Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Let's Have Some Crumpets and Spumante

The 2021 CHL Import Draft went off on Wednesday and Seattle, as expected, made two selections.  So, if I had told you a week ago the two players chosen would probably come from, oh, say Slovakia and Belarus, you'd probably believe me.  If I had said they would hail from Finland and the Czech Republic, you'd probably nod in agreement.  If I said they would be coming from Italy and Great Britain you would have probably called for the guys with the white coats and that jacket with all the buckles!

But hockey's reach is expanding and indeed, the Thunderbirds first pick is Allessandro Segafredo, a right wing from Asiago, Italy.  Their second choice is Leon Okonkwo Prada, a defenseman from Colchester, Great Britain.  

Segafredo is the younger of the two.  He doesn't turn 17 until September.  Among forwards, that puts him in the same age class as current Thunderbirds Jordan Gustafson, Gabe Ludwig and Nico Myatovic.

Okonkwo Prada celebrates his 18th birthday in a week (July 7th), joining Jeremy Hanzel as the two 18 year old defensemen on the roster.   If both players opt to join Seattle for this coming season they will add to the T-birds still young core. 

I was asked if I have been practicing pronouncing Segafredo's name for the radio broadcasts.  Well, if he scores over here as much as he did last season over in Europe, I'll get plenty of opportunity to say his name.  Playing for the ZSC Lions U17 in Zurich, Switzerland, Segafredo put up 52 points (25g, 27a) in 26 games.  For good measure he potted another ten goals, plus one assist, in 24 games with the GCK U20 team.  

Due to the pandemic, Okonkwo Prada was limited to just eight games this past season but was nearly a point per game player, registering one goal and six assists for his team in Sweden, Rogle BK J18.  Interestingly, Thunderbirds General Manager Bil LaForge said the T-birds actually had scouted him the previous season for the 2020 Import Draft.  

With the 2021-22 closer than you think, the Thunderbirds will now begin the recruiting process, hoping to convince both players to come to North America to continue their hockey development.  This had to be one of the stranger Import Drafts, which is already a, shall we say, unique process.  With the global pandemic affecting hockey at all levels in Europe just as it did here in North America, you have to wonder how much video was available on these players.  

In his first two Import Drafts LaForge swung for the fences but neither Tim Stutzle (2019) or Samuel Knazko (2020) signed on with Seattle.  Stutzle, of course ended up being selected third overall in last year's NHL draft and spent this past season with the Ottawa Senators.  Knazko, who just signed his initial NHL contract with Columbus after the Blue Jackets made him a 2020 third round selection, is going to play professionally this season in Europe.  Even if he were to come to North America this coming season, he is eligible to play in the AHL.

Neither Stutzle or Knazko needed the WHL to raise their draft stock.  They were already elite talents.  Stutzle had been playing in a men's professional league the year Seattle selected him.  Knazko had already spurned the Vancouver Giants a year before the T-birds took a chance on him because scouts were already on to him.

But with both the 2019-20 and the 2020-21 seasons curtailed due to the pandemic, coming over to North America and playing for Seattle, just might be what both Segafredo and Okonkwo Prada need to raise their profiles among NHL scouts.  

Remember too, when the T-birds used that 2019 Import draft pick on Stutzle, they were a team in transition.  the T-birds were two seasons removed from their WHL Championship and most of the older, elite talent had moved on.  Now though, the team is once again stocked with young up and comers who NHL scouts will be flocking to view. Another reason these two latest Import picks could decide to choose to further their development while wearing the T-birds colors.  

June is over, July has arrived.  In three weeks the NHL Draft will take place.  Then come the dog days of August. Before you know it training camp will be upon us. Expect some roster adjustment between now and then.  While Seattle's roster will have lots of familiar faces, there will be new ones added and a few missing.  It's the nature of things in Junior Hockey.  


 

Monday, May 10, 2021

In the Blink of an Eye

More then a year into a pandemic has seemed like a lifetime but a 24 game hockey season has come and gone in a flash.  Still, it was better to have something than nothing at all.  Let's look back.

As I've reiterated time and time again, the Thunderbirds made a conscious decision to go young, once it was determined this would be such a short season.  They opted to use these two dozen games to develop their team of the future.  Had this been a normal 68 game campaign with a postseason Seattle probably goes with an older roster.  

No doubt they would have carried at least three and not just one 20-year old.  And it's doubtful we would have seen 12 rookies on the team.  But with no playoffs to fight for, going with the youth route made the most sense for a team that has accumulated a lot of young, promising talent over the past couple of years.

But even making the decision to go young didn't necessarily go as planned.  Because of things like injuries, the T-Birds ended up younger than even they expected.  

It started somewhere between December and early February when goalie Blake Lyda made the decision to no longer pursue a hockey career. Remember, Lyda had played in a few games last fall with the AJHL's Spruce Grove Saints, with an eye on being ready whenever the WHL season got the green light.   He was expected to split time with Thomas Milic, maybe even get more starts, so the team could bring Milic along slowly. Somewhere along the way he had a change of heart.  It happens, but suddenly Seattle was in the market for a second goalie to pair with Milic, who now became the number one option in net.  

They were able to pick up Jackson Berry, who had been released by the Moose Jaw Warriors after playing in parts of just five games last season.  More importantly the T-Birds didn't have to expend any draft capital to get him.  His numbers aren't going to wow you, but under difficult circumstances, Berry gave Seattle a chance to win nearly every game he played in, especially after he was pressed into the number one job when Milic made the final roster for Team Canada's gold medal winning U18 squad.  Milic would be absent for the second half of the season. 

In an ideal world Lyda would have stuck with it.  Seattle would then have then listed Berry and brought him in as a third goalie, so that when Milic left for Texas, Berry would become Lyda's backup, rather then having to bring 15-year old Scott Ratzlaff down from Canada.  But as we've discovered, this is not an ideal world.  So, if back in January you had Jackson Berry getting the most time in the crease for Seattle this season on your pandemic hockey bingo card, congratulation!

In the end, the two goalies projected to man the crease for Seattle, Lyda and Milic, played in only nine of 23 contests and those nine games all belonged to Milic. 

On to the forwards. Late in training camp back in mid-March, just a few days before opening night, Seattle had to rightfully dismiss two players from the roster due to "inappropriate racial comments and actions".  Those two players were going to figure prominently in Seattle's top nine forward group not only this season, but for the next two seasons as well.  It's different than the Lyda situation but once again, before the puck even dropped on the season, two more players the T-Birds were counting on, were out, including a former first round pick.  

Then, eight games into the season the T-Birds lost second line center Matt Rempe, an NHL drafted player, to a season ending lower body injury.  A few games later their best offensive player, Conner Roulette left to join his teammate Milic in Texas with Team Canada's U18 team.  They would then lose another top six forward, Payton Mount, to an upper body injury for seven of the last eight games, including the final three.

That means that five of the team's projected top nine forwards would miss a combined 80 games.  And the defensive group, while mostly intact, didn't go unscathed either as Cade McNelly missed four games to either illness or suspension.  The biggest affect of this was that, combined with the absences in the forward group, it meant Seattle played a number of games with just 17 dressed skaters, one under the limit.  

Yet despite that adversity, the Thunderbirds still won 10 of their 23 games.  And that's what this shortened season should be remembered for.  The WHL team with the youngest roster, utilizing six rookie forwards, three rookie defensemen and three rookie goalies, nearly won half their games!  They were two games above .500 when the injury bug hit.  And 10 of their 12 losses, plus the shootout loss, were to two teams, Everett and Portland, with a combined record of 31-12-3-0.  

Seattle finished third in the U.S. Division, ahead of two older teams.  They pitched two shutouts against a Spokane team featuring the leading scorer in the entire WHL a season ago, Adam Beckman.  They won six of their 10 games with a either a 16-year old or 15-year old in net.  They got 48 points (14g, 34a) in those 23 games from their nine rookie forwards and defensemen.  

One of those rookies, 16-year old Nico Myatovic, wasn't even supposed to be here this season. He joined the team at the midway point due to the depleted roster, and ended up scoring three goals. 2020 first round draft pick, 2005 born Sam Oremba, wasn't even guaranteed to see the ice but ended up playing the final 15 games and registered five points (2g, 3a).  

More importantly, after enduring a six game losing streak, Seattle finished the season strong, earning points in four of their final five games, compiling a 3-1-0-1 record.  In the process they outshot their opponents 191-137 over that span, and three times held the opposing team to fewer than 30 shots. 

This team was like a lizard or a salamander.  When they lost a limb, they grew a new one.  A Rempe goes down, a Myatovic steps up.  Lose a Roultette, grow an Oremba.  So while we anxiously look toward the future, let's not be too hasty to forget this season, even if it was gone in the blink of an eye.  

My T-Birds three stars for the Season of Covid:  

Third Star:  C Jared Davidson.  Voted the team's Most Improved Player, Davidson stepped in to the void created by Rempe's injury. He took over the number two center role.  He jumped seamlessly onto the top power play unit and he played with the confidence earned from the coaching staff.  With 19 points, he finished third on the club in scoring and his nine goals were second most including two game winners.  His goal, assist and point totals were all career bests.  

Second Star:  W Keltie Jeri-Leon.  The team's lone 20-year old did exactly what he was supposed to do, lead.  Lead in scoring, lead on the ice and lead in the locker room.  His 17 goals wasn't just the most on the team, but it put him among the league leaders in that category. When the T-Birds season ended Sunday he was tied for second.  The Thunderbirds made the decision to go young but they kept Jeri-Leon so the ship could have a rudder.  

First Star:  C Henrik Rybinski.  He was not just Seattle's best player every night but most games he was the best player on the ice.  Relentless is the best way to describe him.  He leaves it all on the ice every game, every shift.  He led the team in scoring but he also led in fuel spent.  Former head coach Steve Konowalchuk used to preach about using up all your fuel stores.  You can recharge when the game is over.  What are you saving it for?  Current head coach Matt O'Dette is from the same school.  Rybinski is the textbook example of their kind of player.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

My Oh Myatovic

As WHL debuts go, that was pretty pedestrian for Nico Myatovic don't you think?  I mean, only two goals on two shots? I think he needs to shoot the puck more, how about you?  

Okay, all kidding aside, where ever his future hockey endeavors take him, Myatovic will always remember his first T-Birds game.  Two goals scored during a pandemic shortened season, with no fans in the building.  Of course he would have preferred fans be there. We all would. How loud would the accesso ShoWare Center have been after that first goal, on a Two-for-Tuesday no less?  

I do have one suggestion.  If he's gonna score at this pace, he should change his first name to Otto.  Then he can be Otto Myatovic (the last name is pronounced My-ATT-uh-vic, with emphasis on the second syllable).  I'm not sure his mother would be on board with that idea though.

By getting into the lineup Myatovic became the fifth player from the Thunderbirds 2019 WHL Draft class, to suit up for a game.  In other words, every player from that draft they have signed to a standard WHL Player Agreement, has played in at least one game.  

In 46 combined games that group has already compiled 19 points (7g, 12).  Myatovic also became the 19th skater on this season's roster to record a point.  Seven of those 19 skaters are rookies.  Six are in just their second season.  Only Spencer Penner, who's played in just five games, and Reid Schaefer, who is currently out with injury after playing in the first eight games are, so far, without a point. 

The leader of that draft class is Seattle's top pick from that year, Jordan Gustafson.  In 12 games he has eight points (4g, 4a) and two game winning goals.  He plays in all situations.  He's already a key component to Seattle's improved power play.  And once again, late in a game, protecting a one goal lead, he was out their taking defensive zone faceoffs.  It's obvious the coaching staff has the utmost confidence in him.

I think it is also obvious that the organization has great depth, thanks to GM, Bil La Forge, and his scouting staff.  La Forge did a masterful job of making trades that brought back a good number of high draft picks but the scouts did their homework and the T-Birds made good use of those picks, choosing the right players to fit their system.  

Think about this; Seattle loses one of their best players in Conner Roulette, to Team Canada for the U18 World Championships.  They lose their second line center, the NHL drafted Matt Rempe, to a long term injury.  That's 17 points out of the lineup.  So they make a phone call to have Myatovic join the team for the rest of the season and he promptly scores twice in his first game. 

And Myatovic was not a high pick.  He was chosen in the sixth round, 119th overall.  When you get selected in Round Six, that's probably because an area scout really likes your game, believes in your talent and convinced the head honchos that you are a fit for this team.  That's how you get players like Myatovic or, you know, an eighth rounder who became a valuable piece of a championship team like Donovan Neuls.  

Average hockey age of Seattle's roster Tuesday night versus Tri-City was 17.25 years old.  

With Rempe out, third year player Jared Davidson has moved into the number two center role.  He's responded well with seven points (3g, 4a) in 12 games. He's also won 77 faceoffs. Davidson is the epitome of plug and play because you can use him up and down the lineup.  It makes it easier on the coaches when you have that versatility. 

Three games over the past week for Seattle and they earned two wins and came oh-so-close to getting at least a point in the third game with a terrific third period comeback last Friday versus Everett, only to give up a late goal and fall 4-3.  While this team has an abundance of team speed, they showed they can grind out wins as they did in two games against Tri-City.  

There was a sequence in the third period Tuesday against Tri-City that led to scoring chances at both ends.  First T-Birds defenseman Tyrel Bauer got loose in the slot, skated the puck below the hashes only to be denied by Americans goalie Talyn Boyko.  Off that save Tri-City transitioned into a 2-on-1 break the other way.  Except that odd man rush dissipated because one T-Bird player hustled back and the Ams didn't even end up with a shot on goal.  Who was that hustling T-Bird?  Tyrel Bauer.  

Quick shout out to the medical staff, Athletic Trainer Phil Varney, the team doctor and the paramedics on scene, for the abundance of caution they took at the end of the game with Payton Mount, who was struck in the head by an errant puck while on the bench at the end of the game.  

Sadly, we have reached the midway point of this pandemic shortened 24 game season.  The second half begins Friday with a home game against Everett.  Basically there are just over three weeks left and it will go by in a flash.  Let's enjoy it.  

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

Third Star: W Keltie Jeri-Leon.  Riding a five game scoring streak, he registered five points over the three games with three goals and two assists.  The "old man" on the roster has been coming through in the clutch with timely goals and as always he provides an invaluable, positive brand of leadership.  It has to be disappointing to have his final season in the WHL cut down to just 24 games but he is making the most of it.  

Second Star:  The goaltending combo of Thomas Milic and Jackson Berry. I lost count of how many odd man rushes and breakaway chances these two stopped this past week, but everyone one of those saves kept Seattle within striking distance of victory.  The T-Birds young roster is going to be prone to errors that lead to Grade A chances for the opposition and these two rose to the occasion.  

First Star:  C Henrik Rybinski.  This is sounding like a broken record.  We could just put this on repeat because he's the best player on the ice every night.  He had six points (2g, 4a)  in the three games and as a result has taken over the overall team scoring lead with 14 points (3g, 11a) through 12 games.  He's doing this while also being tasked with shutting down the opposition's top line.  He makes the players around him better and on a team with 12 rookies on the roster, that's definitely a good thing.  

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Young and the Restless

Before this 24 game season is over, the Thunderbirds will have employed the services of 12 WHL rookies.  Honestly, it could have been more but there are only so many minutes in a game and just 24 spots on this roster.  So if my humble math skills are correct, that would still be 50 percent of the team, right?  At least that's what my trusty calculator tells me.

While two of the rookies still await their debuts, the other 10 have combined for 21 points through nine games on six goals and 15 assists. That's about 30 percent of the team's offense so far.  They've also chipped in two game-winning goals and they've complied a 5-4-0-0 record in net with a 3.16 GAA and a save percentage of .901, with one shutout.  

In a normal season this doesn't happen.  But this season is far from normal and with no championship to play for, no playoff spot to hunt down and with nothing but pride on the line, this is the approach you should take. Because this season is not about this season. For Seattle, it's really about next season and the season beyond that. 

This is like baseball spring training where teams play about 20 games to prepare for 162. The T-Birds are playing a 24 game preseason to prep for the (hopefully) 68 game 2021-22 campaign. They are utilizing all these first year players in all scenarios to see how they handle the pressure of the WHL.  Wins are still celebrated and losses still sting, but lessons learned and experience gained hold greater value.  

Pundits like to evaluate trades as soon as they happen. They give them grades or declare a winner and a loser before the ink on the deal has dried. But especially when draft picks are involved, evaluating a trade can take months if not years. In the end, most transactions benefit both parties, one in the short term and one in the long term.  

I'll make an exception though. The 2019 Draft Day trade Seattle GM Bil La Forge made with the Kelowna Rockets not only goes into the win column for the T-Birds, it might be outright larceny.  La Forge sent three players to Kelowna in exchange for three high draft picks and Conner Bruggen-Cate.  

To be fair, the Rockets were building for their role as Memorial Cup hosts, a tournament that was canceled due to the pandemic, something completely out of their control. But even before that tournament was canceled, Kelowna, even with those additions from Seattle, was floating around .500 and barely holding onto a playoff spot. 

In fact it was their mediocre performance the first half of the 2019-20 season that necessitated another trade with the T-Birds in December of 2019 with the T-Birds shipping Matthew Wedman to the Rockets for three more draft selections.

In the end here is what Seattle got from Kelowna in those two deals:  three first round picks, two second round picks and one fifth rounder.  Kelowna received Matthew Wedman, who played well for the Rockets but aged out after 35 games.  They also got San Jose Sharks prospect Dillon Hamaliuk, who will age out after this season and just 60 plus games.  Neither player will have played one playoff game with Kelowna before their time in the Okanogan is done. 

Defenseman Jake Lee is still there and has been solid in 60 plus games and is eligible to return to Kelowna next season as a 20-year old.  The same is true of goalie Cole Schwebius.  He has another year of eligibility if the Rockets want to bring him back as a 20-year old. They can also try to recoup some of their lost draft capital if they choose to trade either player this summer.

The T-Birds though have already turned one of those draft choices they received from Kelowna into gold.  With the 10th overall pick in the 2019 Bantam Draft, Seattle used Kelowna's pick to select defenseman Kevin Korchinski.  Korchinski, at age 16, is already getting heavy minutes.  He's a slick, smart, puck moving defenseman who is helping resuscitate Seattle's power play.  

The T-Birds used the fifth round pick they got in the Wedman deal to choose forward Reeve Sukut in last spring's draft and with no training camp last fall, we've yet to get a look at him to see what the T-Birds got with that choice.  But it's the draft picks the T-Birds banked in those deals with Kelowna that should have you salivating.  

Still to be cashed in from those deals are two more first round picks, one in 2022 and one in 2023, as well as 2021 and 2022 second round picks.  La Forge and his team of scouts, led by Cal Filson and Mark Romas, have already laid down a pretty good track record of using picks acquired in trades on elite if not solid prospects.  We've already mentioned Korchinski, but Conner Roulette, Gabe Ludwig, Thomas Milic, Nico Myatovic and Scott Ratzlaff are all players on the current roster that Seattle selected with draft picks obtained from other WHL teams.  

No one bats a thousand but I'll put my money down that the T-Birds will make good use of those picks they have sitting in the vault.  If Seattle can maximize the value of these extra picks, they should be a force in the WHL for next five to six years.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the last two games:

Third Star:  W Keltie Jeri-Leon.  The lone 20-year old on the roster is making the most of his shortened last season in the WHL.  He scored two goals and added an assist.  He's on pace to be a point a game player.  He leads the team with six goals.  

Second Star:  W Conner Roulette.  Had a three point game against Spokane Sunday. Included in that was the game winning goal in OT.  He currently sits atop the leaderboard in team scoring with ten points and is ready to head to Texas to represent Canada at the U18 World Championship.

First Star:  C Henrik Rybinski.  He's been the team's best player from the first puck drop opening night.  He saw his five game point streak snapped Tuesday in Kennewick but was still one of the best players on the ice.  He set up the game winner Sunday against the Chiefs, in a game he took over as the T-Birds overcame a two-goal deficit.  I'm sure Seattle would love him back next season as a 20-year old but the Florida Panthers 2019 fifth round pick is playing like someone who wants that first NHL contract.  

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Best Supporting Actors

Before we hit Sunday and an Easter matchup with the Spokane Chiefs, a few words on a couple of players who are quietly going about their business and providing solid minutes in key situations for Seattle.

You may remember the start of the 2019-20 season when the Thunderbirds ran into some injury issues among their defensive group.  It was significant enough that Seattle needed to make an early season trade with Red Deer to bring in some help.  Late in August as the preseason was dawning, Seattle sent the rights to listed goalie Landon Houg and and conditional seventh round draft pick to the Rebels for 19 year old defenseman Hunter Donohoe.  

The situation only got worse though and Seattle was forced to make yet another trade for a defenseman.  So in early October of 2019, with the season already underway, T-birds GM Bil LaForge made another call to Red Deer.  This time he sent unsigned defenseman Noah Barlage, along with a 2022 7th round draft pick, to the Rebels in exchange for an 18 year old defenseman. 

Coming back to Seattle was Ryan Gottfried, who at the time of the trade wasn't even playing for Red Deer.  He was back home in Winnipeg waiting to see if he still had a WHL career.  Up to that point Gottfried had played just 58 games in the WHL.  Meanwhile, when Seattle eventually got healthy back on the blue line, they ended up with a plethora of d-man and a decision had to be made.  Which defenseman do they keep, which one had to go?  

Donohoe, the first to arrive, would seem the correct choice, right?  Except he just never seemed to fit.  He lasted just nine games, was even a healthy scratch on occasion.  He registered just one assist and finished his T-birds career at -9.  Instead it was Gottfried, a year younger and happy to be here, who fit well with his new team.

Fast forward to this new, abbreviated 24 game campaign and Gottfried is playing his best hockey since joining the team.  He's not going to wow you with big offensive numbers. He has one assist through seven games.  But he has been rock steady along with his defensive partner, Tryel Bauer.  They are Seattle's top pairing on the blue line and together are usually out on the ice against the opponents top players.  

More significantly Gottfried just may be among Seattle's two or three best penalty killers on a PK unit that is doing great work early on.  He's shown to be very good at getting to pucks when the team is shorthanded and getting that puck out of harms way.  He has made himself a valuable player.  On a team that is featuring almost a dozen rookies, it is nice to have that calming, older presence and he is providing the team just that.  You can trust him to make the right play.  He's gone from being a player without a home to being at home as a T-bird.

Then there is Reid Schaefer, an 2018 eighth round pick out of Spruce Grove, Alberta.  Taken so late in a draft that featured Conner Roulette, Lucas Ciona and Thomas Milic, it would be easy to get lost in the wash.  Eighth round selections are usually longshots, especially from a draft that featured so many talented players chosen ahead of him.  

But I noticed Schaefer quite a bit in his first training camp a couple years ago, and not just because of his red hair.  he showed a flair for putting pucks in the net.  The T-birds noticed him too because they were quick to sign him.  He got a chance to skate in a few games as a 16 year old last season.  Now that he's here full-time at age 17, he's making his presence felt.  Like Gottfried, he is an excellent penalty killer.  at 6'2", 200 lbs., he already has the size that can make him a prototypical power forward.  He's not done growing either.  He also has the frame to add muscle.  And eventually I believe he will start scoring too.  

While a lot of young T-birds player are wowing us and rightfully earning some praise for their play so far this season., Gottfried and Schaefer are flying a little bit under the radar but still proving their value to this team and a good team needs those type of players on the roster to be successful.




Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Quarter Pole

Seven nights, four games, three wins, wonderful to watch.  The Seattle Thunderbirds are one quarter of the way through this abbreviated 24 game schedule and are on pace for 16 wins. In a season that has been turned over to developing the young talent on this roster, that would be an impressive accomplishment. 

Win or lose this team competes for the "W'.  There will be teachable moments along the way, hard lessons learned, but they will entertain.  The only disappointment so far is that you, the fans, haven't been there to witness it in person.  Three of their four win have come on home ice and each one has been a one-goal nail biter.  From the opening night shootout victory over Spokane to Wednesday's come-from-behind win over Everett, you'd be getting your money's worth.  

To a person, everyone in the organization wondered how raucous the ShoWare Center would have been when Jeremy Hanzel skated in, around and through the Silvertips defense in the third period Wednesday as he scored the game winner.  These players, especially these young rookies, can't wait to be part of that full throated ShoWare experience for the first time.  It can't come soon enough.

The tale of the tape is in and Seattle is the youngest team in the WHL for a second straight season.  With ten rookies and only one 20 year old, the young guns are getting plenty of ice.  But you need a rudder to steer the ship and Seattle's seasoned players are bringing the young pups along.  No one epitomizes that more than 19 year old Florida Panthers prospect Henrik Rybinski.  

Rybinski is off to a terrific start.  It may not show loudly on the stat sheet where he sits seventh in team scoring with a goal and three assists, but he is leading by example with his all out effort on every shift.  He is relentless and you can see that tenacity rub off on young players like Jordan Gustafson and Gabe Ludwig.

When the T-birds acquired Rybinski from Medicine Hat at the trade deadline two seasons ago, he was playing on the wing but wanted to play center fulltime.  The T-birds weren't sure if he could do the job.  But to their credit, they gave him the opportunity to prove himself and he has blossomed.  

He's centering their top line, going toe-to-toe with the opponents top players and only getting better. He's winning fifty percent of his faceoffs.  But it's not so much how many times he is successful on the draw as when he's successful such as the late defensive zone win against Everett in a game with Seattle nursing a one goal lead.  He's their top penalty killer and instrumental on a power play that has tallied in all but one game so far this season.  

The WHL has allowed teams to carry 2005 born players (15 year olds) on their rosters this season if they were first round Bantam picks in the 2020 draft.  As a result the top six picks from last spring's draft have all either scored a goal or registered a point this season.  The seventh pick from that draft is Seattle's Sam Oremba.  He's yet to play a game, though he is with the team.  

He's one of those ten rookies Seattle is carrying on their roster.  Those other teams seem to need their 15 year olds to score to find some success.  The T-birds having Oremba with them is a luxury, not a necessity.  That's how deep their pool of rookie players is.  Oremba is a really, talented player but Seattle doesn't need him in the lineup to win games.  Mind you, he can help them win, they just don't need him to...yet.   

Through six games, Seattle has registered 73 shots on goal in the first period.  That's an average of just slightly over 12 shots on goal in the first period each game.  The T-birds have scored just three first period goals and two of those came in one game. They are getting off to terrific starts minus that pesky ingredient, goals.  Just wait until they start adding some scoring to those fast starts. 

Congratulations to winger Conner Roulette and goalie Thomas Milic who were selected to be part of Canada's U-18 roster for the tournament that will take place later this month in Texas.  Well earned. 

My T-birds Three Stars for the last four games:

Third Star:  D-man Jeremy Hanzel.  Props to the T-birds scout who discovered this gem.  Hanzel was not selected in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft, playing in, as he told me, a league that usually doesn't draw a lot of attention.  But he got the attention of the T-birds who scouted, listed and signed him last spring. Now he has NHL scouts paying attention, probably even more so after that game winner against the 'Tips.  

Second Star:  C Henrik Rybinski.  He's the tone setter for Seattle at both ends of the ice.  A terrific defensive forward with the assignment of usually trying to slow down, if not shutdown, the opposing team's top playmakers.  But he's more then that as he will chip in with timely offense.  Even if he doesn't score he's probably the one creating the scoring chance for his teammate.

First Star:  W Conner Roulette.  Hard to think of going pointless in the first two games as a slow start, but that is how good Roulette is in that, if he doesn't record a point coming out of the gate we panic a little.  Calm down, the wheel is spinning.  He now has points in four straight games including four goals and is now leading the team in scoring with six points on four goals and two assists.  His creativity in the offensive zone reminds me just a tad of Patrick Kane.  He's just fun to watch on the ice.  









Sunday, March 21, 2021

Aaaaaand We're Off!!

So nice to once again be writing about actual hockey games being played! But first let's acknowledge those who are making it possible for the five WHL U.S Division teams to hit the ice again for this abbreviated, 24 game season. From the owners, to the front office staffs, from the equipment managers to the off-ice officials and from the bus drivers and the Zamboni operators to the cleaning crews this is truly a team effort. Let's hope it's a once-in-a-lifetime team effort, but a team effort nonetheless.

There is probably not enough space here to thank everyone.  If you are involved in making this return to play possible, take a bow.  No person's task in getting this season going is insignificant.  Some roles though have been more prominent then others and I want to take a moment to acknowledge the work of Thunderbirds Athletic Trainer Phil Varney.  I've written about Phil in the past.  He's not just an ace bandage and ice pack guy.  Those days are long gone.  His career field is a science and Phil follows the science.  He is a highly trained medical professional (he has a Masters Degree) and he has been working with the league on this return to play since last March.   

If you follow him on Twitter (@pvarney) you'll rarely if ever see him post opinion, unless maybe it's about the Red Wings.  Instead you find he tweets or retweets facts posted by the professionals who deal with this virus every day.  From the testing to the treatment, to sanitizing the benches and penalty box, he's been putting in some long days.  Just as an example, I know he read every study he could find on face coverings and whether they are effective, and which ones are the most effective.  So, if you're on Twitter, give him a follow and then give him a #ThanksPhil.

Now to the actual hockey played by the T-birds his weekend.  Seattle earned a split of their two games and I think "earned" is the right word here.  Seattle was the better team opening night in their 4-3 shootout win over Spokane. The team played well Saturday night against Portland, just not well enough to win and fell 4-1.

The results really aren't too surprising.  Remember, the division had just a couple weeks to train after a year long layoff.  Player conditioning is going to be a factor early on. The T-Birds used a lot of pent up emotion and energy Friday against the Chiefs.  They had a fast start Saturday against the Winterhawks but you could see some of the players tiring as that game wore on.  For both teams it was their second game but one of Portland's slight advantages was having a day of rest between their opener Thursday and the game Saturday.  

In the two games, the T-Birds outshot their opponents in the first period by a combined 27-12.  The problem was they had nothing to show up on the scoreboard for that decided early edge in puck possession and territorial play.  Through two games they've yet to score a first period goal while allowing one against.

Despite showing some rust at times, despite settling for a split, there was so much to like about what we saw from this young team over six plus periods.  Matt Rempe already wears the battle scars of a player who parks out in front of the opposing net.  At 6'8", 240 lbs., the New York Rangers prospect knows he has, as Liam Neesom would say, a particular set of skills.  Saturday night those skills led to his first goal of the season, off a tip of a point shot on the power play.  A tip of the hat to Portland goalie Dante Gianuzzi, who prevented Rempe from scoring a few more.  Gianuzzi won this battle, but the war continues.  

I don't know if it comes across as too much tooting the horn when it comes to the effusive praise given the young talent on this team but it was on full display this past weekend. 

We often say a team takes on the identity of it's coach.  The fact this team works hard for 60 minutes every game is a direct reflection of Matt O'Dette.  But General Managers are called the architects and Bil La Forge is the master planner behind this roster.  One of the cornerstones he laid was back in May of 2019, when on draft day he dealt Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee and Cole Schwebius to the Kelowna Rockets.  

Among the pieces he got back was the Rockets 2019 first round pick.  It gave La Forge two selections in the first 10 picks.  He used his own pick, the eighth overall choice, on center Jordan Gustafson,  and with the 10th overall pick obtained from Kelowna, he chose defenseman Kevin Korchinski. Recall too, that back in January of that same year, at the league trade deadline, he had traded Zack Andrusiak to Everett for a second round pick.  He turned that pick into winger Gabe Ludwig. 

Now, if you were listening to the broadcast or watching the streaming of the first two games this weekend, you couldn't help but hear about or see those three player positively impact both games.  These three rookies played like seasoned vets.  All picked up their first career point.  Gustafson plays bigger then his 5'10" frame would suggest.  A prolific scorer at lower levels of hockey, he isn't afraid to get his nose dirty and I have no hesitation calling him a 200 foot player.  Through the first two games he's won 50 percent of his faceoffs (9 of 18).  He's already had an impact on the power play, registering an assist on each of Seattle's two power-play goals.

I hesitate to compare a young player to a former Thunderbirds player who has established himself as a top player in the NHL.  But there were a number of times this weekend when I watched Korchinski skate the puck out from behind the Seattle net and I had a "deja vu, flashback, where-have-I-seen-that-before" thought.  Let me stop and just call it hints of Shea Theodore because Korchinski is going to be his own player, but it was a bit eerie.  

Ludwig is a bundle of energy.  He's a pitbull with finesse.  He is speed and quickness on ice.  Think of a package that combines a little Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan, Donovan Neuls and Sami Moilanen with potentially, a much higher ceiling.  I've always wanted to say this, but I heard from an unnamed source that NHL scouts like Seattle's draft class for this summer's NHL Draft, but they are really excited about the group that will be eligible for the 2022 NHL Draft.  

My Three Stars for opening weekend:

Third Star: Lots of players to choose from here.  That's how well I though the team showed.  From goalie Thomas Milic flashing terrific lateral movement in the crease to defenseman and newly minted captain Ty Bauer laying out to block numerous shots, there was so much good hockey to describe on the broadcasts.    

Four rookies earned their first points as T-Birds but my Third Star goes to Gustafson who earned two assists and showed he will be a force to reckon with on the T-Birds power play.  It says something about the coaches confidence in him that he was out there Friday night for much of the 3-on-3 overtime period.

Second Star: RW Keltie Jeri-Leon.  If not for hitting two posts Seattle's lone 20-year old on the roster may have had a four goal game opening night.  Instead he settled for two and added an assist for a three point weekend.  The coaching staff and front office rave about his character and leadership.  Talk to him for just five minutes and you'll understand why.  Just wait until the pandemic is over to do it though!

First Star:  C Henrik Rybinski.  The Florida Panthers prospect is back, baby!  I think Rybinski had a slightly off season a year ago.  But over the weekend he was the player Seattle got from Medicine Hat at the 2018-19 trade deadline.  He set the tone with his ferocious forecheck.  He was darting in and out of traffic with the puck, creating numerous scoring opportunities.  He won over 50% of his faceoffs (24/41).  A young team needs a veteran tone setter and this weekend, Rybinski was just that for Seattle.