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.