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.