When Steve Konowalchuk took the reins as Seattle's head coach nearly seven years ago, one of the reasons he cited for accepting the position was the chance to work with and develop raw, young players into professionals. Working with the younger players in the Colorado Avalanche system was something he had done a little of while on that staff of the NHL team. Coming to Seattle allowed him to do it full-time.
He was pretty good at it too. Mat Barzal was going to be an NHL player but Konowalchuk showed him that talent alone was not enough. In conversations with media at various times during his rookie season with the New York Islanders this past year Barzal often cited the influence of Konowalchuk on his total game.
Barzal was the no brainer in the group though, almost pegged as a surefire NHLer before Kono even arrived in Seattle. Konowalchuk's biggest fingerprint might be on guys like Scott Eansor and Alexander True, a couple of undrafted players who signed AHL deals. Like Barzal he showed them as well that it takes more then talent to make it at hockey's highest level. He instilled a work ethic in them that says you can't cut corners.
In his last four years behind the Seattle bench, Konowalchuk had a secret weapon to help him in developing those players. that secret weapon was Matt O'Dette. O'Dette too had his influence on those players. As the primary assistant coach, he was in charge of the defensemen. Two of them, Shea Theodore and Ethan Bear, earned WHL Defenseman of the Year honors under his tutelage. Both were drafted into the NHL and both are now NHLers. Then there is Austin Strand, recently signed by the NHL's L.A. Kings, and Turner Ottenbreit who has hooked on with the AHL's San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche affiliate) for the end of their season. O'Dette has had a significant impact on the development of their game as well and it continued after Konowalchuk left.
O'Dette also was responsible for the penalty kill under Kono and Seattle's PK has been fairly consistently a top ten penalty kill team in the WHL over that span, often in the top five. So, O'Dette had cache before he took over for Konowalchuk behind the bench this season. So how did he do bringing all that out in the open his first year at the helm?
Let's start with this, in the end coaches are always going to be judged by wins and losses. In his first season O'Dette took a team devoid of the star players it had the previous four campaigns and led them to a 34-28-8-2 record and into the first round of the playoffs. It's one season but he had them playing winning hockey. You can check that box in his favor.
He accomplished that record with a staff lacking in coaching experience. The only guy standing behind the T-birds bench with any previous coaching on his resume when this season began was O'Dette. His two assistants were coaching neophytes. The previous season both Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer were still pro hockey players. So O'Dette wasn't just coaching the players, he was also coaching up the coaches. He had a hand in picking his assistants then integrating them into his systems.
Personally, I think it went seamlessly. First, it appears he picked the right guys. Both Hagel and Sommer are enthusiastic, fresh voices who can smartly articulate the message to the players. In retrospect I think it was a good idea to get two guys just entering the coaching profession to work with a roster featuring a lot of young players pushing their way onto the Thunderbirds roster for the first time. Guys like Sam Huo, Holden Katzalay, Payton Mount and Graeme Bryks are the recipients of that new positive energy Hagel and Sommer are bringing. Would it have worked with a more veteran roster featuring NHL drafted players like Barzal, Bear, Kolesar and Gropp? I'm not so sure.
As we know, O'Dette's first year as head coach featured a roster with no Barzal, no Bear, no Kolesar, no Gropp, no Eansor and no True. He had some solid returning vets in Ottenbreit, Strand, Donovan Neuls, and Nolan Volcan but when the year started he had just one NHL draft pick on the roster, Montreal Canadiens fifth rounder Jarett Tyszka. Eventually Strand would sign his deal with the Kings but that would be it. Then at the midseason trade deadline Seattle dealt away 19 year old defenseman Aaron Hyman and not long after that 18 year old d-man Reece Harsch went down with injury and missed 19 games. All of a sudden Seattle was dressing three rookie defenseman every night. Did they take some lumps? Sure they did but O'Dette and his staff kept them glued together well enough to get that postseason spot.
The goaltending situation has been well documented too. Look, when you come into your first year as head coach thinking the one position you don't have to worry about is goaltending and it ends up being the position you worry about the most, it would be easy to panic. Instead O'Dette handed the job to whoever was healthy that night and put faith not just in them, but the team around them until he could settle on a number one guy. The coach believed in his players and that gave them the ability to believe in themselves. To paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, hockey is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical. A good coach recognizes that.
At the end of the day there is no way you can look back on this past season and say this team underachieved. If anything most pundits and fans would say the team surpassed what they thought they would have accomplished. It was a transition year that, frankly, I think went better then expected. You knew they would be integrating in a lot of young rookies but to do it and still finish above .500 and in the postseason is a win-win.
If you're still not sold on Matt O'Dette and the job he did, here's something to chew on. In their first round playoff series against Everett, the 8th seeded T-birds lost to the first seeded Silvertips in five games. That's expected to happen. Eight seeds just don't upset one seeds. In that series, the T-birds, with their one NHL free agent and one NHL drafted player (who missed the last two games of the series by the way) scored ten goals and allowed 22.
Now, I'm not saying that is anything to write home about. But by comparison, in the second round it was the Portland Winterhawks turn to face that same Everett team. This was a Portland team that many experts believed would compete for a title this season. That Portland team finished with the second best record in the Western Conference and fourth best regular season record in the entire WHL. It was the very same Portland team with seven NHL draft picks on the roster, including four first rounders, along with a free agent goalie who also had signed an NHL deal. Like Seattle, Portland lost their second round series to the Silvertips in five games. How many goals did they score? Nine, one LESS then Seattle How many did they give up? 21 just ONE fewer then the T-birds.
My point here is to draw attention to just how well Matt O'Dette did his first season behind the bench, when he could take a lesser roster then one loaded with NHL prospects, such as the one down in Portland, and essentially produce the same results.
It's just one season and there are no guarantees the second will be better then the first. But I'm looking forward to watching O'Dette and his staff grow together with this young team.