Sunday, December 8, 2019

Fresh Ice

And just like that, the last piece of the Thunderbirds 2017 WHL Championship roster is gone. Thursday night Seattle traded Matthew Wedman to the Kelowna Rockets in exchange for a first, second and fifth round draft pick. The picks are spread out over three drafts, but don't be fooled, that is an impressive return for the 20 year old center in his last year in the league. It adds to a growing number of stockpiled high draft picks General Manager Bil La Forge has accumulated in the past 12 months. More on that later.

First, trading away the captain, the last piece of a championship team, and a player the team helped to develop into an NHL draft pick, is not an easy endeavor. I'm not normally around when these deals go down. But I'm glad I was for this one and the one last New Year's Eve that saw the T-birds trade away two other players from that Chynoweth Cup winning team, Zack Andrusiak and Reece Harsch. I had a chance to shake their hands and wish them well. They will always be remembered as not just T-birds, but T-birds champions. They were all part of a special group of young men. Wedman will always be celebrated for his overtime, conference championship, series clinching goal against the Rockets. It sent Seattle to the league championship in 2016, ending a 20 year absence. He was just 16 years old back then. Over the next three years we watched him grow into manhood, become a potent offensive weapon and a leader. Once a T-bird, always a T-birds.

With Wedman gone Seattle took the ice for a pair of games this past weekend in Victoria. With newcomer Max Patterson arriving just in time, the T-birds played a solid, physical sixty minutes Friday night and came out with a well earned 4-1 win. The follow up effort Saturday night was close but not as complete. Whistle happy officiating was partly responsible, taking any flow away from the game for either team. No hockey game should ever feature 18 power plays but this one did. Seattle's strength is 5-on-5 hockey and the penalties denied them that element much of the game. In the end the T-birds took a 3-1 loss. I think, beyond the parade to the box, Seattle's struggle to finish chances hurt them. You could probably count at least eight high quality scoring chances that went awry.

Overall Seattle was able to play the T-bird way in those two games on Vancouver Island. They played a heavy game where they were finishing all their checks. They did a good job of getting pucks in deep and making the Royals defenseman have to play the puck deep in their own zone and pay a physical price for doing it. They got under the skin of a few of those Royals players. It was interesting to read the comments of Victoria Head Coach Dan Price after the two game set, talking about how his players were battered and bruised and had the marks to show for it. the Thunderbirds left their calling card.

Now the team gets set for a five game schedule over an eight day stretch that will take them into the Christmas break, with all five games against U.S. Division opponents. Seattle currently sits six points out of a playoff spot. They'd like to close that gap before heading home for the holidays. Yes, despite that Wedman deal, this team is still aiming for the postseason. They don't care they're one of the youngest teams in the league, giving large minutes to seven rookies. The organization believes in their talent and believes they will continue to get better with each passing game. The trades may be more about the future, but the team is playing for today.

As for the trade, as we mentioned the T-birds have amassed a lot of top-of-the-draft picks. With the haul from the Wedman trade added in, they now currently have six first-round and six-second round selections in their arsenal for the next four drafts. That doesn't even take into account their other picks in the third round and beyond. For example, over that same span the T-birds are currently in possession of 13 picks combined in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. Most of those picks are going be in the 2021, '22 and '23 drafts, just as this current group of young players is maturing. The T-birds can make selections with those picks when the time comes, or trade them for top end established talent augmenting this current group when they are ready to challenge for a deep playoff run.

If you believe that a rebuild, or reload, whatever you want to call it, begins after one group reaches the apex, as did the 2017 team, then you have to take into account what began as that 2017 team was raising the Cup. Just a week or so earlier that spring, Seattle drafted Payton Mount, Ty Bauer and Luke Bateman. The next spring they selected Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona, Conner Roulette, Thomas Milic, Sam Popowich, Reid Schaefer and Mekai Sanders. In the most recent draft they used two first round picks on Jordan Gustafson and Kevin Korchinski and a second rounder on Spencer Penner. They chose nine other players in last spring's draft and some of those will end up signing a well. They've listed and signed players like Cade McNelly, Matt Rempe and Jared Davidson while trading for youngster like Brendan Williamson, Zach Ashton, Henrik Rybinski and Blake Lyda. They'll continue to list and recruit more players to supplement that group.

This is the core they are building around. From 2017 until the 2023 draft rolls around, Seattle will have used as many as 20 first and second round draft picks alone to build this roster up while also building for the future. They'll do that by using those draft picks to select players, or trade those picks to acquire players already in the league. The goal isn't to compete for one championship, but to compete for multiple titles. La Forge has a plan and that plan is to make this team a contender every year.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: C Max Patterson. Acquired from Everett to fill the 20 year old vacancy created by the Wedman trade, Patterson jumped off the plane and onto the ice and had a solid debut weekend as a T-bird. Without benefit of a practice with his new line mates, he made the transition seem effortless, creating instant chemistry with Andrej Kukuca and Payton Mount. In the two games he won 31 of his 48 faceoffs. He was a physical force, and according to head coach Matt O'Dette, a vocal leader.

Second Star: C Henrik Rybinski. Now centering Seattle's top line, with Keltie Jeri-Leon and Conner Roulette on his wings, he was not just the T-birds best skater both nights, he was the best skater for either team in the two games in Victoria. He potted a goal each night and set his wingers up for multiple scoring chances. When he came to Seattle last January he wanted to play center, but Seattle wasn't sure if he could win a faceoff, so he played on the wing. On the weekend he won 22 of his 28 draws. He's a center.

First Star: G Blake Lyda. That ten goals against game in Kamloops? It has to be looked at now as a fluke, an aberration, a total team collapse and not a goalie issue. In his four games surrounding that outing, he's surrendered just give goals against on 122 shots and earned his first two WHL wins. This weekend he stopped 35 of 36 shots Friday in the 4-1 win. He then stopped 11 of 11 in relief of Roddy Ross Saturday. For those counting at home, that is 46 saves on 47 shots up in Victoria. You can't erase that 10-goal game. It goes on his permanent record, but take it out of the equation and in the other four outings the past month, he has a 2-1-0-0 record, a 1.45 GAA and a SPCT of .959.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Pressure Campaign

Saturday night in Everett was the T-Birds at their very best. Minus a sluggish start and an initial power play that couldn't get out of its own way, it was 60 minutes of hockey played the T-Birds way. Get pucks in deep, attack on the forecheck and force the opponents to play much of the game in their own end. At the other end, keep shots to the outside and get in to passing lanes or sellout to block as many shots as possible. Then add in a strong dose of solid goaltending and exceptional penalty killing. Doing that, Seattle, by the third period, had worn down their opponent. That effort might seem manic, but that is by design. Just keep putting constant pressure on the puck. That's the T-Birds way.

Seattle had a poor first shift. As a result, the Silvertips scored just 65-seconds into the game. On the road, before a hostile crowd it could have been the first ingredient for a recipe to disaster. Seattle didn't buckle though. They wobbled but stayed upright. Andrej Kukuca made a terrific read on a poor Everett cross-ice pass at the Seattle blue line. He stole the puck and raced up ice on a 2-on-1 one rush with Conner Roulette. He then unleashed a beauty of a shot that tied the game, 1-1, three minutes into the game.

If that wasn't the turning point then the T-Birds two penalty kills in the first period were. Everett entered the game tops in the league with the man advantage, clicking at just under 26%. They were 10-for-24 on the power play over their last six games. Led by Roddy Ross between the pipes, Seattle silenced the 'Tips power play. Henrik Rybinski and Brendan Williamson were two of Seattle's best penalty killers all night, but it was a total team effort in that regard. The first period PK denied Everett the chance to get momentum on their side. The same was true in the second period when the Silvertips were awarded three straight power plays over the last seven minutes. One goal against in that situation could have been enough to put Seattle too far behind the eight ball. We talk often about gaining momentum off your power play, but the same is true of your penalty kill. Seattle's successful kills energized the entire team.

Greasy goals. We hear that expression all the time. They are effort goals, never-quit-on-the-puck goals. They are funnel-pucks-to-the-net-and-bang-away-until-you-hear-the-whistle goals. And they are game winning goals as was the case Saturday. The T-Birds dominated the third period by putting everything they could on net. If the shot was saved, they just did it again. Do it enough and eventually it will lead to a rebound or deflection that gives you a second or third chance opportunity. That describes the T-Birds game winner. Owen Williams just flung a puck on net. After a couple of rebounds by Rybinski and Roulette clanked off the post, Keltie Jeri-Leon finally tucked it home.

In two games in Everett this season the T-Birds have outshot the Silvertips 73-58. In the third period of those two games the shots favor Seattle 33-14. Seattle only has one goal to show for it, but that might have something to do with the quality of the opposing goalie. It's no reason to stop shooting. Meanwhile, over the course of those two road games against their division rival, Seattle and Ross have allowed just two goals against, and one of those came in overtime. Over his last four road starts in Everett, dating back to last February 22nd, Ross has a 1.20 goals against average, a .964 save percentage, stopping 135 of 140 shots while posting a 2-0-2-0 record.

Over their last four games Seattle has allowed just 10 goals against with one of those being an empty netter. So really it has been 3, 2, 3 and 1 goal allowed in those games. This four game stretch comes after a game in which the T-Birds surrendered 10 goals in one game up in Kamloops. The better team defense coincides with the return to the lineup of captain Matthew Wedman, from a four-game suspension, and defenseman Cade McNelly, off an 18-game injury. The past four games has seen the T-Birds roster at it's healthiest and most complete. For a young roster, missing key players from the lineup matters.

Saturday night was also a fourth straight game where the T-Birds young rookies played like anything but rookies, as Seattle got consistent play from that group once again. Williamson, Roulette, Matt Rempe, Lucas Ciona and Kai Uchacz are carving out roles but most importantly, they are playing the T-Bird way. You don't have to end up on the scoresheet to affect games and Ciona and Rempe, with their physical style, exemplify that.

More important was the effort of Seattle's veteran core group. They too, after collectively having an off night Wednesday, got back to playing T-Birds hockey. Kukuca and Jeri-Leon had the goals but Wedman, Rybinski, Ryan Gottfried and Conner Bruggen-Cate were all noticeable for the right reasons. And did anyone have a better game than d-man Williams? He came to Seattle a few years ago from Regina with the reputation as an offensive-minded defenseman, but his d-zone play has been outstanding, especially over this four game stretch.

As you read this another T-Bird rookie, 16-year old Mekai Sanders, is probably on the ice skating once again after a two month layoff due to a lower body injury. Soon he'll be cleared to play. Another piece of the future, but also for the present, ready to get into the fight for ice time.

My T-Birds Three Stars for Thanksgiving Week:

Third Star: C Matt Rempe. Rempe scored his second goal of the season Wednesday in the loss at home to Victoria and he did it from his knees. What kind of goal was it? A greasy goal, banging away at a loose puck in the crease. Meanwhile the 17-year old rookie is showing his value in the face off circle as well, winning 45 percent of his faceoffs. His physical style fits well in the T-Birds brand of play. Got into his first WHL scrap, but it wasn't a fair fight. He got jumped from behind after delivering a clean, monster hit. If I was gonna pick a fight with a guy 6'8", I probably wouldn't want to attack him face on either.

Second Star: D Owen Williams. He was on the ice for a great deal of the third period Saturday in Everett, expending a lot of energy. Yet, he still had enough gas in the tank to continue to win his puck battles, especially in the D-zone. He also knocked down a couple of Everett clearing attempts, extending Seattle's O-zone time and of course, he set up the game winning goal.

First Star: Goalie Roddy Ross. Ross stopped 62 of 66 shots over the course of two games. As you can see by the numbers posted above, he loves playing at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. His record would be much better then the current 7-9-2-1 if he had more offensive support in front of him. He was Seattle's best penalty killer Saturday against the Silvertips helping the T-Birds kill off all five Everett power plays.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Page Turned?

Wednesday's loss to Victoria was a frustrating game for Seattle. Why? It was a game that screamed out, "follow the game plan and you can win". But because they didn't follow up their two, well played, games on the weekend with another, they were saddled with a loss. Somewhere between Saturday night's win over Saskatoon and the Victoria loss, they got off the rails a bit.

They were really never out of the game. Once again, outside the late empty-netter, they played a third straight one goal game in which they surrendered just three goals against. Once again though, the offense got stuck at two goals. The breakouts weren't crisp, the passing was off and there were other puck management issues. And, according to head coach Matt O'Dette's postgame comments, some players tried to do too much individually. Some of those issues were from older players. Let's hope they get it back going into the weekend. Coaches always say they will live with the results if you put forth your best effort. Straying from the game plan is not your best effort. As young as this team is they still need their veteran players doing well to succeed.

That being said, something has been brewing with those young players recently. On occasion we've seen one rookie have a good game on a Friday, only to fall off on Saturday while a different rookie, who didn't show up the game before, steps up and delivers. We just haven't seen them collectively all have solid games at the same time and do it in back-to-back games. Going back to that 3-2 loss last Friday against Kelowna though it was hard not to notice, that as a group, those young rookie forwards all started to impact games together for three successive contests.

The obvious ones show up in the box score with goals from Matt Rempe and Kai Uchacz. Since returning from the U-17 Tournament, Uchacz has been a different player then he was the first month of the season. He looks more like they guy we saw over five games late last season. He's playing physical and hustling to engage in battles for pucks.

Rempe has been that way almost from his first shift after missing 15 games due to injury. He's learning each game how to utilize his 6'8" frame to his advantage. Both players are performing well in the faceoff circle which is important because they are your third and fourth line centers. Like Uchacz, Conner Roulette is back from the U-17s, as well as a minor injury, and while he hasn't scored a goal since his return, the chances are coming, mostly off his own creation. Meanwhile Lucas Ciona, who also missed time with an injury, has come back into the lineup and picked up where he left off. He and fellow rookie Brendan Williamson have earned their time on the penalty kill because they have gained the trust of the coaching staff to be put out on the ice in that situation.

Those five rookie forwards weren't a liability in the lineup the last three games. Together they were assets. Wednesday night, representing the bottom six forward group, they may have been the best "effort" players on the ice for Seattle over the course of the game. We are a third of the way into the season and it might just be that this group has turned the corner in their rookie season. Let's see how they continue to play over the next month going into the Christmas break, but if the last three games are a barometer, then the decision to keep all five on the roster was the right one. They are getting ahead of the curve. For lack of a better description, they are playing comfortably, as though they have mentally made the adjustment to now being full time WHL players. The results may not consistently be in the win column but if we continue to see the growth from that group that I saw this past week, collectively they'll come out of the season the better for it.

The fact that their better, more consistent play coincides with most of them returning to the lineup at the same time, whether from a tournament or an injury, is also telling. Now that almost everybody is available, there is competition for ice time. No one wants to be a healthy scratch. Their job is to make that game-by-game roster decision a tough one for the coaches. This young group knows they have to practice well and play hard to earn their spot in the lineup on game night. But you know who also knows? The veterans. If they're not careful, some of these younger players may just pass them by.

Hopefully that competition for a spot in the lineup is going to sharpen them. A healthy roster means nothing will be handed to them. In a few weeks, that competition will get stiffer, once another rookie, Mekai Sanders is cleared to play. It should push a second year player like center Jared Davidson too. As they compete and play together and (knock on wood) stay healthy, we'll get to see this group, that also includes second year player Payton Mount, grow together. When you add in a couple of players who have come up to play a few games and looked solid doing it, in Sam Popowich and Reid Schaefer, that's a group of 10 forwards, age 17 and 16, who within two seasons will make up your top three forward lines. While you are pondering that, ponder this. The T-birds first round pick last spring, Jordan Gustafson, is also a forward.

Watch these guys as they play together the rest of this season because over the next four years you are going to see a lot of them.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The "I"s Have It

Inexperience plus injuries equals inconsistency. It's a simple formula and it has defined the first two month of the Thunderbirds season. We knew last May at the Bantam Draft that the T-birds were going to be demonstrably younger this season. That's when Seattle traded away 263 games and five years worth of WHL experience to Kelowna in exchange for two first and one second round draft pick. In late August we knew they were going to be even younger still when 20 year old defenseman Jarret Tyszka, and his 213 games in the league, opted to forego his fifth and final season in the WHL. Of course Seattle also lost a combined nine plus seasons and 580 games because Nolan Volcan and Noah Philp graduated out of the program.

The question wasn't whether they were going to be a young team this season. We knew the answer to that question six months ago. It was just how young would they actually be? Well, 11 of the players who have suited up for the team this season, or approximately half the roster, had a combined 17 games of WHL experience coming into the season. Twelve of those 17 games belonged to three of those 11 players, meaning the other five games were divided among eight players which works out to .625 games of experience per player. This is a pretty green team.

A season ago Seattle carried at times, what the WHL classified as nine rookie players, but two of those were a then 18 year old goalie named Roddy Ross, who came on the second half of the season after the trade of Liam Hughes, and 18 year forward Graeme Bryks. Seventeen year old Cody Savey was another of those rookies but he was injured most of the season and only got into 18 games. 17 year old rookie goalie Cole Schwebius was the backup to, first Hughes and then, Ross. 17 year old defenseman Zach Ashton, like Ross, joined the team via trade at the halfway point. Heck, even then 19 year old Import Andrej Kukuca was considered a rookie by WHL standards because it was his first year in the league. In reality though, the T-birds had a core group a season ago of five rookies: 16 year olds Payton Mount, Ty Bauer and Jared Davidson and 17 year olds Simon Kubicek and Cade McNelly and Kubicek and McNelly with late birthdays, didn't hit 17 until well after the season started. Because they had a smaller rookie group Matt O'Dette was able to give that group consistent ice time. They were rarely not in the lineup.

Fast forward to this season and the T-birds have had only one "older" rookie, 18 year old Michael Horon and he has since been traded to Prince Albert. The rest of this year's group are 16 and 17 year old first year players. It includes three affiliated players, one a 15 year old and two 16 year olds, that they've had to put into the lineup for a combined 10 games due to injuries, suspensions and tournaments. Even subtracting those four player from the group Seattle still has eight rookies on the roster and they all need ice time. What complicates it further is that six of those eight are forwards. Four of those six forwards are 16 year olds. By league rule 16 year olds must play a certain percentage of games or they must be reassigned to either Junior A or Midget level teams. In order to get those four into the required number of games, O'Dette and his staff have to rotate players in and out of the lineup. That rotation will be further complicated once 16 year old winger Mekai Sanders is healthy enough to make his debut in a couple of weeks.

Why carry so many rookies? Well, GM Bil LaForge told me if you're good enough to play at this level at 16, you'll be here because he believes it's better for the hockey development of those players. Every shift at this level is a brand of experience that can't be duplicated down a level. They are practicing every day against WHL players and those practices get them further engrossed in the T-birds systems. It's also a quicker acclimation to the grind of the 68-game WHL season. More importantly it develops a bond among that group that will be important when they are the core group of this team in two and three years. The Barzal-Bear-Kolesar-True-Eansor-Ottenbreit group didn't become champions overnight. They played, worked and lived together for three seasons before reaching the pinnacle of WHL success. I'm not saying this current young group is destined to follow in their footsteps and raise a banner, but that's the goal and if the formula worked before, it can work again.

But it tells you that right now, today, Seattle has a very young bottom six forward group. Not that their top six is very veteran laden as, outside the three 20 year olds, the T-birds only have one healthy 19 year old winger (Keltie Jeri-Leon) and two 18 year olds (Henrik Rybinski and Alex Morozoff). And I don't care how talented or how huge the upside of those young forwards might be, they are still teenage rookies. They are still maturing physically. There is a significant difference physically between a 16 year old teenager and a 20 year old man. Look no further then the T-birds captain, Wedman. Remember him at age 16? He was a gangly, all arms and legs, 6'1," and 175 lbs. Now, at age 20 he is 6'3", 210 lbs and one of the strongest player in the WHL. At 16 you could probably knock him off his skates with a feather. At age 20 he's a brick wall.

It takes time to develop these players. That is why they call the WHL a development league. You're not just developing their hockey skills but developing them physically as well, by teaching them proper workout and nutrition habits. Assistant coach Kyle Hagel isn't just helping them with the Xs and Os of the game. He's in the gym supervising their workouts. He's helping them put together a diet plan. But their youth is why this team, consisting of 11 players age 17 and younger, can occasionally get knocked around the ice by a team laden with nine to ten players age 19 and older as was the case Wednesday in Kamloops against a team featuring nine players in that older age group. It's why this young team can outplay an older team for most of 60 minutes like they did against Kelowna Friday night and still lose, 3-2. Who set up that win for the Rockets? 19 year old first and second round NHL draft picks. Experience matters in the WHL.

Which brings us to the second "I", injuries. Yeah, yeah, I can hear it now, stop using injuries as an excuse. It's not an excuse, it is a fact of life in the world of sports at all levels. And the fact of the matter is, through the first 22 games of the season injuries, suspensions and NHL training camp have cost the T-birds 26 game and counting just in their veteran forward group alone.

Out of sight sometimes means out of mind. We forget the T-birds have played the first two months of the season and will play quite a bit more without 19 year old winger Tyler Carpendale. Carpendale was injured in the Everett preseason tournament and has not played since. He was penciled in to be a top six forward, probably a top three. You might look at at his career numbers and wonder why the T-birds believe he is such a missing piece from their lineup. In 81 career games he has 27 points (9g, 18a). But one more 19 year old forward in the lineup means one less rookie is relied on to eat up minutes. Carpendale is also a strong, physical presence. he is willing to go to the net. And age 19 is when players usually have a breakout season. Injuries have plagued Carpendale's T-birds career but when he is in the lineup, it's a plus for the T-birds.

A short term injury to Ty Bauer and a long term injury to Cade McNelly, severely hampered an already young defensive group. It also forced Seattle to make a couple of early season trades just to bring in a couple of players to fill the void. It meant they had to spend some draft/prospect capital they weren't planning to spend. With that group healthy on the weekend for the first time since the second game of the season, the T-birds surrendered just five goals over two games.

And long term injuries have hampered or delayed the development of a couple of rookies. Matt Rempe missed 15 games while Sanders is still waiting to get on the ice. Recent injuries and invites to the U-17 Tournament meant Seattle had to bring in more youth to fill the void in the absence of Conner Roulette, Kai Uchacz and Lucas Ciona. In all the T-birds have lost well over 70 man games to injuries this season. It all adds up to an inconsistent level of play and a 7-12-2-1 record through 22 games.

My T-bird Three Stars for the week, a busy stretch of four games in five nights:

Third Star: W Brendan Williamson. He may not be piling up points with just three assists in 20 games on the year, but he is starting to remind me of Scott Eansor with the way he hustles from end to end. He is becoming the team's best penalty killer. Love how he gets pucks in deep and gets right on the forecheck. Robbed of his first goal Friday against Kelowna you get a feeling that first one is coming.

Second Star: W Keltie Jeri-Leon. With four goals in his last seven games, he now has the goal scoring lead on the team with eight in 22 games. That equals his goal total from a season ago when he potted eight in 74 games between the T-birds and Lethbridge. What I like best about his game right now is that he is putting the puck on net every chance he gets, no hesitation. Can't score if you don't shoot. A lesson some of his teammates need to follow.

First Star: F Conner Bruggen-Cate. The 20 year old stepped up in the absence of the suspended Wedman to deliver leadership and four points on a goal and three assists, playing in all situations. After a slow star he now has points in six of his last seven games. He plays with grit, never does anything but hustle, providing an example to the young players of the right way to play.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Weekend Worth Watching

The Thunderbirds played just one game this weekend, but it was an important game. They came into Saturday night's contest against Portland looking to snap a four game losing streak. They were looking for their first win against a U.S. Division opponent. They were looking for some veterans to step up in the absence of suspended captain Matthew Wedman and they played the game with the youngest T-birds roster in recent memory. With injuries and suspensions, Seattle put the future on full display. When it was over, the T-birds had their win and everyone was putting on sunglasses because the future's so bright, we gotta wear shades.

For sure, older players like Conner Bruggen-Cate and Keltie Jeri-Leon figured prominently in the 5-4 shootout win. The 20 year old Bruggen-Cate in particular seemed to take on the need for leadership in Wedman's absence. He was the seasoned vet leading by example all night. He hustled from end to end. delivered hits, took some hits to win pucks and tried putting everything he could on net. The 19 year old Jeri-Leon meanwhile has, almost quietly, put himself in a three way tie for the goal scoring lead, after potting his sixth of the season. For a team struggling to score, the question going into this game was where would the offense come with Wedman, their leading scorer, sidelined? These two stepped up and delivered.

On the back end, 19 year old defenseman Owen Williams logged a lot of minutes on a defensive group made younger by the absence of the injured Ryan Gottfried. Remember, back before training camp began, Seattle thought they would have that steady veteran presence on the blue line in the form of 20 year old Jarret Tyszka. But Tyszka surprised everyone by opting not to come back this season. That left Williams as the senior leader of a group that outside of him, averages barely over 17 years in age. There are not a lot of older players on this roster, even less, healthy ones. With Wedman suspended, with Tyler Carpendale out with long term injury, the play of the few remaining veteran players is critical.

So, at least on this night those vets did their part. Even 20 year old Andrej Kukuca, while he didn't score, created numerous scoring opportunities and 19 year old goalie Roddy Ross was credited with 47 saves. But on this night, the spotlight shined down on Seattle's young players too and that spotlight came even with two significant 16 year old rookies, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, unable to play due to injury.

Back with the team to fill their void were two more 16 year olds; Sam Popowich and Reid Schaefer. With Gottfried added to the list of walking wounded and Cade McNelly not yet fully recovered from his injury, Seattle brought up 15 year old defenseman Kevin Korchinski, one of their two first round selections from last May's Bantam Draft. For his WHL debut, Korchinski, who probably conservatively plays games in front of maybe a 100 fans back home, would be out there in front of 6,000 rowdy T-bird faithful. If he had butterflies or was in anyway rattled by the noise and his surroundings, he didn't show it. He was composed, kept it simple and just played hockey. When G.M. Bil LaForge made the big draft day deal with Kelowna, sending Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee and Cole Schwebius to the Rockets, Korchinski was one of the reasons why. Seattle scouts see tremendous upside in him. They moved back into the first round of the draft to get him. A little of that potential was on display Saturday night.

Reid Schaefer, meanwhile, was part of the T-birds impressive 2018 Bantam Draft. This draft produced Kai Uchacz, Ciona and Roulette in the early rounds. Schaefer, though, was taken in Round Eight, the 164th player chosen. Against Portland he played like anything but an eighth round pick. Because he is still 16, he is not done growing. But he is already listed at 6'2", 197 lbs (By comparison, Ciona is 6'2" and 200 lbs.). He's fast of foot, and has an offensive mindset. He's not afraid of contact and battles for pucks. Imagine that at age 19. Imagine him and Ciona at 19! I was impressed by his poise. I don't expect a lot from first round 16 year old rookies, but to get it, at least on this night, from an eighth round selection, shows the scouts are doing their homework.

The Thunderbirds made nine selections in that 2018 draft. The rights to two of the picks were subsequently traded away (Aiden Brook and Noah Barlage). One of those trades netted the T-birds Henrik Rybinski. The other seven choices have all signed their WHL Standard Player Agreements with Seattle. Of those seven, only third rounder Thomas Milic and ninth rounder Mekai Sanders, are yet to make their T-birds debuts. With Ross manning the pipes here in Kent and Blake Lyda capably backing him up, there is no reason to rush Milic into the WHL, where he'd do more sitting then playing. He's the future. For now, Milic is playing for the Burnaby Winter Club's prep team where he is sporting a 1.43 GAA and .954 save percentage. More recently he was one of three T-birds participating in the U-17 Hockey Challenge, where he was named player of the game in an overtime game his team lost.

Sanders, the local kid out of Gig Harbor, is getting closer to being healthy enough to make his regular season debut after being hurt in preseason play. Hopefully sometime after Thanksgiving he's back on the ice. Will he be able to do what his fellow 2018 draftees have already done? When Schaefer recorded an assist on Seattle's fourth goal against Portland he became the fifth member of that draft class to register his first WHL point. And all have wasted little time putting their name on the scoresheet. Schaefer did it in his second game, Popowich did it in his first. Late last season Uchacz scored his first goal in just his fifth game. It took Ciona just six games for his first point while Roulette potted a goal in his fourth and already has his first WHL hat trick.

Seattle followed up that draft with 13 picks in the 2019 draft and while they don't expect to sign all 13, they've already inked three (fellow first round pick Jordan Gustafson along with second round choice Spencer Penner) and more will come. Korchinski is the first of that class to make his debut but won't be the last. Seven of those 13 were chosen to to participate in the WHL Cup (Western Canada's U-16). Korchinksi captained his team to the Gold Medal at the tournament.

This is what made Saturday's game significant. As T-birds assistant coach Castan Sommer said following the win, each shift these 16 and 15 year olds take this season is experience gained to help them acclimate and improve their game for this level of hockey going forward. It speeds up the process. It's confidence gained. It's lessons and ice time they can't get down at Junior A or the midget level. It's getting seven young players out ahead of the curve. Out of necessity Seattle threw a roster out against the Winterhawks whose average age was barely 17 and a half years old. One 15 year old, three 16 year olds and seven 17 year olds if you include Simon Kubicek who doesn't turn 18 until Mid-December. Three more 16 year olds were up in the press box watching, waiting to get back to good health. That they won the game was a bonus.

Speaking of Kubicek, has head coach Matt O'Dette found a shootout sniper? Kubi is now 2-for-2 in shootouts including a shootout winner and now a shootout goal that all but sealed Saturday's win.

My three Stars for the One Game Weekend:

Third Star: F Reid Schaefer. Congratulations to him on earning his first WHL point with the assist on Jeri-Leon's third period goal, but it was his total game that I was impressed with. Too bad his shot was wide of the mark on his breakaway, because he came close to his fist WHL goal as well, but his pull away speed on that chance really stood out. I noticed him all night long and in a good way. When the T-birds get healthy he'll be returned to Spruce Grove of the AJHL but he will be back!

Second Star: F Conner Bruggen-Cate, Like Schaefer, there wasn't a shift the 20 year old took on the night where he wasn't affecting the play and mostly in a positive way. It was clear he knew he had to fill the leadership vacuum created by Wedman's absence. Even his penalty, that led to Portland's 5-on-3 in the second period, came from working hard to make something positive happen on the PK. His teammates had his back and killed off that two man Portland advantage, along with the subsequent 5-on-4.

First Star: C/W Payton Mount. All the talk of the 2018 draft class and it was the top pick from the 2017 draft that led the way Saturday. Mount ended the night with two assists, a big power play goal, strong penalty killing on Portland's 5-on-3 and then got the shootout off to a good start with what turned out to be the winning shot.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Little Undercooked

Returning home after five straight on the road, the Thunderbirds were looking to take advantage of some home cooking this past weekend as they began a stretch of seven of eight games on home ice. Unfortunately they couldn't dish out sixty minutes of consistent play either night and dropped two games.

Facing the two best records in the Western Conference, Seattle needed to be prepared to play at the top of their game every shift. It didn't happen. The missing ingredient was a sense of urgency, or desperation. That's what you get with a young team. The ingredients are there, they just need seasoning.

Friday night it was a flat performance the first ten minutes of the game. As a result they found themselves in an early two-goal hole against high powered Kamloops. Despite a push back the rest of the night, they never could overcome that early deficit and fell, 7-4. When you get behind you have to play a near perfect game the rest of the way. That's a tall order to ask from a young team.

Saturday versus Everett it was a better effort. The start was not as slow as the effort against the Blazers but it still lacked a strong push out of the gate. Missing on two early power play chances was a missed opportunity to grab early momentum. Again, it wasn't until Seattle fell behind that they jump started their intensity level. It was just too little too late in a 4-2 loss. There is not a lot separating Seattle from most of their opponents. In some cases it really does boil down to experience. As a young player you don't realize the level your game need to be at in the WHL until you experience it night after night.

We talk a lot about all these young players the team is focused on building around. Is the excitement justified? Are these 16 and 17 year olds the real deal or just roster spot holders? It is one thing to get excited about a high first round pick, but a seventh rounder or a listed player? Come on! Now you're just being too hyperbolic, right? Look, don't approach it with the idea that these players better light it up every night. Too many out there think if that young guy isn't averaging a point a game why is he here? If he makes one mistake, for some that is one too many. They see it as the player not being ready or overvalued. Send him back to play Midget or Junior A and bring me an older, veteran player!

What you should be looking for is how they are taking advantage of the ice time they are given. They come in with potential and promise but are they getting better with each game they play? How are they competing against opposing players, not just the ones in their same age group but older players on other teams as well? Now tell me if any of these rookies look out of place? I've certainly seen in past years a young player come in and get overwhelmed. I've not seen that with any player yet in this group. Not even when Sam Popowich and Reid Schaefer were called up from the AJHL and were in the lineup briefly last week.

Another case in point is Matt Rempe, who after missing the first 15 games with injury, finally made his regular season T-bird debut this weekend. You notice him out on the ice, First, it is hard not too with his 6'8" frame. He's also physical and, as he adjusts and learns to use that size, he's going to take some penalties as he did in both games. The T-birds certainly aren't going to tell him to stop trying to punish opponents. Besides those penalties, he delivered a big, legal hit Friday that led to Seattle's fourth goal against Kamloops. Instead the T-birds are going to teach him how to consistently deliver those legal hits and avoid the ones that lead to penalties. But the big man can skate and he can shoot as was evident on his first WHL goal late in the third period Saturday against Everett and that is rare in someone his size. Normally you see those guys over 6'6" on the back end, as defenseman, but his skating, shooting and work along the walls allow him to be a forward.

A player who is 6'8" starts off as a curiosity. It grabs your attention but you wonder is that it? Is he just a novelty because of that size? But I watched Rempe at the last two training camps and camp scrimmages get free on a number of breakaways. He's no longer a curiosity. He can play. He's not just all legs and arms, he's a WHL level talent. He's another part of the puzzle for this team's future.

there is another player, another rookie still to come. Mekai Sanders, like Rempe, Sanders has spent the first month of the season on the shelf with injury. the Thunderbirds are hopeful his debut is just a few weeks away. Like Rempe, the 2018 9th round Bantam pick is still a bit of a curiosity. He's the local kid from Gig Harbor fans are waiting to see. Until he goes out there and plays we don't know, right? But the team knows. The scouts, the GM the coaches, they've seen him and they believe he's another piece of this future they are building.

It's because of that, it's because of this deep group of 16 and 17 year old forwards and a player like Jordan Gustafson, another young forward Seattle picked in the first round of the Bantam Draft this past spring and it's because of other potential signing of young forwards from the 2019 draft that Seattle made the decision to trade away 18 year old rookie Michael Horon. It's that simple, it came down to a mumbers game. The T-birds have eight forwards age 17 and younger they need to get into the lineup as much as possible. If Horon were a year younger, he'd most likely still be here. It is nothing he did wrong. In two years those 15, 16 and 17 year olds will still be here. The T-birds will add more to that group in next spring's Bantam draft as well. Odds were that in two years Horon would not be here.

Horon was a late bloomer but full credit to him. It took until his third WHL franchise to earn a roster spot but he made himself into a WHL player. He proved he can succeed at this level of hockey and now he gets to be a solid depth piece for a contending team in the East, the defending champion Prince Albert Raiders. GM Bil LaForge found him a great landing spot. That's another success story. Now, if you think with just a 7th round pick coming back that Seattle didn't get enough in return for an 18 year old WHL rookie, third line player, I offer up exhibit A: former T-birds 8th round pick and WHL Champion Donovan Neuls. It's not where you pick 'em, it's how you develop them.

My T-birds Three Stars of the Weekend:

Third Star W Matt Rempe: Yes he took some penalties but I'm guessing part of that was adrenalin. He was so excited to finally get into the lineup. It's encouraging to see some of these rookies with big grins before their first game rather then a look of trepidation in anticipation of their debuts. This group comes with a bit of swagger but it's not overconfidence. It's an assuredness that they belong here. After missing 15 games with injury he worked hard to get to this point and according to assistant coach Kyle Hagel, put in a lot of extra work to get back sooner rather then later. His first WHL goal was a thing of beauty.

Second Star D Ty Bauer. The second year d-man tried to light a spark under his team Friday with a toe-to-toe tussle with Kamloops big d-man Montana Onyebuchi, then sparked Seattle's late comeback attempt Saturday against Everett with his first goal of the season, an angry blast from the blue line that had a lot of sizzle on it. Among this group of first and second year players, he is the unabashed leader. There is a reason he wears an "A" in just his sophomore campaign.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. Wedman just keeps being Wedman. There is only so much he can do as one of the few veteran players on the club but he's going to do it to the best of his ability. His work rate each night should rub off on the young group. He gets a bulk of the attention from the opposition because he is the one proven scorers on the team who is scoring constistently. When this young group matures in a couple of seasons, Weds will be long gone, but his affect on them will still be felt.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Five on Five

The Thunderbirds completed their stretch of five consecutive road games with a 2-3 record. As always the team is not looking for moral victories but they were in every one of the five games. A bounce here, a little stronger effort there and another win or point or two was not out of the realm of possibility. There are a number of areas where the team is still working to improve but the biggest culprit through the first month-plus of the season is their lack of scoring punch.

Through their first 15 games Seattle is averaging just 2.26 goals per game. On the just completed five game road trek, they potted just eleven. Over the last four of those the T-birds averaged only 1.75 goals a game. That they won two of those games, and were in most of the others down to the end, is a testament to solid goaltending and better team defense. But you won't win a lot of games averaging 1.75 goals per game.

If Seattle wasn't getting puck possession, if they weren't generating chances, it would be more alarming. On the season though, the T-birds are averaging 32 shots on goal per game. That's a decent number. What Seattle is lacking is finish. That is especially true on the power play where the team is just 19th out of 22 teams. The T-birds have produced just nine power play goals on the season on 63 opportunities. That means on average the T-birds are getting four power play chances a night but are averaging just .6 power play goals per game. When you are allowing a power play goal against each game (Seattle has surrender 15 power play goals to the opposition), it is like starting each game in a 1-0 hole.

A couple of games ago I asked head coach Matt O'Dette why the team isn't generating more offense and seem to be stuck at the two-goals-a-game barrier. There were a number of reasons given but he said getting traffic in front of opposing goalies was a primary issue, not a lack of opportunity. I watched that particular aspect the last two games. He's right. The team was not consistently getting traffic in the house area in front of the net. Players are often waiting for the shot to be taken before going to the net. That's usually going to be too late to get to a rebound. Additionally, Seattle is missing the net with a lot of their shots recently. Then, to compensate for that some players are just putting the puck into the goalies body, making for easy saves and severely limiting second chance opportunities.

Why are veteran players usually leading goal scorers in the WHL? Because they've learned that most goals are generated in that five to ten foot area around the goal. My guess is, if you looked at the goals Matthew Wedman and Andrej Kukuca have scored, the majority of them have been from on the door step. Younger players are used to scoring on their first shot down at the bantam or midget level. Crashing the net hasn't been a consistent aspect of their game yet.

Thus, Seattle's roster makeup is part of the reason for the low goal output. The T-Birds have two proven goal scorers in 20 year olds Wedman and Kukuca. They have a third player, 18 year old Henrik Rybinski, who can distribute the puck and score and 19 year old Keltie Jeri-Leon has contributed four goals, but the bulk of the roster is young second year players or rookies. 12 player currently on the roster fit into that category. This early part of the season is essentially their apprenticeship, their on the job training.

Most of that youth on the team is in the forward group. This past week two more 16 year old fowards, Sam Popowich and Reid Schaefer, made their WHL regular season debuts. They are filling in for two 16 year old forwards, Conner Roulette and Kai Uchacz, who are away at the U-17 Hockey Challenge. Next week I anticipate one more young forward, Matthew Rempe, finally healthy enough to make his WHL debut. At some point 16 year old Mekai Sanders, yet another rookie forward, will need to be inserted into the lineup.

When you have that many rookie and second year forwards, they can't all be in the lineup at the same time. There just aren't enough spots available in the bottom six on game night. So, you rotate them in. This will affect continuity. You'll get different line combinations every game. Is that going to frustrate some fans? I'm sure it does. But the reason is simple; the organization has made a concerted decision to hasten the development of that group of players. Could they stick a few of them on a Junior A team as they have done with Popowich and Schaefer? I suppose. But the Thunderbirds believe in their talent so much that they feel they are better served learning at the WHL level. They want that group playing, practicing, traveling and living together to build the chemistry among them.

The reality is, it is the right decision. A player like Lucas Ciona isn't going to get better playing Junior A, In fact a year down a level might even stunt his growth. But playing in Seattle this season is going to make him a better Thunderbird two years down the road and the same can be said of so many of these young guns.

While Seattle is not winning the majority of their games so far, they are battling down to the wire most nights with this very young group. Half the roster is comprised of rookies and second year players and they are not being skated off the ice, they are competing on a nightly basis. If they had more room on the roster I think they'd keep Popowich and Schaefer in Seattle rather then send them back to the AJHL when Roulette and Uchacz return. They are good enough to be here.

So why this season and not a year after they won their 2017 WHL Championship, or why not last season? For one, Seattle still had a lot of quality veteran talent left from that championship run the last two years. Enough to get them into the postseason and try to make some noise. they did eventually trade some of that off at last January's trade deadline. My guess though, would be the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft has a lot to do with it. I'm sure the T-birds plan was to build around that draft and seamlessly go quickly into reload mode off their Chynoweth Cup. Seattle was very high on that draft. In fact I saw one person outside the organization who follows bantam hockey in Western Canada proclaim Seattle had one of the better drafts that spring.

Unfortunately, as we sit here today, not one player from that 2016 draft remains with the organization. They would comprise your 18 year old age group if they were here. Before this season began the T-birds traded away the last vestiges of that draft when they sent Jake Lee and Cole Schwebius to Kelowna and Greame Bryks to Victoria. Seattle had four picks in the first three rounds that spring. Lee was their first pick, but he was the only one of those four high selections to sign with Seattle.

Second rounder Eric Fawkes along with two third round picks, Alex Swetlikoff and Layton Ahac, all opted for the NCAA route. Only Ahac remains on the team's protected list. Only Swetlikoff is playing in the WHL, on the roster of his hometown team, the Kelowna Rockets. When it became clear he wasn't going to sign with the T-birds, Seattle traded his rights to Lethbridge and they subsequently dealt him to the Rockets. After Kelowna won the bid to host the 2020 Memorial Cup, Swetlikoff decided to forego the NCAA and sign with his hometown team.

Fawkes, who attended two training camps, is currently playing in the NAHL but is committed to RPI. Seattle dealt his rights to the Winnipeg ICE, his hometown team. Ahac, who was drafted in the third round last June by the NHL's Las Vegas Golden Knights, played the last two years in the BCHL with the Prince George Spruce Kings and is now at the Ohio State University. Seattle also traded the rights of their sixth round pick that year, Nakodan Greyeyes, to Saskatoon but he remains unsigned. While Seattle never dealt a first or second round pick, they traded 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th round picks to acquire players to build up their championship roster.

When the 2016 Bantam Draft didn't work out the way the team hoped it would, newly minted General Manager Bil LaForge did the prudent thing. He got all his 2018 draft picks signed or traded for more assets. He then cut his losses and dealt away the parts of that 2016 draft that remained in exchange for even more draft capital. Seattle had already inked their top three picks from the 2017 draft (Payton Mount, Ty Bauer and Luke Bateman).

They drafted and quickly signed Uchacz, Roulette, Ciona, Thomas Milic, Sanders, Popowich and Schaefer in 2018 and they've already signed their top three picks from the 2019 draft (Jordan Gustafson, Kevin Korchinski and Spencer Penner) and I have no doubt more signings are in the future from that class of 13 players. LaForge and the scouts have restocked the cupboard with talent and future picks, including an extra first rounder. The 2016 draft was a setback, but the train is back on the tracks.

My T-birds three stars for the five games on the road:

Third Star: W Henrik Rybinski. He got off the schneid offensively potting his first goals of the season. More importantly, he's shooting more then he was the first couple or weeks of the season and he's back to being a menace on the forecheck. Those are all the qualities that made him a fifth round draft pick of the Florida Panthers back in June. I don't know if he lost some confidence or was just frustrated but he's looking more and more like the 2018-19 version we saw the second half of last season.

Second Star: G Roddy Ross. He probably didn't have his best game in Red Deer, but he did enough, including stopping all three Rebel shooters in the shootout, to get the win. He was the primary reason for the 2-1 win in Calgary. If Seattle has a chance to win most nights it's because he's making the saves to keep them in games late. I'm not around the T-birds room that often, but when I am, I'm hearing Ross more and more. That's a sign he's embracing a leadership role on the team as well.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. He is simply put Seattle's best player every night. And on many nights he's also the best player on the ice for either team. With Seattle not getting offensive punch elsewhere, they are relying on Wedman. The fact he's scoring when opposing teams are concentrating on shutting him down, tells you how far he has elevated his game from his rookie 16 year old season. The more I see of him the more I believe not only does he have a chance to be a solid pro player, but he has a chance to make it to the NHL.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

It Will Happen Overtime

Three games, three straight overtime battles, three points earned. Certainly the Thunderbirds would prefer to have gained all six points but they are showing that over the last week of hockey, that their compete level is improving. The good news, along with earning three crucial points, is that Seattle wasn't hanging on at the end for those points. In all three instances they spent a good portion of the game driving the play. It's not necessarily that they were in control, but more that they were creating as many, if not more, scoring chances then the opposition. Finishing continues to be an area that needs to improve, but getting themselves in a position to have a chance to score is the first step.

There are also key points in games where the young T-birds lapse a bit. Good thing they have Roddy Ross between the pipes. But that is why you want a top tier goalie. He is there to keep the team in games at such moments. Seattle doesn't earn those three points if not for his work in net. Over those three games, some 257 minutes, he faced 107 shots and surrendered just six goals. Two of them were 3-on-3 overtime goals and two were of the power play variety. Only two were scored 5-on-5. In fact he had a stretch of well over 100 minutes where he did not allow a goal in regulation.

This also shows Seattle's improvement in the defensive zone. It's an improvement that coincides with the return of defenseman Ty Bauer to the lineup after a three and a half game absence. With Bauer in the lineup to start the season the T-birds surrendered just five goals over the first two-plus games, with one of those scored into an empty net. Bauer, a 17 year old second year player, was hurt at some point in the late stages of the first period October 2nd up in Kamloops. He didn't return for the second or third periods. At the point he left, the game was tied, 1-1. The Blazers would go on to win that game 8-1.

Over the three subsequent games, with Bauer watching from the stands, the T-birds allowed 16 more goals against. So, in total, with Bauer out of the lineup the opposition scored 23 times. In the three games since his return Seattle has surrendered just six and two of those were in 3-on-3 overtime. With Bauer healthy for five full games and one period of another the Thunderbirds have given up a grand total of 11 goals this season. A 12th "goal" is credited to Tri-City for the shootout win. Meanwhile, two of those goals were scored in OT and one was into an empty net. Just five have been scored 5-on-5 with Bauer in the lineup.

I'm not saying Bauer is solely responsible for keeping the goals against down. It's still a team game. Your goalie is a big chunk of that and it takes all six players on the ice to prevent a goal against. Seattle is also missing other key players like Tyler Carpendale and Cade McNelly. But it most assuredly demonstrates, one, Bauer's value to the team and, two, injuries affect your team's performance. They are not an excuse, or an alibi for losing but one of your better players out on game night does have repercussions up and down the roster.

Seattle began the season with eight rookies on the roster, they have also added four new, more experienced players (Conner Bruggen-Cate, Alex Morozoff, Hunter Donohoe and Ryan Gottfried) to the roster, with three of them coming in just as, or right after, the season began. Of those four, only Bruggen-Cate had the benefit of the August training camp with the T-birds. Suffice it to say, developing chemistry was going to take some time for this team. I think we are starting to see it. It's not fully there yet. There are still visible moments where miscommunication is causing on-ice issues, mainly turnovers, but they are slowly improving in that area.

For me, the biggest (no pun intended) surprise of the early season continues to be the play of 6'6" rookie defenseman Luke Bateman. The Kamloops native earned his first WHL point with an assist Friday in the OT loss to Brandon. I think he is eager to take his game to the next level and absorbs everything the coaches give him. He does his best to keep the game simple, keep everything in front of him and use his size to his advantage in the D-zone, especially with his long reach ability. Again, the old adage is you can't teach size. Meanwhile his confidence is growing to the point I noticed him jump up and join the rush a few times Saturday in Kennewick. I like his trajectory. He's still raw enough that there is tremendous room for growth but he is already solid enough to be an every game top six defenseman.

Over the past two games, two players who have been snake bitten over the first part of the season have combined to pot four goals. That's two each for Matthew Wedman and Conner Bruggen-Cate. Henrik Rybinski should be next up. He is getting oh-so-close that you get a feeling the dam is about to break. He had numerous chances against Tri-City Saturday night and did get a well earned assist on the tying goal in the third period.

How well have the T-birds drafted over the past couple of years? Well they have two defenseman rated by Central Scouting for next springs NHL Draft, a league high seven prospects chosen to play in the WHL Cup (U-16 tournament) and a league high three players selected for the U-17 tournament. It doesn't mean all of those players will pan out but it is a testament to the good work of Player Personnel Director Cal Filson, Head Scout Mark Romas and the rest of their scouting staff.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: D Ty Bauer. Welcome back to the lineup! His first game back last weekend against Everett and Seattle went from a game the night before in which they had allowed eight goals against to nearly pitching a shutout before losing 1-0 in overtime. He also didn't shy away from contact upon his return, delivering some big hits. He's a bit like a battlefield commander on the back end, directing traffic. With McNelly still out and Seattle rotating their sixth and seventh defenseman, he isn't always on the ice with the same D-partner but it doesn't seem to matter. He's the alpha male in that group.

Second Star: LW Conner Bruggen-Cate. The 20 year old Langley native finally got on the scoreboard with a pair of goals in the extra time loss to the Americans. I guess that was one for Bruggen and one for Cate. Having gone the first eight games without a goal certainly wasn't for a lack of trying. He's third on the team, behind Wedman and Andrej Kukuca, in shots on goal with 25. Despite not scoring he's made his presence felt, playing a physical game.

First Star: G Roddy Ross. Ross didn't earn a win in either game, instead taking the OTL each night, but Seattle doesn't earn two points this weekend without him between the pipes stopping 77 of 82 shots. As a result the Philadelphia Flyers prospect has brought his GAA average back down to 3.26 (2.35 on the weekend) and his save percentage back up to .910, including .944 in his last two games.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Young and the Restless

You may not think so, but we've been through this before. Not only have we watched a previously young Thunderbirds team go through growing pains, it was fairly recently. Yes, it is frustrating to watch a team play so well for half a game then see the good habits slip away and the game implode on them. But it's not an outlier.

We remember the good times of those two runs to the WHL Championship Series in 2016 and 2017, but do you remember some of the stumbles with those players along the way? Or have we forgotten that game back early in the 2013-14 season when the T-birds surrendered 10 goals? You know who was in the lineup for Seattle that night? Future NHL first round picks Shea Theodore and Mat Barzal, not to mention a couple of guys named Eansor and Kolesar. There was a similar result that season just a month later, another ten goals allowed. Same young players in the lineup that night too, plus a newcomer, another future NHL draft pick named Ryan Gropp. What? it happened again a few months later? Yes, another 10 goal game the second half that season. Did you think the young prospects in the lineup on those occasions couldn't develop into future champions because they played on nights the team surrendered ten goals against? 2017 would beg to differ.

There were other games that season when the opposition scored eight and seven goals and Seattle struggled to get just one. But the organization kept throwing those young players out there night after night in order to hasten their development. And in the midst of losing some lopsided games against some older teams those young players picked up a few wins along the way and some valuable experience against those very teams that were administering those 10 goal beatdowns. They earned a playoff spot and made it into the second round before bowing out. Losing those ten goal games didn't damage the development of those players. Many now have the pro contracts and WHL championship rings to prove it.

Did you know that every WHL champion between 2014 and 2018 has missed the playoff at least once since their Cup winning season? That is, except one team. Can you guess that team? Here's a hint, it rhymes with Shmunderbirds. And they have no plans on joining that group that includes Edmonton, Kelowna, Brandon and Swift Current. Each of those teams was on the outside of the postseason at some point within a year or two after their Cup winning run. As GM Bil LaForge said last season at the trade deadline, he doesn't have a white flag of surrender. As Seattle showed this weekend, they may stumble, but they're going to get right back up and throw themselves at the wolves again.

Let's look back on this past weekend from a glass half full perspective. Approximately 122 minutes of hockey over two nights and Seattle actually played fairly well over probably 100-105 of those minutes. They had a strong start against Kelowna at home Friday night, building a 2-0 lead through the midway point of the second period. They were physical, sharp on the power play and had two good penalty kills. It was after the Rockets scored a power play goal that the T-birds got a little sideways. It led to Kelowna scoring four goals in four minutes and grabbing a 4-2 lead by the end of period two.

The T-birds came out in the third and pushed back. They seemed to have the game tied up before the period was half over. They were full of emotion on that fourth goal. Then the play went to video review and the goal was disallowed. The replay official ruled Seattle had impeded the goalie's opportunity to make the save. Watch the replay, it was a bang-bang play and the goalie had no chance, whether there was a Seattle player in the area or not. I've seen enough NHL video review of similar goals to believe that goal should have been allowed to stand. But that's the way it was ruled, time to move on. The T-birds needed to be ready when the game resumed. They needed to put aside their disappointment. they still had momentum on their side. Instead they got back on their heels and once again, the Rockets scored quickly, potting four goals in four minutes. Seattle played well for about 45 minutes but it was the 15 where they struggled that stood out.

How would the T-birds respond less then 24 hours later, on the road in a hostile environment, against a division rival? If not for the final score in Everett, you'd give them high grades. They blocked out the distraction of a sold out building. They dictated the tempo and flow of the game most of the night. When they did have some moments where it looked like they might get back on their heels, especially at the start of the second period, their goalie stood tall. They kept funneling pucks to the net. They had active sticks and a strong forecheck. If you want to quibble, maybe more traffic and more "fight" for those rebounds was needed, but they were up against one of the better goalies in the league. They looked more like the team we saw most of the second half last season then at any other point in the early going this year.

They essentially followed up a game in which they surrendered eight goals by pitching a shutout until it got to the 3-on-3 overtime, where crazy and strange things can and usually do happen. For the vast majority of the game Saturday, Seattle was the better team. No one is settling for moral victories but they now have a blueprint for how they must compete for sixty minutes. They will still absorb a few lumps along the way, but they now know what they can do, if they play the T-bird way.

You can't teach size. If Luke Bateman were 5'9" maybe he's not even on the roster. But he stands 6'6" tall. Probably 6'9" in skates. That size makes him a valuable asset. The rookie 17 year d-man from Kamloops isn't going to "wow" you but there are lots of tall players who never learn to use their size and reach to impact games. Bateman knows to use his biggest asset to his advantage. I'm guessing if you asked, the T-birds staff would say he's eager and willing to learn, a very "coachable" player. He's visibly improving from game to game. When Seattle gets healthy and Cade McNelly is back, it's going to be hard to keep Bateman out of the lineup. I'm not making any predictions. I'd be the last person to ask for a player evaluation. I'm sure he'll need to continue to improve his skating, and get stronger in other areas of his game. He'll need to take advantage of the ice time he gets so that he is a better player at the end of the season then he is at the beginning, but over the years it seem NHL scouts love to take late round fliers on tall defensemen. Maybe not this spring, maybe not the next, but who knows.

My Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star: C Matthew Wedman. The captain got his first goal of the season Friday and, with an assist to boot, got his first multiple point game as well. I believe he was the driving force Saturday in Everett. He was leading by example. He was involved in the majority of Seattle's scoring chances. He was physical and a net front presence.

Second Star: D Ty Bauer. Out of the lineup with injury Friday night his return Saturday made a world of difference. He was a solid force in the defensive zone. he used power, size and smarts to keep Everett to the perimeter. He skated with purpose bringing the puck up ice. He directed the action like a traffic cop. When you say talking about injuries is an excuse, remember that with Bauer sidelined Seattle surrendered 23 goals. In his return, they gave up just one 3-0n-3 OT goal and he wasn't on the ice for it.

First Star: C Payton Mount. No points in the two games for the second year center but he's taken a big step forward from his rookie season. You notice him at both ends of the ice. Another player who uses his hockey sense. He's played some center and on the wing. He's improved his faceoff success. He was not on the preliminary Central Scouting Service "Players to Watch" list for the 2020 NHL Draft, but if he continues to play strongly as he's done to start this season, that could change for the 2017 first round bantam pick.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

For the Love of the Game

Photo courtesy of Brian Liese

That smile, that grin, whatever you want to call it, on Conner Roulette it is ever present. It's part of who he is. Like his helmet, stick or skates, it's as much a piece of his equipment as everything else in his hockey bag. It is as much his signature as is his autograph on a playing card. The kid loves this game and it shows. His love of scoring goals, makes him enjoy the game even more and he's pretty proficient at that. There were 171 points over two years of Bantam hockey, 88 points last year at the Midget level.

What is it they say? If you love your work, you'll be more productive at it? Make no mistake, Roulette wants playing hockey and scoring goals to be his vocation. If and when it becomes his full-time job, he's gonna love his work. But even if that never happens, he's always going to love this game. There is something pure, unadulterated and innocent about going about your business with a smile. So, whether he's playing at the accesso ShoWare Center, skating some day in the future in an NHL arena or if it's just on a prairie pond in the middle of a Manitoba winter, I hope that smile, that grin, never leaves his face.

Just don't mistake that wide grin, that perpetual smile, for indifference or aloofness. Don't ever think it means he doesn't take this game seriously. He doesn't believes he has it all figured out. He came to camp this summer to earn a roster spot, not to have one handed to him. When it comes to this game, Roulette is all business. He is the quintessential rink rat. If he could, he'd be on the ice 24-7, perfecting every part of his craft. A lot of what he can do on the ice is natural, God-given talent, but like most of the best players, it's also the result of hours spent perfecting his skills. He is a student of the game, studying not only himself but listening and learning from others. Like the rest of the young cast on this T-birds roster, he's still a work in progress. Here is some advice. While you are watching them grow and get better at their craft, take a cue from Roulette and smile along with him. You'll enjoy it so much more.

Seattle completed a three games in four nights stretch with a much needed win at home Saturday. Injuries certainly play a part in the early season struggles but so does inconsistent play. Seattle had a strong finish to the first period in Kamloops Wednesday despite missing two of their top four defensemen and two of their top six forwards. But they couldn't carry that momentum over to the second period. Friday in Spokane they were solid in the games final forty minutes but a slow start to the game put them in a three goal hole they couldn't climb out from. Even in the win they allowed the Royals to sneak back into the game late.

The power play finally came alive in the 5-3 win over Victoria, going 3-for-6. Special team both win and lose you so many games over the course of a season. Seattle is still in the process of building their special teams units. There are a lot of new faces for both the power play and the penalty kill. Finding the right chemistry may take 15-20 games.

Wednesday night in Kamloops, Roddy Ross had what could only be described as an off night. It was out of the norm. He was fighting the puck, especially in the second period. Games like that happen, even to the best of them. He shook that one off and was back to his usual Goal-Robbin' Roddy Ross self Saturday night. If I'm the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted him back in June, I may not have liked that 5-goals-allowed second period against the Blazers but I'd be thrilled with his response to it Saturday versus Victoria. Part of being a professional is learning to bounce back. Ross didn't let Wednesday's performance linger. It was a one off. One of Ross' greatest strengths is his rebound control and ability to steer shots away from the front of the net. He was nearly perfect in that regard Saturday night.

While it doesn't mean they aren't affecting games in other ways, the T-birds big two of Matthew Wedman and Henrik Rybinski aren't getting on the scoresheet yet. In a combined eight games, they have tallied just four assists. Now, to be fair, Rybinski has been robbed a few times already by some highlight goalie saves and Wedmam just returned after being away at NHL/AHL camp with the Florida Panthers. A solid week of practice before the team plays their next game should help. They are going to score and for this young Seattle team to be successful, they need those two to light the lamp. But Seattle's other players can't wait for those two to get going. They have to do their part. The team needs contributions up and down the lineup.

How bad is the T-birds injury situation, or as I like to call it, the Seattle Scurge? Not only are their five players out with long term ailments but General Manager Bil LaForge is dealing with his own lower body injury. That's him zipping around the building on a scooter. Now I hear prospect Tyler Dodgson is on the shelf with a lower body injury that will cost him a spot on Team Manitoba for the upcoming WHL Cup (U16 tournament). Dodgson, a defenseman, was Seattle's eighth round pick in last spring's Bantam Draft. When it rains, it pours.

By the way, tip of the hat to defenseman Ryan Gottfried. With the recent injuries to Cade McNelly and Ty Bauer, the T-birds were in dire need of some blueline help. LaForge was able to acquire Gottfried from Red Deer midweek. With only one practice with his new team, he played two games in under 30 hours with a lot of bus time in between. Gottfried was in Winnipeg at the time of the deal so he had to make the long trek west as well.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Week:

Third Star: W Keltie Jeri-Leon. Goals both Friday and Saturday night, it was just the second time in his WHL career that he scored in back-to-back games. The last time was in early 2018 as a member of the Lethbridge Hurricanes. His last second power play goal in the second period against Victoria turned out to be pretty important in Seattle's lone win of the week. Playing on a line with a pair of 16 year olds in Kai Uchacz and Lucas Ciona, they have developed some good, early season chemistry. With this young team, the T-birds need the 19 year old Kelowna native to step up and provide points and leadership.

Second Star: C Payton Mount. Mount, in his second season, played in just two of the three games this week, missing Friday's game in Spokane due to illness, but made the most of his ice time. When we talk about the young players this team is building around, we have to include the 2017 first round Bantam pick in that conversation. He had a three assist game against Victoria and head coach Matt O'Dette said Seattle probably doesn't win the game without him. In four games he is tied for the team lead in scoring withs five points (1g 4a) and is +3.

First Star: W Conner Roulette. Following his hat trick against Victoria, he now has four goals in six career WHL games. He started the season by hitting three posts and somehow missed his first chance at the empty net against the Royals Saturday night. He's probably most upset he missed another chance to score on the power play when he couldn't get his stick on a Wedman pass early in the third period with a wide open net in front of him. He's just 16 but has already gotten minutes on Seattle's top line and on their top power play unit. His active stick makes him a deceptive forechecker. He's not the biggest player on the ice but does well in tight spaces. We can joke that every team in the WHL passed on him at least once in the 2018 Bantam draft but some did it twice. Oh, that includes Seattle who used the second of their two second round selections that year to acquire him. Do you think Roulette is taking a subtle jab at those teams that passed on him? Roulette was taken with the 34th overall pick. He wears number 34. Maybe it is just a reminder to himself to work harder so he can bring himself up on that list.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Look in the Mirror

All throughout Friday night's 3-1 loss to the Tri-City Americans, I got the feeling T-birds players, especially the returning players, were looking for someone to jump off the bench and lead the way. It seemed they were looking for Nolan Volcan or Noah Philp to hop on the ice or they were checking to see if Matthew Wedman had returned. I get it. When you get used to having players like that beside you for two and three seasons, you get used to following the example they set to get you going right in a tight battle.

But the time for Volcan and Philp to lead this team has come and gone. Wedman may or may not be back. Tyler Carpendale is out injured. Right now, as of today, the leadership mantle is on those returning, veteran players who are going to be in the lineup each and every game. The time for looking around for others to lead is over. Look in the mirror. It's you.

With a staggered and slow start to the regular season I suppose it natural that it may take a few games to understand this. Maybe a game like Friday's is enough for them to say it's time to step up and lead this young team. Guys who were in "secondary" roles are now in "primary" roles. Not to mention the older players on this team have more younger players behind them then the T-birds teams of the past few seasons.

I think Owen Williams gets this. He's now in his third season manning the blue line with the team. And while defense is a team concept, the young D-corps has played well the first two games. There hasn't been much in the way of egregious errors by that group. Williams plays smart and simple. He leads by example.

And to be fair, as Friday's game moved along, as they got past that less then stellar first period, players did begin to step up. The second was better then the first and the third was better then the first two. They weren't perfect because the second Tri-City goal was an indirect result of a couple of wrong decisions, but it did seem as though the light bulb was turning on over the heads of a few. As the third period unfolded, for instance, I got the feeling Henrik Rybinski knew that a third year, NHL drafted guy, has to put a good amount of the load on his shoulders. That doesn't mean you try to do everything by yourself. It means getting your teammates involved. If you want to improve your game for the next level, leadership is part of that development.

One problem for Seattle, if you want to call it that, is because they've gone with such a large group of younger, albeit talented players, they don't have a heavily populated 2000-born age group. Those would be the 19 year olds. The belief is the WHL is a league who's top teams are driven by the 19 year olds on their rosters. Case in point would be the T-birds 2017 Championship team that consisted of eight 19 year olds. 2018 Champions, Swift Current, had 10 and last year Prince Albert had nine. Many of the 19 year olds on championship rosters are NHL drafted players or have played regularly since they were 16 year olds.

By comparison this Seattle team consists of just five 19 year olds. Only one, goalie Roddy Ross, is an NHL draft pick, but he only has a half season of WHL starts to his credit. Carpendale is out with a long term injury. In fact injuries have limited Carpy to just 81 games over the past two seasons. Seattle just recently picked up defenseman Hunter Donohoe who, like Carpendale, is less experienced them most WHL 19 year olds, having played just 79 games in the league prior to his arrival in Kent. Even Williams has just 129 games under his belt. Keltie Jeri-Leon, the 5th of the 19 year olds, is the grizzled vet in that group with 166 games.

It was good to see 16 year old Kai Uchacz in the lineup. He missed opening night, and the second half of the preseason, dealing with an injury. I think he had a bit of rust to shake off but hopefully he'll be up to full speed soon. Uchacz is a natural center and that is a position the T-birds are trying to sort out. Even at age 16 he is going to hold his own in the faceoff circle.

We can all agree the effort against the Americans could have been better. That said, it was another game in which Seattle did not allow an even strength goal. Through six periods of hockey the T-birds have surrendered just three power play goals and one empty netter. Not to discredit Tri-City. They played a strong road game, but this seemed more of a case of Seattle losing the game rather then the Ams winning it. Seattle clanked two shots off posts. I think through the first two games, Conner Roulette has hit the posts or crossbar three times. The game reminds me of that adage about you don't winthe game in the first period but you can surely lose it there with a poor start.

My T-birds Three Stars for Game Two:

Third Star: D Owen Williams. I don't know if he's vocal in the room between periods but out on the ice I thought he played smart and efficient. When he first arrived in Seattle a season and a half ago, he had the label of an offensive defenseman and he did try to be just that. He's become more of a complete defenseman since his arrival and his d-zone play the first two games has been solid.

Second Star: G Roddy Ross. Seattle was on their heals in the first period from the opening faceoff until the final couple of minutes. Ross stood tall and kept the game scoreless as the T-birds were hemmed in their own end. It wasn't until Seattle went to the penalty box that Tri scored a power play goal on a shot Ross had no chance to stop. No question that Ross has been their best player through the first two games.

First Star: C Payton Mount. Mount is essentially learning a new position, having played exclusively on the wing a year ago as a 16 year old rookie. He's holding his own in the pivot. I think he has been the T-birds most consistent forward over the course of 120 minutes of hockey in the early going. One of the biggest steps a WHL player takes is from a 16 year old rookie to a 17 year old sophomore. Mount is primed for the big leap.

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+++