Sunday, March 31, 2019

Getting Benched

The clock on the Seattle Thunderbirds rebuild really began to tick the moment Scott Eansor lifted the Ed Chynoweth Cup over his head on that Mother's Day in Regina two springs ago. Seattle had reached the crescendo with that roster. Eight key components of that club, and nearly 400 points, were moving on. It was a group of players that had played together for the greater part of four seasons and had brought the organization up from the bottom to the top of the league. They would get three more games together in the Memorial Cup but the real task, the hard part, was winning the organization's first ever WHL title. Their goal reached, their work was done.

Over the next season another six significant members of the championship team would play their final game with the T-Birds and now with the end of this season, three more parts of that Cup winning team have taken off the T-Birds jersey for the last time. That's how fast things happen in the WHL. In the span of 24 months 17 players who formed the nucleus of a championship roster, are removed from that roster in what seems like the blink of an eye. Just as we're getting to know them they're gone. Just two players remain, Matthew Wedman and Jarret Tyszka and their status for next season remains unclear.

In the WHL, dismantled championship teams don't get rebuilt over night. Just like putting that team together took three to four seasons, so will the process of building another one. Four years removed from their 2015 Cup win, the Kelowna Rockets missed the postseason this spring. So did the 2016 champs, the Brandon Wheat Kings, three years after their title run. The 2018 winners, Swift Current, didn't take that long to miss the postseason party, going from first to worst in 12 months.

So a coach winning a championship has to know that patience must be a virtue when trying to get back to the top. Maybe that's why all four of the most recent WHL Chynoweth Cup winners have different head coaches now. That patience only lasts so long. That includes Seattle. Steve Konowalchuk grew that 2017 championship team from the ground up and had nothing left to prove and thus moved on. So the task of rebuilding the team would fall to his former assistant, Matt O'Dette.

O'Dette inherited a team in the fall of 2017 void of superstars. He had to build a new coaching staff. Prognosticators said without Barzal, Bear and the others, the T-Birds were going to tumble quickly from the top and have a hard landing out of the playoff picture. The roster got even thinner for this past season's run with the likes of Neuls, Moilanen, Strand and Ottenbreit gone. Again the prediction was for a long, dreary non playoff season.

How did O'Dette do with what he was handed? With only one NHL drafted player on his roster the past two seasons, Montreal Canadiens 2017 5th rounder Tyszka, he got his team to a winning record each time and he got them into the postseason twice. Along the way he helped a couple of players, Strand and Ottenbreit, earn pro deals and he may have done the same for Wedman this year. With the help of new General Manager Bil La Forge and his assistant coaches Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer, he took a team dead last in the Western Conference standings as late as January 19th and pushed them through an imposing schedule to an improbable playoff berth. When the team showed cracks in the second half surge that threatened to derail them, he juggled his lines and d-pairing combos and got them back on track. He showed a knack for pushing the right button at the right time. He always seems acutely aware of his players, and his team's, strengths and weaknesses and put the team in the best possible position to succeed.

The two year regular season coaching record of 65-57-14-4 may not seem like something to make headlines over but when you step back and look at the big picture, look at the roster, look at the competition he was facing, it is, in reality, a testament to the focus O'Dette has for his job. After the trade deadline moves this past January, everyone looked at Seattle as having given up on the season. Nobody would have been shocked if Seattle's season ended March 17th down in Portland rather then two weeks later in a Game 6 playoff matchup with the Western Conference's top team. But that's not in O'Dette's makeup. His goal going into the first game of the second half of the season in Brandon was the same as it was opening night back in late September at the accesso ShoWare Center, playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. 20 wins later, the T-Birds were a playoff team.

Now, you can be disappointed in the results in the postseason, I know O'Dette is. But remember, both last year and this year, the T-Birds were a decided underdog in both series. They were the 8th seed going up against the one seed. The team they lost to last spring, Everett, went on to play in the WHL Championship Series. The team they lost to this year, Vancouver, could well do the same. If Seattle had won either series, it would have been described as a monumental upset. What O'Dette's teams did both times was make those higher seeded clubs earn their series wins. He played half that series last year against the Silvertips without Sami Moilanen. He played the second half of this season without the leading goal scorer from the first half after Zack Andrusiak was traded away. He played the second half of the series against the Giants with just two 20-year olds, after Sean Richards was suspended early in Game 4. He played nearly half the series against Vancouver without a top four d-man in Jake Lee. He made that second half run and played the entire series against the Giants without top six forward Dillon Hamaliuk who was lost to injury in late December.

Like a cook, he took the ingredients he was given and made a meal out of it. It may have only been stew but it fed the masses.

Now he gets to develop a young roster. With just a few players potentially left from that Cup winning team, the roster has been almost completely turned over. The youth movement is here. This should be a very young, green team next season. Getting Wedman and Tyszka back for another season would certainly help as would a healthy Hamaliuk. The entire D-group should return along with Roddy Ross in goal. But next year's club could feature as many as 12 players in either their first or second season of WHL play. You should expect the T-Birds top three picks from the 2018 Bantam Draft, Kai Uchacz, Lucas Ciona and Conner Roulette, to be here full-time. Local product Mekai Sanders could be in the mix. Payton Mount, Jared Davidson and Tyrel Bauer will be counted on for more big minutes next season as 17-year olds and could be joined by fellow 17-year olds Brendan Williamson and Matthew Rempe. 18-year old Michael Horon, whose rights were acquired from Lethbridge in January, will be given a chance to make the roster as well.

With so many young players signed to WHL Player Agreements I doubt we see a huge group of invitees next August for training camp but I would anticipate that GM La Forge will scour Western Canada and the U.S. for a young player or two who fit into his and the coach's style and bring them in to add to the camp competition. A player or two from last year's camp who impressed, but are not yet signed, should return to add to that competition. Could such a young roster jeopardize Seattle's chances of making it back to the postseason? Possibly, but with O'Dette behind the bench I wouldn't bet against it.


  1. I have a feeling that some players on the roster this season, won't be at the beginning of this coming season, with the talented young guys coming in. We have a bunch of talented kids coming up, with not a lot of roster spots for them. I think some may be traded, to make room for the new talented kids,other than those mentioned.
    Also, if I was management, I would ask Kukuca back, if he wants to come back, because we loose a lot of scoring. I realize he takes up a 20 year old and import spot, but he's valuable to a team, that looses a ton of scoring punch.
    Should Wedman get drafted, a team may want him to spend another year at this level, because he's at least a couple years from being ready for the NHL, more likely three years. Of course he could also sign an AHL contract and then be lost to us. Tyszka is another question mark, because he's yet to sign with Montreal. I have my views on him, but will keep them to myself.

  2. An Interesting note. Since the 2016-2017 Memorial Cup, the Erie Otters and the St John Icedogs have not made the play-off’s. The Icedogs have only won 27 games in 2 years and the Otters have won 49 games... So what the Thunderbirds have accomplished making the play-off’s every year after winning a championship, is something only the very best organizations in junior can achieve.. Well done Thunderbirds!

  3. And Windsor, while making the postseason each of the past two seasons, did so this season with a losing record.