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.