Sunday, November 25, 2018

Baby Steps

I know it may be hard to see or even quantify statistically, but the young T-birds are making progress. Actually, there is some quantifiable evidence as Geoffrey Brandow (follow him on twitter @GeoffreyBrandow), a real junior hockey stats geek if ever there was one, has pointed out that Seattle's rookies are second in the WHL in points produced, trailing only Moose Jaw. Now for a lot of teams those rookie point totals get skewed by Imports, especially a 19 year old Import. That does factor in with the T-birds as 19 year old winger Andrej Kukuca is the team's leading rookie scorer with 17 points. But rookie defenseman Simon Kubicek, Seattle's other Import, is still just 16 and won't be 17 until December 19th, and he is the second leading rookie scorer with 10 points.

Payton Mount has been limited, due to the U-17 tournament and injury, but he has seven points in 14 games. Graeme Bryks and Tyrel Bauer have three points each and both Jared Davidson and Cody Savey have recently earned their first point in the WHL. Six other players classified as rookies, have played for the Thunderbirds this season. I would put money on a few more young players making their WHL regular season debut at some point this season.

The measure of these rookies early on isn't done through the points they earn though, but in their adjustment to a higher level of hockey, a faster and more physical game. It's adjusting to team schemes and systems, something most of these players didn't have to worry about at lower levels. When you see their ice time jump, you know they are progressing. It is a sign the coaches trust them more now then they did at season's beginning. Davidson and Savey are prime examples of that. Their minutes have increased. It hastens their development. They're still going to make rookie mistakes. Their response to those mistakes is key. they have to learn from those errors and correct them. It's a season long process. Remember, these two players weren't even drafted. They were essentially free agents listed by Seattle and brought to training camp, where they earned their spots on the roster. They are now significant pieces of Seattle's future.

Another key piece to Seattle's future was on display this weekend as well. 2018 second round Bantam pick, 15 year old Lucas Ciona, got into his first three WHL games. Physically, Ciona looks nothing like a 15 year old. Listed at 6'2", 193 lbs., I think he's so well conditioned he could play at this age in the WHL. I'm not saying he'd stack up the points but he could stand up to the physical rigors, playing on the third or fourth line. Alas, at age 15 he's only eligible for five games until his midget season concludes. He didn't register a point in those three games but he held his own. The one shift that stood out for me was him on ice Friday against Calgary's 19 year old Mark Kastelic, the league's second leading goal scorer. There was Ciona in a battle with the 6'4" Kastelic along the boards in the Seattle zone, banging away, tying him up and not letting him get off the wall with the puck. He's just a strong kid.

We've already written about the benefits of all the extra ice time rookie d-man Tyrel Bauer is getting in the absence of Jarret Tyszka. When Tyszka is finally cleared to play, and hopefully that's soon, don't expect Bauer to sit often, if at all. He's carved out a spot in Seattle's top six defensive rotation. Despite the struggles to win games recently, Bauer is still +3 on the season. We're barely through November and you almost want to take that "rookie" label off Bauer. You shouldn't. He's still just 16 years old. He's still going to make rookie errors. Once again though, you quicken his development by letting him make and learn from those errors. The T-birds did it with Shea Theodore and Jared Hauf. They did it with Tyszka and they did it with Jake Lee. Three of those are, or are going to be, NHL draft picks. Bauer is in line to follow that same trajectory.

Three has not been a magic number for the T-birds. They just lost three straight, winnable games and in each case the third goal was the "goal too far". It put Seattle in too deep a hole from which they couldn't recover. They didn't quit after those third goals from their opponents, but they couldn't dig out of those multi-goal deficits. I liked the effort in Portland Saturday in the 4-3 loss the best. Here's why. It was their third game in four nights, going up against a rested, healthy opponent that hadn't played in three days. After a struggle to get out of their own end the second half of the first period, they made adjustments and kept it simple the rest of the game. When they appeared to be running out of gas late in the third, they found a final push to make it a one goal game late and they put themselves in position in the final seconds to tie it. It didn't happen but the effort was there.

My T-birds three stars for the week:

Third Star: C Nolan Volcan. Just continues to do Nolan Volcan things, even when not scoring, he's affecting games. If the T-birds young players want to know how to affect games when the puck isn't on your stick, watch Volcan. He's totally engaged in 200 feet of ice. Like Scott Eansor before him, he's that player you don't want to play against because he never takes a shift off.

Second Star: W Zack Andrusiak. Seattle is struggling to score, everyone that is, except Andrusiak who now leads the team with 15 goals following his hat trick Saturday. Goals in six straight games and seven of his last eight. His job is to score goals and that's what he's doing.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. Now the team leader in points with 21 (8g, 13a) with a +7 rating. He's been driving the engine lately. Centering the first line, winning faceoffs, scoring, playing physical and playing in all situations. Seven points in his last six games. If there wasn't a Volcan on this team, I'm guessing he'd be your captain.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

And We're Back.

The Thunderbird offense finally busted out Saturday in a 6-4 win over Portland. The win snapped a seven game winless skid, a streak in which the T-Birds scored just eight goals and no more then two in any game. Prior to Saturday night, the last time Seattle posted a "W" was October 27th, a 5-1 victory over the Vancouver Giants up in Langley.

Maybe the win over Portland shouldn't be too surprising despite the seven game skid. You could see the offense starting to come around the previous two games, both losses to Spokane. Seattle put a combined 73 shots on goal in those two games. They created a dozen scoring opportunities against the Chiefs each night. Just in the third periods alone against Spokane the Thunderbirds had a combined 35 shots on goal, but scored just once. They weren't finishing their chances. They weren't getting to rebounds and scoring greasy goals. Saturday against the Winterhawks, the T-Birds scored three of their six goals off rebounds. Four of the six were scored from inside the "house", that area just outside the crease.

We mention often Seattle's youth and the growing pains associated with a young team. Saturday night against Portland that youth experienced a bit of growth spurt. Down early 2-0, it was Seattle's young corp that sparked the comeback. Sixteen year old rookie Jared Davidson's first WHL goal lit the fuse, getting the T-Birds back in the game by putting back in a rebound. That rebound came off an initial shot from fellow 16-year old rookie, defenseman Tyrel Bauer. The T-Birds tied the game minutes later when 17-year old second year player Sam Huo banged home yet another rebound. This came after an offensive zone face off win by yet another 16-year old rookie, Payton Mount, who earned an assist on the goal. By the way, the night before in the loss in Spokane, another rookie winger, 17-year old Cody Savey earned his first WHL point with a third period assist.

18-year old winger Tyler Carpendale still seems like a rookie. That's because he got into only nine games as a rookie last season before an injury that required surgery sidelined him the rest of the way. An injury sidelined him again early this year and he missed eight games. He returned to the lineup with a vengeance this weekend, recording a goal and an assist in the two games. More importantly he helped set the tempo by playing the "T-Bird way", an aggressive physical brand of hockey. He gave the team energy both nights as he looked to be making up for lost time. On a line with Huo and Mount they seemed to be on the same page all night.

Able to roll four lines allowed Seattle to get their top line players out of a scoring funk. Matthew Wedman picked up three points (2g, 1a) versus Portland. Nolan Volcan earned three assists and put another shot off the crossbar. Andrej Kukuca ended the night with a goal and an assist while Zack Andrusiak completed the weekend with a pair of goals and now has lit the lamp in four of the last five games.

Seven of the eight goals scored by the T-Birds this weekend were even strength. The eighth one was scored shorthanded. Seattle still hasn't got their power play back on track and are mired in a 1-41 stretch with the man advantage. Injuries have affected the power play as Seattle has lost Noah Philp and now Reece Harsch and as of yet hasn't had Jarret Tyszka in the lineup. Still, they are creating chances. Too many shots lately are missing the net, which I think is a sign of guys pressing. But better traffic around the net could help. They need to take the goalies eyes away.

Hockey is a funny game. Goalie Liam Hughes was probably better in most of the losses during the losing streak then he was in Saturday night's win. A couple early shots got behind him, shots he usually stops. Great to see the offense pick him up. I will say there are lots of goalies who'd kill to have a 51 save effort on an "off night" like Hughes had. In the end he did what goalies are asked to do, give your team a chance to win.

No team wants to experience a seven game winless streak. It's very hard to make up lost ground. Despite that, when it was over, the T-Birds find themselves only a game below .500 with lots of hockey ahead of them.

With the return of Mount from the U-17 Challenge and Carpendale back from injury, Seattle coaches have cobbled together line combinations that look like they can get them through the absence of Philp. You want to be productive up and down the lineup so opposing team's can't focus on just shutting down your top line. The task is to get Saturday's effort each night. If you can get offense from the third and fourth lines more consistently, opponents have to game plan for that. The first test will come this Wednesday against Vancouver.

Maybe it was just me but for the first three weeks of the season Sam Huo looked lost. He just didn't seem like the same player who had such a solid rookie campaign. Then head coach Matt O'Dette moved Huo off the wing and inserted him at center. Since then Huo has been a different player. Centering the third or second line has put him closer to the front of the net. It's given him more responsibility, especially in the defensive zone. Maybe it forced him to concentrate more or maybe it's taking better advantage of his skill set. Doesn't seem like that big of a move, but it may have saved his season. Confidence is hard to quantify, but Huo seems like a much more confident player then he did through much of October. Scoring three goals will help that. Tip of the cap to O'Dette and his staff for watching the video and putting a player in a better situation for success.

Seattle's two wins this season against Portland have come without their two oldest defensemen, Tyszka and Harsch, in the lineup. With both those players sidelined they beat Portland opening night, 5-3. They did it again Saturday night. Seattle has potted 13 goals in three games against the Winterhawks, outscoring them 13-9 in the season series. Tyszka heads to Montreal this week to get a checkup on his injury from the Canadiens medical staff. The T-Birds hope when he returns, he's a step closer to returning to the lineup. The biggest beneficiary of the Tyszka/Harsch absence has been Bauer. Did anyone notice the young Canmore, Alberta native ended the weekend with a +3 rating?

My T-Virds three stars for the week:

Third star: C/W Jared Davidson. It wasn't just that he recorded his first WHL goal this weekend. It was the timeliness of the goal. Seattle, in the midst of a seven game skid had just surrendered two early goals to Portland. The T-Birds were in a fragile situation. They could have hung their heads and wilted. Davidson's goal got them back in the game. It gave them back their mojo. It put them back on their toes instead of on their heels. The undrafted Davidson was the surprise of training camp, making the regular season roster when most pundits didn't see that coming. Just you watch, that first goal will be the first of many in his T-Bird career. He reminds me a bit of Greg Scott, another undrafted player who had a pretty good career with Seattle. Only Scott didn't make the roster until he was 17.

Second Star: W Zack Andrusiak. For Seattle to win consistently, they need Andrusiak to score consistently. He was their leading goal scorer a year ago. He now leads the team in goal scoring again this season with 10, including four in his last five games. His breakaway goal in the third period Saturday essentially iced the win over Portland. Goal scorers are usually streaky. Lets hope Andrusiak is in a hot streak that continues this coming week. He can play up and down the lineup which helps spread the offense.

First Star: C/W Jaxan Kaluksi. Very quietly Kaluski has been Seattle's best player the past week. It may not put his name on the scoresheet a lot, he had two assists in the three games, but his work rate is off the charts. He's also found some chemistry with Andrusiak on the second line. He's showed his versatility playing both center and wing. He's a tremendous penalty killer. Twice Friday in Spokane he stripped the puck away from the Chiefs best player, and a #1 NHL draft pick, defenseman Ty Smith, while the T-Birds were shorthanded. The first time he did it, it led to a shorthanded Andrusiak goal. His presence is most obvious winning puck battles in the corners. There is a reason he now wears an "A" on his jersey. The coaches trust him, very much in the vein of a Nolan Volcan.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


A few years back, when the Thunderbirds would lose a Scott Eansor to injury they had an Alexander True they could move up from the third line to center the second line. When Keegan Kolesar would miss time on the first line with an injury, they could plug in that spot with a Donovan Neuls. Right now, as the team goes through some injuries to top nine forwards, they don't have a True or Neuls to fill that void. Now, they may have a future True type, or a Neuls-in-training somewhere on the roster, but they are younger players, rookies. They haven't gotten the seasoning yet that True and Neuls got behind older players. When True and Neuls were 17 year olds, WHL veterans like Jamien Yakobowksi and Sam McKechnie were on board to help get them through the growing pains. In other words, the T-birds had more experienced depth back then.

So, why should this season be any different? Well back then Seattle had a veteran roster, nearly top to bottom, that would eventually lead them to two conference championships and a league title. As well, their younger players were named Barzal, Gropp, Bear and Kolesar. You can look at most WHL rosters and see an asterisk by any player deemed a rookie. Now some of those asterisks go by the names of import players who are 18 or 19 years old. Technically they're rookies but in reality are older players. Seattle's own Andrej Kukuca falls into that category. But I categorize most "true" rookies in the league as 16 and 17 years olds with no or limited WHL games under their belts.

The T-birds currently have nine such players on the roster. 16 year old rookie Payton Mount is an exception because the former first round bantam pick is further along in his development that he is a top nine forward. Of course, he's currently away representing Canada at the U-17 tournament. He's also the exception, not the rule. The other eight are the players the T-birds are plugging into spots in the lineup when older players are going out. Players still developing their games to fit in the WHL.

The best case scenario would be to let those players develop their games by rotating in on the fourth line, or in the case of a blue liner, either as a seventh defenseman or on the third d-pairing. They'd be healthy scratches some nights and getting a lot of their work in during practice. But injuries have scuttled those plans. With Noah Philp out, Seattle has had to move 2nd year forward, 17 year old Sam Huo up to the second line. He's been given significant power play minutes as well to fill the void left by the injury to Philp. The domino affect is that rookie Graeme Bryks moves from the fourth to the third line and 16 year old rookie Jared Davidson now centers the fourth line.

It means acquiring Brecan Wood from Moose Jaw to create more competition for minutes. While Wood is 18 years old he was used sparingly by the Warriors, in fact when Seattle acquired him he was playing in the AJHL with the Spruce Grove Saints. So he comes to Seattle and immediately starts getting more minutes in a new system. Of course this all happens with Tyler Carpendale, another top nine forward, sidelined with injury and Mount away at U-17. It is essentially like having to replace your third line with rookies and new acquisitions. Oh, and you're probably going to have to do it against what could be argued is the best division in the league, the U.S. Division.

And we haven't even touched on the defensemen group that is currently employing three 16 year olds and has only one player over the age of 19 currently skating. All this while their most experience d-man, and the only NHL drafted player currently on the roster Jarret Tyszka, continues to sit out with injury. He hasn't played a single minute yet this season.

When Seattle was relatively healthy and everybody was in their right spot in the pecking order, they went 6-2-2-0. When the injuries and subsequent line juggling cropped up they went 1-6. That's the difference between a more experienced bottom six forward group with a more seasoned blue line and one like Seattle has right now, very, very green. It's also the nature of the beast. The WHL is cyclical. Seattle is still coming down from their championship run.

The roster has almost completely turned over from May 2017. Only four players with significant roles remain from the Chynoweth Cup winning team. One (Tyszka) is out with injury, another (Zack Andrusiak) was a 4th line winger that season. Reece Harsch was a rookie on the third D-pairing and Nolan Volcan was an 18 year old third line player. Players move through the WHL pretty quickly and rosters turn over every three years.

Now the T-birds also have a bit of a whole in their 2000 and 2001 age group. After a season and a half with the team, Seattle traded the disgruntled 18 year old Elijah Brown to Medicine Hat last season. He was the team's 2016 first round draft pick. They got a couple of high draft picks in return, including a second round pick they used last spring, a selection they used on Conner Roulette. Roulette, a player who has shown terrific offensive ability at lower levels, is signed but at 15 years old is not yet eligible for full-time duty in the WHL.

The second round selection that spring was goalie Carl Stankowski. Stankowski was a significant piece to the 2017 championship run but his health and injury situation has been well documented and he was traded to Calgary this past summer so he could deal with that closer to home. In return Seattle got future considerations. The T-birds third round selection that year, forward Conner Pyne signed but didn't work out. Still, Seattle acquired d-man Loeden Schauffler from Kootenay earlier this season and Schauffler was taken just a few picks after Pyne, so you could argue the T-birds recouped that pick.

The T-birds didn't have a 4th round pick and their fifth round selection, Kabir Gil, opted for the NCAA route but they did get Dillon Hamaliuk in round six along with Carpendale. Seventh rounder Tyson Terretta played a season and a half with the team before deciding to leave hockey behind after an injury plagued career. It was a fairly decent draft but unfortunately the top of the draft, for very different reasons, didn't work out long term as T-birds

In the spring of 2016 Seattle had four picks in the first three rounds but nothing after that until round eight (they did trade back into round six but traded the rights to that player, Nakdodan Greyeyes, to Saskatoon for a future draft pick). Remember, to supplement their rosters for their playoff runs leading up to that championship season, Seattle traded away some draft capital, getting back players like Bow, Leth, Schumacher, Adams, Toth and Hyman and before that Jakabowski, McKechnie, Henry and Maxwell.

Meanwhile, with their 2016 first round choice they selected defenseman Jake Lee. Lee is already in his second season with the club and is listed currently as a "C" skater by NHL Central Scouting for the upcoming NHL Draft. When you don't have 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th round picks, picks traded away to build up your team for three playoff runs that led you to a league title, you probably want to hit home runs with those other high picks.

In Round Two Seattle chose a power forward type player in Eric Fawkes. In Round Three, with two picks Seattle opted for forward Alex Swetlikoff and defenseman Layton Ahac. Seattle went after the top talent available. But a selection in the draft is no guarantee, instead it just gives you exclusive WHL recruiting rights to that player. In the case of Fawkes, Swetlikoff and Ahac they all ended up verbally committed to NCAA programs. Sometimes you swing for the fences and hit a home run, other times you strike out. And before you think this is a "Seattle thing", look at some recent WHL drafts and you will see a number of teams who've lost high picks to NCAA programs. As they say, it is better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all.

Seattle did get Graeme Bryks and Cole Schwebius in later rounds in that draft, and then signed some solid list players who went undrafted that year including Sam Huo, Eric Ward, Cade McNelly and Cody Savey so the cupboard is not bare. They also traded Fawkes' rights to Kootenay for Schaufler and future picks. As well, they traded the rights of Swetlikoff to Lethbridge. You can't get back a 2016 draft pick. There is no flux capacitor or DeLorean time machine. No use looking back, you look forward at what you can control, that which is in front of you.

In the 2017 draft they grabbed Mount along with defensemen Tyrel Bauer and Luke Bateman with a few others still on their list. They signed a couple of promising undrafted players in Davidson and Matthew Rempe. Seattle has signed all but two of their selections from last spring's draft. Those signed players include a first rounder, two seconds and a third. They drafted and signed a local player, Mekai Sanders in the ninth round, a player they believe would have gone in the second or third round if he was better known in hockey circles. Currently Seattle has a first and two second round picks, and potentially two third rounders, in next spring's draft. That extra second rounder comes from Regina and should end up being at the top of round two.

So the reload has begun. That's down the road though. Right now the team has to fight their way out of this current scoring rut and five game losing streak. Younger players have to get more comfortable with unexpectedly bigger roles. Veteran players have to get back to where they were just a scant few weeks ago.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star: C Nolan Volcan. Yes, I know he hasn't scored a goal in nine games but he's still out there busting his butt every shift. He's probably more frustrated then anyone else on the team right now. I'm sure he knows he's missed a good 10-12 scoring chances over this five game stretch. And I still believe he's due to go on a scoring binge.

Second Star: D Owen Williams. If one player has stepped up his game in this stretch, I think its Williams. I'm just noticing him more out on the ice, and for the good things he's doing. Without Tyszka they needed someone to fill that void and Williams is looking more and more confident.

First Star: The goaltending. Seattle is not getting blown out over this stretch, games are probably closer because of the goaltending of Liam Hughes and Cole Schwebius. There have been moments in a few of these losses where Seattle could have gotten run out of the building. The goalies have not allowed that to happen.