Saturday, September 28, 2019

Look in the Mirror

All throughout Friday night's 3-1 loss to the Tri-City Americans, I got the feeling T-birds players, especially the returning players, were looking for someone to jump off the bench and lead the way. It seemed they were looking for Nolan Volcan or Noah Philp to hop on the ice or they were checking to see if Matthew Wedman had returned. I get it. When you get used to having players like that beside you for two and three seasons, you get used to following the example they set to get you going right in a tight battle.

But the time for Volcan and Philp to lead this team has come and gone. Wedman may or may not be back. Tyler Carpendale is out injured. Right now, as of today, the leadership mantle is on those returning, veteran players who are going to be in the lineup each and every game. The time for looking around for others to lead is over. Look in the mirror. It's you.

With a staggered and slow start to the regular season I suppose it natural that it may take a few games to understand this. Maybe a game like Friday's is enough for them to say it's time to step up and lead this young team. Guys who were in "secondary" roles are now in "primary" roles. Not to mention the older players on this team have more younger players behind them then the T-birds teams of the past few seasons.

I think Owen Williams gets this. He's now in his third season manning the blue line with the team. And while defense is a team concept, the young D-corps has played well the first two games. There hasn't been much in the way of egregious errors by that group. Williams plays smart and simple. He leads by example.

And to be fair, as Friday's game moved along, as they got past that less then stellar first period, players did begin to step up. The second was better then the first and the third was better then the first two. They weren't perfect because the second Tri-City goal was an indirect result of a couple of wrong decisions, but it did seem as though the light bulb was turning on over the heads of a few. As the third period unfolded, for instance, I got the feeling Henrik Rybinski knew that a third year, NHL drafted guy, has to put a good amount of the load on his shoulders. That doesn't mean you try to do everything by yourself. It means getting your teammates involved. If you want to improve your game for the next level, leadership is part of that development.

One problem for Seattle, if you want to call it that, is because they've gone with such a large group of younger, albeit talented players, they don't have a heavily populated 2000-born age group. Those would be the 19 year olds. The belief is the WHL is a league who's top teams are driven by the 19 year olds on their rosters. Case in point would be the T-birds 2017 Championship team that consisted of eight 19 year olds. 2018 Champions, Swift Current, had 10 and last year Prince Albert had nine. Many of the 19 year olds on championship rosters are NHL drafted players or have played regularly since they were 16 year olds.

By comparison this Seattle team consists of just five 19 year olds. Only one, goalie Roddy Ross, is an NHL draft pick, but he only has a half season of WHL starts to his credit. Carpendale is out with a long term injury. In fact injuries have limited Carpy to just 81 games over the past two seasons. Seattle just recently picked up defenseman Hunter Donohoe who, like Carpendale, is less experienced them most WHL 19 year olds, having played just 79 games in the league prior to his arrival in Kent. Even Williams has just 129 games under his belt. Keltie Jeri-Leon, the 5th of the 19 year olds, is the grizzled vet in that group with 166 games.

It was good to see 16 year old Kai Uchacz in the lineup. He missed opening night, and the second half of the preseason, dealing with an injury. I think he had a bit of rust to shake off but hopefully he'll be up to full speed soon. Uchacz is a natural center and that is a position the T-birds are trying to sort out. Even at age 16 he is going to hold his own in the faceoff circle.

We can all agree the effort against the Americans could have been better. That said, it was another game in which Seattle did not allow an even strength goal. Through six periods of hockey the T-birds have surrendered just three power play goals and one empty netter. Not to discredit Tri-City. They played a strong road game, but this seemed more of a case of Seattle losing the game rather then the Ams winning it. Seattle clanked two shots off posts. I think through the first two games, Conner Roulette has hit the posts or crossbar three times. The game reminds me of that adage about you don't winthe game in the first period but you can surely lose it there with a poor start.

My T-birds Three Stars for Game Two:

Third Star: D Owen Williams. I don't know if he's vocal in the room between periods but out on the ice I thought he played smart and efficient. When he first arrived in Seattle a season and a half ago, he had the label of an offensive defenseman and he did try to be just that. He's become more of a complete defenseman since his arrival and his d-zone play the first two games has been solid.

Second Star: G Roddy Ross. Seattle was on their heals in the first period from the opening faceoff until the final couple of minutes. Ross stood tall and kept the game scoreless as the T-birds were hemmed in their own end. It wasn't until Seattle went to the penalty box that Tri scored a power play goal on a shot Ross had no chance to stop. No question that Ross has been their best player through the first two games.

First Star: C Payton Mount. Mount is essentially learning a new position, having played exclusively on the wing a year ago as a 16 year old rookie. He's holding his own in the pivot. I think he has been the T-birds most consistent forward over the course of 120 minutes of hockey in the early going. One of the biggest steps a WHL player takes is from a 16 year old rookie to a 17 year old sophomore. Mount is primed for the big leap.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

In Rod(dy) We Trust

No matter how many home openers a player participates in, they always look forward to the pomp and circumstance and the reconnection with the home crowd. When I went down into the T-birds room before the game to record an interview with defenseman Ty Bauer, he told me every player was pumped to get going. There was a lot of anticipation in his voice. He said they were trying to expend some of that pent up energy by talking about what to expect (player introductions, etc.). They were trying to stick to their usual pregame routines. Try as they might to burn some of it off, they were too jacked.

Now, the one player I didn't see was goalie Roddy Ross. I like to think he was off somewhere by himself, calm, cool and relaxed and getting himself focused. Ever since he joined the team back in January that's been Ross' demeanor. Ice in his veins, never rattled. Nothing, it seems, gets him off his game. So while his teammates were using that opening night adrenaline to build a three goal first period lead, Ross was steadying himself for the storm to come. A 44 shot Kamloops barrage over the final two periods. With apologies to MC Hammer, Ross was "dope in the crease and magic on the ice". His glove hand was like an Acme magnet, drawing every sure Blazer scoring chance, but one, into it's clutches. His paddle and pads were steering pucks expertly out of harms ways. On this night, Ross was Boss.

Let's break down this opening night contest. The T-birds roster introduced to the crowd before puck drop featured 12 new faces. Nine of them are essentially WHL rookies. Nine of those new players were in the lineup for Game One. Of those I believe six still technically qualify as rookies. Eleven of the 20 players dressed against Kamloops were either in their first or second year in the league. yeah, this is a young team. The T-birds registered 12 points (goals plus assists) on their four goals. In a carryover from the preseason six of those points (2 goals, 4 assists) were registered by first or second year players. Eight of the 12 points came from new faces on the roster.

The T-birds were absent seven of their top 10 scorers, or 145 goals, from a season ago. By contrast, Kamloops retains nine of their top 10 scorers, or 125 goals, from the 2018-19 campaign. Despite this, Seattle found a way to put up four goals while holding those nine top scoring, returning Blazers to just one. Yes, that was mostly due to Ross and his 50 saves but let's give the young T-birds credit for keeping a vast majority of those 51 Kamloops shots to the outside and limiting second chance opportunities.

Special teams are probably the last aspect of the game plan that gets worked on in training camp and in preseason games but the Seattle penalty kill was another key to the win. Of the Blazers 51 shots, very few came on their five power plays. Only a Blazer goal, on the always dreaded 4-on-3 man advantage, early in the third period, put a dent into the T-birds solid work on the penalty kill as they committed to shot blocking when shorthanded. Seattle will have to clean up those hooking calls. The stick infractions are the bane of a coach's existence. The T-birds only had one brief (60 second) power play of their own so we don't know yet if their success with the man advantage in the preseason (37.5%) will carry over into the regular season.

With all the talk about the crop of young players on the team this season, let's not dismiss some of the new veteran faces who made their regular season T-birds debuts Saturday night. Two ex-Red Deer Rebels, both acquired late in preseason by General Manager Bil LaForge, put their mark on this win. 18 year old center Alex Morozoff scored Seattle's third goal and was solid in the faceoff circle while 19 year old defenseman Hunter Donohoe logged lots of minutes on the back end and earned an assist on the Morozoff goal. Meanwhile 20 year old Conner Bruggen-Cate, who came over in the bantam draft day trade with Kelowna back in May, led the team with eight shots on goal and was also a key penalty killer.

The story for this team though, as the season goes forward, will be the development of the young corps. And for an opening night, filled with a lot of anxious energy, they did not disappoint. Four of the six defensemen Seattle dressed are currently age 17. Three are just starting their second season while one is a true rookie. That true rookie is 6'6" Kamloops native Luke Bateman and he may just possess the biggest improvement I've seen in a player from his first training camp two year ago to today. He's still going to experience growing pains as he adjusts to this level of competition but the 2017 fourth round Bantam selection is on a great trajectory. He ended opening night with a +1 rating and lots of time on the PK.

The real youth is in the forward group with half of those dressed Saturday in either their first or second season. The Seattle brass expect those second year players such as Payton Mount and Jared Davidson, to take a big step forward and each delivered a key goal in the win over Kamloops. 18 year old rookie Michael Horon came up clutch with two assists and put his speed on display on numerous occasions throughout the game. Then there were the "true" rookies, a pair of fresh-faced 16 year olds in Conner Roulette and Lucas Ciona, and boy were they eye-catching.

Playing together on a line centered by Davidson, they were buzzing all over the ice. Ciona sprung Roulette on a breakaway, only to be denied by the post. Ciona has already learned to use his size and strength to win puck battles along the boards. Roulette has the ability to create havoc on the forecheck. He is like Henrik Rybinski in that way, in that he's going to create turnovers that lead to scoring chances. He was constantly stripping pucks free behind the Blazers goal. His hands are so good they should be insured by Lloyds of London.

Let's not forget the other 16 year old rookie forward who missed the game as he nurses through a minor injury. But Kai Uchacz, who hopefully makes his season debut next Friday, has the ability to have the same impact as Ciona and Roulette. A couple of other rookie forwards, Mekai Sanders and Matthew Rempe, are nursing injuries of their own but are waiting in the wings for their chance.

Saturday's game wasn't a perfect effort. It came with the expected inconsistency of such a young group. But it was the perfect result, an opening night win on home ice. There are lessons to be learned and areas where they can get better, but winning is a learned habit and knowing what it takes to win through the good and the bad is a great tool to have in your arsenal.

T-birds opening Night Three Stars:

Third Star: Rookie LW Michael Horon. Horon has scored at every level he's played. He can skate like the wind. But at age 18, this was a big training camp and preseason for him. Does he have the all-around game for the WHL level? With so many younger rookies looking for ice time he had to show the T-birds organization he could play in their top nine, if not their top six, forward group. So far, he's answered the bell. After a terrific training camp and preseason he contributed two assists opening night. His head man pass to Mount in the third period was a "thread-the-needle" type play that helped ice the game for the T-birds when Mount buried his shot to give Seattle the final margin of victory. He'll be a key component to any success the T-birds have on the power play this season.

Second Star: RW Andrej Kukuca. No Matthew Wedman, at least for now, and his 40 goals, no Nolan Volcan and his 27 goals and no Noah Philp and his 26 goals. No Sean Richards/Zach Andrusiak combo and their 33 goals, no Dillon Hamaliuk and his potential for a 30+ goal season. Kukuca is Seattle's top returning goal scorer from last season when he potted 25 to go along with 32 assists. This is why you retain the Slovakian sniper as a two-spotter (Import and 20 year old). You need his offense while the young guns are developing. Opening night he pots the game winner, from such a severe angle by the way, the officials felt it needed video review. He finishes the game with two points (1g, 1a) and a +2 rating. Ku-Ku-Kachoo, we need you!

First Star: Let me contemplate this one, so many to choose from... who am I kidding. Goalie Roddy Ross. Just your average, run of the mill, opening night 50 save performance. Kamloops first round draft pick Mats Lindgren is probably still trying to figure out how he didn't score his first career WHL goal into what seemed a wide open net in period two. Mats, the answer to that question would be Goal Robbin' Roddy Ross. As Seattle assistant coach Kyle Hagel told me after the game, Ross was very focused last season. This season he is laser focused. He came back from NHL training camp with the Philadelphia Flyers with a sense of purpose. With a young team around him, Ross is going to be in for more games like the one he had opening night. Anyone doubt he's up to the task?