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.