Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

That's not the way the Thunderbirds wanted to go into the Christmas break. Seattle had a goal of reaching .500 and being in a playoff position. Unfortunately a winless three game weekend put the kibosh on that. The weekend summed up Seattle's first half woes. Injuries, poor puck management and a, mostly, ineffective power play were some of the culprits in the T-birds going into the break on an 0-2-1-0 skid.

Just when it appeared the team was back to good health, the team promptly lost Noah Philp and Loeden Schaufler to injury. Then, as expected, Ondrej Kukuca departed for Team Slovakia's World Junior Championships training camp. A more seasoned team might be able to overcome those losses. We saw it a few years back on Seattle's run to a WHL title. But this team is very green, the third youngest team in the WHL. The lack of experience among Seattle's depth has been key to their below .500 record. Young players are learning the hard lessons on the fly. What might have worked at the bantam or midget level because of your talent, won't work in the WHL where you're facing the top junior players. In due time the experience being gained through these hard lessons should pay off. Right now, it's called growing pains.

There are bright spots despite the struggles. Seattle's top line is doing what is expected of them. They are carrying the freight offensively for a team that can struggle to score goals. Nolan Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Zack Andrusiak have combined for 96 points (45g, 51a) in 31 games. On a team that allows more goals than it scores, they are a combined +21.

Usually when talking about a team Most Valuable Player, you look at the top scorers. There is certainly a lot of value in offensive production. But when debating who has the most value to the team's success, you can make a convincing argument for Philp. If not the MVP, he might at least be the linchpin between the team's success and failure as they suffer when he's not in the lineup. Having that experienced, second line center creates more consistent secondary scoring and it takes pressure off the bottom six in that forward group that is made up of many first and second year players. There is no question they are a better team when Philp is healthy. His absence affected the effectiveness of Dillon Hamaliuk, who often played on Philp's wing.

Two draft eligible Thunderbirds have made it to the "B" rankings (2nd-3rd round prospects) of the most recent Central Scouting rankings for the upcoming NHL draft. In addition both those players, Jake Lee and Hamaliuk, have been invited to participate in the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game slated for Red Deer, Alberta in late January. Meanwhile some of those rookies are starting to shine with a couple of defensemen, Tyrel Bauer and Simon Kubichek, front and center. Because of injuries to veteran blue liners Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch, Seattle was forced to play the 16 year old Bauer in 29 of the first 31 games. I can tell you that was not the plan when the team gathered for training camp in August. Very rarely though, if ever, did you feel Bauer's youth was exposed. The goal scorers get all the headlines but Bauer quietly reached the holiday break with five assists, including two in the final two games, and a +4 rating. There may be no flash or sizzle to his game but if you want a very coachable, rock solid, smart, physical defenseman, Bauer is all that and more.

Meanwhile, Kubicek, who played the first half still a 16 year old (his 17th birthday is December 19th), was most often used along with the 17 year old Lee as the team's number one defensive pairing. Not only is Kubicek adjusting to a smaller ice surface but he's overcoming a language barrier and living in a foreign country, far away from his Czech Republic home. Despite that he reached the break with 14 points (7g, 7a) and a +5 rating. He's in the infancy of his T-bird career and should, like Bauer, only get better.

We are also seeing what a healthy Tyler Carpendale can do. Carpendale was actually with the team through their 2017 postseason championship run, although he didn't play. He was with the team at the Memorial Cup in Windsor as well. Injury cost him all but nine games a season ago and he spent much of the first two months this season on the shelf too. We've been waiting for him to make his mark and it seems, now that he's healthy, he's ready. Knock on wood.

I'm not excusing the team's first half performance, nor am I giving up on this season. While we can look forward to how the younger players develop and how that might affect the team's long term future, players like Volcan, Andrusiak, Wedman, Liam Hughes and Philp aren't concerned with that. They are playing to win today. In some cases, this is their last season in the WHL, possibly a last chance to catch the attention of a pro scout. They want to finish their time here as winners.

You can't restart the season but you can take a step back and reset and go after the second half the way you wanted to go after the first.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Doctor Will See You Now

The old joke during Steve Konowalchuk's six year tenure as Thunderbirds head coach was that he had a complete, healthy roster for all of maybe six games. A bit of an exaggeration but not too far off the truth. To that his replacement, Matt O'Dette says, "Hold my beer." Not one game since taking the job prior to last season has O'Dette had a completely healthy roster. So when we say this past weekend was the T-Birds at their healthiest this season, they are still not 100 percent healthy with Cody Savey out with a lower body issue. And now, after Saturday night, it looks like you can put Loeden Schaufler on that injury report as well.

But with a, for-the-first-time-this-season, mostly healthy lineup this weekend we saw what this team can do. Sure they only got a split of the two games. In fact they've played only.500 hockey their last four games. But the two games just played were six of their most complete periods of hockey this season. They were the better team on the ice both nights, first by large stretches in their 4-1 win over Tri-City Friday in Kennewick and then by a slight margin Saturday in the 2-1 loss to Everett. They put a combined 86 shots on goal. The 44 shots Saturday were more shots against the 'Tips then they had in their first two games against Everett combined (17+26=43). Getting 44 shots on the Everett net in one game is almost unheard of.

There are those who will say, stop using injuries as an excuse, but the facts don't lie. With Jarrett Tyszka, Noah Philp, Payton Mount, Tyler Carpendale and Reece Harsch in and out of the lineup, with Jaxan Kaluski playing almost one-handed, the T-Birds struggled. Too much had to be asked of their young, inexperienced players. With those previously injured players in the lineup together for the first time all season, Seattle showed they can compete with anyone. They were a controversial goal away from earning at least three of four points.

Yes, it was not all rosy this weekend. There are no moral victories. 86 shots over two games should net you more then five goals. They need to finish more of those Grade A chances. Seattle has to get the power play figured out too. We know they're capable. We saw them score an average of five goals a game during an October four-game winning streak. We saw them pot 13 power-play goals over a six game stretch earlier this season. They only have five in their other 21 games.

I checked Seattle Athletic Trainer Phil Varney for any new gray follicles in his beard after Saturday night's game. Varney was diligent in his duty, helping Tyszka recover from his upper body injury and get on the ice for the first time this season. And what does Tyszka do once finally back on the ice? He promptly gets involved a couple of very physical altercations both nights, including a fighting major in the first period of his first game.

Now available for Christmas, a WHL Wheel of Suspensions Dartboard, darts included! I think you can find it on Amazon for $29.95! Free shipping! If you can crack the WHL's player suspension code, please, send me the winning lottery numbers too! Seriously I'm flummoxed by it.

All those players coming back into the lineup are key cogs for Seattle's top lines or top D-pairing. The one player showing his worth that may not get the notice of the others is Carpendale. Since missing nine games he's responded with four points (3g, 1a) and plays the aggressive, physical style that Seattle's coaches preach. In reality he should have four goals. He scored one in the third period Friday in Kennewick. The problem is the referees, the goal judge and the video review judge didn't see the obvious. Injuries have cost him too many games the past two seasons. Here's to hoping he can stay healthy because when on the ice he affects games in Seattle's favor. He could be that quintessential late bloomer, in the Brenden Dillon mode. He may not be on any Central Scouting lists but he should at least be registering a small blip with some NHL scouts.

You be the judge:
69.1 Interference on the Goalkeeper – This rule is based on the premise that an attacking player’s position, whether inside or outside the crease, should not, by itself, determine whether a goal should be allowed or disallowed. In other words, goals scored while attacking players are standing in the crease may, in appropriate circumstances be allowed. Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. The rule will be enforced exclusively in accordance with the on-ice judgement of the Referee(s), but may be subject to a Coach’s Challenge (see Rule 78.7).
For purposes of this rule, “contact,” whether incidental or otherwise, shall mean any contact that is made between or among a goalkeeper and attacking player(s), whether by means of a stick or any part of the body.
The overriding rationale of this rule is that a goalkeeper should have the ability to move freely within his goal crease without being hindered by the actions of an attacking player. If an attacking player enters the goal crease and, by his actions, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to defend his goal, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

Italics are mine for emphasis. Do I have a slight bias? Sure, but that looked like interference with the goaltender to me. There are no coach's challenges for interference with the goaltender in the WHL but why not? They have overhead video camera's zeroed in all the goals in all WHL rinks. They have a video review judge at all WHL games. Time to flip the page to 2018.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the week:

Third Star: Got to give it to goalie Cole Schwebius for recording his first WHL win Friday in Kennewick. The only goal he allowed was a PP goal on a redirection. There was nothing too overtly spectacular about his sixty minute winning effort, it was just solid goaltending. He made the necessary saves. He's only played in five games but his numbers, a 2.62 GAA and .915 save percentage, are solid too.

Second Star: C Matthew Wedman. Just everywhere on the ice this past week, earning points, hitting, winning puck battles, causing havoc in front of opposing goalies and dominant in the face-off circle. Even more impressive, He's +11 on a team that has allowed more goals than they've scored and he probably logs more minutes then most of his teammates.

First Star: W Zack Andrusiak. The T-Birds do, at times, struggle to score. They don't have a lot of "natural" goal scorers on the roster. Andrusiak is one of the exceptions. He's a goal scorer and that's what he's been doing lately. Hat tricks in back to back games recently he now has potted 19 on the season, far and away tops on the team. And while we do consider him a "natural" goal scorer with his quick shot, he does put in lots of work to hone that skill.