After a stellar month of January that saw the T-birds go 8-3-1-1 and climb back into playoff contention, February started off with a thud as Seattle dropped both ends of a home-and-home with division rival Everett. It was a case of Seattle playing 60 good minutes of hockey on the weekend when they needed 120. The team knows their schedule going forward is daunting. They need to find points against the top teams if they're going to grab that final playoff spot in the west. Every team they play this month has a winning record. The opportunity was there this weekend, they didn't take it.
Friday night at home Seattle was full marks through the first two periods. They played right there with the Silvertips, even grabbing the lead. A T-birds power play miscue late in the second though, led to an Everett shorthanded breakaway goal and instead of a lead after two the game was tied. Then Seattle ran into penalty trouble in the third and couldn't survive Everett's power play.
The story was almost similar Saturday on the road. The T-birds played a solid first period, only to surrender a late goal. Giving up a goal in the final thirty seconds of that first period was like erasing 19 and a half minutes of good hockey. Then another penalty early in the second and an Everett power play goal follows. In the span of three minutes Seattle went from going toe-to-toe with the 'Tips to being down a pair, which on the road looks like a mountain to climb.
If Seattle fails to make the postseason, the biggest culprit, along with that difficult second half schedule, will be their special teams. That's not surprising with a young club. The T-birds don't have those high end, older, NHL drafted players on the power play they relied on a few years ago like Barzal, Bear and Gropp. But even they took a season or two to get their power play mojo going. There's no Barzal to control the power play with his puck possession and skating skills. The lack of a Bear-type player to play the point is most evident. In a couple years they may have that as Simon Kubicek continues to develop, but he just recently turned 17. Sixteen year old Tyrel Bauer and his booming shot may eventually integrate into the power play. Both are already seeing plenty of action on the PK. Both players are still growing into their roles. Both players are still rookies. The learning curve is a lot higher now with this relatively green team.
I understand the frustration T-birds head coach Matt O'Dette had with the officiating this weekend. He lost a number of players the first half of the season to flagrant, penalty worthy hits. One of those players, top six forward Dillon Hamaliuk, is out for the season. Look, refs miss calls through the course of a game against both teams. And some hits that look penalty worthy in real time aren't such upon video scrutiny when you can look at it frame-by-frame. But it appeared the officials this weekend were really singularly focused in on calling any Seattle contact that was borderline, a penalty. Why? Where is that reputation coming from? The recent history between Seattle and Everett would suggest it should have been Everett under the ref's microscope, not Seattle. Over the past two seasons of the rivalry it has been Silvertips players (that's players plural, because it was not always Sean Richards), not T-birds with the suspension-worthy hits. Did Seattle deserve some of those calls against them this weekend? You bet, but there were no halos above the heads of the Everett players. The officials need to police both teams. Even the appearance of a bias against one team is not good. As they say, perception is often perceived as reality.
Are you nostalgic? Do you long for the good old days? Tri-City has 12 extra points because they are 12-3 in overtime/shootout games. Seattle has one extra point because they are just 1-6 in overtime/shootout games. If games just ended in ties as they did many years ago, Seattle's record would be 18-24-7. Tri-City's record would be 14-19-15. Tri-City would have 43 points not 55, Seattle would have 42, just two less then their current 44. Tri-City is up in the standing because they've been able to get games past 60 minutes. That's taking advantage of the system. Meanwhile the other teams Seattle is battling with for a playoff spot, Kelowna and Kamloops, are playing in more three point games as well. The Rockets have played in 11, the Blazers have played in 9. Again if games just ended in ties, Kelowna would be 15-25-11 with 41 points. Kamloops would be sitting at 16-25-9 with 41 points as well. The race to the playoffs would be still be tight but the T-birds might have more wiggle room. Loser points matter.
Not only does Seattle have the tougher road to the playoffs, they have to do it with out two top six forwards with Hamaliuk out for the season and Nolan Volcan out week-to-week with just six weeks left. Despite the two losses to Everett, I liked how Seattle initially responded to Volcan's absence by earning five out of six points in the first three games. That's not an easy thing to do, filling a 73 point (30g, 43a) gap, while trying to earn points against some of the best teams in the league. Both of those players would also be logging power play and penalty kill minutes, especially Volcan.
Another glimpse of the not too distant future for the T-birds with the debut of 2018 first round bantam pick, 15 year old Kai Uchacz, Friday night. Not a lot of ice time, playing on the fourth line, but he gave a good accounting for himself. A bit nervous his first shift, but then he just went out and played hockey. He won three of four faceoffs, had one shot on goal and nearly scored. I was more impressed with his play along the boards, winning a couple of 50-50 battles against much older players.
The T-birds top three picks from the most recent draft have now all made their debuts and the initial reaction is the team's scouts got the top of that draft right. I'm not predicting future glory and multiple championships, but I am saying they chose three players who show the skills to be effective first line players. I don't think I'm going too far to say all three of those guys will be on the roster next season and playing every night. They're good enough to make the roster right now. They're just not eligible.
The T-birds picked three other forwards later in that draft (Sam Popowich, Reid Schaeffer and Mekai Sanders) and have signed them to standard WHL Player Agreements as well. Late round picks are not the sure thing the front of the draft picks usually are but in talking to the T-birds talent evaluators, they like the progress those three players are making and believe they will be impactful at the WHL level. With Payton Mount and Jared Davidson (don't sleep on Davey, he's going to be a good one) already here, the T-birds have compiled a quality group of young forwards for the next three to four seasons.
My T-birds Three Stars for the month of January (let's be real here, February didn't start off too well):
Third Star: G Roddy Ross. Did you know Ross has been the WHL Rookie of the Month, every month he's been in the league? Okay, he's only played one month but still that was an impressive first month. In nine games he was 6-1-0-1 with a 2.30 GAA and .922 save percentage. He's so calm in goal and making some early saves in those games seemed to give the team in front of him the confidence necessary to go out and earn those wins. That was most evident when Seattle knocked off the CHL's #1 ranked team, Prince Albert, back on January 9th. He had a couple of early stops against their explosive top line and then Seattle settled in and skated to a 4-1 win. He gives his team a chance to win every night.
Second Star: C/W Henrik Rybinski. His overtime winner in Kelowna was enough by itself to get him on the list but his overall play is his strength. A tenacious forechecker he doesn't give up on puck battles. He makes effective use of his stick to break up pass plays and scoring chances. 13 points and +8 in 12 January games and his only goal was a game winner. In just his 17 year old season, another part of that young forward group going forward. He's listed as a C skater by NHL Central Scouting for the upcoming draft. I think he needs to start potting some more goals, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that some NHL team takes a late round flyer on him. At the very least he's on the radar. Smart decision by G.M. Bil LaForge to go get Rybinski, who had been on the trade block and available to all WHL teams since October.
First Star: C Matthew Wedman. Talk about someone who has probably put himself on the radar of NHL teams, Wedman would be that prototypical late bloomer. He has the size, has found a scoring touch, wins his fair share of faceoffs and plays in all situations. In the absence of Volcan he stepped up and delivered not just offense, but leadership. I'll lay money that at the very least he gets an invite to an NHL development/training camp before next season. There's even an outside chance he gets drafted in a late round. His skating has improved quite a bit since his 16 year old season. He just surpassed last season's point total with 19 games to go. He leads the team with 23 goals, six more then he had in 72 games last season. Usually paired up against the opponent's top line he is +19 on the year. He registered 17 points (11g, 6a) in 12 January games and was +13.