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.

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