Sunday, September 22, 2019

In Rod(dy) We Trust

No matter how many home openers a player participates in, they always look forward to the pomp and circumstance and the reconnection with the home crowd. When I went down into the T-birds room before the game to record an interview with defenseman Ty Bauer, he told me every player was pumped to get going. There was a lot of anticipation in his voice. He said they were trying to expend some of that pent up energy by talking about what to expect (player introductions, etc.). They were trying to stick to their usual pregame routines. Try as they might to burn some of it off, they were too jacked.

Now, the one player I didn't see was goalie Roddy Ross. I like to think he was off somewhere by himself, calm, cool and relaxed and getting himself focused. Ever since he joined the team back in January that's been Ross' demeanor. Ice in his veins, never rattled. Nothing, it seems, gets him off his game. So while his teammates were using that opening night adrenaline to build a three goal first period lead, Ross was steadying himself for the storm to come. A 44 shot Kamloops barrage over the final two periods. With apologies to MC Hammer, Ross was "dope in the crease and magic on the ice". His glove hand was like an Acme magnet, drawing every sure Blazer scoring chance, but one, into it's clutches. His paddle and pads were steering pucks expertly out of harms ways. On this night, Ross was Boss.

Let's break down this opening night contest. The T-birds roster introduced to the crowd before puck drop featured 12 new faces. Nine of them are essentially WHL rookies. Nine of those new players were in the lineup for Game One. Of those I believe six still technically qualify as rookies. Eleven of the 20 players dressed against Kamloops were either in their first or second year in the league. yeah, this is a young team. The T-birds registered 12 points (goals plus assists) on their four goals. In a carryover from the preseason six of those points (2 goals, 4 assists) were registered by first or second year players. Eight of the 12 points came from new faces on the roster.

The T-birds were absent seven of their top 10 scorers, or 145 goals, from a season ago. By contrast, Kamloops retains nine of their top 10 scorers, or 125 goals, from the 2018-19 campaign. Despite this, Seattle found a way to put up four goals while holding those nine top scoring, returning Blazers to just one. Yes, that was mostly due to Ross and his 50 saves but let's give the young T-birds credit for keeping a vast majority of those 51 Kamloops shots to the outside and limiting second chance opportunities.

Special teams are probably the last aspect of the game plan that gets worked on in training camp and in preseason games but the Seattle penalty kill was another key to the win. Of the Blazers 51 shots, very few came on their five power plays. Only a Blazer goal, on the always dreaded 4-on-3 man advantage, early in the third period, put a dent into the T-birds solid work on the penalty kill as they committed to shot blocking when shorthanded. Seattle will have to clean up those hooking calls. The stick infractions are the bane of a coach's existence. The T-birds only had one brief (60 second) power play of their own so we don't know yet if their success with the man advantage in the preseason (37.5%) will carry over into the regular season.

With all the talk about the crop of young players on the team this season, let's not dismiss some of the new veteran faces who made their regular season T-birds debuts Saturday night. Two ex-Red Deer Rebels, both acquired late in preseason by General Manager Bil LaForge, put their mark on this win. 18 year old center Alex Morozoff scored Seattle's third goal and was solid in the faceoff circle while 19 year old defenseman Hunter Donohoe logged lots of minutes on the back end and earned an assist on the Morozoff goal. Meanwhile 20 year old Conner Bruggen-Cate, who came over in the bantam draft day trade with Kelowna back in May, led the team with eight shots on goal and was also a key penalty killer.

The story for this team though, as the season goes forward, will be the development of the young corps. And for an opening night, filled with a lot of anxious energy, they did not disappoint. Four of the six defensemen Seattle dressed are currently age 17. Three are just starting their second season while one is a true rookie. That true rookie is 6'6" Kamloops native Luke Bateman and he may just possess the biggest improvement I've seen in a player from his first training camp two year ago to today. He's still going to experience growing pains as he adjusts to this level of competition but the 2017 fourth round Bantam selection is on a great trajectory. He ended opening night with a +1 rating and lots of time on the PK.

The real youth is in the forward group with half of those dressed Saturday in either their first or second season. The Seattle brass expect those second year players such as Payton Mount and Jared Davidson, to take a big step forward and each delivered a key goal in the win over Kamloops. 18 year old rookie Michael Horon came up clutch with two assists and put his speed on display on numerous occasions throughout the game. Then there were the "true" rookies, a pair of fresh-faced 16 year olds in Conner Roulette and Lucas Ciona, and boy were they eye-catching.

Playing together on a line centered by Davidson, they were buzzing all over the ice. Ciona sprung Roulette on a breakaway, only to be denied by the post. Ciona has already learned to use his size and strength to win puck battles along the boards. Roulette has the ability to create havoc on the forecheck. He is like Henrik Rybinski in that way, in that he's going to create turnovers that lead to scoring chances. He was constantly stripping pucks free behind the Blazers goal. His hands are so good they should be insured by Lloyds of London.

Let's not forget the other 16 year old rookie forward who missed the game as he nurses through a minor injury. But Kai Uchacz, who hopefully makes his season debut next Friday, has the ability to have the same impact as Ciona and Roulette. A couple of other rookie forwards, Mekai Sanders and Matthew Rempe, are nursing injuries of their own but are waiting in the wings for their chance.

Saturday's game wasn't a perfect effort. It came with the expected inconsistency of such a young group. But it was the perfect result, an opening night win on home ice. There are lessons to be learned and areas where they can get better, but winning is a learned habit and knowing what it takes to win through the good and the bad is a great tool to have in your arsenal.

T-birds opening Night Three Stars:

Third Star: Rookie LW Michael Horon. Horon has scored at every level he's played. He can skate like the wind. But at age 18, this was a big training camp and preseason for him. Does he have the all-around game for the WHL level? With so many younger rookies looking for ice time he had to show the T-birds organization he could play in their top nine, if not their top six, forward group. So far, he's answered the bell. After a terrific training camp and preseason he contributed two assists opening night. His head man pass to Mount in the third period was a "thread-the-needle" type play that helped ice the game for the T-birds when Mount buried his shot to give Seattle the final margin of victory. He'll be a key component to any success the T-birds have on the power play this season.

Second Star: RW Andrej Kukuca. No Matthew Wedman, at least for now, and his 40 goals, no Nolan Volcan and his 27 goals and no Noah Philp and his 26 goals. No Sean Richards/Zach Andrusiak combo and their 33 goals, no Dillon Hamaliuk and his potential for a 30+ goal season. Kukuca is Seattle's top returning goal scorer from last season when he potted 25 to go along with 32 assists. This is why you retain the Slovakian sniper as a two-spotter (Import and 20 year old). You need his offense while the young guns are developing. Opening night he pots the game winner, from such a severe angle by the way, the officials felt it needed video review. He finishes the game with two points (1g, 1a) and a +2 rating. Ku-Ku-Kachoo, we need you!

First Star: Let me contemplate this one, so many to choose from... who am I kidding. Goalie Roddy Ross. Just your average, run of the mill, opening night 50 save performance. Kamloops first round draft pick Mats Lindgren is probably still trying to figure out how he didn't score his first career WHL goal into what seemed a wide open net in period two. Mats, the answer to that question would be Goal Robbin' Roddy Ross. As Seattle assistant coach Kyle Hagel told me after the game, Ross was very focused last season. This season he is laser focused. He came back from NHL training camp with the Philadelphia Flyers with a sense of purpose. With a young team around him, Ross is going to be in for more games like the one he had opening night. Anyone doubt he's up to the task?

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Convoluted Conundrum

With another training camp behind them, the Thunderbirds head into the 2019 preseason with lots of questions still to be answered. They have a bevy of eligible forwards but not enough roster spots for everyone. They are one short in their defensive group and are on the hunt for another d-man. Their goaltending, for the first time in a while is settled, but maybe the biggest question mark, and the one that may take longest to solve, is their 20 year old situation.

Maybe my memory is fading as I get older but I don't remember the team having such an unsettled 20 year old situation. usually the team is short of candidates, necessitating a trade or the roster is already set. Per league rules, Seattle must get down to the mandated three 20 year old players by early October. Heading into the Everett preseason tournament the T-birds currently have five such players on the roster. Picking the final three may come right down to that October deadline. There are just too many scenarios that can play out for the team to know today who those final three will be.

If you had asked me last January, following the trade deadline, who Seattle's three 20 year olds would be for this season, I would have said that's an easy question to answer. The T-birds had just dealt defenseman Reece Harsch to Saskatoon, leaving them with Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Jaxan Kaluski and Andrej Kukuca as the candidates. The simplest solution would be to keep the first three, release Kukuca and draft his replacement in the Import Draft.

You might wonder how I could be so quick to put Kaluski, who contributed all of 19 points (6g, 13a) a year ago, into one of those spots. Well, I know that he played through a nagging wrist injury all of last season, which affected his ability to shoot. Despite that he still contributed, playing wing and center and was a staunch penalty killer. He also has one of those intangibles that, while not necessarily at the top of the check list, is still important in a veteran player, leadership. So at that point, it seemed fairly cut and dried who the three 20 year olds for the 2019-20 season would be. But things have a way of changing, and changing rapidly.

First, Kukuca, who had returned to the team from representing Slovakia at World Juniors over the holidays, adjusted to the North American game and caught fire. Over the last 30 games he registered 33 points (18g,15a). With the T-birds graduating out a pair of top scorers in Nolan Volcan and Noah Philp, Kukuca put himself back in the picture for one of those 20 year old spots, at least until the Import Draft. The T-birds may need his offense.

So it appeared it was now a four player race. Then the WHL Bantam Draft rolled around in early May and the field got a little more crowded. Seattle made a draft day deal with Kelowna and one of the assets coming back was 20 year old forward Conner Bruggen-Cate. The situation took another turn in June at the NHL Draft when Wedman was selected in the seventh round by the Florida Panthers. That made Wedman, last season's leading scorer, eligible to play in the AHL if he were to sign a pro contract.

A week later the T-birds participated in the CHL Import Draft and made one selection. Surely that meant the end of Kukuca, right? Except Seattle didn't play it safe. Instead of choosing a younger player who they knew would come over to North America to play and replace Kukuca, they picked uber-talended German winger Tim Stutzle. Stutzle is considered a first round pick for the 2020 NHL Draft. He also has a contract that pays him to play for Mannheim in the professional German Elite League. The odds of Stutzle coming over to play with the T-birds are on the low side, but the door hasn't been shut. Because of the uncertainty though, Kukuca remains a high probability to play in Seattle for a second season.

To increase the competition for the crowded 20 year old field this summer, the T-birds added 20 year old Baron Thompson, a former Brandon Wheat King, to their protected list and invited him to training camp. Now there were six candidates for three spots. The field narrowed to five just before the start of camp when Tyszka announced he would forego his 20 year old season in the WHL and head to the University of British Columbia instead. You would think that would alleviate some of the decision making for the T-birds front office but actually, it may have further complicated it. Tyszka's departure left Seattle with just six signed defenseman. Teams traditionally carry seven, and sometimes eight.

The T-birds could rectify that situation by signing a young defenseman and still may, but the loss of Tyszka left the team with a young defensive corps. One matter complicating the issue is Seattle only drafted two defensemen at the 2018 bantam draft. One of those, Aiden Brook, was subsequently sent to Medicine Hat in the Henrik Rybinski deal in January while the other, Noah Barlage, chose not to attend training camp this summer. Tyszka's four years with the club provided a steadying hand and invaluable experience on the back end. It may mean Seattle management looks to fill that experience void by adding a 20 year old defenseman either through trade or waiting to see if any get released at the 20 year old cutdown deadline in October. Seattle might opt to trade for a 19 year old defenseman but I'm not sure they want to expend current draft or prospect capital for a one year rental.

Here's what we know about the 20 year old situation. even if he signs a pro deal with the Florida Panthers, Wedman can still be returned to Seattle for one more season. If that happens, he is a lock for a roster spot. Secondly, if the T-birds can't lure Stutzle away from Mannheim you can probably count on Kukuca taking the second of those three 20 year old spots. That leaves one spot to be filled by one of either Kaluski, Bruggen-Cate, Thompson or a 20 year old defenseman they deem necessary to replace Tyszka. But what happens if Wedman ends up in the AHL? What do they do if that need for a 20 year old d-man arises or if Stutzle decides playing in North America in his draft year is his best option and suddenly Kukuca is gone? What if all three of those things happen? Then the field is wide open.

That's why the final answer to the 20 year old question may be more then a month away. It's decisions like this that earn GMs and head coaches the big bucks and why I am sitting behind a keyboard musing over it all.

++++UPDATE+++ Monday afternoon the Thunderbirds addressed their need on the back end for another veteran defenseman by acquiring 19 year old Hunter Donohoe from the Red Deer Rebels. A native of Surrey, B.C., Donohoe has played 79 games in the WHL over the past two seasons. Seattle sent a conditional 2020 7th round Bantam pick to Red Deer along with the rights to list goalie Louden Hogg in exchange for Donohoe. Hogg is a 17 year old from Wyoming who turned down an invite to T-birds training camp this year. He played high school hockey last season in Minnesota but was also one of four goalies in World Junior camp with Team USA this summer. So, in reality, T-birds GM Bil LaForge spent very little in draft or prospect capital to acquire his new blue liner. This is reminiscent of the Loeden Schaufler trade last fall. LaForge paid a small price to acquired Schaufler from Kootenay when Seattle's D-corps was a bit thin due to injury. You may recall the first half of last season when Tyszka was out rehabbing from a long term upper body injury and Harsch was dealing with his own ailments.

Does this mean Seattle's D-group is settled? Well, at the very least it lessens the odds they look for a 20 year old defenseman via trade, but LaForge will probably still check the waiver wire at the 20 year old cutdown date in October to see who comes up available. +++UPDATE+++

Friday, June 28, 2019

This Offseason, the T-Birds play Baseball

The annual Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, as most CHL General Managers and scouts will tell you, is a different ball game compared to the Midget or Bantam drafts, so when it was Seattle's turn on the clock this past Thursday the T-Birds decided to play a little baseball and swing for the fences. Seattle, able to utilize just one of the two picks they were allotted, chose German Right Winger Tim Stutzle, regarded in some circles as a potential Top 10 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

Playing last season in his native country for Jungadler Mannheim U20, the 17-year old put up 55 points (23g, 32a)in just 21 games. Remember, he started the season as a 16-year old. He didn't celebrate his 17th birthday until January 15th. He's currently listed as 5'11", 165lbs, but he was playing with guys three years older then he was and, it would appear, dominating. So why would he be available to Seattle with the 19th pick? Well, he's signed to play in the German Elite League (DEL) next season where he'll be playing against men. The T-Birds will have to present a really strong pitch to recruit him. It's not unheard of for a young Import, under those circumstances, to still head across the Atlantic to play in the Western Hockey League, despite that pro contract. Two recent Finns, Julius Honka with Swift Current and Lassi Thomson with Kelowna, were essentially "loaned" by their pro teams in Finland to play in one of the world's top Junior leagues.

So, if Stutzle's selection was not a sure thing, why would Seattle swing for the fences, knowing they only had one pick to use, rather then playing it safe and making a selection they were sure would come over? Because Seattle has a batter in the on deck circle they already know can handle WHL pitching. They know they too have some young hitters they want to get in the lineup to get some at bats. They essentially went up to the plate Thursday with a five-run lead in the top of the ninth inning. They were just looking to tack on some runs.

Let's explain. First, the guy in the on deck circle is Andrej Kukuca, the Slovakian winger, who as a 19-year old last season registered 57 points (25g, 32a) for the T-Birds in 59 games. Now based on that alone, it would seem a no-brainer to bring him back for the 2019-20 campaign, especially when you have lost two of your top four goal scorers (Volcan and Philp) to graduation. The issue is Kukuca would be a "two-spotter". He would occupy both a 20-year old spot and an Import slot and you are only allowed to have three of the former and two of the latter on your roster. Seattle has 17-year old Czech defenseman Simon Kubicek locked in to one Import spot. Meanwhile, they potentially have five players (Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Jaxan Kuluski, Conner Bruggen-Cate and Kukuca) fighting for the three 20-year old positions. The simplest solution to the puzzle is to sign Stutzle for the second Import spot, thus dropping Kukuca which leaves just four players fighting for the three 20-year old roster spots.

Here's where it gets complicated in trying to fill out the batting order for that lineup card. Wedman was just drafted by the NHL's Florida Panthers. At age 20, he could ink a pro deal with the Panthers and take his projected 40-plus goals to the American Hockey League. All of a sudden three of your top four scorers from a year ago, are gone. Even the 20-year old Tyszka, a free agent attending development camp with the NHL's Dallas Stars, could be signed to a professional contract and be put on an AHL roster. All of a sudden you're now down to just three 20-year old candidates, and only one of them, Kukuca, has been a prolific offensive player. If Wedman does not return and you can't convince Stutzle to come over, where will the offense come from? Kukuca becomes very important then. He becomes your designated hitter.

If you read between the lines, T-Birds General Manager Bil La Forge has made it clear the organization is more then happy with Kukuca back as a two-spotter. He's already proven himself in the WHL. And Kukuca wants to be back. They may need his offense should Wedman not return. He's been participating in the team's offseason program. He's coming to camp in August. So why then you ask, did the T-Birds even bother with making a selection in the Import Draft? To that, there is a simple answer. Because you are always trying to make your team better. Stutzle is a tremendous talent, a projected NHL first rounder for next spring. It's the same reason Seattle chose Mat Barzal at the top of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft and the same reason they used a first round pick on Dante Fabbro in 2013. You can't hit a home run if you don't take the bat off your shoulder. You usually won't drive in the runner from first base with two outs if you bunt. Sometimes you gotta swing for the fences. Seattle was upfront with Kukuca throughout the process. They told him they would be making one selection at the Import Draft but they were also willing to give him the chance to be that second Import again.

What other scenarios are in play here? Well, if the T-Birds are successful in getting Stutzle to play for them next season, they can't keep Kukuca. The Import slots would belong to Stutzle and Kubicek and there is no room for Andrej in the dugout. If you don't convince Stutzle to come across the pond, you keep Kukuca and have to drop two of your other 20-year olds if all those mentioned above, Wedman, Tyszka, Kaluski and the recently acquired Bruggen-Cate, return. You could also still drop Kukuca, keep a variation of the Wedman,Tyszka, Kaluski, Bruggen-Cate group and pick up a non 20-year old Import player recently dropped from another CHL roster.

You could also go with just one Import player on your roster. There is no hard set rule that says you have to have two. Two is just the maximum. Same applies to 20-year olds. No edict that compels you to carry three. Back in 2013-14, Seattle played with just one 20-year old, Mitch Elliot, on the roster for half a season. The reason? They wanted to give all their young players as much ice time as possible, to hasten their development and build their chemistry. Those young players were named Barzal, Gropp, Bear, Kolesar and Eansor. That experiment turned out well. The T-Birds could be in a similar situation this coming season with young talent like Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Mekai Sanders, Brendan Williamson, Michael Horon and Matthew Rempe all looking for roster spots. If you keep them all, you have to play them. You can't sit them in the bullpen. Odds are Seattle will have some variation of three 20-year olds on the roster, but the competition for those spots is going to be intense.

Which brings me back to something La Forge told's Andy Eide regarding the Stutzle selection in the Import Draft. “We knew we weren’t going to bring someone over just to play in our bottom six,” La Forge added. “If we bring someone over, they’re going to be a big-time talent and that’s what we acquired today.” That statement applies to those other young players. La Forge and head coach Matt O'Dette aren't keeping 16-year olds around to shag fly balls in the outfield at practice. IF they're on the roster, they're going to play, because their talent has earned that right.

Thursday Seattle swung for the fences. Did they hit a grand slam, or did they strike out? Either way, they stepped up to the plate.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Into the Petri Dish

So, if I have this right, going off players who were on their roster at the end of the 2018-19 season, the Seattle Thunderbirds had four players selected at the 2019 NHL Draft this past weekend in Vancouver. That was the most of any WHL team. Let me say that again, that was the most of any WHL team. In a draft that was one of the best for the WHL in recent memory, Seattle led the way. Yes, technically, at the time of the draft, Dillon Hamaliuk was officially a member of the Kelowna Rockets, after being traded there by the T-birds back in early May. But let's not kid ourselves, he hasn't played a game for Kelowna and won't for another three months. He was drafted off of his body of work as a Thunderbird.

What does this mean for the team going forward? Well, don't look at those draft results and start thinking the team is ready for a Chynoweth Cup run this coming season. Again, Hamaliuk, the highest of those to be drafted, going in the second round, 55th overall to San Jose, has been dealt away. Goalie Roddy Ross, chosen by Philadelphia in Round Six, is going into his 19 year old season while Florida Panthers seventh rounder Matthew Wedman, as a 20 year old, is entering his final year in the league. Only Panthers fifth round pick, 18 year old Henrik Rybinski was drafted in his first year of draft eligibility. Those older players will be surrounded by a fairly green squad.

Instead, go back to comments made by the organization after their 2017 Championship season and the idea of building a culture around the team that will attract players to Kent. Developing players for the next level is part of that attraction. Having players drafted into the NHL boosts your stock while recruiting players to be T-birds. Seattle wants the "T-bird way" to be both competing for Chynoweth Cups and producing talent for the next level. The movers and shakers at the top of the organizational chart, from the owners to the coaching staff, are committed to that goal.

Over the past five years the T-birds have reached two league championship series, winning one, AND have had 16 players either drafted or signed to pro contracts. They've drafted other players, like Dante Fabbro and Layton Ahac, who chose a different path, but ended up as high NHL picks. They'll miss on a few, but the choise is still the right one because they want the best players to help build that culture. More are coming.

Franchise brass like owners Dan and Lindsay Leckelt, Vice President of Hockey Operations Russ Farwell and General Manager Bil LaForge have a plan in place to keep the T-birds competitive. Others like Director of Player Personnel Cal Filson, Director of Scouting Mark Romas and head coach Matt O'Dette are helping to execute that plan.

They turned a player unhappy with his playing situation at his last stop (Rybinski) into an NHL draft pick in four months time. They took an off-the-radar goalie and helped him hear his name called from the podium in Vancouver. They brought out enough in a player (Hamaliuk) so that despite missing half a season to serious injury, he still got picked in the second round. And they brought along another player (Wedman), nurtured him, were patient with him, gave him more responsibility over the course of four seasons and turned him into a NHL draft pick as well.

Now, think about what the T-birds have done over the past two Bantam Drafts. They had a lot of picks at the top of the draft. Three first rounders and four second rounders. They've already signed 11 of their 22 picks from those two drafts, including six of the seven they chose near the top of those drafts. That's not by accident. Winning and developing players drives other players to your organization.

What happened this weekend in Vancouver means something, not necessarily now or next season, but down the road. It's another building block in constructing that winning culture. It's as important as winning a championship or having an uber-talent come through your organization on the way to winning a Calder Trophy at the highest level. It's another page in the recruitment brochure. When young players like Kai Uchacz and Mekai Sanders, or Jordan Gustafson and Conner Gourley, arrive at training camp at the end of August they'll see Rybinski, Ross and Wedman. They'll see the fruits of doing things the "T-birds Way". They'll see that coming here can lead them to an opportunity to reach the same goal.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

New Sheriff in Town

Bil La Forge was named General Manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds last spring. The announcement that he would take over from Russ Farwell, who would become Vice President of Hockey Operations, came in a press release June 6th of 2018. In his first season in that role, La Forge helped guide the team into the playoffs, using a couple of midseason trades to bolster the team's second half push to the postseason. But it may be May 2nd of 2019, at the WHL's annual Bantam Draft, where La Forge really grabbed the reins and stamped the T-birds as "his team".

La Forge dealt three veteran players, a couple of presumed NHL Draftees among them, to the Kelowna Rockets, in exchange for three high draft picks, including two first rounders. The T-Birds used one of those Thursday and tapped defenseman Kevin Korchinski out of Saskatoon to go along with their own first round pick, center Jordan Gustafson from Ardrossan, Alberta. The other first round pick they got from the Rockets will have to wait until 2022, while a 2021 second round selection has been put in the vault as well.

Throw into that mix two 2019 second round draft picks. Seattle used their own second round pick on defenseman Spencer Penner out of Blumenort, Manitoba. With a second round pick acquired from Everett in the Zack Andrusiak deal from this past January, the T-Birds went north to Alaska for winger Gabe Ludwig. Through La Forge's wheeling and dealing, the T-Birds ended up with four of the top 42 selections, two in the top ten. Meanwhile, they still have all their 2020 picks.

Seattle also got back from the Rockets forward Conner Bruggen-Cate, who two seasons ago, was an 18-goal scorer during his 18-year old campaign. His offensive numbers did dip this past season, so maybe a change of scenery is what's best for him. At the very least he's competition for one of the three 20-year old spots on the roster for the upcoming season.

Did the T-Birds pay a hefty price to acquire the draft capital? Sure they did, dealing away a former number one Bantam pick in Jake Lee who is going into just his 18-year old season, a top six forward in 19-year old Dillon Hamaliuk and a promising young goalie in 18-year old Cole Schwebius. But La Forge saw a chance to build a strong, deep team that should be able to compete for a championship in a couple of years, rather then waiting four or five. It's similar to the last time Seattle made a trade that got them two first round bantam picks in return. Back in 2011 Farwell sent Marcel Noebels to Portland for two top picks. At the time he said it was an offer he couldn't refuse. One of those picks turned into Keegan Kolesar, a key component of Seattle's 2017 Championship team.

I'm guessing La Forge had the same sentiment when Kelowna offered up two first round selections in this deal. It was an offer he couldn't say no to. In that Noebels deal with Portland, the picks coming back from the Winterhawks were at the bottom of the first round. In this instance, Seattle ended up with at least one top ten pick.

What made the deal easier for La Forge to pull the trigger on, was the T-Birds Bantam Draft from the previous spring. It's this core that he is building around, the 2018 selections. We've already caught glimpses of some of that talented young group. Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, all selected in the first two rounds, have already made their T-Bird debuts. Still to come are at least four other signed prospects from that draft; goalie Thomas Milic along with forwards Sam Popowich, Reid Schaeffer and Mekai Sanders. Add in just the players from the top half of the 2019 draft in Gustafson, Korchinski, Penner, Ludwig and fourth round left winger Conner Gourley and you have at minimum, 12 players to build around. The T-Birds though, had eight other selections from this year's draft, including three high end Americans. If they can hit on even just two more from that baker's dozen group of 2019 draftees, the trade of those three veterans was well worth it.

How does Seattle make up for the absence of those three traded players going into the upcoming season? Well, they're going forward up front with a youth movement. They'll have solid leadership from veterans like Matthew Wedman and Tyler Carpendale among others. A couple of second year players, Payton Mount and Jared Davidson, will be expected to take big steps. But now the battle for roster spots will open up for guys like Brendan Williamson, Michael Horon and Matthew Rempe as well.

Remember, Seattle's second half charge this past winter was done without the injured Hamaliuk, his void filled remarkably well by Henrik Rybinski. When Hamaliuk went down with injury, the T-Birds were seven games below .500. By the end of the regular season they were two games above. Of course Seattle would have loved to have had a player of Hamaliuk's caliber available for that second half run. They would have loved to have had him for their playoff matchup with Vancouver. Circumstances dictated he wasn't available. They learned how to play well without him, so just think of next season as an extension of that.

And remember, Hamaliuk is a late birthday. It's anticipated he'll be drafted by an NHL team in June but this upcoming season is most likely his last in the WHL. Even if he hadn't been traded this week, I would have laid good odds he would have been dealt at next January's trade deadline. Trading him now, gives the Rockets a full season of him on their roster, rather then a half season rental. It also probably led to a bigger return for the T-Birds.

Meanwhile, even with the trade of Lee Seattle will return seven defensemen with WHL experience next season in Jarett Tyszka, Tyrel Bauer, Cade McNelly, Simon Kubicek, Owen Williams, Zac Ashton and Luke Bateman. Trading away a former first round selection just as he enters his junior hockey prime is a big decision. But if Seattle was going to trade out one of those defenseman, why not the one with the most value? The T-Birds watched the progression of the others in that group and are confident they are all on the right development path. Bauer and Kubicek are on pace to be 2020 NHL draft picks. For all the fan excitement over McNelly's rough and tumble play, if you watched closely you could see the tremendous strides he's taken in his overall game. In Lee's absence, Ashton showed his worth in the playoffs.

Soon after that deal sent Schwebius to the Rockets, La Forge acquired Blake Lyda from Everett to back up Roddy Ross in goal. All it cost was a 2021 third round pick Seattle had received from Everett in January. Lyda will fill the same role Schwebius had with the T-Birds, the number two goalie behind Ross.

The T-Birds still have a conundrum at the 20 year old spots. Wedman and Tyszka are locks, if they don't go pro. The final spot is up for grabs between Bruggen-Cate, Jaxan Kaluski and Andrej Kukuca. While it doesn't preclude Kukuca from returning, Seattle will make a selection in the upcoming CHL Import Draft, making his return less likely. If the youth movement is the team's direction, it would make more sense to go with a younger import who can develop with this young group.

After this trade is it going to be easy to replicate the team's second half performance from this past season, next year? No. But that may have more to do with the loss of graduating players Nolan Volcan and Noah Phlip, then the trade of this trio. Seattle will miss the experience Lee, Hamaliuk and Schwebius brought to the table. They are going to have to do more scoring by committee while tightening up in the defensive zone, but this team is going to be young, fast and energetic. Above all they should be fun to watch as the bulk of the roster begins their growth and development together. It may be like taking one small step back to prepare for a couple giant leaps forward. I trust Matt O'Dette and his coaching staff to get them playing the right way. I don't think I've seen a coach do so much, with a roster not considered to be elite, as I saw O'Dette and his staff do with the T-Birds the second half of the 2018-19 season.

I do think the T-Birds are a year, possibly two, ahead of where they were when they started their climb to the 2017 championship. That team was built primarily around one very good 2012 Bantam draft. The team has had two solid back-to-back drafts now. Yes, there is no Mat Barzal, uber talent in this group, but top to bottom these two drafts appear to be deeper. Nothing is guaranteed from all this roster movement. Assembling a roster you think is championship worthy is just the start. It's up to the players and coaches to bring it all together and, oh by the way, 21 other teams have the same plan. It's also hard to be patient and think long term instead of grabbing for instant gratification but even when Seattle drafted Barzal and the rest of that group, success didn't come overnight, but both the wait and the journey was worth it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Inevitable Goodbyes

At the end of every season we say goodbye to at minimum, three players from the roster. Every spring three players on every WHL team are finishing up their Junior careers. They are the three 20 year olds, the overage players whose eligibility has run out. It doesn't happen often, but occasionally that 20 year old is a player who spent an entire five year WHL career with one team. For the T-birds this season, that player is Nolan Volcan.

When the final horn sounded on Seattle's season at the end of Game Six against Vancouver, I thought, as I looked down at the ice and saw Volcan leading his teammates into the handshake line, what a remarkable T-birds career he had. And then I found myself thinking, you know, he may have just completed one of the best careers in the franchise's 42 year history. He's a former 2013 second round Bantam pick out of Edmonton, so big things were expected. He did not disappoint. In the end, over three hundred regular season games played, 100 goals scored and over 230 points earned. He added a franchise record for most playoff games played at 55. Some big postseason moments too, like a playoff series clinching overtime goal in 2016 against Prince George.

Of course the most important parts of that five year run as a T-bird include wearing the "C" as team captain this past season, winning a 2016 U.S. Division banner, back-to-back Western Conference Championships in 2016 and 2017 and the 2017 Ed Chynoweth Cup. That's going to be hard to top, so it was nice to see head coach Matt O'Dette, who had been on the T-birds bench for the entirety of Volcan's time in Kent, echo that same thought in postgame comments to's Andy Eide. “He’ll be a standard of where you measure T-Birds and the type of player you’re looking for,” O’Dette told Eide. “He exemplifies our identity and just an unbelievable career, he’s done everything. In my opinion, one of the greatest T-Birds to ever put on the jersey. Tons of him to be proud of and great legacy to pass on to younger guys.”

It's funny how there are some players who come through and you definitely remember their T-birds debut while with others it's all a blur. I remember Volcan's first game. When a rash of injuries struck the team, Volcan was called up to join the T-birds on their eastern road trip through the Central Division back in early January 2013. He suited up for the first time as a 15 year old for a game in Red Deer. Seattle lost in his first game and he didn't register a point, ending the game a dash two. I remember it because he played that night the way he played the rest of his Seattle career, with a tough-as-nails, leave-it-all-on-the-line, give-one-hundred-percent-effort-all-the-time attitude. He didn't know any other way to play and because of that, even as a 15 year old, you noticed him on the ice. For a couple of seasons he logged a lot of ice with Scott Eansor and Donovan Neuls and they formed a terrific shutdown line because all three played with that high end, non stop motor. But even after, first Scott and then Donny, finished their time with Seattle, Volcan continued to be a shutdown player while elevating his offensive production.

Volcan loves the game but he also embraced the WHL life. He enjoyed being with his teammates, on the road, on the bus, at practice and morning skates, he just seemed to relish it all. I'm sure he gets that from his dad Marty, a former Seattle Breaker and obviously his son's biggest influence. But mom Kathy was there too, probably to keep them both grounded. I'm not sure who will be next to wear #26 for the T-birds but the first time they don't deliver a big hit is when it will probably sink in that Volcan is gone, another big piece of the championship team putting Seattle in his rear view mirror...hopefully off to bigger and better things in his hockey career.

I think I heard Matt O'Dette once call Noah Philp the hockey whisperer, or something to that affect. He was alluding to the fact that he could put Philp on a line centering two younger players and it would always elevate the younger player's game. Philp would help bring something out of those younger players we hadn't seen before. Sort of like Noah's Ark as he led them in pairs.

Lost in that though is how Philp elevated his own game since arriving in Kent from the Kootenay ICE just prior to the start of the 2017-18 season. This past February, when Volcan missed time with his arm injury, it was Philp who picked up a good chunk of the slack. When Seattle's power play suffered, it was Philp who keyed its resurgence.

There's not a lot of separation between a 16 year old and a 20 year old but that extra maturity found in the older player is important. Philp had it and used it to help his younger teammates. Maybe it comes from being a younger sibling. His older brother Luke played in this league as well and I'm sure he imparted some wisdom to Noah. Philp reminds me a bit of former T-bird Tyler Metcalfe. They are two of the most unselfish, upbeat, positive players I've been around.

Sean Richards wasn't a T-birds very long, just three months. Having left a team at the top of the standings for one at the bottom, he could have sulked. He didn't. He came over with a reputation for dangerous hits, especially against Seattle. He stayed away from that until his very last shift, which was unfortunate, because I think with him in the lineup they could have pushed Vancouver to a seventh game. He wasn't a dirty player out to hurt his opponents, he just played the game with an aggressive, emotional style that led to penalties. He knew he had to change after his trade from Everett and for the most part he did, at least long enough to help this team get to the postseason. Seattle didn't need him to replace Zack Andrusiak's production. They're not the same type of player. They needed him to contribute in all facets and he did. Seattle doesn't make the postseason, doesn't have their second half success, without Sean Richards.

So three more players, three players with their own style, who all brought something unique to the table, finish their WHL careers. Three different players but all with a common goal, to become the best player they can be. We wish them the best as they continue on that path because it's not the end of their journey. Instead, it's time to take the fork in the road.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Getting Benched

The clock on the Seattle Thunderbirds rebuild really began to tick the moment Scott Eansor lifted the Ed Chynoweth Cup over his head on that Mother's Day in Regina two springs ago. Seattle had reached the crescendo with that roster. Eight key components of that club, and nearly 400 points, were moving on. It was a group of players that had played together for the greater part of four seasons and had brought the organization up from the bottom to the top of the league. They would get three more games together in the Memorial Cup but the real task, the hard part, was winning the organization's first ever WHL title. Their goal reached, their work was done.

Over the next season another six significant members of the championship team would play their final game with the T-Birds and now with the end of this season, three more parts of that Cup winning team have taken off the T-Birds jersey for the last time. That's how fast things happen in the WHL. In the span of 24 months 17 players who formed the nucleus of a championship roster, are removed from that roster in what seems like the blink of an eye. Just as we're getting to know them they're gone. Just two players remain, Matthew Wedman and Jarret Tyszka and their status for next season remains unclear.

In the WHL, dismantled championship teams don't get rebuilt over night. Just like putting that team together took three to four seasons, so will the process of building another one. Four years removed from their 2015 Cup win, the Kelowna Rockets missed the postseason this spring. So did the 2016 champs, the Brandon Wheat Kings, three years after their title run. The 2018 winners, Swift Current, didn't take that long to miss the postseason party, going from first to worst in 12 months.

So a coach winning a championship has to know that patience must be a virtue when trying to get back to the top. Maybe that's why all four of the most recent WHL Chynoweth Cup winners have different head coaches now. That patience only lasts so long. That includes Seattle. Steve Konowalchuk grew that 2017 championship team from the ground up and had nothing left to prove and thus moved on. So the task of rebuilding the team would fall to his former assistant, Matt O'Dette.

O'Dette inherited a team in the fall of 2017 void of superstars. He had to build a new coaching staff. Prognosticators said without Barzal, Bear and the others, the T-Birds were going to tumble quickly from the top and have a hard landing out of the playoff picture. The roster got even thinner for this past season's run with the likes of Neuls, Moilanen, Strand and Ottenbreit gone. Again the prediction was for a long, dreary non playoff season.

How did O'Dette do with what he was handed? With only one NHL drafted player on his roster the past two seasons, Montreal Canadiens 2017 5th rounder Tyszka, he got his team to a winning record each time and he got them into the postseason twice. Along the way he helped a couple of players, Strand and Ottenbreit, earn pro deals and he may have done the same for Wedman this year. With the help of new General Manager Bil La Forge and his assistant coaches Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer, he took a team dead last in the Western Conference standings as late as January 19th and pushed them through an imposing schedule to an improbable playoff berth. When the team showed cracks in the second half surge that threatened to derail them, he juggled his lines and d-pairing combos and got them back on track. He showed a knack for pushing the right button at the right time. He always seems acutely aware of his players, and his team's, strengths and weaknesses and put the team in the best possible position to succeed.

The two year regular season coaching record of 65-57-14-4 may not seem like something to make headlines over but when you step back and look at the big picture, look at the roster, look at the competition he was facing, it is, in reality, a testament to the focus O'Dette has for his job. After the trade deadline moves this past January, everyone looked at Seattle as having given up on the season. Nobody would have been shocked if Seattle's season ended March 17th down in Portland rather then two weeks later in a Game 6 playoff matchup with the Western Conference's top team. But that's not in O'Dette's makeup. His goal going into the first game of the second half of the season in Brandon was the same as it was opening night back in late September at the accesso ShoWare Center, playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. 20 wins later, the T-Birds were a playoff team.

Now, you can be disappointed in the results in the postseason, I know O'Dette is. But remember, both last year and this year, the T-Birds were a decided underdog in both series. They were the 8th seed going up against the one seed. The team they lost to last spring, Everett, went on to play in the WHL Championship Series. The team they lost to this year, Vancouver, could well do the same. If Seattle had won either series, it would have been described as a monumental upset. What O'Dette's teams did both times was make those higher seeded clubs earn their series wins. He played half that series last year against the Silvertips without Sami Moilanen. He played the second half of this season without the leading goal scorer from the first half after Zack Andrusiak was traded away. He played the second half of the series against the Giants with just two 20-year olds, after Sean Richards was suspended early in Game 4. He played nearly half the series against Vancouver without a top four d-man in Jake Lee. He made that second half run and played the entire series against the Giants without top six forward Dillon Hamaliuk who was lost to injury in late December.

Like a cook, he took the ingredients he was given and made a meal out of it. It may have only been stew but it fed the masses.

Now he gets to develop a young roster. With just a few players potentially left from that Cup winning team, the roster has been almost completely turned over. The youth movement is here. This should be a very young, green team next season. Getting Wedman and Tyszka back for another season would certainly help as would a healthy Hamaliuk. The entire D-group should return along with Roddy Ross in goal. But next year's club could feature as many as 12 players in either their first or second season of WHL play. You should expect the T-Birds top three picks from the 2018 Bantam Draft, Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, to be here full-time. Local product Mekai Sanders could be in the mix. Payton Mount, Jared Davidson and Tyrel Bauer will be counted on for more big minutes next season as 17-year olds and could be joined by fellow 17-year olds Brendan Williamson and Matthew Rempe. 18-year old Michael Horon, whose rights were acquired from Lethbridge in January, will be given a chance to make the roster as well.

With so many young players signed to WHL Player Agreements I doubt we see a huge group of invitees next August for training camp but I would anticipate that GM La Forge will scour Western Canada and the U.S. for a young player or two who fit into his and the coach's style and bring them in to add to the camp competition. A player or two from last year's camp who impressed, but are not yet signed, should return to add to that competition. Could such a young roster jeopardize Seattle's chances of making it back to the postseason? Possibly, but with O'Dette behind the bench I wouldn't bet against it.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Don't Get Mad, Get Even

When does playoff experience matter? Does it even matter at all? In the end is it not skill, work ethic and attention to detail that wins the game? Some times fortune or good luck factors in but that is usually a byproduct of hard work. You get a bounce to go your way because you are playing the right way.

Friday night in Langley, in Game One of their opening round playoff series versus Vancouver, any previous playoff experience Seattle had didn't matter at all. They got outworked, outhustled and outplayed in a 7-1 loss. Vancouver was ready to go, the T-birds, save a few players, were not. Vancouver didn't win because of experience, they won because of superior effort.

But here's one situation where I think playoff experience can matter. When your career has taken you through the grind of a couple long playoff runs, and along the way you've experienced that bitter taste of losing in the postseason, that's when experience begins to play a role. Former T-bird head coach Steve Konowalchuk often talked about how he hated losing more then he loved winning, and it wasn't even close. He said you remember the missed goal you failed to score, more then the ones you put in the back of the net. Your job is to win and when you don't, you haven't done your job. You start asking yourself what could you have done better?

So after that 7-1 loss Friday, Seattle's captain, the player with the most playoff experience on the Seattle roster, was embarrassed. Nolan Volcan didn't like that feeling of losing. He'd tasted it before and it was a bite he didn't enjoy swallowing. Sure he had enjoyed the sweet taste of success when Seattle won it all in 2017, but he remembered that sour, empty feeling of losing a championship, when it was there for the taking, back in 2016. The experience of losing can be a great motivator. Losing 7-1 is a wake up call.

So Volcan was determined to do all he could Saturday in Game Two to make sure the team was playing playoff hockey. He didn't want to be asking those "what if" questions when that final horn sounded. He put his playoff experience to work and used it to his benefit. He finished every check he could, blocked every shot he was able to get in front of, hustled from one end of the ice to the other and set the example for the rest of his team.

In the end he compiled two assists and a goal and the T-birds earned a 4-1 victory to even the series at a game apiece.

Which brings us to the second area where playoff experience can matter, don't get too low with the loss, don't get too high from the win. After that drubbing Friday, Volcan wasn't happy but he also knew it was just one game in a best-of-seven-series. Losing 7-1 was the same as losing 2-1 in triple overtime. Put it behind you and move on to the next game. And now he and the T-bird must do the same after their win. Game Two is done, put it in the past and move on to Game Three. Seattle's goal isn't to win one game in the series, it's to win four. Don't dwell on the loss, don't savor the win. Again, as Konowalchuk used to remind me, if you're too busy looking behind and admiring past successes, you're gonna miss the obstacles that lay directly in your path and crash, head on. Right now the Vancouver Giants are still in Seattle's way. They are a formidable obstacle, trying to steer the T-birds into the ditch. The T-birds need to keep their eyes on the road.

Sean Richards is another WHL veteran with lots of playoff experience, including a trip to the WHL Championship Series last season with Everett. He too knows what it takes to make a long postseason run. Game One wasn't his best as he finished with a -3 rating. Richards put that opening game behind him and rebounded with a strong effort in Game Two. he opened the scoring with a sneaky good goal, then assisted on what turned out to be the game winner, Simon Kubicek's power play goal. he finished the night with two points and a +1 rating. The T-birds need that version of Richards to win the series.

Jaxan Kaluski almost quietly was one of Seattle's best players in Game Two. He ended the night with one assist but was +2. By going hard to the net on the T-birds first and third goals, he grabbed some of the goalie's attention, helping open up space for Richards and Andrej Kukuca to score.

The T-birds did a better job with their discipline in the second game, but still surrendered four power play chances to the Giants. Vancouver's power play, which finished the regular season fourth best in the league at nearly 25-percent success, is a dangerous weapon. They are 3-for-11 so far in the series. Seattle has to try and stay out of the box. Giving Vancouver an average of five and a half power plays per game is a recipe for disaster. Once the Giants get the man advantage, they spend an awful lot of time in the attacking zone. They move the puck well, led by highly touted defenseman Bowen Byram. Any time the puck is on his stick, it seems like a scoring chance.

Heroes don't always wear capes. With defenseman Jake Lee suspended for Game Two, Seattle inserted Zach Ashton into the lineup to fill his spot. Playing on a third pairing with rookie Cade McNelly, Ashton came up big, breaking up a Vancouver 4-on-1 rush by sliding into a pass, either getting just enough of the puck or forcing a bad pass to spoil a Giants chance to tie the game at two in the third period. He did it again on another shift later in the game. But what he and McNelly did was give the coach's quality minutes on the back end. They didn't overextend themselves. They kept it simple and played smart hockey. That saved Seattle's top two pairings for extra shifts at the end while Seattle protected a two goal lead.

Roddy Ross' stat line after Game One didn't look good with a goals against average over eight and a save percentage barely at 80. But Ross was not the problem in Game One. He wasn't pulled early in the third for playing poorly. he was lifted because his team was not playing well in front of him. Like pitchers in baseball and quarterbacks in football, goalies often are saddled with too much of the blame in a loss. Hockey is a team game. You win as a team, you lose as a team. Ross was just as calm, cool and collected in the Game One loss as he was in making 39 saves in the Game Two win. The difference in winning and losing was how his team played in front of him.

If there was a silver lining to that first game defeat it may have been that back up goalie Cole Schwebius got a chance to experience postseason play early on. Schwebius acquitted himself well, stopping nine of ten shots in just under 16-minutes of playing time.

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Surge

Back on January 14th, as Seattle came off their six game trip through the Eastern Division I wrote the following: "Of the 28 games left for the T-Birds to play, 25 will be against teams with winning records. 12 of those games will be against either Everett or Portland who have a combined record of 59-21-4-3. In 10 games against those two division rivals, the first half of the season, Seattle was just 2-8."

The key for Seattle's playoff hopes was going to be their success or failure against those two division rivals. How did the T-Birds do in those 12 games? It didn't start off well as the T-Birds went winless in the first four meetings, going 0-3-1-0. Through the first half dozen of those 12 games Seattle was just 1-4-1-0. But the final six games they compiled a 4-0-1-1 record. So overall in those dozen games the T-birds went 5-4-2-1, which may not seem all that impressive, but those were 13 crucial points earned in their playoff chase.

As I posted that story back on January 14th, a Monday, Seattle was still sitting in 10th place in the 10 team Western Conference standings. They were looking up at everybody. Their next game wasn't until the next weekend and they would drop a 3-2 shootout over in Kennewick to the Tri-City Americans on Friday, January 18th. That means Seattle was still sitting in last place in the conference as late as January 19th. With 27 games left, and still 12 head-to-head versus Everett and Portland, the T-Birds were still not in a playoff position.

Through the first 13 of those 27 games the T-Birds played .500 hockey at 6-6-1-0. Eleven of those 13 games were against teams with winning records. It would be the next 12 games, with 11 against teams with winning records, including six against Everett and Portland, where Seattle put the fate of their season in their own hands. The T-Birds would compile an 8-2-1-1 record, picking up 18 points and zipping by Kamloops into the second wild card spot, clinching their playoff berth with two games to spare.

Seattle's second half record, the final 34 games, saw them reverse their first half performance. The T-Birds won 20 of their final 34 games. The T-Birds earned points in four other games they lost in either overtime or shootouts. In the end Seattle got points in 24 of their final 34 games, compiling 44 second half points. They rendered the final two games of the regular season meaningless, but still went 2-0 for a second half record of 20-10-2-2.

After the 6-5 win in the regular season finale in Portland Sunday, I was reminded of a similar game in the T-Birds championship season. Seattle went down to Portland on February 19th of that year to play a third game in three nights. Like this past Sunday, that game too was in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. At the time, Seattle still had designs on the U.S. Division banner, so two points were critical. The T-Birds had opened that weekend with a 4-2 road win over Tri-City then followed up with a Saturday night 5-3 home win against the Winterhawks. But the weekend had exacted a price and by the time they got to Portland for that Sunday game they were minus Scott Eansor, Rylan Toth, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman, all out with injuries. Just before the game started, Keegan Kolesar was announced as a late scratch. The T-Birds dressed only 16 skaters and had no back up goalie.

You could forgive Seattle if they just didn't have it in them for a third win that weekend against a healthy Portland team. After Portland pulled on top 4-2 midway through the third period on three unanswered goals, you thought, good effort but the T-Birds are just too shorthanded to come back. But Seattle did come back, scoring the final two goals of regulation, the last with under a minute to play. Okay, nice, they've earned a point but no blame if they fall in overtime. You know where this is going, right? Seattle survived the overtime and when Mat Barzal and Sami Moilanen scored in the shootout, the shorthanded T-Birds had an improbable third win on the weekend.

Which brings us back to Sunday and the 68th and final game of the 2018-19 regular season. The T-Birds had nothing to play for. Their playoff spot was locked in. With no need for the win, Head Coach Matt O'Dette rested his top three scorers and his number one goalie. No Volcan, Wedman or Philp and no Ross between the pipes. Over 200 points out of the line up. On Saint Patrick's Day, Seattle inserted a lot of green players onto the bench. Portland, on the other hand, still had something to play for. They needed a win to earn home-ice advantage in their opening round playoff matchup with Spokane.

Portland quickly grabbed a 2-0 lead. Someone forgot to tell these young T-Birds they were supposed to lie down and roll over. 16-year old Jared Davidson, 15-year old Kai Uchacz and barely turned 17-year old Simon Kubicek turned the deficit into a 3-2 lead. Okay, Seattle had it's moment, right? The Winterhawks struck back with two quick goals to regain the lead, 4-3. Portland was back in control and headed to victory. A funny thing happened after that though. Seattle not only fought back, they took over the game. Led by rookie goalie Cole Schwebius, they closed the door on Portland's high powered offense. And when Sean Richards and Jarret Tyszka scored third period goals with still 12 minutes left, you sensed it was over. The Winterhawks got a cosmetic 6-on-4 power play goal with one second remaining but the win that Portland needed instead, belonged to Seattle.

Those two wins, two seasons apart, when you could excuse the T-Birds if they had dropped both of them, are instead prime examples of what O'Dette talks about when he mentions playing the T-Bird way. You give it your best effort for 60 minutes, no matter who's in the lineup and who is out. As long as there's time on the clock, there's time to win. Don't worry about the standings, the opponent, tomorrow or yesterday. Concern yourself with your effort and make sure you are giving it 100 percent and at the end of the game, win or lose, if you can say you did that, then you've played the T-Bird way.

Second half wins (final 34 games):

Vancouver 26
Everett 21
Portland 21
Seattle 20
Spokane 20
Victoria 16
Tri-City 16
Kamloops 14
Kelowna 12
Prince George 7

Vancouver leads the way in the second half with 26 wins but remember, they played 17 of their final 34 games against teams with losing records. Don't blame the Giants, they played the schedule they were given. Vancouver went 9-5-2-1 against those winning teams and 15-0-1-1 against those sub .500 teams the second half. They took care of business. By contrast though, Seattle played 29 of their final 34 games against teams with winning records. Seattle was 5-0 against their sub .500 opponents and 15-10-2-2 against the teams with winning records. The T-Birds also took care of business.

Does it mean anything for the upcoming playoff series? No. Heck, I think Seattle's best game against the Giants might have been the recent 5-1 loss to Vancouver on March 12th, but that's like saying except for the category four hurricane, my vacation to Key West was fabulous. Winning is all that matters. But after Seattle split the four game regular season series with the Giants and after their very successful second half, I'm looking forward to a competitive playoff series.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the last regular season weekend:

Third Star: C Kai Uchacz. The 15-year old, 2018 first round Bantam pick not only scored his first career WHL goal Sunday in Portland but he added an assist as well, finishing the game at +1. He also won 15 of 34 faceoffs in the two games versus Portland. A great start to a promising Thunderbirds career.

Second Star: C Noah Philp. Philp had five points in his last two regular season games. Wednesday he picked up two assists in Kennewick, including the primary assist on the overtime game winner that clinched Seattle's playoff spot. He then added two goals in Seattle's 5-2 win Saturday night in the regular season home finale. Philp finished the regular season with a career best 75 points.

First Star: LW Nolan Volcan. The captain made his last regular season home game memorable by recording his 100th career Thunderbirds goal Saturday night. That was just the follow up to his hat trick in Kennewick Wednesday. He had four goals and was +2 in his final two regular season WHL games. For his career, a five year span all with Seattle, he totaled 321 games played with 231 points and a +30 rating. Oh, and there is one U.S. Division banner, two Western Conference Championship banners and one Ed Chynoweth Cup Championship on his resume as well.

Sunday, March 10, 2019


Time to go back to my early days of radio, as a disc jockey, spinning the hits. Here's Dead or Alive with a classic from 1984:

"All I know is that to me, you look like you're having fun...."

This team looks like they're having fun chasing down that final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Another strong weekend, in which Seattle took both wins and all four points, has trimmed their magic number to clinch a playoff spot down to a scant two points. One more win in their last four games or one more Kamloops loss in the Blazers last four, and the Thunderbirds are playoff bound. A couple of overtime or shootout losses will do the trick as well. Over the last 10 games with a playoff spot there for the taking, against some of the best competition in the WHL, Seattle has earned 16 of 20 points, compiling a 7-1-1-1 record.

"...You spin me right round, baby, right round like a record baby..."

11-19-4-0. That was Seattle's record after losing a 3-1 lead and falling 6-3 New Year's Eve to the Winterhawks down in Portland. That was the exact midway point of the season, 34 games into a 68 game schedule. They had just lost seven of eight, including six in a row and surrendering 40 goals in the process. The T-Birds sat dead last, 10th place, in a 10 team conference race.

General Manager Bil LaForge had seen enough. Top six forward Dillon Hamaliuk was out for the season and the team was reeling. It was immediately after that game down at the Moda Center that the first year GM set in motion the winds of change. It was not a roster purge but, instead, a roster reset. A New Year's resolution to turn this team's fortunes around. Out went number one goalie Liam Hughes, veteran defenseman Reese Harsch and leading scorer Zack Andrusiak. In came recently signed netminder Roddy Ross along with wingers Sean Richards, Kelti Jeri-Leon, Henrik Rybinski and d-man Zach Ashton.

" spin me right round baby..."

17-9-2-2. That's the T-birds record through 30 of 34 second half games. A complete one-eighty turnaround with their record the second half of the season. From eight games below .500 to eight games above with four games remaining and a bonafide chance to finish the regular season above the break even mark. More importantly they went from a non-playoff contender to the cusp of being a playoff team. It's only fitting that the 1984 pop hit was recorded by a band called Dead or Alive. Thanks to their remarkable second half about face, Seattle has gone from being dead in the water to very much alive for the postseason.

" up your lovin' arms, watch out, here I come"

This is a dangerous team as the playoffs approach. If they get into the postseason, no matter who their first round opponent is, win or lose, that team is going to have their hands full with a team brimming with confidence. That opponent will be facing a Seattle team that's battle tested, playing 20 of its final 21 games against teams with winning records. That first round opponent will be going up against a T-Birds team that will have played 19 of their final 34 games against teams either in first or second place in their respective divisions. That opponent will be going head-to-head against a Seattle team that played 15 of those 34 second half games against teams with winning percentages above .645.

"I've set my sights on you, and I've got to have my way now baby."

You want the playoffs? Go out and earn it. That's what this team is doing. They aren't relying on anyone to help them, they aren't backing their way in. Over the last month they've gone 8-1-1-1. 2-1, 1-0-1, 3-0-1 and now 2-0 over the last four weekends. You win as a team and with everyone contributing. Some of the bigger plays are those that don't end up in a box score. In a couple of recent games a couple of veteran players, Nolan Volcan and Jarret Tyszka have both blocked shots with their faces. Head coach Matt O'Dette pointed out the play of Jaxan Kaluski, who was a strong presence along the boards. You win with players stepping up when other players are absent. With Andrej Kukuca unavailable on the power play Saturday it was Keltie Jeri-Leon and Sean Richards filling in. Seattle scored on their only power play chance. When Tyszka had to leave early in the third period Saturday, rookie d-men Simon Kubicek picked up the slack and ended up with an assist on the game winning goal.

"...if I get to know your name..."

When the season started, Roddy Ross was toiling away between the pipes in the AJHL for Camrose. You couldn't have picked him out of a lineup. Roddy who? Now he's backstopping this team on a playoff quest. 14-4-1-2 since joining the team after the new year. In five second half games against division rival Everett, Ross has allowed 10 goals. Here's the kicker; half of those goals (5) came in one game, Ross's first game against the 'Tips back on February 1st, in a 5-2 loss. In the four starts subsequent to that first effort against the Silvertips his record is 3-0-1-0 with a 1.21 GAA and SVPCT of .971. Even with that five goal game Ross still has a 3-1-1-0 record against Everett with a GAA of 1.95 and a .953 SVPCT.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star(s): Wingers Tyler Carpendale and Payton Mount. Friday, when so many of the team decided to take the night off against an injury depleted Victoria squad, these two forwards stepped up and delivered shift after shift. They won puck battles, owned the half wall and earned key assists on the game winning goal. Carpendale continues to deliver big hits and always plays on his toes and never back on his heels. Mount's confidence is growing more and more with each game. The rookie, 2017 first round bantam selection, is showing the skill set that led to Seattle taking him with that top pick. With some better finish by his teammates, he could have easily had two or three more assists. Tip of the cap to Matt O'Dette and his coaching staff for adjusting their lines during the game and putting those two out there with Noah Philp Friday night. Late in the season and they're making the right adjustments to find a line combination that works. That forward trio continued their terrific play Saturday in the win over Everett.

Second Stars(s): Centers Noah Philp and Nolan Volcan. Two 20-year olds who have combined for 123 points (47g, 76a). Philp put the offense on his back Friday night and bailed the T-Birds out from what could have been a stunning loss to an undermanned Victoria team. He scored both goals in a 2-1 win. He continues to be the sage guru who helps younger players get better when they're on his line as was the case this weekend with Carpendale and Mount. His 24 goals is 10 more than he had a season ago and he's now averaging well over a point a game at 1.32. Volcan duplicated Philp's Friday effort with a two-goal night of his own Saturday in the 2-1 win over Everett. In both instances it was a case of the captain being around the front of the net and getting to a puck, either by redirecting in a shot or scooping up a loose puck and firing it in for a late game winner. While a nine game absence due to injury will keep his point totals down from a season ago, he is a career best +21 on the season.

First Star: G Roddy Ross. Calm, cool and collected. And that's not just on the ice, but off the ice too. He not only plays a game set on an ice surface, but he apparently has ice water running through his veins. 2-0 on the weekend with a 1.00 GAA and a .970 SVPCT with 65 saves on 67 shots. He was .1 second away from a shutout Friday and a flukey, off-the-opponent's-glove, barely off-the-opponent's-stick, goal away from a shutout Saturday. In his start previous to that he was .4 seconds away from a 65 minute shutout. The T-Birds have earned points in 17 of his 21 starts (31 pts.) since he joined the team back on January 4th. He now ranks fifth among WHL goalies with a 2.56 GAA and a .925 SVPCT. Whether you call him Rowdy Roddy, Rockin' Roddy, Goal Robbin' Roddy or Ross the Boss, at 14-4-1-2 just don't forget to call him a winner.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Weekend Warriors

Back on February 12th, Seattle faced Tri-City on a 2-For-Tuesday at the accesso ShoWare Center. They built up a 3-1 lead early in the second period. Unfortunately they couldn't hold that lead. Tri-City scored the last three goals and skated out with a 4-3 victory. It was two points that the T-Birds let slip away. Their playoff hopes were teetering on the brink. After that loss they were staring up at a schedule that featured either Everett or Portland in five of their next seven games. The most difficult part of a difficult schedule was in front of them. It was like having to scale a 30 foot high cliff while boulders were rolling down on top of them.

Fast forward to this past Sunday and the T-Birds are once again hosting the Americans. Once again they build up a 3-1 lead early in the second period. Tri-City closes to within a goal just past the midway mark of the period. How will the T-Birds respond this time? Instead of wilting Seattle fights back and scores a goal before the period ends. They add two more early in the third and skate away with a 6-3 win. It put a cap on a five point weekend. In between those two games against the Americans, Seattle not only faced a daunting schedule, they attacked it head on. This team is too legit to quit.

The last three weekends have seen the Thunderbirds play a combined eight games. Seattle has compiled a 5-1-1-1 record over that span. With the exception of the Kamloops game this past Friday, every game was versus a team with a winning record. Outside of Red Deer, none of those winning teams were less then 10 games above .500. It was a murderer's row of opponents with five of the eight games against either Everett or Portland. It was a significant chunk of a make-or-break stretch of the schedule as far as the team's playoff hopes were concerned. With their season on the line, the T-Birds earned 12 of 16 points and pushed their lead in the battle for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference to seven points.

The work is not done. The schedule from here on out doesn't get any easier. In fact, it gets harder. Six games to go. All six are against teams with winning records. No one left on the schedule with a winning percentage below .565. Four of the six games against the top three teams in the Western Conference and against three of the five best records in the entire WHL. That's right, four of the six games are against teams with winning percentages above .650. The combined record of the teams left on Seattle's schedule? 192-97-12-10. Saddle up, let's go!

Is their a "magic number" for Seattle to clinch a playoff spot? Yes. Heading into this week the T-Birds magic number to clinch at least a play-in game is seven. Any combination of points Seattle earns or Kamloops fails to earn going forward equaling seven and the T-Birds would at least get a one game playoff game against the Blazers to determine the second wild card spot. The magic number for Seattle to claim the last Western Conference playoff spot outright, would be eight. That could change midweek as the Blazers host Vancouver Wednesday night. Obviously the T-Birds will be cheering on the Giants. A Vancouver regulation win would reduce the magic numbers to 5/6 before Seattle plays again this coming weekend.

The Thunderbirds don't need that help going forward. They do control their own destiny. Four wins or eight points earned over the final six games will do the trick. Of course, with their schedule, that's easier said than done, although the T-Birds proved over the past three weeks that their bite is as good as their bark. Still the T-Birds haven't accomplished their goal yet. There is a lot of heavy lifting still to be done. While there are only a half dozen games left in the regular season, they are still not guaranteed that playoff berth.

Every team deals with injuries. Everett right now is missing Riley Sutter, Portland has seen Cody Glass in and out of the lineup recently and Tri-City limped in this past weekend with three defenseman out. But you do wonder where this T-Birds team might be the second half of the season with a healthy Dillon Hamaliuk. Hamaliuk, of course, was lost for the season back on December 29th when he suffered a season ending lower body injury in a game against the Winterhawks. Hammer was on pace for a 25 goal, 58 point season. How might he have helped the newly constituted second half roster? Might the T-Birds be battling for the first wild card spot, rather then the second? Would they have already clinched? His absence makes what they have accomplished the second half of the season all the more remarkable. He was a top six forward when the injury struck. Since starting the second half 1-2-0-0, the new look roster has gelled together and gone 14-7-2-2 in the last 25 games.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: C Nolan Volcan. Huge goal to help ice the big road win in Kamloops Friday night. Tough as nails, Volcan was a physical presence all weekend. If you get a chance, watch the play he made in Everett where he put on the jets and raced up ice to deliver a big check on a Silvertips breakaway chance. Never. Give. Up. He leaves it all on the ice as was evident when he blocked a shot Sunday against Tri-City with his face. He's doing this while still not fully back to 100 percent after suffering an injury in late January.

Second Star: C Mathew Wedman. He's just playing with a remarkable amount of confidence right now and it has him leading the team in scoring with 71 points. His 37 goals is more then any T-Bird has had in a season since Prab Rai registered 41 back in 2009-10. After his 11-game point streak was snapped in the overtime, shutout loss Saturday in Everett, he jumped right back on the scoresheet with a three point game (2g, 1a) Sunday against Tri-City. To top it off he is +25 on the season on a team that allows more goals than it scores.

First Star: G Roddy Ross. Ross didn't even get the win in his best performance on the weekend, the 1-0 overtime loss in Everett. In his two games (1-0-1-0) he faced 87 shots, making 40+ saves both nights. He outdueled an NHL draft pick in Kamloops, Dylan Ferguson, and went toe-to-toe with Everett's Central Scouting ranked netminder, Dustin Wolf. We talk about Wedman possibly getting drafted by an NHL team this spring but I imagine Ross is opening some eyes and he could earn himself an invite to an NHL camp. His 6'4" frame alone, should get him some notice.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Final Nine

For Meatloaf, two out of three wasn't bad. For the T-Birds, three out of four ain't bad. Seattle isn't doing cartwheels after losing a, first period, three-goal lead at home to Portland Saturday night. They aren't giddy for missing that extra point in the standings. But big picture? This was a positive weekend for them as they continue to lead the chase for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. After a daunting schedule last weekend the T-Birds had a five point lead over the Kamloops Blazers. After another particularly tough go this weekend, they still maintain a five point cushion. Two weeks of hockey, five games, all against teams with winning records, and Seattle gave no ground. There is still work to be done and the task doesn't get any easier but the T-Birds now control their own destiny.

Seattle finished February with a 5-6-0-1 record. Doesn't seem like anything to brag about does it? But no team on their February schedule had a losing record. Statistically, the T-Birds had the hardest schedule of any WHL team the second half of the season. Seven of the 12 February games were against Everett and Portland, owners of two of the top five records in the WHL. The T-Birds played half those 12 games without one of their leading scorers, captain Nolan Volcan. They played the final seven games of the month without one of their top four d-men, Simon Kubicek. You can wilt from adversity or face it head on. Seattle faced it head on and survived. You know the old saying, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

The most important game of the season is always the next one on the schedule. For Seattle, that next game just happens to be in Kamloops against the Blazers Friday night. The result could very well determine which team earns that final playoff spot. This is the fourth and final head-to-head game between these two teams. Kamloops leads the season series, 2-games-to-1, primarily on the strength of Zane Franklin and his five goals. Kamloops possesses that one element that seems to give the T-Birds fits; small, speedy forwards. The T-Birds dropped the first two games to the Blazers by a combined 13-5 score (7-2 Oct. 26th in Kent and 6-3 Dec. 1st up at the Sandman Centre). Those two wins came in the first half of the season, before the T-Birds roster reset. In their most recent meeting, at the accesso ShoWare Center in late January, the T-Birds prevailed, 5-2. Newcomers Sean Richards and Henrik Rybinski combined for five points that night (1g, 4a) while mainstays Matthew Wedman and Noah Philp contributed six points (3g, 3a).

While the T-Birds will spend the week preparing for that important road tilt, they will also be huge Tri-City Americans fans. Tri-City travels to Kamloops for a midweek game. This is one of the two games Kamloops has in hand on Seattle. If Tri can win that game, especially in regulation, Seattle will go into Friday's game with their five point lead still intact. The game versus Kamloops is as close as you can get to a must-win game without it technically being a must-win game. The T-Birds will still have the lead for the final playoff spot no matter the outcome Friday. The question is how big will that lead be? It could be as much as seven points or down to just one.

The game versus Kamloops is not the only one on the schedule for Seattle this weekend. The T-Birds open March with three games in three nights. After the battle with the Blazers, they come back south for another road match up with Western Conference leading Everett. The weekend closes at home Sunday against Tri-City. The Kamloops game is their last against a team with a losing record. When all is said and done the T-Birds will have played 20 of their final 21 games against teams above .500. Their final eight will feature five games against the Western Conference's top three teams, Everett (2), Vancouver (1) and Portland (2). Kamloops final eight features four against below .500 teams Kelowna (2) and Prince George (2).

On paper that remaining schedule for Seattle looks like a playoff-chance killer. But in their last four games Seattle has played Everett and Portland a combined four times. The T-Birds record in those four games? 2-1-0-1 and five of eight points. These snarling pit bulls have proven they can play with the big dogs. I started this post with a little Meatloaf. Let's finish with a little from the late Tom Petty. You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down. As intimidating as their schedule going forward may be, there's no chance the T-Birds are going to back down.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: D Jarret Tyszka. The Montreal Canadiens prospect registered four points in the two games. None was bigger then his overtime winning goal in Everett Friday night. With Kubicek out of the lineup, Seattle has juggled their d-pairings but Tyszka is still relied on to play heavy minutes in all situations. After missing a good chunk of the first half of the season with an injury, he's found his form in the second half. he has points in five straight games (2g, 6a) and is a key element in Seattle's improving power play.

Second Star: C Matthew Wedman. The team's leading point producer had a Gordie Howe Hat Trick Weekend, with a goal, two assists and a fighting major over the course of the two games. Wedman also stretched his point streak to 10 games. Most importantly he's feeling it right now and is shooting from everywhere. His all around game is what sets him apart though and is what is drawing attention his way from NHL scouts. It's not unheard of for a 19-year old to be chosen in the NHL draft. Heck, Prince Albert's 19 year old Brett Leason is projected to be a first rounder. Like Leason, Wedman has 33 goals. If Leason is first round material, what's Wedman? Big bodied centers like Wedman are a hot commodity in the NHL.

First Star: RW Andrej Kukuca. Since early in the season I've been asking Andrej if he's ready to do a radio interview. His standard response each time is "next game". He's clever like that. If he keeps playing the way he has the second half of the season, I'll keep waiting until the next game for that interview. He now has goals in six of his last seven games. Kukuca contributed two power-play goals on the weekend and also assisted on the Tyszka OT game winner in Everett, In fact, Kukuca has assisted on the last two T-Bird OT game winning goals. His 23 goals is second most on the team, trailing only Wedman. Since returning from World Juniors Kukuca has been a different player for the T-Birds, scoring 16 of his 23 goals over those 24 games. He's added nine assists and is now a +12 player. When Kukuca was drafted in last summer's CHL Import Draft, it was thought the 19-year old Slovakian would be a one-year wonder, but has his second half performance changed that thought process in Seattle's front office? Seattle is already losing what, by season's end, will be over 150 points from Nolan Volcan, Noah Philp and Sean Richards to graduation. What if Wedman is not only drafted this spring, but signed? he could end up in the AHL next year. That would be another 70+ points gone from the lineup for next season. Would the T-Birds bring Kukuca back as a two-spotter (20 year old and Import)? Of course I imagine his second half play is garnering attention from scouts. If not those in North America then certainly those in Europe.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Piling Up Points

Daunting schedule or not, the Thunderbirds know to hold onto their playoff spot in the Western Conference, they need points, points and more points. Any way they can get them, they need them. Regulation wins, overtime losses, it doesn't matter, they need points to hold off either Kamloops or Kelowna. If Kelowna and Kamloops drop games, all the better for Seattle.

That is why this past week was a success for the T-Birds. Seattle went 3-2 their last five games. That one game-above-.500 mark may not seem like much but combine that with the fact Kamloops is just 1-3-1 in their last five and Kelowna 2-3 in their last five and that is a net gain in the standings for the T-birds. Over that span Seattle played five teams with winning records and won three. The Blazers played three teams above .500 and won once. The Rockets went head-to-head with three teams over .500 in that span and lost them all.

Seattle will face Kamloops March 1st up at the Sandman Centre in what assuredly will be the most important game of the 11 they have remaining. Before Seattle gets to that game they have to, once again, head into the eye of the storm this coming weekend with games at Everett Friday and then at home versus Portland Saturday. As they did this past weekend, the T-birds have to find points in one, if not both, of those games. While Seattle awaits those weekend games, Kamloops has a Monday matinee against Tri-City, then hosts Conference bottom dweller Prince George Friday before traveling to Kelowna to meet up with the Rockets Saturday. Before that home game against the Blazers next weekend, Kelowna will hit the road for a pair of games in Victoria then a single in Spokane.

I'm sure all three teams, Seattle, Kamloops and Kelowna, are treating every game left on their respective regular season schedules as if it is a playoff game. There's no postseason for one of them if they don't. Even with that said, one of these team is going to be the odd man out. There is only room in the postseason for two of them. On paper Seattle, even with their current five point lead for the eighth spot, has the more difficult path, 11 games left and ten against teams with winning records. Seven are against the top three teams in the conference; Vancouver (1), Everett (3) and Portland (3). Seattle has six on home ice and five on the road.

Kamloops went into Monday with 14 games left on their schedule. Three of those are head-to-head battles with division rival Kelowna. they also have three left against last place Prince George, including two to finish the regular season. Their other eight games feature a pair against Tri-City, of course the Seattle game, three against the B.C. Division leading Vancouver Giants, and one each against Victoria and Spokane. Ten of the Blazers remaining game are at home and just four are on the road.

Keep an eye on Kelowna. They may end up the team Seattle has to beat out for a postseason spot. The Rockets sit currently third in the B.C. Division but actually have one point less then Seattle (52-51). They also are only four points up on Kamloops. They may end up having as tough a path to the postseason as the T-birds. Going into Monday games, Kelowna has 12 games remaining. They have the three huge head-to-head games with the Blazers but their other nine games are all against teams with winning marks including a combined five games with Vancouver and Portland. The Rockets split their last dozen games with six at home and six on the road.

As to the past weekend games, Seattle played well in all three. Just some mismanagement with the puck in the Portland game that directly led to a couple of Winterhawks goals. Seattle, down 4-2, was pushing hard the first half of the third period to get one back and make it a one goal game but just couldn't find the lucky strike. Portland got the fifth goal and that was that.

My T-birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star: W Henrik Rybinski. The more I see of him the more I won't be surprised if some NHL team uses a late round draft pick on him come June. A Tasmanian Devil on the forecheck. He has an uncanny knack for winning puck battles. He almost sneaks up on opposing players to do it. The scoring will come around now that he knows the coaches want him to shoot more but I think he will always be a pass first type of player and rack up a lot of apples. Finished the weekend with five points (2g, 3a). This deal to acquire him from Medicine Hat is enough to give new General Manager Bil LaForge an A+ grade for his first WHL trade deadline.

Second Star: G Roddy Ross. Ross went 2-0 on the weekend, highlighted by a stellar 46 save performance against Everett. He was at his best in the first ten minutes of the contest as the T-birds were being outshot, 9-0. His play kept Seattle in it while they found their game. He collected 72 saves in his two wins. He now has as many wins (10) in just over a month of play as former goalie Liam Hughes had in three-plus months the first half of the season. Yes, a better supporting cast around him, but the defensive group is actually younger.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. I'm just wondering which NHL rookie or development camp he will attend next fall because there's practically no way NHL scouts aren't taking notice of his all around game. What a beast he's been. When Nolan Volcan missed nine and a half games with injury Seattle was able to tread water (4-5-1) because Wedman wouldn't let them sink. He's on an eight game points streak (9g, 5a 14 pts). In the three games this weekend he finished with six points (4g, 2a) and now leads the team in points with 63 on 32 goals and 31 assists. While it came in a loss, his wrap around power play goal Sunday in Portland should be a WHL Play of the Week candidate.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Snow My Goodness!

While we dig out from one snow blast and await the next round of the Puget Sound Snow-pocalypse 2019, let's update that playoff chase. After this weekend, Seattle not only maintained it's position in the eight spot in the Western Conference (the second wild card position), it increased its lead over Kamloops to three points after the Blazers dropped two games. Kamloops still has a game in hand on the T-birds, which made Seattle's 4-3 overtime win Saturday over Medicine Hat, all the more crucial.

The two teams still have one more game head-to-head, coming up March 1st up at the Sandman Centre in Kamloops, but between now and then the T-birds play six tough games against four teams with winning records. Four of those six are against either Everett or Portland. Kamloops will also play six times before they host the T-birds with two of those games against B.C. Division teams Prince George and Kelowna, both with sub .500 records. Because Seattle has the tougher schedule going forward, earning points anyway possible is of key importance. That's why a couple of recent overtime wins have been crucial for the T-birds playoff hopes.

On average Seattle is currently earning .905 points per game this season and are on pace for 62 points. Kamloops is averaging .865 points per game and is on pace for 59 points. Again though, the degree of difficulty in their schedule going forward is Seattle's biggest roadblock, making it tough for them to maintain that 62 point pace.

From the "You-don't-realize-how-important-he-is-until-he's-gone" department: In two games last week against Victoria, Seattle was outshot 83-46 by the Royals without defenseman Jarret Tyszka in the lineup. They were a Roddy Ross 41 save performance away from being swept in those two games. With Tyszka back in the lineup in two games this weekend, The T-birds outshot two opponents by a combined 66-58 margin and earned a split. Better finish against Portland Friday night might have given them a chance to win both games. Tyszka's ability to skate the puck up out of the defensive zone and get pucks in deep at the other end, gives Seattle a better chance to win the puck possession battle. That is even more important now with the upper body injury to fellow defenseman Simon Kubicek. It's a good explanation as to why the team held onto Tyszka at the trade deadline.

Speaking of defensemen, was that Jake Lee's best game as a Thunderbird Saturday against Medicine Hat? He played with a lot of confidence, to the point he was calling for the puck on his stick during that third period comeback. It led to a big assist on Seattle's second goal, and of course he scored the third goal that tied the game to force overtime.

The Thunderbirds hosted prospect Brendan Williamson and his mom this past weekend. The T-birds acquired Williamson's rights from Everett in the Zack Andrusiak trade back on New Year's Day. Williamson was originally listed by Everett when current T-birds general manager Bil LaForge was the Silvertips Director of Player Personnel. Monday, the T-birds announced they had signed Williamson to a standard WHL PLayer Agreement. This now gives the team the maximum return on that Andrusiak deal; 20 year old Sean Richards, a 2019 second round draft pick, a 2021 third round draft pick plus Williamson. I could be wrong but assume because Williamson chose to sign with the T-birds, Seattle does not get the 2022 conditional fourth round pick that was also part of the deal and it reverts back to Everett.

By the way, Seattle doesn't win Saturday, doesn't even get the game to overtime, without the play of Richards. Richards assisted on the second goal by going right to the net with the puck, then delivered a crunching hit along the boards that freed up the puck, leading to the tying goal. In 15 games with the T-birds Richards has 13 points (5g, 8a) and is +2. With Nolan Volcan currently shelved with an upper body injury, Richards becomes an even more important piece to the T-birds playoff hopes.

My T-bird Three Stars for the week:

Third Star: W Andrej Kukuca. Koo-Koo KAH-Choooo! The Slovakian winger picked up six points in four games (4g, 2a) and had a nice bank pass to set up the Matthew Wedman overtime winner Saturday night. Seems to do most of his damage against Victoria as he now has four goals against the Royals in three games. Since returning from World Juniors he has 19 points (11g, 8a) in 18 games, doing most of his damage within four feet of the goal. He now has 43 points on the season with a +11 rating.

Second Star: G Roddy Ross. Robbin' Roddy Ross was nothing short of spectacular last Tuesday in Victoria stealing a win for Seattle with a stand-on-his-head 41 save performance. He closed out the weekend with a monster overtime save against Medicine Hat just before the T-birds game winner. Don't forget his stop of former T-bird Elijah Brown in that game as well. Ross now has eight wins in 12 starts. remember, the first half of the year former T-bird Liam Hughes had just 10 wins in 29 starts. Ross's most telling stat? A .914 save percentage.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. Weds is the defacto on ice, team captain with Volcan out injured for the time being. Like Volcan he leads by example. He, along with Noah Philp, leads the team in scoring with 55 points. He also leads the team in goals with 27 and leads in plus/minus as well at +19. His 55 points in 52 games is eight points more then he had all of last season in 72 games. He registered six points in the four games (4g, 2a) capped by the big OT game winner Saturday. Oh, and his mom beat Volcan's mom in the intermission shootout Friday night. Pretty good week for the Wedman family.