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.