Sunday, January 29, 2023

Split Personality

First period Seattle Thunderbirds Saturday versus Portland; very good. But like a magic act, they disappeared over the final forty minutes. So, what happened? Simply put, they got away from playing Thunderbirds hockey.  

If you look at the season series against the Winterhawks, Seatle's two wins and the third period of their shootout loss, looked very much like the first period Saturday.  Seattle spent the majority of the period in the offensive zone, they were strong on the forecheck and were able to cycle the puck. They trapped Portland in their end of the ice, negating their ability to make stretch passes behind the Thunderbirds defense. They held Portland to just four shots because they wouldn't let them get up ice. That style of play went MIA over the last two period.

It's just the opposite in Seattle's losses to Portland this season. Instead of playing to their identity, they get caught up in playing the Winterhawks style, trying to get into a run and gun track meet. It's what led Portland to getting seven power plays back in early November. Look, the Winterhawks practice that style of play all week. It's their system and they're good at it.  Conversely, the T-Birds don't practice that all week. They practice their system. It's what they're good at doing.

So, the big question is why did Seattle, after such a good first period Saturday, get away from what they do best?  I think because flying up and down the ice, looking for that home run play, is enticing. But you can't play both ways at the same time. Gotta pick one and best to pick the one you know.  

Once Portland got the lead, they made it hard for the T-Birds to get back to their style of play. The Winterhawks did a good job of making Seattle play a 200 foot game. They slowed Seattle down in the neutral zone. Portland wasn't necessarily looking for more offense. They were willing to wait for opportunities as Seattle got more desparate.

But the second period was the difference. Had Seattle come out and played to their identity, had they repeated the first period game plan, they would have had a better chance of winning.  They need to stick to Thunderbirds hockey.

Seattle also thought they had scored a power play goal early in the third period. At first blush, it looked like the call on the ice of interference with the goalie, was the right call.  Watching the replay though, I think that a case can be made that the puck was going in before contact was initiated. The goalie had a chance to make a play on the puck before any contact but didn't. It was sliding on a straight line between his pads and heading to the back of the net, even before the net was dislodged. The contact with the netminder didn't affect that path of the puck, which was basically behind him by that time.

Unfortunately the call on the ice was interference with the goalie and that is not a reviewable play in the WHL. It's a bang-bang play and hard to find fault with the decision of the referee in real time.  The overhead camera captured the play clearly.  Maybe if it was reviewable, the replay judge still sides with the call on the ice and calls it no goal, but why not use the replay to confirm? As the availability of technology advances in the WHL, maybe that's something the league can change in the near future.

I think the weekend schedule caught up to the Thunderbirds in the third period. Especially because they were down two goals. Situations like this weekend happen often for all teams in the WHL. The T-Birds were in Spokane Friday night. After the game they loaded the bus and headed west, arriving back in Kent at around four in the morning.  You unload the bus then head home to your billets. By the time your head hits the pillow, it's 5 a.m or later and you're about four to five hours from hours having to wake up, refuel and be back at the rink for a 6 p.m. start.

Meanwhile your opponent played at home the night before, got home to their beds at a reasonable hour and while you're unpacking that bus, they're resting comfortably.  Then a short two hour bus ride up I-5 for the game.  Had Seattle not had such a disappointing second period, it might not have mattered. Had they been tied or ahead going into the third, even down just a goal, they might have had an energy boost from the crowd.  But down two goals, you could see the affects of the late night bus ride and the Winterhawks did a good job of making Seattle have to use the entire ice, forcing Seattle to use up their fuel reserves.

But that only happens in the regular season.  The schedule is what it is. You have to get in 68 games and sometimes there will be disadavantages for one team.  Every team will experience it. Both Seattle and Portland went through it on their eastern road trips earlier in the month. The good news is that doesn't occur in the postseason. The travel in a playoff series is the same for both teams.

While Portland's team was completely whole, the Thunderbirds were also down one full line of forwards.  Not just any one line either.  They were missing three highly drafted NHL prospects; a first rounder (Brad Lambert), a second rounder (Colton Dach) and a third rounder (Jordan Gustafson). That threesome would constitute a top line for most of the 22 teams in the WHL. 

Dach has averaged over a point a game in his WHL career.In just two games in the WHL Lambert has two poits (1g,1a) and Gustafson was just under a point a game this season (.92) before he was injured in a game in Saskatoon two weeks ago. That's over three points a game out of the lineup for Seattle.  Even with that threesome missing, it was a winnable game for Seattle.  

Seattle could basically keep their top three lines from the weekend intact, and insert Dach, Gustafson and Lambert into the game and play them together. They could be the first line, second line or third line. That's scary to think about.  

A few breaks didn't go Seattle's way. They hit iron on a few shots. A player losing an edge leads to a breakaway and goal against in the first period, at a time the Thunderbirds are in control of the game. Again, they just gotta stick to their formula!

Seattle did earn the win Friday in Spokane with a league leading 17th road win. And while Portland will host Spokane Sunday, and odds are win that game and build a three point lead over Seattle in standings by the time the T-Birds hit the ice again Tuesday, Seattle will have two games in hand.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: D Nolan Allan.  Goals in back to back games. His bread and butter is to be a strong, stay-at-hme defenseman, but he has shown the ability to jump up and provide offense as well. He has three goals since returning from the World Juniors.

Second Star: Lucas Ciona. He had a four point night in Spokane with a goal and three assists. No puck luck Saturday versus Portland on two shorthanded breakaways, hitting the iron in the first period and just missing five hole int he second. But it shows he was a very effective penalty killer against the league's #2 power play.

First Star: Gracyn Sawchyn.  It seems every game a little bit more of his talent and skillset get revealed. he got hooked to the ice Friday in Spokane but, falling down he was still able to get off a backhand shot for a goal. He then followed up with a goal and an assist Saturday.  The weekend effort came after a terrific showing at the Top Prospects Game in Langley.  A darkhorse to jump into the first round of the NHL Draft this summer, but don't be surprised if he does it.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

There's no Place Like Home

Two things can be true. Seattle has played the fewest home games (18) of any team in the WHL to this point of the season and Seattle has the best home ice winning percentage of any team in the WHL to this point in the season. With a pair of home wins this weekend at the accesso ShoWare Center, Seattle now sports a home record of 16-1-1-0.The sixteen home wins is only the third most in the WHL, but the home ice winning percentage of .917 is tops in the league.

The Thunderbirds have not lost a home game in regulation since a, 5-3, November 5th loss to Portland. If you remember, that was the game the Winterhawks went 4-for-7 on the power play and Seattle was just 1-for-10.  The Thunderbirds last loss of any kind at home was a 2-1 overtime setback to Calgary on November 12th. That was another game where Seattle's power play (0-for-8) cost them big time as they outshot the Hitmen that night 33-21. Since then, the Thunderbirds have reeled off eleven straight home wins.

But those two losses, to Portland and to Calgary, are it as far as Seattle not getting the W on home ice. A regulation loss and an overtime loss in the span of eight days in November, all because they went 1-18 with the man advantage in back-to-back home games.

What's the significance?  Well, two-fold. Of the Thunderbirds remaining 27 games, 16 will be at the ShoWare Center. If Seattle has designs on the top seed in the Western Conference, if they have their sites set on the Scotty Munro Trophy (best regular season record in the WHL), then keeping up that winning pace on home ice will be crucial. Secondly, you want that home ice in the postseason, especially in a building where the home crowd gives you a decided advantage.

Coming off their six game road trip to the Eastern Division, Seattle has essentially played two games without, what would arguably be a top line for any of the WHL's other 21 teams, available to them.  Brad Lambert is getting his U.S. visa sorted out and Jordan Gustafson and Colten Dach are dealing with long term upper body injuries.   Those are three high NHL draft picks out of the lineup and yet Seattle went 2-0, outscoring their two opponents 9-4 and outshooting them 76-38.

The Thunderbirds got through the first half of the season relatively unscathed. They did lose Luke Prokop for an eleven game span with a lower body injury but otherwise stayed healthy.  It's been a bit different the past three weeks. Obviously there were the four players away at World Juniors. But then on their road trip the T-birds added a couple players to the roster who weren't immediately available (Lambert, Dach). To make those moves they sent a couple players (Hurley/Mittelsteadt) out. Additionlly Tij iginla missed three games due to illness. That left Seattle with a short bench.

Then, they lost Lucas Ciona to a two-game suspension, although the reality is they were without him for three games because the suspension was the result of a five minute major/game misconduct in the fist period in Winnipeg. Reid Schaefer missed half the game in Prince Albert after getting hit by friendly fire. Finally, they've played the last three games without Gustafson, who was hurt early in the game in Saskatoon and Lambert has been missing because of bureaucracy.  

Seattle dropped a couple of close games on that road trip with a less then full roster.  Injuries, suspensions, illnes, they're all part of the game but you gotta think with a full boat the T-Birds might have a couple more wins under their belts. 

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: G Scott Ratzlaff.  Ratzlaff carried the load in goal for the Thunderbirds for just over a month, starting 14 of 18 games with Thomas Milic at World Juniors plus his week's rest to recover.  The last start for Ratzlaff in that stretch was Friday against Lethbridge. Did he face a lot of shots? No, but the shots he did face were high quality, especially in the first period. Stopping eight of nine shots in the opening period kept the T-Birds in the hunt in a game they eventually came back to win in overtime.

Second Star: C Gracyn Sawchyn.  He's been good from opening night way back in September when he won the game for Seattle in Vancouver with his shootout goal, but it's been fun to watch him get better and better with each game played.  He's a prime example that your best work doesn't always end up on the scoresheet.  I'm just eyeballing but he probably wins 80-percent of his 50/50 puck battles. He had just two assists on the weekend but his ability to win faceoffs set up a number of the T-Birds goals. Over his last four games he is 44-of-74 in the faceoff circle, including 25-of-41 this weekend. At one point Saturday night he was 10-of-14 on faceoffs against Everett and Seattle had a 6-0 lead and that's no coincidence.

First Star: D Jeremy Hanzel. Hanzel is sort of that middle child, who doesn't get all the attention but still does all his chores without complaint, and does them well.  On a team with three highly drafted NHL picks on the blueline, it's easy to overlook his contribution to the team's success but he's a key cog on the backend. He's pretty adept at keeping pucks in at the line in the offensive zone. I liked that this weekend it seemed he was making a more concerted effort to put more shots towards the net. He was rewarded with a three assist night against Everett. He finished Satruday's game at +3 improving his league leading plus/minus rating to +39.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Puting Together the Pieces

Now that the 2023 WHL trade deadline has come and gone, the rosters are now set for the rest of the season. Where does this leave the Thunderbirds with their latest player editions? And how soon can they, along with the returning World Junior players, gel with 29 games left in the regular season?

Since the team last played at home on New Year's Eve, they've added some high end talent to the equation. Brad Lambert, an NHL first round pick of the Winnipeg Jets, is now a Thunderbird.  We saw his impact immediately as he recorded a goal and an assist in his first two games. He did that with essentially no practice time with his new teammates. He had one short morning skate before the game in Prince Albert, that was it.  

Seattle also added Colton Dach into the fold. He comes to the Thunderbirds via the Kelowna Rockets. Dach, a second round pick of the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks, will not make his Thunderbirds debut for a while. He is out until late February/early March after suffering an upper body injury with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.

You might be wondering about Dylan Guenther. Seattle acquired his rights from the Edmonton Oil Kings just before the deadline clock expired. Guenther is currently playing in the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes, who selected him in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft. The Coyotes say they have no intention of returning him to the WHL.  It was a shot in the dark deal by Seattle G.M. Bil LaForge but on the oft chance the Coyotes change their mind, the only place they can send him is Kent. 

As I understand it, the date to keep an eye on his February 10th. It's the last chance for NHL teams to send players back to Juniors. It was a gamble worth taking if you're the Thunderbirds. Do you just want to have a winning record and be competitive, or do you want to win a championship and a Memorial Cup? There are windows of opportunity in the WHL/CHL. If you do it right you can realistically be in that Championship window every three to four seasons. Doing it right means drafting, recruiting, signing, developing and yes, trading smartly.

That window is wide open now for the Thunderbirds. Even before the trade deadline this was a team built for this season.  They're going to lose Jared Davidson, Luke Prokop and Kyle Crnkovic for sure.  Most likely Reid Schaefer is playing in the AHL next season.  The same is true of Lucas Ciona and Nolan Allan.  Goaltender Thomas Milic could get drafted and/or signed this summer and be playing pro next year at age 20.  

Before the deadline Seattle had eight players who would be 20 year olds next season. They now have ten and possibly eleven. They can only keep three for next year's roster.  And while you would expect Kevin Korchinski to be back with the Thunderbirds next season, that is up to the Chicago Blackhawks and not the T-Birds. Could Chicago keep him up in the NHL next season? They certainly could. That window open now could close quickly. This is why LaForge has gone all in and to be honest if your goal is to win Championships, he had no choice.

The argument many will make is LaForge sacrificed way too much of the future. Seattle dealt away a boatload of high draft picks leaving the cupboard nearly empty for the next few WHL Prospects Drafts. You have to ask yourself though, are you satisfied with finishing second or third every season, or would you sacrifice one or two down years for a legitimate Cup run every three to four years?  Sure, there's no guarentee but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

And here's the thing, the organization believes in their ability to find gems in the later rounds of the draft ala Schaefer and Nico Myatovic, to name a few.  No doubt too, at some point they'll probably be sellers, trading off top talent to refill the cupboard with high draft picks as they did in 2019-20.  

They also believe in the young players they've recently acquired to keep the team competitive beyond this season. It starts with 17 year old Gracyn Sawchyn but inlcudes Scott Ratzlaff, Sawyer Mynio and Coster Dunn. Meanwhile, the top four picks from the 2021 draft are all signed. Three of them, Tij Iginla, Hyde Davidson and Bryce Pickford, are nightly contributors this season as 16-year olds. A fourth, Simon Lovsin would be playing here this season if the roster weren't so deep. Goalie Spencer Michnik is 2-0 in limited call up duty.

Seattle had three of the top 38 selections in the 2022 WHL Prospects Draft as well and they've signed them all.  You can deal away future top picks if you believe in the likes of Braeden Cootes, Kaleb Hartmann and Kazden Mathies.  They've signed their fourth round pick from that draft too, Antonio Martorana.  Seattle also has the rights to Sawchyn' younger brother Luke, though he is not signed yet. 

That's potentially 14 players in their 17 year old season or younger, to keep this team competitive the next couple of years beyond this season and that can be supplemented by the Import Draft and the U.S. Prospects Draft.

So let's not worry about the future right now. Let's focus on the present.  Seattle's coaching staff needs to bring all this talent they now have together.  Seattle got through the six-game road trip at 3-3 with players coming and going. I was there to see first hand this team was not at one hundred percent.  Players were playing despite being under the weather. They dealt with injuries, suspensions and a lot of time on the bus. 

For the vast majority of these players, this was their first ever long, grinding prairie trip with six games in nine nights against unfamiliar opponents.  It was six different hotels over the course of the trip and very little practice time. Jared Davidson might be the only player on the current roster who previously made that six game swing through Saskatchewan and Manitoba. You don't think that trip is taxing, even to the most talented teams? Portland, a pretty good club in their own right, went east as the same time as Seattle and went 2-4.  

The task now is to reintegrate the four playerss who were away for a month with Team Canada at World Juniors, back into the fold.  After the game in Saskatoon, Seattle sent those four players home for some well needed rest and relaxation. I'm guessing they were playing some of those prairie games on fumes. Additionally, they have to get Lambert up to speed on their systems.  They'll eventually have to do the same with Dach and, if he comes, Guenther. Having all the right ingredients doesn't mean a thing if the cake doesn't rise.

Scott Ratzlaff could probably use a little breather too. With Milic away he started nine of eleven games. Even when Milic returned, Ratzlaff still started four of six against the Eastern Division.  Injuries and suspension had the T-Birds playing undermanned in the last three games of the trip and using young defensemen as fowards. They were still competitive every night.  

Knock on wood Jordan Gustafson isn't out of the lineup too long.  He's been quietly having a strong campaign, playing a strong 200 foot game.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Eastern Road Trip:

Third Star: C/W Gracyn Sawchyn. He only had four points (2g, 2a) on the trip but I like his compete level. He's becoming a net front presence the Thunderbirds really need and he really stands out with his play along the wall. A bit snake bitten because he was around the net quite often on the trip with a chance for a few more goals.  

Second Star: C Jared Davidson. Davey had seven points in the six games (2g, 5a). You need consistency from your veterans, especially with other top players in and out of the lineup, and that's what you get from this 20 year old.  

First Star: G Thomas Milic.  The fact that Milic played at all on the trip, and then played so well, is a testament to his always compete mindset.  Coming off backstopping Canada to gold at the World Juniors, he played in three games on the trip, starting two.  He went 2-0 with a 1.95 GAA and a SVPCT of .935.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

New Year, Same Season

The calendar has turned from 2022 to 2023 but the season rolls along, and so do the Seattle Thunderbirds. The only thing that changes is the date.  The goal is still the same, to be the last WHL team standing this spring. There is still plenty of season to go, another 35 games. So we are a long way from deciding things. As always, I caution you to buckle up, the second half is going to be an exciting ride.

The Thunderbirds ended 2022 on a hot streak, earning points in all 12 games in December. They were 30-seconds away from finishing the month 12-0-0-0 but had to "settle" for a mark of 11-0-0-1. Let's not forget they played ten of those 12 games without four of their best players and in four of those games they were minus their top three defensemen.

In doing so, they took over the top spot in the U.S. Division, the Western Conference and tied for the best record in the WHL. Is it tight at the top? Sure, but I'd rather be in that spot than the alternative. 

With 146 goals in their first 33 games, Seattle is the top scoring team in the WHL, scoring even more goals then a few teams who have played more games. But team defense is this team's calling card and even without some of their top blueliners available recently they have allowed only 78 goals, the second fewest goals against in the league. Team defense means everyone protects the d-zone, but the best defense is also a good offense and spending more time in your opponents end of the ice.

The catch word for the Thunderbirds when the season began was "depth", as in this team should have a lot of players up and down the roster who can contribute.  That has played out through the first 33 games. Seattle only has one players in the top ten in league scoring. That would be Jared Davidson who is ninth with 47-points. They only have two in the top twenty (Lucas Ciona is 12th). Yet they have potentially seven players who could finish with twenty or more goals. That's how you sit atop the WHL standings at the midpoint of the campaign.

And it is not just depth among their forwards.  Seattle goes eight deep on the blue line.  Among their defenseman, 16-year old Bryce Pickford is third in scoring behind only Kevin Korchinski and Jeremy Hanzel.  All three rookie d-men, Pickford, Hyde Davidson and Ethan Mittelsteadt, scored a goal in the absence of Korchinski, Nolan Allan, and Luke Prokop (when he was out injured).  

Reid Schaefer was Seattle's leading goal scorer when he left in early December to join Team Canada at the World Junior Championship.  He is now fourth behind Davidson, Klye Crnkovic and Lucas Ciona.  Ciona in particular has stepped up his game the last half of December with eight goals in the ten games since Shaefer departed.  Another player who stepped it up? Nico Myatovic who potted six goals in his last 12-games. His ten goals on the season is already ten more than he had all of 2021-22.

Your number one goalie is unavailable for a month, what do you do?  In the absence of #1a goaltender Thomas Milic, you turn to #1b, Scott Ratzlaff. All Ratlzlaff did in December was go 8-0-0-1 with a 1.65 GAA, a .941 SVPCT with two shutouts.  He finished the month with back-to-back starts less than 24 hours apart and stopped 39 of the 40 shots he faced in the home-and-home against the Kelowna Rockets. 

Good teams find ways to win and that was December in a nutshell. Even in their only setback, the shootout loss December 10th in Portland, they fought back from a two-goal defecit to take the lead before the infamous cough up of the puck behind the net led to a Portland goal with 30-seconds left.  Remeber though, they played that game without their top three defensemen and number one goalie. 

They won close games. Three of their games were decided by one goal. They won high scoring games, they won low scoring games and they won once in a blowout. They operative word in all of those sentences "won". They just kept winning.  They'll try to keep doing that in January.  

Seattle now hits the road for a trek through the Eastern Division of the Conference. Six games in nine days with a couple of marquee matchups in Winnipeg and Saskatoon near the end of the trip. At some point while they are out east, they'll see the return of the four players have been away with Team Canada.  Halfway through the trip the WHL trade deadline will come and change the landscape of the league going forward.

Will the Thunderbirds and General Manager Bil Laforge make another deal? Will the NHL's Winnipeg Jets re-assign Brad Lambert to Seattle or send him back to the AHL's Manitoba Moose after World Juniors? What teams will be buyers and who will be the sellers?  Can the T-Birds get more production out of that pesky power play? Ah, the intrigue!

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Post Christmas, end of December, four-games-in-five-nights, stretch:

Third Star:  D Jeremy Hanzel. The more I watch him the more I appreciate his quiet, no nonsense, get the job done way of playing. He's been Seattle best defenseman the last month. he topped it off with the game winning goal New Year's Eve.  His seven goals ties his career high set last season in 67 games. He had two goals and added two assists in the four games since returning from the Christmas break. At +36 he leads the WHL in the plus/minus category.  

Second Star: G Scott Ratzlaff.  A little rusty in the first game back when he had five pucks get past him up at Climate Pledge. That was more of a team effort though, as Seattle was less than sharp in the first game out of the break. He still got the win and bounced back by allowing just one goal in his next two starts. He still finished the three games he played with a 3-0-0-0 record, a 2.00 GAA and a .913 SVPCT with one shutout. He is now second in the league in both GAA (2.04) and SVCPT (.925) and his three shutouts lead the league.

First Star: W Lucas Ciona.  The Calgary Flames prospect put up 11-points in the four games (5g, 6a). In those four games he potted two game winners, had the lone assist on the game winning goal New Year's Eve and finished at +7.  He has risen to 1th in league scoring with 35 points (17g, 18) and is second in the WHL with a plus/minus of +33.  In the ten games since the Big Four left for World Juniors he has put up 18 points (8g, 10a).   

Sunday, December 18, 2022

A December to Remember

Happy Holidays T-Birds Nation!  The Thunderbirs gift to you? A terrific first half and a number one ranking in the CHL Top Ten poll.  The best news about the gift? you don't have to wait until Christmas morning to unwrap it. It is yours to enjoy right now.

Seattle just finished a stretch playing six games over nine days. They played the first four of those six games absent five of their best players including their top three defenseman. They played the last two still without four of their best players in the lineup. How'd they do? They went 5-0-0-1 and were one major faux paus away from a clean six game sweep.  

In those six games, without their leading goal scorer on hand, they scored 28 goals. That's just under five goals per game (4.7). With their number one goalie away, they allowed just ten goals in those six games, or 1.67 goals per contest.  The kids are alright.

The first three of those six games they failed to score a first period goal but came back to take the lead in all three, even the game they lost in the shootout.  Challenged by the coaching staff to come out with better starts, they outscored their opponents 9-0 in the first period in the last three games.  

One month ago the Thunderbirds executed the trade that brought Nolan Allan to Seattle from Prince Albert. To make the deal the T-Birds gave up some of their depth as forwards Gabe Ludwig and Brayden Dube, along with defenseman Easton Kovacs, headed to the Raiders.  They then dealt d-man Niko Tsakumis to Everett because he desired more playing time.

To fill the gap Seattle traded with Swift Current for Ty Hurley, signed Ashton McNelly and recently recalled Simon Lovsin and Spencer Michnik.  Those players have done a solid job of filling the back end of the roster, especially with players away.  They have combined for three assists in 18 games with a +8 rating. Michnik won his first WHL start.  It may not seem like much but they've been valuable in keeping the Thunderbirds train on the track the last couple of weeks.

The Thunderbirds have released the only Import player on the roster, Swiss defenseman Kai Knak.  Nice, polite young man. Unfortunately it was the the wrong place, or maybe just the wrong time for Knak to be a Thunderbird.  With the acquistion of Luke Prokop and Allan, the quick development of youngsters like Hyde Davidson and Bryce Pickford, the versatility of Ethan Mittelsteadt, there was just no ice time available for him.  

I think his adjustment to both the smaller ice surface in North America and the more physical style of play was the biggest culprit.  I think with another team, one that could afford to be more patient and give him more ice, he could develop his game here. Seattle just didn't have that for him this season. There were nine defensemen ahead of him on the roster. 

Seattle got to the WHL Championship Series last spring with the league's ninth best power play, and that was because of a strong second half.  They were lower than that most of the first half of the season in those power play rankings. Will history repeate itself?  I still think the one missing ingredient is a strong net front presence.  There were a lot of rebounds while they had the power play this weekend. They just didn't get to them.  This is where they really miss a player like Matt Rempe.

Seattle's goal differential after 29 games is +60. Only Saskatoon at +63 has a better goal differential at the break. Only 22 of Seattle's 127 goals have been scored on the power play.  That's border line insane. By comparison, 36 of Saskatoon's 125 goals are power play goals. 

The Thunderbirds don't have even one player in the top ten in league scoring. In fact their top scorer, Jared Davidson is 19th in scoring in the league.  Seattle has only two players in the top 30 (Crnkovic is 24th). Yet they are number two in goals scored, behind only Winnipeg (The Ice have played one more game). Winnipeg has three of the top 15 point producers.  What Seattle does have is depth, depth, depth.  

My T-Birds Three Stars for the past six games:

Third Star: D Jeremy Hanzel. With three of your top six defenseman unavailable for most of those six games, you need a veteran anchor on the back end.  Hanzel provided just that.  He chipped in with a goal, four assists and was +12, not to mention his solid work on the penalty kill. That's a solid six games.

Second Star: G Scott Ratzlaff.  Yeah, he'd like a do over on that play behind the net late in the game down in Portland, but that error aside, he's been terrific taking over the number one job in net in the absence of Thomas Milic.  He was 4-0-0-1 with a 1.57 GAA and .947 SVPCT in his five starts. Ratlzlaff is now second among goalies in the WHL with a 2.05 GAA and number one in the league with a .927 SVPCT.

First Star: C/W Gracyn Sawchyn.  He's playing his best hockey going into the break and that is saying something because he's been so good since the start of the season.  He picked up ten points in the six games (2g, 10a). He was nearly 50% in the faceoff circle (7/17).  He finished with a Gordie Howe hat trick in the 5-1 win up in Everett Saturday night. As assistant coach Matt Marquardt said, he has a little Henrik Rybinski in his game. When I think of Rybinski, I think of a relentless effort and that does indeed apply to Sawchyn.  

Sunday, December 4, 2022

A Third of the Way

Seattle has played 22-games, essentially one third of the season.  They sit with a 17-4-1-0 record and have the second best winning percentage in the WHL.Their goal differential is +40. A good start, but there is a long way to go. A season ago after 22 games the Thunderbirds were 13-6-3-0. Their goal differential was 0.

The Thunderbirds started the month of November off well enough. They beat the Prince George Cougars November first at home, 6-3. It was a nice response after they had lost their first game of the season three nights earlier up  in PG.

But then Seattle lost two in a row. Not just any two losses in a row, but two losses to rival Portland. It was two losses that saw them outscored, 10-4.  It was two defeats that saw them surrender six power play goals while going just 2-for-17 with the man advantage.  Those two setbacks to the Winterhawks came at the end of a five game stretch where the Thunderbirds went 2-3 and gave up 21 goals. 

Were they showing cracks in their armor? Had their weak points been exposed?  Well, over their next nine games the T-Birds went 7-1-1-0. They allowed just 14-goals in those nine games and four of those came in one clunker of a loss, their 4-3 setback last Sunday in Kennewick to the Tri-City Americans. In games versus teams with winning records, Portland twice, Kamloops, Everett and Calgary they gave up a grand total of six goals.  Meanwile the Thunderbirds scored thirty times over that stretch. I'd say that is a terrific response to a few games of adversity.

And still, as we head toward the Christmas break, there is much room for improvement. While the penalty kill is starting to resemble the PK that finished second in the WHL last season, just a hair behind the eventual league champion Edmonton Oil Kings, the power play has not arrived at a level of consistency that the team needs. Even after a 3-for-6 night Saturday against Victoria, there are some wrinkles that need ironing out. 

The power play struggled a bit the first half of last season too though. I remember after the Svejkovsky acquisition, talking about how his addition would improve an inconsistent power play unit. It did as Seattle eventually finished ninth in that category a season ago.  That Svejkovsky trade didn't come until December 27th and because of Covid, Svejkovsky didn't play his first game with Seattle until Januaary 21st. 

There are seven games to play before the Christmas break. Four are one the road, including the next three. Three are at home.  Some of those games are going to be played with Seattle absent some of their best players.  Expect Kevin Korchinski, Nolan Allan, Reid Schaefer and Thomas Milic to be invited to Canada's World Junior selection camp.  That takes place December 9-12th. Expect some of those four, if not all of them, to be away from the Thunderbirds for nearly a month.  

It may be a month where Seattle has to weather the storm, so to speak. The goal is to get through to the other side still in a strong playoff position. The back end of the roster has gotten lots of ice time the first couple months of the season.  December and early January is where that has to pay off.

Seattle's strong November and positive start to December has been fueled by a number of elements but two things jump out the most.  The play in goal of Thomas Milic and Scott Ratzlaff and the acquisition of defensemen Luke Prokop and Nolan Allan.  

Yes, Prokop played just three games before suffering an injury that has put him on the sidelines, but don't underestimate the valuable leadership he has brought to the team.  He may not be playing but he is a voice in that room. Meanwhile Allan has been just what he has been advertised as, a strong, physical defender who is tough to play against. He can chip in offensively but his defensive zone game has been outstanding.  The Thunderbirds have killed off 30 of 32 penalties over the last eight games and Allan is a big reason why.

Meanwhile the WHL trade deadline is about a month away.  Are the Thunderbirds done dealing?  I highly doubt it. Now, there is still the possibility that Brad Lambert is sent to Seattle.  He will play World Juniors for Finland, then the NHL Winnipeg Jets will decide whether to keep him in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose or assign him to the T-Birds. 

The Moose have played 18 games this season. Lambert has played in 11 of those and has three points (1g, 2a) and is -7. He missed some time with an illness. He hasn't scored recently.  All three of his points came in his first four or five games. Winnipeg is under no obligation to send him to the T-Birds though.  He's eligible to stay all season in the AHL. I'm just spitballing but I think he sticks with the Moose.  Personally, I'd put his chances at coming to Seattle at about ten percent and that might be generous.

But what the deal Seattle made to acquire his rights this summer from Saskatoon tells me, is that the Thunderbirds were looking for another high impact forward. So if not Lambert, I expcect them to seek someone else.  The Thunderbirds have a first and second round draft pick in their back pocket. If Lambert comes, those picks head to Saskatoon.  If he doesn't they'll use them to acquire a different player. Maybe they don't find a trade partner. I think they will. We should know about the 10th of January.

My T-Birds three stars for the last nine games:

Third Star: W Kyle Crnkovic. He's currently riding a six game point streak with eight points over that span (4g, 4a). Three of his four goals have been game winners. He's a +10 since November 9th.

Second Star: D Kevin Korchinski.  Korchinski seems to be finding his groove.  He's doing what he does best. Get the puck on his stick and get it up ice and put the Thunderbirds on the attack.  He is now tied for the team lead in scoring with 28 points. He has back-to-back two assists games and his four assists shy of 100 in his WHL/T-birds career. He's only played 111 regular season games.

First Star: G Thomas Milic Milic is 5-0-1-0 over his last six starts and coming off his first shutout of the season. He hasn't allowed more than two goal in a over a month. His GAA in that time frame is 0.99 and his save percentage is .967

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Taking a Liking Two

Not all wins are created equal but all wins are equal in value.  When you add them up, an 11-3 win is the same as a 2-1 win in overtime.  They are both worth two points in the standings.  Seatle has played Everett twice and won both times. Once 11-3 and once 2-1, and 2+2=4.

So you've gone through a slow schedule to start the season. You play just 11 games over a month's time.  Then boom, three games in four nights and the pace is picking up.  Screeeech!  Throw on the brakes!  You're back to playing once over the course of ten days. Hard to get game consistency or rythm from that. It is, as they say, what it is, but it will have an affect on your performance. 

It's like driving on I-5. You're zooming along at the speed limit and then you hit a patch of congestion in Federal Way and have to slow down. You have your foot on the accelerator and all of a sudden you have to pump the brakes. You'd rather be back on the gas pedal but you have to be patient until traffic clears. 

That and a few other things came together Saturday night to affect the Thunderbird effort against Everett. First, give the Silvertips their props. They are dealing with some injury issues. They weren't shorthanded but did have a few key pieces missing from the lineup.  They had a game plan and stuck to it, making it difficult for Seattle to get into the interior of the offensive zone much of the game.  

As the game wore on though, the Thunderbirds did a better job of getting traffic to the house. Give credit to Everett's goalie Braden Holt.  He held Seattle at bay as long as he could. In the end, Seattle was able to find a few cracks.

The midweek trade that brought Nolan Allan into the fold had an impact on Seattle's forward depth.  The trade of Gabe Ludwig and Brayden Dube was felt in that game.  Their departure left the T-Birds with just 12 forwards.  They did add Ty Hurley in a separate trade but he was not available Saturday night. The Thunderbirds essentially used two d-men (Mittelstadedt and Pickford) on their fourth line. In reality, Seattle just rolled three lines most of the night.

Getting Coster Dunn back from injury and inserting Hurley into the lineup will help but it's very possible between now and the trade deadline T-Birds GM Bil LaForge looks to acquire another impact forward.

The Thunderbirds played the game without another of their big, recent acquisitions as defenseman Luke Prokop was out of the lineup with a lower body injury. I don't mean to minimize Prokop's impact because, when healthy he's going to be a key player if Seattle goes deep this postseason. But what a game young 16 year old Hyde Davidson had, essentially stepping into Prokop's ice time. 

He won so many key puck battles in the defensive zone.  His stick, it seems, is always in the right position and he doesn't shy from physical contact. He also doesn't hesitate to join the offensive push.  Look, I'm no expert, I'm just an observer. But I've been around the organization and the league for over 20 years and I've seen players like Thomas Hickey, Brenden Dillon, Shea Theodore, Ethan Bear and Kevin Korchinski come through those doors. You knew when you watched them play early on in their T-birds careers you were watching something special.  Hyde Davidson is in that mold.  Bryce Pickford, while a different sytle of player, is in that mold as well.

When you have young talent like that already in the system, you can afford to trade draft picks. By the way, most of the picks Seattle has traded recently, were picks they acquired from other teams in trades made over the last four seasons. Like the pipeline, the draft pick cupboard is not bare.  Seattle has not mortgaged their future for a 2023 Cup run. The Thunderbirds still are in possession of first and second round picks in both 2023 and 2024.  

Props to Nolan Allan. Traded to Seattle midweek, he got in his car in Prince Albert and drove 18 hours across Western Canada to get to his new team. Most likely he was skating on fumes and adrenaline Saturday.  Once he settled in you saw how good he is at closing down on puck carriers.  

In the five games before the acquistion of Prokop and Allan Seattle had surrendered 21goals. In the four games since, they allowed just six and only five in regulation.  In the five games before the trades Seattle was shorthanded 21 times and gave up eight power play goals.  In the four games since the T-Birds have killed 12/13 penalties.  

Yes. The power play is struggling. Just 4 for their last 36.  There's is too much talent out their for that to keep up. Maybe the Crnkovic power play goal opens the dam.  At the very least, just keep shooting. Those power play goals are probably going to come off a rebound or a deflection. Once they get a fewe in, the confidence will return.  Right now I see too much hesitiation.

My T-Birds Three Stars for Saturday:

Third Star: D Kevin Korchinski.  I've actually loved his last two games.  Complete efforts in both the OT loss to Calgary and the OT win over Everett. He's controlling a lot of the play, carrying the puck up ice and being strong on the puck in the defensive zone. It appeared he was shadowing Everett's Olen Zellweger much of the night Saturday, especially when the Silvertips were on the power play. Zellweger is Everett's catalyst and a tough player to defend when he's on the puck. Korchinski did a good job of taking awasy his time and space.

Second Star: W Kyle Crnkovic. It had been five games since Crnkovic had scored a goal and he came into Saturday's game with just one goal in his last nine.  That's the life of a goal scorer. It's a streaky business. Hopefully his power play goal starts another goal scoring streak. It wasn't just that he scored a goal, but the way he scored it, slipping through the defense and then taking enough off the shot to offer a change of pace that froze the goalie. He nearly scored a gain, late inthe game, shorthanded.  Don't let that distract from that fact he played a 200 foot game and created a number of neutral zone turnovers.

First Star: G Thomas Milic.  Milic led the Seattle offense with....two assists? Yep, that's right. he had an assist on both Seattle goals. He allowed just one goal against on 22 shots and it was a bit of a flukey one at that.  Only four goals allowed in his last three starts, stopping 78 of 82 shots.  Remember when his goals against average was close to 4.00 and his save percentage around .890? Well things are more Mili like at 2.80 and .906.