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.