Sunday, January 20, 2019

Home Sweet Home

After eight straight games on the road, Seattle finally returned to the friendly confines of the accesso ShoWare Center Saturday to play their first home game of 2019 and what a way to return. Before a sold out barn on Fred Meyer Teddy Bear Toss night presented by WARM 106.9 FM, Seattle made it points in five straight games, including four wins, with a back-and-forth, 6-4 victory over the Victoria Royals. The Joint on James Street was jumpin'!

With the win and their recent found success the T-Birds have finished the weekend with sole possession of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. There is still lots of hockey to be played but you'd rather be the chasee then the chaser. Again, most looked at the organization's trade deadline deals as a sell off. Many saw trading away Zack Andrusiak, Liam Hughes and Reese Harsch as a white flag of surrender. In the eight games before those trades, Seattle was 1-6-1-0. In the eight games since the deals the T-birds are 5-2-0-1. Instead of a flag of surrender, the T-Birds have hoisted a battle flag. The toughest part of their schedule may still lie ahead but the team isn't going into it lying down.

There was a lot of consternation in T-Bird Nation when Seattle received Sean Richards back from Everett in the Zack Andrusiak trade. But, it's hard to complain when you look at the early returns. In six games with the T-Birds Richards is over a point a game player with seven points (4g, 3a) and a +3 rating. By comparison Andusiak in nine games with Everett has five points (4g, 1a) and is -2. Late Saturday when his captain, Nolan Volcan, was being hacked while lying on the ice, it was Richards who came to his defense. In the end, I think it is a trade both teams will be happy with. While Andrusiak is a goal scoring machine, Richards is that player you hate to play against but love it when he's on your team.

Just remember though, this wasn't a one-for-one swap. Seattle also received a second and a third round Bantam pick, and the rights to an unsigned prospect, 16-year old Brendan Williamson. Williamson is currently one of the leading point producers in the BCMML playing for the (and maybe this is a good omen) Fraser Valley Thunderbirds. The T-Birds still have to convince him to sign, but even if Seattle doesn't get his signature on a Standard WHL Player Agreement, then they still get a future fourth round bantam pick from Everett.

But let's look deeper into what that trade allowed T-Birds General Manager Bil La Forge to do at the trade deadline. Acquiring that second round pick from the Silvertips gave Seattle three 2019 second rounders, their own, Everett's and one acquired from Regina in the Aaron Hyman deal last season. La Forge used one of those extra second round picks (either their own or Regina's), packaged it with a 2020 third rounder along with unsigned prospect Aidan Brook, and sent it to Medicine Hat for Henrik Rybinski. In seven games with Seattle, the 17-year old Rybinski is a point a game player with seven assists.

Before the season began, Rybinski was listed as a "C" prospect for the upcoming NHL Draft by Central Scouting. Watching him play the past week and a half you can see why. He is a relentless forechecker. He doesn't give up on puck battles. He has an active stick. It was his aggressive play on a dump in that forced the turnover behind the Victoria net that led to Noah Philp's Teddy Bear Toss goal Saturday night. The best thing you can say about Rybinski is you notice him when he's on the ice. He positively affects the play because he's hard to play against. Of course there is also the fact that Seattle will have him around for at least two and a half seasons.

Still not sure about the trades? Well we're still in its infancy, but here are the early returns on the five new players on the roster: 33 games combined, 20 points (6g, 14a) and a +10 rating with a 3-0-0-1 record in goal along with a 2.35 GAA and .913 save percentage. The trades have had a positive trickle down affect. Young players who were counted on the first half of the season to play second or third line minutes are now in better spots manning the third and fourth lines.

Meanwhile Seattle stockpiled as many as five future draft picks, a possible future player in Williamson and signed prospect, 17-year old Michael Horon, who is currently lighting up the AMHL with 53 points (26g, 27a) in 24 games. You don't think those 4th, 5th and 8th round draft picks coming back in some of those deals were a high enough return? Here is just a short list of some late round selections (4th round or later) La Forge had a significant role in selecting when he was Everett's Director of Player Personnel the past decade: Patrick Bajkov, Noah Juulsen, Riley Sutter, Jake Christiansen, Orrin Centazzo, Gianni Fairbrother, Nick Henry and some guy named Carter Hart. Not every late round pick is a gold mine but those were some nice gems.

One question as Seattle left the Eastern Division and headed back west was could their new found play translate well against the Western Conference? Two games in, against two teams with a combined record of 45-35-3-1, the T-Birds are 1-0-0-1 and only a hot Tri-City goalie away from being 2-0. Seattle outshot their two opponents this weekend 76-46. While they only produced two power-play goals they out power played Tri-City and Victoria 12-6, meaning they were driving the play and forcing their opponent into penalties. They won the puck possession battle both nights.

How important is earning overtime or shootout points? Seattle trails Tri-City by 14 points in the standings. The Americans have earned 11 points in 14 games they've taken into either a shootout or overtime, including two extra points against the T-Birds. Seattle meanwhile hasn't earned a single point past regulation going 0-for-5.

The T-Birds get another stiff test from a Western Conference top tier team when they face U.S. Division rival Spokane at home on Tuesday. The T-Birds are 0-3-2-0 this season against the Chiefs and this is their last chance for a "W". It's a 2-for-Tuesday which means 2-for-1 tickets and beers, two dollar concession specials and hopefully, two points.

My T-Birds three stars for the weekend:

Third star: Going off the board here to give it to General Manager "Billion Dollar Bil" La Forge. Who, after his team suffers a seven game winless streak, trades his top scorer, top goalie and a top defenseman and turns it into a 5-2-0-1 record with the new, younger roster? It's never easy to be the guy who has to replace a GM who just built a WHL Champion as previous GM Russ Farwell did, but La Forge seems to relish the opportunity to duplicate that feat. He publicly stated before his new roster had even played a game, he wasn't giving up on the season with those trades and indeed, backed up that rhetoric when the team went from outside the playoff picture into a playoff spot, all while he accrued future draft capital. The Obi Wan of the front office, may the La Forge be with you.

Second Star: Seattle's top line of Nolan Volcan, Matthew Wedman and Keltie Jeri-Leon. They accumulated seven points on the weekend (4g, 3a) highlighted by Wedman's Saturday night hat trick and Volcan's shorthanded game winner in the same game. Don't underestimate the importance of Jeri-Leon, now that the T-Birds have lost Dillon Hamaliuk and his 26 points (11g, 15a) for the season to a lower body injury.

First Star: Seattle's newly formed second line of Philp, Richards and Rybinski. Like the top line they totaled seven points this weekend (3g,4a). They combine grit (Richards), hustle (Rybinski) and speed (Philp). They found instant chemistry as soon as they were paired up. They are P-R-R-fect together.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Second Half Reset

I didn't see a point in penning a new blog entry, knowing the trade deadline was approaching and Seattle was likely to make some moves to shuffle their roster for the second half of the season. So, instead I waited until the trades were finalized and the new look roster had a chance to put a few games under its belt. The early results are encouraging and every new player acquired has factored onto the scoresheet while draft picks and young prospects have been added that will help the club in the not too distant future.

It's not often you trade away your leading goal scorer, your leading point producer for that matter, along with your number one goalie and your second most senior defenseman and can say with a straight face "we are not giving up on the season". But the proof, so far, is in the pudding. Since the deals were consummated, the T-Birds are closer to a playoff spot, not farther away. Since those deals were done the team has played to a 4-2 record, entirely on the road.

Now, it's still going to be a tall task for Seattle to grab one of those last playoff spots. Not because I don't think they are talented enough to do so after all the dealings, but rather because they have a daunting schedule ahead of them. Of the 28 games left for the T-birds to play, 25 will be against teams with winning records. 12 of those games will be against either Everett or Portland who have a combined record of 59-21-4-3. In 10 games against those two division rivals the first half of the season Seattle was just 2-8.

Meanwhile, the T-Birds went 1-5 the first half against the two teams they're fighting for that final playoff spot in the West, Prince George and Kamloops. Besides Seattle, those are the only other teams out west, along with Kelowna, with sub .500 records. Seattle only has two head-to-head games left against the Cougars and Blazers, both against Kamloops (they also have one road game vs. Kelowna). The best way to catch a team ahead of you in the standings is to beat them head-to-head. The T-birds just don't have much opportunity for that left on the schedule. The T-Birds 1-3 mark against Prince George, the team currently directly ahead of them in the Western Conference standings, may come back to bite them, since they don't have any games left on the schedule against the Cougars.

In a good-news-bad-news scenario, those two clubs, Prince George and Kamloops, get to beat up on each other seven times the rest of the way. If one of those teams though, were to dominate those seven games, it could spell trouble for Seattle's playoff hopes. The specter of those teams playing a number of three point games (OT or SO) against each other, also could hurt the T-Birds.

So what can the T-Birds do? They can go out and continue to play the brand of hockey they played on their six game trek through the East Division. They played heavy, they played fast and they played an aggressive style. The trades made by first year General Manager Bil La Forge definitely put his stamp on this team. The players he acquired in those deals last week brought into the organization players that fit his style, a style that Head Coach Matt O'Dette agrees with. While Seattle traded out one top six forward in Zack Andrusiak, the moves by La Forge brought back three potential top six players in Sean Richards, Henrik Rybinksi and Keltie Jeri-Leon. In moving out a bigger, more stay at home, older defenseman in Reece Harsch, La Forge brought back a smaller, more mobile, more offensive minded and younger d-man in Zach Ashton.

The best of the deals might be the one that didn't cost Seattle anything but patience. The T-Birds listed goalie Roddy Ross back in September. They watched him have a terrific first half of the season with Canmore in the AJHL while he decided which route he would take, WHL or NCAA. Knowing they were going to deal Liam Hughes to Lethbridge, the T-Birds got Ross signed and brought him in to compete with Cole Schwebius. After debuting midway through the game in Brandon versus the Wheat Kings, Ross would get three starts on the recent road trip and go 3-0-0-0 with a 2.00 GAA and a save percentage of .925.

Two of those wins were against teams with a couple of the best records in the Eastern Conference. That includes a 32-save performance in a 4-1 win against the #1 ranked team in all of the CHL, the Prince Albert Raiders. Ross is 6'4" and that tall frame helps cover a lot of the crease. But more importantly, as La Forge, O'Dette and goaltending coach Ian Gordon have said, there is very little wasted motion in his game.

Has Ross earned the number one job? that remains to be seen. Remember, while Ross was playing regularly in the AJHL with Canmore, Schwebius was spending most game nights on the bench behind Hughes. When he got the start in Brandon January 4th, it was Schwebius' first game action since December 15th and only his eighth appearance of the season. He's going to get more opportunities now. He got three starts in eight days out east, the busiest he's been since preseason. He got better with each game, punctuating it with an 18 save third period Saturday in Swift Current, helping Seattle hold on for the 5-3 win.

I know there are some T-Bird fans who don't understand the deal that brought Richards to the team, but this is a good, 200-foot player who can play in all situations. And he can score as is evidenced by his three goals in the last two games. Does he play on the edge? Sure. Is he a dirty player, a goon who targets players? No. Just like T-Bird favorite Turner Ottenbreit did when he was here, just as young Cade McNelly does now, Richards skirts a fine line with his physical play. He needs to avoid the kind of hits that will draw suspensions, most importantly because if Seattle is to win a playoff spot it will because he is on the ice, not in the stands.

Seattle's winning record on their trip through Saskatchewan was impressive, not because they did it on the heels of a seven game winless streak, but because they did it in the midst of a roster make-over. The first couple of games you had linemates introducing themselves to each other at the pregame meal or heck, even pregame warmups. They did it by integrating new faces onto the team with minimal practice time. But they also did it because La Forge kept his veteran leadership group together. I have no doubt he received phone calls and inquiries on the availability of veterans Nolan Volcan, Noah Philp, Jarret Tyszka and Matthew Wedman, but by keeping that group around, he kept strong voices in the room who can lead these younger players. By keeping them, he kept this team's core identity. Combined on the road trip east, those four players accounted for 31 points (12g, 19a).

Early on the recent trip, Seattle got another look into the future when another of last spring's high Bamtam Draft picks, second rounder Conner Roulette, joined the team and played against Brandon. While Roulette didn't register a point, he was quite possibly one of Seattle's most dangerous players on the ice. I particularly liked how well the 15-year old Roulette played with another young T-Bird, 16-year old Jared Davidson. Yes, it's just one game but the future looks bright for the Winnipeg native.

My T-Bird Three Stars for the Eastern Trip:

Third Star: G Roddy Ross. Three starts, three wins. Not a bad way to start off your WHL career. A solid first start in beating Regina. He was at his best against Prince Albert early, making key saves, allowing his team to weather an early barrage, settle down and then get going in the 4-1 win over the #1 ranked team. He followed that up with another solid effort, including stopping two breakaways in Moose Jaw in a 7-2 win over the Warriors.

Second Star: C Matthew Wedman. Weds had a number of big hits early in most of those games, coming out and setting an early, physical tone. He's drawing penalties against the opponents top players. He continues to dominate the face-off circle. After missing the Brandon game while serving out a one game suspension (his absence was certainly felt) he ended the trip with three goals and two assists.

First Star: C Noah Philp. Philp followed up his WHL Player of The Week honors with a terrific second week of January as well. He finished the trip with 14 points (4g, 10a) while playing with brand new linemates in Richards and Rybinski. Centering that line he makes it seem as though they have been together all season. Seattle's power play suffered mightily when he was out of the lineup due to injury. It's starting to come back around, now that he's back.