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.

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