Saturday, April 20, 2024

Begin the Climb

The Western Hockey League postseason is in full on mode, down to the final four teams. The most exciting time of the year, unless you are on the outside looking in. The Thunderbirds missed the 2024 playoffs and that was disappointing. It's difficult at the WHL level to stay at the top.  Every three years your roster basically gets turned over. A champion one season, in the cellar the next. You spend a few years developing a player and before you know it, he's off to the next level. 

It's just not easy to create that consistency of winning and fighting for a Cup every year. Winnipeg/Wematchee, who fell to Seattle in the 2023 Finals was one and done this playoff run, after winning back-to-back Scotty Munro trophies after posting the best regular season record in 2022 and 2023. Edmonton, the team that beat Seattle in the 2022 WHL Championship Series, has missed the postseason two years in a row.

The last two Cup winners pre pandemic? Prince Albert won it all in 2019. They are 2-8 in the postseason since, getting knocked out in the first round twice. The team they beat in the 2019 Final, Vancouver? 7-14 in the postseason with just one playoff series win, a first round upset of the Silvertips in 2022.

Swift Current took home the Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2018. After missing the playoffs three times, this spring was their first foray into postseason play since and they went 5-4 over two rounds before being eliminated. 

Everett was the team Swift Current beat in the spring of 2018. They've qualified for the postseason each year since, including earning the Scotty Munro Trophy in 2022, after compiling the best regular season record. Unfortunately they were upset by Vancouver in the opening round that spring. To their credit they have played in 29 playoff games since falling to the Broncos in that 2018 league final. But their record in those playoff games is 12-17 and they've only won one second round playoff game (1-8).

When the T-Birds won the 2017 WHL Championship, they defeated the Regina Pats.  Since that loss in the league final to Seattle, Regina is just 6-8 in the playoff and missed the postseason this spring.  Even with a generational players like Connor Bedard in their lineup last spring, they were eliminated in the first round. 

Teams like Portland, Kelowna and Saskatoon are perennial playoff clubs but haven't captured the big prize in over a decade, if at all. The pandemic years cost teams like the Winterhawks, Silvertips and even the Spokane Chiefs a shot at glory but only one team captures the Cup each year and had those two seasons played out if could have been someone else, such as Edmonton, Medicine Hat or Kamloops bringing home the chalice. 

Which brings us to the Thunderbirds. Yes, it was gut wrenching to see injuries pile up and most likely keep the team from the playoffs this spring but somewhere along the way in the life cycle of the WHL, you are bound to have a year such as the T-Birds just had. It's climbing up off the floor that will show the character of this organization. They've done it before, they can do it again.

Did you know that, since winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2017, the Thunderbirds playoff record is 34-22 with another league title earned last spring?  Since enduring a three season playoff drought (2010, 2011, 2012), the Thunderbirds are 65-43 in the playoffs, claiming two league titles, four Western Conference Championships and a pair of U.S. Division Banners.

From a business side, a revenue stream side, you don't want to miss the playoffs. That's money in the bank, although a couple long playoff runs can make up for one missed postseason. But over the last decade only one other WHL team can come close to matching what the Thunderbirds have done.  

Is it Portland? They'd be in the mix but not quite. They last won a league title twelve years ago, in 2013, then lost the final to Edmonton in 2014. In the decade since, they have not missed the postseason. They entered this spring's WHL playoffs with a 32-38 playoff mark since that last trip to the championship series and are 8-0 through the first two rounds of these playoffs, as they head into the 2024 Western Conference Championship Series against Prince George. 

Kelowna? Since 2015 the Rockets have captured one Chynoweth Cup (2015) and gone 40-45 in postseason play after being eliminated in the second round this spring. They went to three straight Western Conference Championship series (2015,2016, 2017) but no trophies in the last ten seasons. 

No, the team that comes closest to what Seattle has done the last ten seasons would be the Edmonton Oil Kings. It's just outside the ten year window but eleven seasons ago they won the Chynoweth Cup then did it again in 2022. They can also claim the 2014 Memorial Cup. Since 2015 Seattle is 62-39 in the WHL postseason. Edmonton is 45-20. 

And guess what? Edmonton missed the playoffs in three of the last ten seasons, once after winning it all in 2014 and twice since winning it in 2022. So making the playoffs every season, while nice, it isn't kiss of death should you miss out. It's all about using the down season or two to build back up.Then, it's what you do once you're in the playoffs that matters and the T-Birds have made it matter the most.  

Now, they look to do it again.  They have some pieces already in place with players like Cootes, Lovsin, Pickford, Davidson and Martorana. Other players like Hartmann, Parmar and Mathies have shown promise. A few younger players are ready to show they belong.  

Now the upcoming WHL Draft becomes crucial.  Seattle has two picks in the top 23, including eleventh overall. They'll need to hit on those two high selections just as they have done with so many of their top picks over the last decade. They should make two picks in this summer's CHL Import Draft that will need to impact the roster.  What happens off the ice over the next couple of months is going to greatly impact what happens on the ice between 2025 and 2028. 

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Post Mortem

It has been a few days now since the season ended.  And even though we knew it was coming to an end last Sunday, the finality of the 2023-24 hockey season has come all too sudden, as in, what do I do now?

The last time the T-Birds missed the WHL playoffs, and they did miss the postseason three years in a row between 2010 and 2012, I think you can say they got the deserved results.  Well, maybe not so much the 2011-2012 season when they actually ended up with three more wins than Everett but lost out on the last playoff spot because the Silvertips had more loser points. Of course the T-Birds consolation prize was winning the draft lottery that spring and selecitng Mat Barzal. So, it all worked out in their favor.

But those three non playoff years were a dark time in the franchise history. Too many draft picks that didn't pan out. This past season though, they deserved a better fate.  When the team gathered late last summer for training camp, they truly believed they were not just a playoff contender, but a team that could potentially compete for home ice advantage in round one. Sure they would have a lot of young rookies, but they would be surrounded by seasoned, championship caliber veterans.

Even without Kevin Korchinski returning from the NHL, a 7-1 start seemed to vindicate those beliefs. Were there some losses along the way this season that should have gone into the win column, if not for a mistake here or there? Sure, but the number one culprit was  injury, or more correctly, INJURIES plural. Exactly 200 games lost. And the number one injury was the one that took Nico Myatovic out of the lineup for half a season. And of course, it didn't need to happen.  An injury suffered because of jubilation and raw emotion. He was hurt in a dogpile after an exhilirating comeback win at home in mid-October. A 6-4 win over Brandon when Seattle scored four goals in the final minute to erase a two goal deficit.  As they say, stuff happens. Won the battle, lost the war.

It was Myatovic's fourth game back from his first NHL camp with Anaheim.  In those four games he would score two goals and add three assists and be a +3 player.  He was off to a great start and potentially on his way to eclipsing his 30 goal effort the season before. Instead, limited to just 34 games, he scored just nine times. At the time of the injury, Seattle was 4-1. By the time he returned, they were 14-22-2-0.

That injury occured October 17th. He wouldn't play again until January 20th. Seattle was already without Jordan Gustafson, who was still recovering from offseason surgery and wouldn't get into the lineup for another month. Gus ended up with 12 goals in just 32 games played. That would put him on pace for 25 for a full season. We forget Sawyer Mynio was out for a nearly a month at that time and then Seattle would lose Gracyn Sawchyn for a month as well. 

What do those four players all have in common? They're all NHL drafted players. That was 69 goals returning from the previous season, all out of the lineup for a good chunk of the first half of the year. On a team that knew it would be scoring challenged, those losses were devastating. They would suffer more injuries moving forward, losing Coster Dunn, Simon Lovsin, Hyde Davidson, Sam Popowich as well as Gustafson twice more. While not an injury, goalie Scott Ratzlaff, the team MVP, was away for a month at World Juniors with Team Canada.

By the time Seattle got the gang almost all back together again so they could put on a 8-4-0-1 push at season's end, they had gone from 7-1-0-0 to 19-34-2-0. They got a little healthier just a little too late. 

Still, with that young untested, lineup for most of the season, they missed the playoffs by just nine points, or five wins. Cut those games lost due to injury from 200 to say, just 125, and I bet the T-Birds find five more Ws.  Halve those games lost to injury from 200 to 100 and I bet I could find ten more wins. Against the team they lost that last playoff spot to, Spokane? they went 4-1-1-0. Versus the five teams in front of them in the standing the T-Birds were 12-8-1-0, while never being at full strength. In fact, take out Portland and Prince George and Seattle was 20-22-1-0 versus the rest of the Western Conference with their injury depleted, young roster.

Seattle was 0-4 against the Vancouver Giants but if they have a healthier lineup for just two of those games, surely they could have pulled out one or two wins? They lost a December game to Vancouver, 2-1 in overtime, with no Myatovic, no Gustafson and no Ratzlaff available.  

Heck, they were just ten points back of Victoria for seventh place and eleven points back of Vancouver for 6th. And for those saying injuries are just an excuse? Let's look at that Victoria team, a team Seattle, despite their injuries, beat three times in five tries. 

On January 20th, the Royals were ten games over .500 with two months remaining, sitting in second place in the B.C. Division and in a battle with Wenatchee for fourth place in the Western Conference. Then, like the T-Birds they got rocked by injuries, often not having enough skaters to dress for a game, calling up 15 and 16 year olds to fill the void. 

Go back through the WHL weekly injury reports for that time period and look at not just the number of players the Royals were missing, but who those players were. Some of their best players were out long term. They went 5-16-2-1 from that point on and dropped to fourth place in their division and seventh in the conference. They went from ten games above .500 to one game below. They went from battling for home ice in round one, to fighting for their playoff lives. Injuries aren't an excuse, they are a fact.

Seattle lost eight games this season by one goal and seven more by two goals, meaning there was probably an empty net goal by the opponent involved in some of the finishes of those game. fifteen games where a healthy team could have potentially changed a loss to a win.

Now, all that being said Seattle was still in the playoff hunt up until the final week of the season. Yes, it would have taken a blazing finish and a lot of help outside of their control, but that young lineup fought to keep the team alive.  Three rookie forwards finished with double digits in goals, a fourth just missed that mark.  Because of the unexpected increase in their ice time everyone of the rookies on the roster were better, more confident players when the season ended, then when it started.

Seattle carried ten rookies through the course of the season and quite often eight of them were in the lineup on a nightly basis.  Twelve players skated in their first WHL game this season. Six others entered the season with just one or two games of WHL experience under their belts. Combined those 18 players skated in 530 games this season. Combined, that's equivalent to almost eight WHL seasons.

What does it mean? Does it guarentee a successful season in 2024-25? Nothing is guaranteed but it does give the T-Birds a terrific building block going into next year. It means all those young players know what it takes to compete at the WHL level. It means great competition for roster spots and playing time next fall. 

Seattle will lose most of their leadership group. With Myatovic and Gustafson signed by their NHL teams the chances of either of them coming back to play as a 20 year old next year is very slim. They lose their top point producer (Jeremy Hanzel) and leading goal scorer (Eric Alarie) as well as the versatile Sam Popowich. Luca Hauf would be a two-spotter (Import and 20 year old) so it is highly unlikely that he will be back but not out of the realm of possibility.

Right now your 20s would be Nathan Pilling and Owen Boucher. Two solid players but only two.That's it.  They'll have to find a third 20 year old. Again, it could be Hauf but most likely not. I would anticipate the Thunderbirds making two selections in this summer's Import Draft. With the loss of Hanzel I'd think an impactful 18 or 19 year d-man would be on the team's radar. 

Maybe they don't need to make two Import selections. Perhaps they'll only need to pick once. Not sure, but since they only carried one Import on the roster this past season, they may still have the rights to winger Jesse Kiiskinen. The T-Birds selected the Finn in the first round of last summer's Import Draft. He was a 2023 third round pick of the NHL's Nashville Predators. Playing in Finland's pro league, Liiga, with the Pelicans, he had just 10 points (4g, 6a) in 38 games. Would Nashville prefer he play top line minutes at age 19 in the WHL? Of course they could also keep him in Finland or sign him and put him in the AHL with Milwaukee.

The Import Draft, of course, isn't the only draft to look forward to, just the one that will have the most immediate impact. But there are a couple of drafts that will greatly affect the team's future. In May the Thunderbirds will have the 11th pick in round one of the WHL Prospects Draft. Most recently when picking around that spot in the draft order the T-Birds have come away with the likes of Kevin Korchinski, Braeden Cootes and Tij Iginla.

The T-Birds will also have the top selection in round two, 23rd overall.  That's a similar spot in the draft order to when the T-Birds selected Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear.

Seattle will also have the second overall pick in the WHL U.S. Prospects Draft.  Can Seattle draft an impact player and convince him at some future date to commit to the WHL? Stay tuned to an important offseason

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Season:

Third Star: D Sawyer Mynio.  The Vancouver Canucks signed draft pick was selected as the T-Birds Defenseman of the Year. On a team with Jeremy Hanzel, that's saying a lot.  He was second on the team in scoring.  He had career highs in goals, assist and points and it wasn't even close. Five of his 16 goals, nearly one third, were game winners. Over two-thirds of his goals (11) were on the power play as his one-timer has become a lethal weapon.  He plays with a bit of a mean streak, can be physical but also has a touch of finesse.  His skating is becoming Theodore/Korchinski-esque.  It will be interesting to see if he gets at least a summer camp invite by Team Canada, for next winter's World Junior Championships

Second Star: D Jeremy Hanzel.  He led the team in scoring, the first T-Birds defenseman to do that since Theodore back in 2013-14.  He was the only defenseman in the WHL to lead his team in point production and just one of two in the entire CHL to do it. He went from an undrafted free agent to a WHL Champion to an NHL drafted and signed prospect.  In his time with the T-Bird every aspect of his game improved by leaps and bounds but none more so than his leadership. With Korchinski not returning he stepped up and quaterbacked the power play. That unit ended up with better numbers this season than the power play of that stacked T-Birds team a year ago.

First Star: G Scott Ratzlaff.  A workhorse. The first T-Birds goalie since Rylan Toth to get into more than 50 games. And that is quite a feat considering he was away from the team for a month with Team Canada at the World Juniors in Sweden.  He played in 52 of the 59 games he was available for this past season.  He earned the team wins in a couple of games they had no business winning, when he made 62 and 52 saves respectively. He thrives on the workload.  He wants that crease every night. He should once again be in the mix next winter to man the crease for Canada at the World Juniors. Hopefully, next spring he finally gets an opportunity to take the crease in a WHL playoff game for Seattle.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Not Now, Gotta Run

It has been to say the least, a very busy last month for the Seattle Thunderbirds.  And there is no rest for the weary. After playing seven games in ten days, the team had barely time to catch their breath before starting a stretch of eight games in 14 days, with six of those games on the road.

Now I'm not asking for sympathy.  The schedule was known long ago and traditionally the T-Birds  backload their schedule with the majority of the games coming the second half of the season.  There was a stretch at this point last season in which the team played 11 games in 21 days, or on average, a game every other day. They entered the playoffs last spring after playing their last six regular season games over a nine game span.

It's not something new. They have a voice when it comes to drawing up the schedule. And they also knew they would have a vastly different looking team than the one that won the league championship last May. They knew they would be utilzing a younger, inexperienced roster. To quote one of the great coaching cliches "It is what it is." The team didn't fear that scenario though. With all that, they entered the regular season on September 30th believing they would not only compete for a playoff spot, but potientally a top four spot in the conference if everything broke the right way.

What could not be predicted though was the number of games that would be missed due to injury.  It is literally on a record pace. Through the first 49 games they have lost 150 games to various ailments. And we're not talking the simple bumps and bruises that keep a player out of the lineup for a game or two.  These injuries aren't showing up on the weekly report as day-to-day, but instead are week-to week and month-to-month. By the time we hit March 24th and the regular season finale, don't be surprised if the number of games lost to injury hits the 200 mark.

Seattle really hasn't played that poorly over the last month. They've just been inconsistent. All things considered, the injuries, the busy schedule (featuring eleven games against teams .500 or better), and they're 6-9.  The record of most of the teams around them in the standings are similar. The problem is that they haven't gained any traction.  At the WHL trade deadline, they were six points out of a playoff spot.  A month later they're seven points back and now time is running out.

We knew scoring was going to be a problem and that has played out as Seattle averages a league low 2.7 goals per game. They've scored just one goal in each of their last three games. They knew they would lose four of their top five scorers from their championship team.Then the guy they thought would be their top returning point producer, Kevin Korchinski, surprised many and stuck in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks. All of a sudden your top five offensive weapons from last season are gone and seven of your top twelve.

No worry right? They had their second leading goal scorer from last season back. That is, until Nico Myatovic got hurt just a few games into the schedule and missed half the season and is still working his way back to full strength after a three month layoff. The Jordan Gustafson situation seems like a cruel joke.  The guy can't catch a break, at least not of the good variety. Then just as the team was getting healthy they lose Sam Popowich, Coster Dunn and Simon Lovsin to long term injury in back-to-back-to-back games.

Combined that trio has played just once in the last ten games. That's 30 goals out of the lineup on a team struggling to put pucks in the back of the net. Dunn and Lovsin had combined for eleven goals in the first eight games post-Christmas. And it doesn't appear relief is coming anytime soon.

Remember the good old days when all Seattle was doing was counting the days until Colton Dach would join their stacked lineup? It was a simpler time back then, wasn't it? The Thunderbirds margin for error this season was as thin as a sheet of paper. The injuries have been like one of those trick birthday candles that you just can't blow out. It just keep re-igniting and anything you throw on the fire in an attempt to stop the burning, just makes the flames reach higher.

There used to be a show up on the TV in Canada called, I believe, "This Hour has 22 Minutes". That could be the title of this year's T-Birds season becasue that is about how long they had a complete healthy roster available, 22 minutes.

And yet here we are with 19 game remaining and there is still a chance to snag a playoff spot.  It won't be easy and they'll probably need outside help along the way, but it is doable. There is no magic elixir that is going to heal up the wounds faster but Seattle has shown that, short bench or not, they can compete with every team on their schedule. But it has to start now.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the busy stretch:

Third Star: F Nishaan Parmar. The confidence that comes from scoring your first WHL goal must be quite a tonic because Parmar seems to have flipped a switch and brought his game to another level.  Like most of the rookies on the team he is still a work in progress but he has taken a big stride in the right direction.  So much so that he is getting top minutes on the power play and taking key faceoffs.

Second Star: D Jeremy Hanzel. I know a lot of folks out there are wondering why Seattle didn't trade away their stud defenseman, but where would this team be without him? He's not just their leading scorer but he eats up so many minutes on the back end. With captain Jordan Gustafson out of the lineup, he has been the defacto on ice leader. It may not sound fancy but he is the most reliable player on the ice.

First Star G Scott Ratzlaff. Most nights he's all that separates this team from a tough, late game loss and a blow out defeat. He's facing a mountain of rubber most games. I think we forget he is still very young at 18 and it is his first season as a true number one. But he goes about his job without complaint.  Don't look at the win/loss record or the goals against average. Check the save percentage that is at .904.  That's the real indicator of just how good he has been. He won't get a snif at any post season league honors, but he has been one of the best netminders in the league the last two months.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

A Tale of Two Cities

What a difference twenty four hours can make in the life of a young Thunderbirds hockey team.  The game Friday at home against Prince George was the best game they had played since their last win back on December 13th in Spokane. It was not a perfect game as they still are struggling to finish, but against one of the best team's in the CHL they went toe to toe and probably deserved something other than the 2-1 loss.

They were direct, they got pucks in deep, they won puck battles and put shots to the net. In the defensisve zone they got into shot lanes. Their sticks were active knocking down passes and they played with some physicality.  I thought they were focused on playing their best agaisnt one of the best.

Satruday in Everett it was almost the complete opposite. And you might be asking why? Why couldn't the T-birds bring that same focus and effort they had against the Cougars into the game against the Silvertips? I think one of the lessons that young players struggle to grasp early in their careers, is the need to make adjustments from game to game.

Everett plays a different style than PG.  Just as Portland plays a different brand than, say, Tri-City.  So Seattle's young squad may have been focused on doing the same things against Everett as they did the night before against Prince George. That's okay until you have to adjust to how your opponent is playing. 

Against PG Seattle was able to get pucks in deep in the offensive zone and get into the board battles quickly.  Everett is a quicker team and Seattle didn't adjust to that speed.  As head coach Matt O'Dette said about Everett "They're a team that gets up and down the ice very fast. They're on you quick. When you're trying to skate the puck up the ice (against that), if you're not letting the puck work for you and moving it, getting to a place where you can head man the puck, they're going to chase you down."

Again, it really comes down to consistency of effort because back on December 30th, Seattle was able to do that against Everett. They did it even in their 7-1 loss to Everett in mid-December when they outshot the Tips in Everett 44-35. It's just making the mental adjustments from game to game, opponent to opponent.  It's the part of the game that probably takes the most teaching. 

I think another issue is physical maturity. When you're young and consistently playing against older players. Back to back games can be a drain. Physically going up against an older, NHL drafted player on back to back nights is going to be taxing. These young players are learning that firsthand.  We saw it a few years back when players like Ciona, Schaefer, Davidson and Korchinski were young and green.  Then we saw those players mature physically and turn the tables. It's a process. 

But you can't learn it if you don't go out and play.  This is why you'll see a young Braeden Cootes or even a 15-year old callup like Brendan Rudolph out on the ice against an opponent's top line. It gives them that first hand opportunity to know how much they need to grow. It many not seem like it now, but they are learning from those situations.  I remember quite vividly Shea Theodore's 16 year old season. He finished -36. He was thrown out on the ice in all situations.  He wasn't benched if he made a mistake. He learned, he grew, he absorbed the lessons and a couple of seasons later he was +19 and a NHL first round draft pick.

They're going to have some good shifts and they're going to have some bad shifts. They're going to have some good games and they're going to have some nights where they are off.  The goal is to reduce those bad shifts and off games as they grow in their WHL careers. You can't learn every lesson in practice.

What's the first thing a U16 player says after his first game in the WHL? almost to a man they say it's a much faster game. What's the first thing a freshly drafted 18 year says at his first NHL camp? The players are bigger and faster. You don't adjust to that change overnight. The game slows down as you get more repitition. And when you think you have it figured out one game, the next game will challenge that thinking.

Nineteen. The T-Birds have nineteen rookies in their system.  Many of them have already played at least one WHL game this season. In all likelihood, they're going to get two top 25 draft picks this May.  So that's a minimumm of 21 players who will be fighting for roster spots the next two to three seasons. Those players are spread out over four drafts. That's competition. Iron sharpens iron. 

Not all of those players are going to spend 4-5 seasons with the Thunderbirds but they're going to push each other to be their best.  Not all the players will become Shea Theodore's. The cream will rise to the top and that's how you build a winner.  The organization won't hit on 100% of those prospects but if they can develop 30-40 percent, they'll be a winning team again, sooner rather than later.  That process has already begun.  Probably sooner than the organization wanted to because of all the injuries this season. So it may be a curse right now, it could end up being a blessing down the road.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: C Coster Dunn.  He just seems primed for an offensive breakout.  You could see that shorthanded goal he scored against Everett coming.  He seems to be feeling more comfortable in his own skin as he becomes relied upon more.  He still has work to do but he had a goal and an assist in the two games and that has him pointing in the right direction.

Second Star: W Nathan Pilling.  A goal in each game.  His shooter's mentality is a reason for that. Hopefully there is more of that to come the second half as he gets more comfortable in his new surroundngs. In five games since being acquired from Edmonton he has four points (2g, 2a). What I've observed from him off the ice, he's got the look and the demeanor of a team leader.  

First Star: G Scott Ratzlaff. Simply brilliant on Saturday night in Everett. He made 54 saves and everyone of them kept the T-birds in the game, giving them a chance until the final minute. One of the best singular goalie performances I've seen in 20-plus years with the T-Birds. Not just because of the volume of shots faced, but the number of high quality scoring chances he denied.  In two games this weekend he stopped 87 shots.  


Tuesday, January 2, 2024

It's the Little Things

I see a lot of parallels between this version of the T-Birds and the 2021 pandemic season team.  Maybe not in the results, as the T-Birds put together a decent record in those 23-games, going 10-12-0-1, but there are other similarities.  

To be fair, that team didn't go through a series of significant injuries like this season's team is experiencing. But like this year's team, that team was quite young with just one 20 year old, Kelit Jeri-Leon on the roster. But the young players that year weren't sixteen year olds, they were seventeen year olds. 

Twelve players who played in at least one game that 2021 season were listed as rookies, though one, goalie Jackson Berry, was 18 years old with limited games previously in the league.  Fifteen players who have skated in at least one game for Seattle this season are rookies, none of them over the age of seventeen. Twelve of them are age 16 or younger. 

Statistically, Seattle is the second youngest team in the WHL this season but we are splitting hairs here.  According to Alan Caldwell, Calgary has the youngest team with an average age of 17.70 year old.  The T-Birds and Medicine Hat have a roster with an average age of 17.79.  But with their key injuries being to their older players (age 19 or older), my guess is that, on a nightly basis, the T-birds are actually icing the youngest team night in and night out.  

Here's an example. In their last game Calgary dressed eight players classified as rookies. Two of them were age 18, three were 17 year olds and the other three were age 16. In their last game Medicine Hat dressed eight rookies as well. They break down like this: one 18-year old, three 17 year olds and four 16 year olds. Both Calgary and Medicine Hat have their fare share of second year players, aged 17 and 18.

In their last game the T-Birds dressed nine players classified as rookies. Of those nine three were age seventeen.  The other six?  All age 16. The T-Birds also skated two other 17 year olds but both Hyde Davidson and Bryce Pickford are no longer classified as rookies, having played full-time with the team a year ago.  The Thunderbirds dressed just two 20-year olds because Eric Alarie was out injured,  then lost 19 year old Jordan Gustafson for the third period because of injury as well.  Meanwhile, 19-year old defenseman Braeden Wynne was a healthy scratch. 

The T-birds are currently carrying just four other 19 year olds outside of the ones listed above. Myatovic (inj) and Hauf (WJC) were not in the lineup while Pilling and Boucher played. Sawyer Mynio and Scott Ratzlaff are their most experienced 18 year olds, with both being in their third season. Of course Ratzaff has been away from the team having made Canada's World Junior roster. The T-Birds only other two 18 year olds are Coster Dunn and Cru Hanas.

How does that compare with the T-Birds 2021 pandemic season roster?  Well, of that team's 12 players listed as rookies, as we said, one was 18 (Berry), four were age 17 (Schaefer, Popowich, Milic, and Hanzel), five were age 16 (Gustafson, Korchinski, Myatovic, Ludwig and Penner) while two were age 15 (Ratzlaff and Oremba). Meanwhile, players such as Ciona, Sanders and Roulette were just 17 but had played in enough games the previous season to lose their rookie status.  Also on the roster were three 19 year olds (McNelly, Gottfried and Rybinski) and  five 18 year olds (Davidson, Rempe, Bauer, Mount and Bateman) to go along with the 20 year old Jeri-Leon.  

So their are definite similarities. But there are two big differences. One will be the number of games played. Again, that team only played 23 games over two and a half months.  This year's team has already played in 32 games and will play another 36 before all is said and done.  

The other difference? That 2021 team had nothing to play for but to gain experience. There was no playoff spot to fight for, no pennants or Chynoweth Cup were on the line. Basically, there was no pressure on them. That's not the case for this year's team.  They are fighting to earn a playoff spot. They put expectations on themselves when the season began. The margin for error was thin.  They could not afford injuries among their better, veteran players. Unfortunately those injuries happened. 

This team is trying to get through this rough patch where every mistake or lapse seems to find the back of the net.  The offense is struggling to score goals and the goaltending has been sporadic.  The hope was always to get healthy and make a second half push. Is that still doable with this young team? We'l soon find out.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the last two weeks of 2023.

Third Star: G Grayson Malonoski. He was solid in two starts and one game where he came on in relief. With Scott Ratzlaff returning soon from World Juniors, I would expect the 16-year old to be returned to his U18 team in Saskatoon, but it looks like he has a bright future in goal with Seattle over the next 3-to-4 years.

Second Star: D Jeremy Hanzel.  He is doing what he is supposed to do as a 20 year old defenseman. He's providing leadership, offense and playing a complete 200 foot game.  In the absence of the injured veterans he has stepped up big time.

First Star: W Simon Lovsin. Speaking of complete players, Lovsin is showing signs that he can be just that for Seattle. He has a scoring touch with three goals in three games, plays physical and stands up for his teammates.  I think his play since returning from the Christmas break will catch the eye of NHL scouts if he can continue it through the rest of the second half.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Fill Those Stockings, Fill the Net

The Thunderbirds reach the Christmas break hoping Santa will put a few goals under their tree. Seattle finished the three game weekend scoring just one goal in each game. No surprise then that the T-Birds lost all three games.

With the exception of an ugly seven minute span in the first period Saturday in Everett, the T-Birds didn't give up much either. The Thunderbirds lost 2-1, in overtime, Friday at home to the Vancouver Giants.  They dropped that game to the Silvertip 7-1 before losing 3-1 Sunday to the Giants in Langley with the third goal being an empty netter.

Those three losses came after Seattle had traveled to Spokane last Wednesday and posted a 5-3 win. But four of the goals versus the Chiefs were scored on the power play. The T-birds scored just one even strength goal in their last four games. And since a 10-for-23 stretch with the man advanatge, the Thunderbirds are zero-for-their-last-six.  

You can't rely on your power play for fifty percent of your scoring. Somehow, someway the T-birds have to start generating more even strength goals. Is it a lack of opportunity? Are they spending too much time in their own end? I would say no. Sure, there have been occasions when they struggle to get the puck up ice but that wasn't an issue in any of their last four games.

In those last four pre-Christmas games Seattle averaged 36 shots on goal, twice breaking the 40 shot barrier. What they are missing is some finish.  Sunday's game against Vancouver was a prime example as Seattle created numerous ten bell scoring chances but either flubbed the chance, shot wide or put the puck right in the middle of the goalies jersey. During the first intermission Sunday in Langley, one observer up in the press box said the T-Birds skated themselves out of three goals.

With just 78 the Thunderbirds have scored by far away the fewest goals in the WHL thus far this season. Yes, part of that can be explained by having played a league fewest 29 games at the break but their goals per game average is just 2.6 goals per game and that number drops to 2.1 over their last ten outings.

The injuries to Nico Myatovic and Jordan Gustafson, the month missed by Gracyn Sawchyn, are factors. Not getting Kevin Korchinski back from the Chicago Blackhawks has played into the lack of offensive production as well. It has left Seattle with little margin for error as they skated through the first half with one of the youngest rosters in the WHL.

It's realistic to think that had the Thunderbirds not lost so many games to injuries with their top players, they woud convievably have 4-5 more wins.  But every year teams go through the injury bug. Some more than others, but you know it's coming. Seattle just hasn't had the veteran depth  to survive it, like they did a season ago.

As a result the optimism at the start of the season gave way to the reality of a 12-15-2-0 record heading into the holiday break. The question is, how will they respond when play begins again December 28th?

The T-Birds used fifteen rookies the first half including eight 16 year olds and five 15 year olds.  That's unprecedented. Hopefully it pays off in the future but what does Seattle do in the present? Do they get healthy and stand pat? Or do they break up the gang and trade away valuable veterans? It will be an interesting next month.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the First Half:

Third Star: C Sam Popowich. He has been the most reliable of Seattle's forwards. He plays in all situations and is one gig reason why both of Seattle's special teams, the power play and the penalty kill. have been consistently near the top of the WHL. He needs two more goals to establish a new career high in the WHL. He sticks up for his teammates and provides needed leadership.

Second Star: W Antonio Martorana. On a team full of rookies, he has stood out in the crowd. The 16-year old former 4th round draft pick leads the team in goals at the break with 12. He gets many of them by going to the net. He should only get better as he begins to play more minutes on the power play. A couple goals in the first few games? Maybe you could discount that as flukey, but a dozen goals in 29 games is no fluke.  He's the real deal.

First Star: D Jeremy Hanzel.  The 20 year old defenseman is playing his best hockey right now, building off what was a terrific season a year ago and doing it with a lesser supporting cast around him.  He's taken over the role of quarterbacking the power play that would have been Korchinski's if he were here and he is flourishing. He plays a ton of minutes and he's so often able to skate the T-Birds out of trouble. The Colorado Avalanche have to be happy with the way his season has gone the first three months. They picked him in the sixth round last summer, now let's hope they reward him with a contract. 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Please Bear With Us

The annual Teddy Bear Toss game is a highlight of the season on every team's schedule. Not only do the fans look forward to it, but so do the players. Scoring the Teddy Bear Toss goal is a big deal. Only one player gets to do it. Often times, it comes from an unexpected source. 

That wasn't the case Saturday against Kelowna as Gracyn Sawchyn is one of Seattle's better offensive weapons. I guess the only real intrigue was whether Sawchyn would be in the line up.  He missed over a month with a lower body injury. He did play in last Friday's home game against Saskatoon but wasn't in the lineup last Saturday in Kelowna. Tht's a nice way to announce your return.

Certainly the game was in doubt going into the third period.  The T-Birds were down by one and some quality scoring chances in the second period came up just short.  Head coach Matt O'Dette admitted that led to a little bit of frustation, and understandibly so.  Entering the game the T-Birds had scored just five times in their last four games. They were getting chances and not finishing.  

But they stuck with it and continued to play the T-Birds brand of hockey, the key to which is a strong forecheck. It led to a few power play chances in the final period and they eventually capitalized.  They earned that win. The old saying is you usually get the result you deserve and recently Seattle had been coming up just short.  Small mistakes were adding up and ending up in the back of the T-Birds net.  The Thunderbirds were basically playing  the "close but not quite" game.  It was nice to see them find the necessary finish to close out a win.

Seattle's tying and winning goal came from two players who are noted as prolific goal scorers. Luca Hauf had the tying goal on the power play. In 66 previous games in the WHL he had scored just twelve times. That's one goal about every six games. How long had it been since his last goal? Six games.

Sam Popowich scored the game winner. It was his 23rd career WHL goal, in his 183rd game. That's a goal every eight games.  It was his first goal in sixteen games, after scoring in four straight games to start the season. 

These aren't two players who are going to consistently light the lamp. What they are is a pair of Swiss Army knives.  They bring a little bit of everything in their toolboxes.  They can play up and down the lineup. They play in all situations and they bring grit and they bring energy.  

The goals they do bring seem to be of the timely variety. Four of Hauf's goals this season have been scored on the power play. Three of Popowich's five goals this year have been game winners.  Yes, you win games by scoring more goals than your opponent but you don't win by soley scoring goals.  You claim victory by winning puck battles, killing penalties, blocking shots and getting pucks out of harms way. You win by doing the hard work, the dirty work,  and both Hauf and Popowich excel in those areas. 

After the game Hauf didn't tell me he just wanted to score more goals, he emphasized wanting to score more greasy goals. he's willing to go to the net and take the abuse, getting whacked and hacked, to get to loose pucks and second chances.  Popowich isn't ever going to be the biggest player on the ice but so often we see him standing around the opposing net, looking for deflections and redirects.  To score more than your opponent, you have to keep the puck out of your net as well. That takes some sacrifice and these two players do that.

Seattle and Kelowna played three games in eight days with the T-Birds winning twice.  Goals scored so far in the season series? Seattle 7, Kelowna 6. They're not division opponents but it is one of the T-Birds better rivalries over the past 20 years.  

My Three Stars for Saturday's win:

Third Star: W Luca Hauf. For me, the power play goal was the key goal for Seattle and he fought off a Rockets defender to get to the net and take the pass from Antonio Martorana. he then found a small space to get it through the Rocket's goalie. He followed that up with the prmary assist on Popowich's game winner.

Second Star: G Scott Ratzlaff. After the Rockets tied the game in the first period, they were buzzing around the Seattle net for a lot of the second half of that first period.  Ratzlaff kept them at bay. Then, after Seattle grabbed the lead in the third period, he came with with a few key late stops as Kelowna was looking for the equalizer. As a result his save percentage is now at .900 and his goals against average is just a tick above 3.00 and heading down in the right direction.

First Star: C Sam Popowich.  It just wasn't the game winning goal, though that was the best moment for him, but when the Rockets pulled their goalie for the extra skater in the final two minutes, he won a number of defensive zone face offs, allowing Seattle to get puck possession. He was just nine of 20 in the faceoff circle in the game but I'm guessing two or three came in the final two minutes. He was also part of Seattle's big penalty kill at the end of the second period.  If the T-Birds allow a goal there, they probably don't comeback in the third for the win.