Sunday, October 20, 2019

It Will Happen Overtime

Three games, three straight overtime battles, three points earned. Certainly the Thunderbirds would prefer to have gained all six points but they are showing that over the last week of hockey, that their compete level is improving. The good news, along with earning three crucial points, is that Seattle wasn't hanging on at the end for those points. In all three instances they spent a good portion of the game driving the play. It's not necessarily that they were in control, but more that they were creating as many, if not more, scoring chances then the opposition. Finishing continues to be an area that needs to improve, but getting themselves in a position to have a chance to score is the first step.

There are also key points in games where the young T-birds lapse a bit. Good thing they have Roddy Ross between the pipes. But that is why you want a top tier goalie. He is there to keep the team in games at such moments. Seattle doesn't earn those three points if not for his work in net. Over those three games, some 257 minutes, he faced 107 shots and surrendered just six goals. Two of them were 3-on-3 overtime goals and two were of the power play variety. Only two were scored 5-on-5. In fact he had a stretch of well over 100 minutes where he did not allow a goal in regulation.

This also shows Seattle's improvement in the defensive zone. It's an improvement that coincides with the return of defenseman Ty Bauer to the lineup after a three and a half game absence. With Bauer in the lineup to start the season the T-birds surrendered just five goals over the first two-plus games, with one of those scored into an empty net. Bauer, a 17 year old second year player, was hurt at some point in the late stages of the first period October 2nd up in Kamloops. He didn't return for the second or third periods. At the point he left, the game was tied, 1-1. The Blazers would go on to win that game 8-1.

Over the three subsequent games, with Bauer watching from the stands, the T-birds allowed 16 more goals against. So, in total, with Bauer out of the lineup the opposition scored 23 times. In the three games since his return Seattle has surrendered just six and two of those were in 3-on-3 overtime. With Bauer healthy for five full games and one period of another the Thunderbirds have given up a grand total of 11 goals this season. A 12th "goal" is credited to Tri-City for the shootout win. Meanwhile, two of those goals were scored in OT and one was into an empty net. Just five have been scored 5-on-5 with Bauer in the lineup.

I'm not saying Bauer is solely responsible for keeping the goals against down. It's still a team game. Your goalie is a big chunk of that and it takes all six players on the ice to prevent a goal against. Seattle is also missing other key players like Tyler Carpendale and Cade McNelly. But it most assuredly demonstrates, one, Bauer's value to the team and, two, injuries affect your team's performance. They are not an excuse, or an alibi for losing but one of your better players out on game night does have repercussions up and down the roster.

Seattle began the season with eight rookies on the roster, they have also added four new, more experienced players (Conner Bruggen-Cate, Alex Morozoff, Hunter Donohoe and Ryan Gottfried) to the roster, with three of them coming in just as, or right after, the season began. Of those four, only Bruggen-Cate had the benefit of the August training camp with the T-birds. Suffice it to say, developing chemistry was going to take some time for this team. I think we are starting to see it. It's not fully there yet. There are still visible moments where miscommunication is causing on-ice issues, mainly turnovers, but they are slowly improving in that area.

For me, the biggest (no pun intended) surprise of the early season continues to be the play of 6'6" rookie defenseman Luke Bateman. The Kamloops native earned his first WHL point with an assist Friday in the OT loss to Brandon. I think he is eager to take his game to the next level and absorbs everything the coaches give him. He does his best to keep the game simple, keep everything in front of him and use his size to his advantage in the D-zone, especially with his long reach ability. Again, the old adage is you can't teach size. Meanwhile his confidence is growing to the point I noticed him jump up and join the rush a few times Saturday in Kennewick. I like his trajectory. He's still raw enough that there is tremendous room for growth but he is already solid enough to be an every game top six defenseman.

Over the past two games, two players who have been snake bitten over the first part of the season have combined to pot four goals. That's two each for Matthew Wedman and Conner Bruggen-Cate. Henrik Rybinski should be next up. He is getting oh-so-close that you get a feeling the dam is about to break. He had numerous chances against Tri-City Saturday night and did get a well earned assist on the tying goal in the third period.

How well have the T-birds drafted over the past couple of years? Well they have two defenseman rated by Central Scouting for next springs NHL Draft, a league high seven prospects chosen to play in the WHL Cup (U-16 tournament) and a league high three players selected for the U-17 tournament. It doesn't mean all of those players will pan out but it is a testament to the good work of Player Personnel Director Cal Filson, Head Scout Mark Romas and the rest of their scouting staff.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: D Ty Bauer. Welcome back to the lineup! His first game back last weekend against Everett and Seattle went from a game the night before in which they had allowed eight goals against to nearly pitching a shutout before losing 1-0 in overtime. He also didn't shy away from contact upon his return, delivering some big hits. He's a bit like a battlefield commander on the back end, directing traffic. With McNelly still out and Seattle rotating their sixth and seventh defenseman, he isn't always on the ice with the same D-partner but it doesn't seem to matter. He's the alpha male in that group.

Second Star: LW Conner Bruggen-Cate. The 20 year old Langley native finally got on the scoreboard with a pair of goals in the extra time loss to the Americans. I guess that was one for Bruggen and one for Cate. Having gone the first eight games without a goal certainly wasn't for a lack of trying. He's third on the team, behind Wedman and Andrej Kukuca, in shots on goal with 25. Despite not scoring he's made his presence felt, playing a physical game.

First Star: G Roddy Ross. Ross didn't earn a win in either game, instead taking the OTL each night, but Seattle doesn't earn two points this weekend without him between the pipes stopping 77 of 82 shots. As a result the Philadelphia Flyers prospect has brought his GAA average back down to 3.26 (2.35 on the weekend) and his save percentage back up to .910, including .944 in his last two games.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Young and the Restless

You may not think so, but we've been through this before. Not only have we watched a previously young Thunderbirds team go through growing pains, it was fairly recently. Yes, it is frustrating to watch a team play so well for half a game then see the good habits slip away and the game implode on them. But it's not an outlier.

We remember the good times of those two runs to the WHL Championship Series in 2016 and 2017, but do you remember some of the stumbles with those players along the way? Or have we forgotten that game back early in the 2013-14 season when the T-birds surrendered 10 goals? You know who was in the lineup for Seattle that night? Future NHL first round picks Shea Theodore and Mat Barzal, not to mention a couple of guys named Eansor and Kolesar. There was a similar result that season just a month later, another ten goals allowed. Same young players in the lineup that night too, plus a newcomer, another future NHL draft pick named Ryan Gropp. What? it happened again a few months later? Yes, another 10 goal game the second half that season. Did you think the young prospects in the lineup on those occasions couldn't develop into future champions because they played on nights the team surrendered ten goals against? 2017 would beg to differ.

There were other games that season when the opposition scored eight and seven goals and Seattle struggled to get just one. But the organization kept throwing those young players out there night after night in order to hasten their development. And in the midst of losing some lopsided games against some older teams those young players picked up a few wins along the way and some valuable experience against those very teams that were administering those 10 goal beatdowns. They earned a playoff spot and made it into the second round before bowing out. Losing those ten goal games didn't damage the development of those players. Many now have the pro contracts and WHL championship rings to prove it.

Did you know that every WHL champion between 2014 and 2018 has missed the playoff at least once since their Cup winning season? That is, except one team. Can you guess that team? Here's a hint, it rhymes with Shmunderbirds. And they have no plans on joining that group that includes Edmonton, Kelowna, Brandon and Swift Current. Each of those teams was on the outside of the postseason at some point within a year or two after their Cup winning run. As GM Bil LaForge said last season at the trade deadline, he doesn't have a white flag of surrender. As Seattle showed this weekend, they may stumble, but they're going to get right back up and throw themselves at the wolves again.

Let's look back on this past weekend from a glass half full perspective. Approximately 122 minutes of hockey over two nights and Seattle actually played fairly well over probably 100-105 of those minutes. They had a strong start against Kelowna at home Friday night, building a 2-0 lead through the midway point of the second period. They were physical, sharp on the power play and had two good penalty kills. It was after the Rockets scored a power play goal that the T-birds got a little sideways. It led to Kelowna scoring four goals in four minutes and grabbing a 4-2 lead by the end of period two.

The T-birds came out in the third and pushed back. They seemed to have the game tied up before the period was half over. They were full of emotion on that fourth goal. Then the play went to video review and the goal was disallowed. The replay official ruled Seattle had impeded the goalie's opportunity to make the save. Watch the replay, it was a bang-bang play and the goalie had no chance, whether there was a Seattle player in the area or not. I've seen enough NHL video review of similar goals to believe that goal should have been allowed to stand. But that's the way it was ruled, time to move on. The T-birds needed to be ready when the game resumed. They needed to put aside their disappointment. they still had momentum on their side. Instead they got back on their heels and once again, the Rockets scored quickly, potting four goals in four minutes. Seattle played well for about 45 minutes but it was the 15 where they struggled that stood out.

How would the T-birds respond less then 24 hours later, on the road in a hostile environment, against a division rival? If not for the final score in Everett, you'd give them high grades. They blocked out the distraction of a sold out building. They dictated the tempo and flow of the game most of the night. When they did have some moments where it looked like they might get back on their heels, especially at the start of the second period, their goalie stood tall. They kept funneling pucks to the net. They had active sticks and a strong forecheck. If you want to quibble, maybe more traffic and more "fight" for those rebounds was needed, but they were up against one of the better goalies in the league. They looked more like the team we saw most of the second half last season then at any other point in the early going this year.

They essentially followed up a game in which they surrendered eight goals by pitching a shutout until it got to the 3-on-3 overtime, where crazy and strange things can and usually do happen. For the vast majority of the game Saturday, Seattle was the better team. No one is settling for moral victories but they now have a blueprint for how they must compete for sixty minutes. They will still absorb a few lumps along the way, but they now know what they can do, if they play the T-bird way.

You can't teach size. If Luke Bateman were 5'9" maybe he's not even on the roster. But he stands 6'6" tall. Probably 6'9" in skates. That size makes him a valuable asset. The rookie 17 year d-man from Kamloops isn't going to "wow" you but there are lots of tall players who never learn to use their size and reach to impact games. Bateman knows to use his biggest asset to his advantage. I'm guessing if you asked, the T-birds staff would say he's eager and willing to learn, a very "coachable" player. He's visibly improving from game to game. When Seattle gets healthy and Cade McNelly is back, it's going to be hard to keep Bateman out of the lineup. I'm not making any predictions. I'd be the last person to ask for a player evaluation. I'm sure he'll need to continue to improve his skating, and get stronger in other areas of his game. He'll need to take advantage of the ice time he gets so that he is a better player at the end of the season then he is at the beginning, but over the years it seem NHL scouts love to take late round fliers on tall defensemen. Maybe not this spring, maybe not the next, but who knows.

My Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star: C Matthew Wedman. The captain got his first goal of the season Friday and, with an assist to boot, got his first multiple point game as well. I believe he was the driving force Saturday in Everett. He was leading by example. He was involved in the majority of Seattle's scoring chances. He was physical and a net front presence.

Second Star: D Ty Bauer. Out of the lineup with injury Friday night his return Saturday made a world of difference. He was a solid force in the defensive zone. he used power, size and smarts to keep Everett to the perimeter. He skated with purpose bringing the puck up ice. He directed the action like a traffic cop. When you say talking about injuries is an excuse, remember that with Bauer sidelined Seattle surrendered 23 goals. In his return, they gave up just one 3-0n-3 OT goal and he wasn't on the ice for it.

First Star: C Payton Mount. No points in the two games for the second year center but he's taken a big step forward from his rookie season. You notice him at both ends of the ice. Another player who uses his hockey sense. He's played some center and on the wing. He's improved his faceoff success. He was not on the preliminary Central Scouting Service "Players to Watch" list for the 2020 NHL Draft, but if he continues to play strongly as he's done to start this season, that could change for the 2017 first round bantam pick.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

For the Love of the Game

Photo courtesy of Brian Liese

That smile, that grin, whatever you want to call it, on Conner Roulette it is ever present. It's part of who he is. Like his helmet, stick or skates, it's as much a piece of his equipment as everything else in his hockey bag. It is as much his signature as is his autograph on a playing card. The kid loves this game and it shows. His love of scoring goals, makes him enjoy the game even more and he's pretty proficient at that. There were 171 points over two years of Bantam hockey, 88 points last year at the Midget level.

What is it they say? If you love your work, you'll be more productive at it? Make no mistake, Roulette wants playing hockey and scoring goals to be his vocation. If and when it becomes his full-time job, he's gonna love his work. But even if that never happens, he's always going to love this game. There is something pure, unadulterated and innocent about going about your business with a smile. So, whether he's playing at the accesso ShoWare Center, skating some day in the future in an NHL arena or if it's just on a prairie pond in the middle of a Manitoba winter, I hope that smile, that grin, never leaves his face.

Just don't mistake that wide grin, that perpetual smile, for indifference or aloofness. Don't ever think it means he doesn't take this game seriously. He doesn't believes he has it all figured out. He came to camp this summer to earn a roster spot, not to have one handed to him. When it comes to this game, Roulette is all business. He is the quintessential rink rat. If he could, he'd be on the ice 24-7, perfecting every part of his craft. A lot of what he can do on the ice is natural, God-given talent, but like most of the best players, it's also the result of hours spent perfecting his skills. He is a student of the game, studying not only himself but listening and learning from others. Like the rest of the young cast on this T-birds roster, he's still a work in progress. Here is some advice. While you are watching them grow and get better at their craft, take a cue from Roulette and smile along with him. You'll enjoy it so much more.

Seattle completed a three games in four nights stretch with a much needed win at home Saturday. Injuries certainly play a part in the early season struggles but so does inconsistent play. Seattle had a strong finish to the first period in Kamloops Wednesday despite missing two of their top four defensemen and two of their top six forwards. But they couldn't carry that momentum over to the second period. Friday in Spokane they were solid in the games final forty minutes but a slow start to the game put them in a three goal hole they couldn't climb out from. Even in the win they allowed the Royals to sneak back into the game late.

The power play finally came alive in the 5-3 win over Victoria, going 3-for-6. Special team both win and lose you so many games over the course of a season. Seattle is still in the process of building their special teams units. There are a lot of new faces for both the power play and the penalty kill. Finding the right chemistry may take 15-20 games.

Wednesday night in Kamloops, Roddy Ross had what could only be described as an off night. It was out of the norm. He was fighting the puck, especially in the second period. Games like that happen, even to the best of them. He shook that one off and was back to his usual Goal-Robbin' Roddy Ross self Saturday night. If I'm the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted him back in June, I may not have liked that 5-goals-allowed second period against the Blazers but I'd be thrilled with his response to it Saturday versus Victoria. Part of being a professional is learning to bounce back. Ross didn't let Wednesday's performance linger. It was a one off. One of Ross' greatest strengths is his rebound control and ability to steer shots away from the front of the net. He was nearly perfect in that regard Saturday night.

While it doesn't mean they aren't affecting games in other ways, the T-birds big two of Matthew Wedman and Henrik Rybinski aren't getting on the scoresheet yet. In a combined eight games, they have tallied just four assists. Now, to be fair, Rybinski has been robbed a few times already by some highlight goalie saves and Wedmam just returned after being away at NHL/AHL camp with the Florida Panthers. A solid week of practice before the team plays their next game should help. They are going to score and for this young Seattle team to be successful, they need those two to light the lamp. But Seattle's other players can't wait for those two to get going. They have to do their part. The team needs contributions up and down the lineup.

How bad is the T-birds injury situation, or as I like to call it, the Seattle Scurge? Not only are their five players out with long term ailments but General Manager Bil LaForge is dealing with his own lower body injury. That's him zipping around the building on a scooter. Now I hear prospect Tyler Dodgson is on the shelf with a lower body injury that will cost him a spot on Team Manitoba for the upcoming WHL Cup (U16 tournament). Dodgson, a defenseman, was Seattle's eighth round pick in last spring's Bantam Draft. When it rains, it pours.

By the way, tip of the hat to defenseman Ryan Gottfried. With the recent injuries to Cade McNelly and Ty Bauer, the T-birds were in dire need of some blueline help. LaForge was able to acquire Gottfried from Red Deer midweek. With only one practice with his new team, he played two games in under 30 hours with a lot of bus time in between. Gottfried was in Winnipeg at the time of the deal so he had to make the long trek west as well.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Week:

Third Star: W Keltie Jeri-Leon. Goals both Friday and Saturday night, it was just the second time in his WHL career that he scored in back-to-back games. The last time was in early 2018 as a member of the Lethbridge Hurricanes. His last second power play goal in the second period against Victoria turned out to be pretty important in Seattle's lone win of the week. Playing on a line with a pair of 16 year olds in Kai Uchacz and Lucas Ciona, they have developed some good, early season chemistry. With this young team, the T-birds need the 19 year old Kelowna native to step up and provide points and leadership.

Second Star: C Payton Mount. Mount, in his second season, played in just two of the three games this week, missing Friday's game in Spokane due to illness, but made the most of his ice time. When we talk about the young players this team is building around, we have to include the 2017 first round Bantam pick in that conversation. He had a three assist game against Victoria and head coach Matt O'Dette said Seattle probably doesn't win the game without him. In four games he is tied for the team lead in scoring withs five points (1g 4a) and is +3.

First Star: W Conner Roulette. Following his hat trick against Victoria, he now has four goals in six career WHL games. He started the season by hitting three posts and somehow missed his first chance at the empty net against the Royals Saturday night. He's probably most upset he missed another chance to score on the power play when he couldn't get his stick on a Wedman pass early in the third period with a wide open net in front of him. He's just 16 but has already gotten minutes on Seattle's top line and on their top power play unit. His active stick makes him a deceptive forechecker. He's not the biggest player on the ice but does well in tight spaces. We can joke that every team in the WHL passed on him at least once in the 2018 Bantam draft but some did it twice. Oh, that includes Seattle who used the second of their two second round selections that year to acquire him. Do you think Roulette is taking a subtle jab at those teams that passed on him? Roulette was taken with the 34th overall pick. He wears number 34. Maybe it is just a reminder to himself to work harder so he can bring himself up on that list.