk started.

Let's not forget the architect of this team has been General Manager Russ Farwell.  He built a team that played in two straight league finals and won a Chynoweth Cup and did it without mortgaging away the future.  It's much easier to rebuild, or reload, if you have most of your best assets still in your back pocket.  In getting to the WHL Championship series each of the past two seasons he made no major blockbuster deal that cost him a big chunk of the future.  Instead he relied on his scouts to one, recommend players he could trade for who fit the T-birds systems while complementing the roster they already had and two, recommend the drafting and signing of young prospects who could develop quickly into good WHL players. 

Here we are, a week from the trade deadline, and so many rumors are flying about blockbuster deals, or a about Team X or team Y potentially mortgaging their future by trading away high picks and top prospects to make a run at the Cup. That's something Farwell didn't have to do.

Seattle's first four games following Christmas were not perfect sixty minute games yet they found ways to get wins or points in all of them.  The New Year's Eve win down in Portland, the third game in three nights, may have been their most complete effort. That was an attribute of last year's team too. So often last year Seattle was the better team at the end of a busy stretch because of their compete level.   It's not talent alone that wins, it is talent plus desire.  It's not often that throwing the first punch wins the fight.  Often it is the ability to take the hit and get back up and hit back even harder.    That's a pretty apt description of a Seattle team the past four to five seasons and it continues this season as well.

Thirty five games to go before the playoffs.  Four dozen games in 77 days between now and March 18th.  19 of those games will be at home including a three game homestand beginning next Saturday.  Hope you got your Holiday Flex Pack for Christmas because you'll want to watch this team fight and compete for one of those eight Western Conference playoff spots up for grabs.  The race is on!

My T-birds Three Stars for the first four post Christmas games:

Third Star:  G-Matt Berlin.  Berlin faced 75 shots in his two starts, both against Spokane, and made 66 saves to go 1-0-1-0.  Plenty of those 75 shots were high end scoring chances.  His lateral quickness seems to be improving as he made a couple of memorable side to side saves against his former team.  Now 19-9-4-1 in net in his T-birds career.  Not bad for a guy acquired for a 9th round bantam pick who was originally brought in to be an emergency back up goalie for a few weeks last October.

Second Star:  G-Liam Hughes.  When Berlin suffered a lower body tweak in the final seconds against Spokane Friday night, Hughes came off the injury list to start the final two games of the weekend.  Showing no rust from having been sidelined since mid-November, he went 2-0  with a 2.80 GAA by stopping 64 of 70 shots in two games versus Portland and showed terrific rebound control.  He capped it by stopping all three Winterhawks shooters in the shootout New Year's Eve.  Like Berlin, Hughes was acquired out of necessity (Stankowski injury) but only cost Seattle a mid round draft pick to get him out of Edmonton.  

First Star: D Turner Ottenbreit.   Over the four game stretch he had five points (1g, 4a) but it was his whole game that earns him the honor.  He puts in big minutes on the ice as part of Seattle's top D pairing. But he also sets the tone by delivering big hits, especially early in games. Just his way of letting the opponent know they're going to be in for a battle.  He stood up for his teammates all weekend.  He may be the most scrutinized player in the WHL when it comes to officiating but he's not changing his approach.  Turner is still going to be Turner and that benefits the T-birds.