Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Coaching Game

When Steve Konowalchuk took the reins as Seattle's head coach nearly seven years ago, one of the reasons he cited for accepting the position was the chance to work with and develop raw, young players into professionals.  Working with the younger players in the Colorado Avalanche system was something he had done a little of while on that staff of the NHL team.  Coming to Seattle allowed him to do it full-time.

He was pretty good at it too.  Mat Barzal was going to be an NHL player but Konowalchuk showed  him that talent alone was not enough.  In conversations with media at various times during his rookie season with the New York Islanders this past year Barzal often cited the influence of Konowalchuk on his total game.

Barzal was the no brainer in the group though, almost pegged as a surefire NHLer before Kono even arrived in Seattle.  Konowalchuk's biggest fingerprint might be on guys like Scott Eansor and Alexander True, a couple of undrafted players who signed AHL deals.  Like Barzal he showed them as well that it takes more then talent to make it at hockey's highest level.  He instilled a work ethic in them that says you can't cut corners.

In his last four years behind the Seattle bench, Konowalchuk had a secret weapon to help him in developing those players.  that secret weapon was Matt O'Dette.  O'Dette too had his influence on those players.  As the primary assistant coach, he was in charge of the defensemen. Two of them, Shea Theodore and Ethan Bear, earned WHL Defenseman of the Year honors under his tutelage.  Both were drafted into the NHL and both are now NHLers.  Then there is Austin Strand, recently signed by the NHL's L.A. Kings, and Turner Ottenbreit who has hooked on with the AHL's San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche affiliate) for the end of their season.  O'Dette has had a significant impact on the development of their game as well and it continued after Konowalchuk left.  

O'Dette also was responsible for the penalty kill under Kono and Seattle's PK has been fairly consistently a top ten penalty kill team in the WHL over that span, often in the top five.  So, O'Dette had cache before he took over for Konowalchuk behind the bench this season.  So how did he do bringing all that out in the open his first year at the helm?

Let's start with this, in the end coaches are always going to be judged by wins and losses.  In his first  season O'Dette took a team devoid of the star players it had the previous four campaigns and led them to a 34-28-8-2 record and into the first round of the playoffs.  It's one season but he had them playing winning hockey. You can check that box in his favor.

He accomplished that record with a staff lacking in coaching experience.  The only guy standing behind the T-birds bench with any previous coaching on his resume when this season began was O'Dette.  His two assistants were coaching neophytes.  The previous season both Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer were still pro hockey players.  So O'Dette wasn't just coaching the players, he was also coaching up the coaches.  He had a hand in picking his assistants then integrating them into his systems. 

Personally, I think it went seamlessly.  First, it appears he picked the right guys.  Both Hagel and Sommer are enthusiastic, fresh voices who can smartly articulate the message to the players.  In retrospect I think it was a good idea to get two guys just entering the coaching profession to work with a roster featuring a lot of young players pushing their way onto the Thunderbirds roster for the first time. Guys like Sam Huo, Holden Katzalay, Payton Mount and Graeme Bryks are the recipients of that new positive energy Hagel and Sommer are bringing.   Would it have worked with a more veteran roster featuring NHL drafted players like Barzal, Bear, Kolesar and Gropp?   I'm not so sure.

As we know, O'Dette's first year as head coach featured a roster with no Barzal, no Bear, no Kolesar, no Gropp, no Eansor and no True.  He had some solid returning vets in Ottenbreit, Strand, Donovan Neuls, and Nolan Volcan but when the year started he had just one NHL draft pick on the roster, Montreal Canadiens fifth rounder Jarett Tyszka.  Eventually Strand would sign his deal with the Kings but that would be it. Then at the midseason trade deadline Seattle dealt away 19 year old defenseman Aaron Hyman and not long after that 18 year old d-man Reece Harsch went down with injury and missed 19 games.  All of a sudden Seattle was dressing three rookie defenseman every night.  Did they take some lumps?  Sure they did but O'Dette and his staff kept them glued together well enough to get that postseason spot.

The goaltending situation has been well documented too.  Look, when you come into your first year as head coach thinking the one position you don't have to worry about is goaltending and it ends up being the position you worry about the most, it would be easy to panic. Instead O'Dette handed the job to whoever was healthy that night and put faith not just in them, but the team around them until he could settle on a number one guy.  The coach believed in his players and that gave them the ability to believe in themselves.  To paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, hockey is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.  A good coach recognizes that.

At the end of the day there is no way you can look back on this past season and say this team underachieved.  If anything most pundits and fans would say the team surpassed what they thought they would have accomplished.  It was a transition year that, frankly, I think went better then expected.  You knew they would be integrating in a lot of young rookies but to do it and still finish above .500 and in the postseason is a win-win.

If you're still not sold on Matt O'Dette and the job he did, here's something to chew on.  In their first round playoff series against Everett, the 8th seeded T-birds lost to the first seeded Silvertips in five games.   That's expected to happen.  Eight seeds just don't upset one seeds. In that series, the T-birds, with their one NHL free agent and one NHL drafted player (who missed the last two games of the series by the way) scored ten goals and allowed 22. 

Now, I'm not saying that is anything to write home about.  But by comparison, in the second round it was the Portland Winterhawks turn to face that same Everett team.  This was a Portland team that many experts believed would compete for a title this season.  That Portland team finished with the second best record in the Western Conference and fourth best regular season record in the entire WHL.  It was the very same Portland team with seven NHL draft picks on the roster, including four first rounders, along with a free agent goalie who also had signed an NHL deal. Like Seattle, Portland lost their second round series to the Silvertips in five games.  How many goals did they score?  Nine, one LESS then Seattle  How many did they give up?  21 just ONE fewer then the T-birds.

My point here is to draw attention to just how well Matt O'Dette did his first season behind the bench, when he could take a lesser roster then one loaded with NHL prospects, such as the one down in Portland, and essentially produce the same results.

It's just one season and there are no guarantees the second will be better then the first.  But I'm looking forward to watching O'Dette and his staff grow together with this young team.




Friday, April 6, 2018

The To Do List

Now that the season has ended and we've said goodbye to the players we know won't return next season, what's next for the Seattle Thunderbirds?  What are the priorities this offseason?  Will there be a battle for the three 20 year old spots or will that be settled before training camp? Is there going to be a goaltending controversy?  Inquiring minds want to know!


First up for the T-birds is the annual WHL Bantam Draft in early May.  Seattle has the 10th overall pick in the first round and two more picks in the middle of Round Two.  They have at least one pick in each remaining round.  Seattle Director of Personnel Cal Filson and his staff are busy finishing up their scouting and finalizing their draft board.  With a month to go, there is still a lot of scouting to do, with tournaments all over Western Canada and the U.S.  How does this pool of talent stack up against recent drafts?  Only time will tell but the T-birds are in good position to come away with some quality talent early in the selection process.  Filson told me earlier this week that there are some high end forwards at the top of the draft and there should be good depth among defenseman throughout draft day. 


Much of the work to be done between now and next fall is up to the players already on the organization's depth chart, especially the younger guys on the roster. Specifically there are a number of young guys who need to use this offseason to improve physically and get stronger.  In that regard it is an important offseason for players such as Sam Huo, Dillon Hamaliuk, Holden Katzalay, Owen Williams and Tyson Terretta to name a few.  They have shown flashes of their hockey talent and the potential is there but they need to get physically stronger to be more consistent over a long 72-game schedule.  The talent is there to make another playoff run in 2018-19.


As an example, and this is my own opinion, by March the physical exertion needed over a six month season seemed  to take it's toll on Hamaliuk.  That's not a surprise.  He was a 17 year old rookie playing mostly on the second line, often going up against older, more physically mature players.  Hamaliuk was an ironman, playing in all 72 games and he surprised many by finishing 6th in rookie scoring in the WHL with 54 points (15g, 39a).  A focused offseason and he could certainly bump those numbers up in year two, especially knowing it is his first year of eligibility for the NHL Draft.  He is one of those players on the roster who have length but now need to add muscle to his frame.  No one is asking these players to live in the gym the next five months but they need to pay heed to their offseason workout program provided to them by the team.  

One player who just got better and better as the season progressed and had a terrific five game postseason was rookie defenseman Jake Lee.  the 2016 first round bantam pick is a smart young man, both on and off the ice. He has a boatload of confidence to the point he's even a little cocky.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, in moderation.  The best players always have a little edge to their game and Lee certainly has that.  I'm not comparing the two talent-wise, but Mat Barzal had that characteristic as well.  Of course Barzal backed it up with his play on the ice.  Lee is just one season in and  is still in the proving-it process.  Lee did take on a bigger role after the trade of Aaron Hyman midseason and he took advantage and flourished.  Lee is the type of player you can build a core group around for the future.  Like Hamaliuk, Lee  too will be going into his first year of NHL draft eligibility so the 2018-19 campaign is an important one for him.  

One rookie who gets lost in the discussion is Tyler Carpendale.  Carpendale started the season rehabbing from an injury, then played in only 19 games before he suffered another injury that cost him the rest of the season.  Nineteen games is not a big sample size but I liked what I saw.  Carpendale was just getting going when his season was cut short.  He had scored all of his points (2g, 3a) in the six games prior to the injury.  This is a big power forward type who skates well and can punish players with his physical game. He was listed at 6'4" and was 197 lbs. when last season began.  I imagine he'll be bigger at the start of next season.  I think a healthy Carpendale would have affected games the second half of the year so I'm anxious to see him healthy again.  

What about the 20 year old situation?  Seattle has five players eligible for three spots.  Nolan Volcan is a lock, unless he signs a pro deal although even that doesn't preclude him from returning.  You can probably go ahead right now and sew the "C" on his jersey. He's the captain.  Volcan was the team's leading scorer (tied with the graduating Donovan Neuls) and second in goal production with a career best 32.  His trajectory says he could pot 40 next season.

Zack Andrusiak was tops on the team in goals scored with 36 and third in total scoring with 74 points, just two points back of Volcan and Neuls. He is the most "natural" goal scorer on the roster and like Volcan has the potential to be a 40 or even 50 goal scorer.  He'll be a critical element to the power play.  His 11 power play goals were second to the graduating Austin Strand's 14.  That type of offensive production is not easy to find so it is hard to imagine him not on the roster next season as a 20 year old.

That leaves one spot up for grabs among Noah Philp, Blake Barger and Mike Maclean.    Philp was the most consistent of the three mentioned and finished with 50 points.  Bargar is both a strong leader and a strong penalty killer whose season was interrupted by a late season injury.  Maclean was the feel good story, a 19 year old rookie who made the most of a half season in the WHL and is well liked by his teammates.  I'm guessing the third overage comes from the above trio. 

The one caveat?  All five of those candidates are forwards.  Seattle loses two of their best d-men in 20 year olds Strand and Turner Ottenbreit.  The most seasoned returning defenseman is 19 year old Jarret Tyszka, who enters his fourth campaign with the club.  Another 19 year old, Reece Harsch, will enter his third year.  After that it is all second year players and rookies.    Might Seattle look to add a veteran leader back on the blue line by acquiring a 20 year old defenseman to supplement that young group?  My initial thought is to say no and the team will let the young defensemen soak up the ice time.

It could also depend on how much confidence the brass has in the young forwards.  The T-birds have a bevy of wingers who are chomping at the bit, wanting more ice at the WHL level.  Besides those mentioned above, you have others such as Graeme Bryks, Payton Mount and Cody Savey. If they're going to be on the roster next season they're going to need ice time.  Could it come at the expense of a third 20 year old forward?  Seattle acquired two 19 year old forwards in Bargar and Philp early last season to help out with some veteran presence, then brought in MacLean in December.  All had a positive impact. They also added Jaxan Kaluski from Moose Jaw in a January trade and he'll enter his 19 year old year next fall.   They could do the same again this coming season and save that third overage spot for a defenseman if they feel they are too green on the blueline .  

Then there is the goaltending conundrum.  Seattle went through a tumultuous season in net because of injuries.  Three goalies who all got a minimum of 15 starts.  The biggest question mark is still the status of Carl Stankowski who missed the entire year.  Is he back next season and is he ready to go from day one?  Can the Thunderbirds rely on his health?  We know what he's capable of when healthy. He's an elite goalie at this level and has a championship ring to prove it.  Meanwhile,  Liam Hughes dealt with his own injuries the first half of the year but when healthy for the second half he showed he could handle the load and be a solid number one guy. There are probably a few teams still alive in the postseason, and a couple others who have been eliminated who, in hindsight, would have loved to have spent a 4th round bantam pick on Hughes as the T-birds did last September.  His second half numbers were among the best in the league.  

I guess the question is, can Seattle juggle the two and will those two be happy splitting time in net when both believe they are number one guys?  It's not like the franchise hasn't done that in the past. Go back to 2007-08 when Riku Helenius and Jacob DeSerres split goaltending duties and both finished with 20+ wins, sub 2.45 goals-against-averages and  both had save percentages north of .915.  At the time Helenius was a first round NHL Draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning.  The T-birds also have a capable number two goalie on the roster in Dorrin Luding and a couple of signed prospects in Cole Schwebius and Eric Ward.  

Unlike a year ago when Seattle lost nearly 400 points from the roster when the season was done, this time around the T-birds lose only between 200-230 points.  The T-birds potentially will have five of their top eight scorers back for next year in Volcan, Andrusiak, Matthew Wedman, Philp and Sami Moilanen.  Throw in Hamaliuk and of their top six point producing forwards, only Neuls won't be back next year.  Wedman's numbers were much better the second half, compared to his first half.  28 of his 47 points came after December, including 11 of his 17 goals.  Remember, this was a two and a half month stretch in which Seattle played primarily against the tough U.S. Division.  He was trending in the right direction. 

The same can be said of Philp, whose biggest contribution seemed to be his positive impact on the young forwards on the roster. He played often on a line that featured either Huo or Hamaliuk and often both.  Philp recorded 20 of his 50 points in the last 25 games of the season.  It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Philp is a point a game player next season if he's back as one of the team's three 20 year olds.  Philp is similar to the outgoing Neuls in that he can play on the wing or at center and can hold his own on both the power play and penalty kill. 

Meanwhile, hopefully Moilanen stays healthy next year.  He was on a 35 goal and 64 point pace before those injuries cost him 22 games, primarily in the second half.  There is no question he has 40 goal capability.  It's also no coincidence that when he was in the lineup Seattle scored at a higher per game rate. The T-birds offense was near four goals a game with him on the ice.  When he suffered the injury and missed February and part of March the goals per game average dipped to around two.  The dip in offense is not only because the team missed his scoring either.  His absence made the power play inconsistent.  His willingness to play a physical game and win puck battles creates turnovers that lead to scoring from other players.  

The two big point producers the team will have to replace are Neuls and Strand.  I think they replace that Neuls production with improvement from Hamaliuk who finished 10th on the team in points.   Hopefully a full season of Carpendale takes up some of that slack.  A healthy Moilanen and more consistent offensive production from Wedman will help.  If the third 20 year old is one of those forwards expect more points from that spot as well and a few other second year players should improve on their point totals. There is no reason to think Seattle can't do what they've done the past two years and score 250 goals or more.  

Strand and his 25 goals from the blue line will be harder to make up. Seattle does have a candidate on the roster in Jarret Tyszka.  Tyszka had an up and down season but still had 40 points (8g, 32a).  If the Montreal Canadiens prospects wants to earn a pro contract then he'll need to pick up his game next year and with no Strand or even an Ethan Bear on the roster anymore, he should get every chance to do that.  Obviously teams at the next level see he has talent or he wouldn't have been drafted by an NHL team.  He needs to have a good offseason and up his production in 2018-19.  He doesn't have to be Strand.  He doesn't have to be Bear.  He has to be the Jarret Tyszka Seattle used a first round bantam selection on in 2014.  We have seen glimpses of his high end game.  Now we need it for 72 games.  

Seattle surrendered far too many goals against.  That was a byproduct of a young roster, often times not as physically mature as the opponent.  The fluctuating situation in goal was also a contributing factor. But at times Seattle also got away from one of their core principles:  take care of the defensive zone first.  More attention to the d-zone, better puck management, a settled goaltending situation and another year in the system for the young players hopefully will cut down on the goals allowed.  

There are always unknown variables during the offseason that will affect next year's roster.  A surprise trade that brings a player in or sends a player out.  Maybe an unexpected signing of a list player or draft choice the team took a flyer on or a young player who took his offseason seriously and dramatically improves his game. I know you're all waiting for the second coming of Scott Eansor, right?   Until that happens though, these are the players Seattle has going into their offseason.  It's a solid group with loads of potential.  The question is, will they realize it?













Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Good '97 Goes Well in a Cup

And that, as they say, is a wrap.  The book has closed on another season of Seattle Thunderbirds hockey.  This time, far too soon of course. The last two go-rounds, the T-birds stretched their season deep into May.  This time they could only make it to the last day of March.  Such is the nature of the beast.  The organization built up a championship roster over the course of four years and now they are in a reloading cycle.

How ironic is that Seattle's best period of hockey in the playoff series versus Everett might have been the turning point, only not in their favor.  After a road split to open up the best-of-seven the T-birds came home with home ice advantage in their back pocket.  They roared out of the gate in Game 3 and blitzed the Silvertips with 24 shots and an early power play goal.  They spent most of that period in the Everett end of the ice.  Yet when the period was over, despite how dominating they were, the game is tied 1-1.  Psychologically I think Seattle never recovered.  They should have had the lead going into the intermission.  they put Everett on their heels, yet it was not enough.  Seattle never got close to winning again.

Many pundits and prognosticators didn't believe in this team when the puck dropped on the season back in late September.  They didn't think they had the horses left after a Chynoweth Cup run to even make the postseason this spring. Many didn't think they could withstand the roster purge and a coaching staff makeover and still be competitive.  They were wrong.  The team competed every night.  They battled in the toughest division in the league and still came out with a winning record.  Every other team in the division was a buyer at some point this past season, adding veterans for a possible title run.  Seattle was a seller. They added pieces for the future, not the present.  They played without knowing who would be their number one goalie until January and still battled their way into the second season, as brief as it was.

How would they score after losing over 350 points from their championship roster?  They returned only one player who scored more then 20 goals the previous year.  That player, Sami Moilanen, potted 21 goals in 2016-17 and would be limited to just 22 goals this time around because he missed one-third of this year to injury. Yet the T-birds scored nearly as many goals this season (250) as they did last season (253).  Five 20 goal scorers emerged from the shadows and a majority of them should be back next year.

Among those who will not return is Austin Strand.  The 20 year old defenseman surprised many with his 25 goal performance this season.  His junior eligibility complete, he now heads to the pro ranks with a WHL championship ring on his finger. His year and a half in a Seattle jersey helped the undrafted d-man earn a free agent contract with the NHL's L.A. Kings.   Strand came to Seattle in a December 2016 trade with Red Deer, one of the final pieces needed for the T-birds run to the Cup last year. In two and a half seasons with the Rebels, Strand amassed all of seven goals.  In his season and a half with the T-birds he scored 33 then added five more in 25 playoff games.   Hashtag, change-of-scenery.

The end of the season over the weekend also just about closes the door on one of the best bantam drafts in recent Thunderbirds history.  The 2012 draft, the Mat Barzal draft, those '97 born players.  Donovan Neuls was the last player on the roster from a draft class that was used as the foundation for a championship.  Eight players from that group would make the roster at one point or another.  Only Logan Flodell remains in the league now, playing in goal for the Lethbridge Hurricanes who advanced to Round Two out East.  Four of those players are now playing professionally, two of them in the NHL. 

Meanwhile, Neuls went out with a career year, tying Nolan Volcan for the team lead in scoring with 76 points (22g, 54a).  Neuls though, was at his best when it mattered the most.  In 49 playoff games he registered 39 points (13g 26a). None of his 13 postseason goals were bigger then his overtime winner in Game One of last year's Championship Series against Regina.  When you hear the term "team player", you should think of Neuls.  He played every position on the ice in his T-birds career except for goalie.  And with the injuries the team suffered this season at that position,  who knows how close he may have come to going between the pipes. Center, wing, and yes even defenseman, he played it.  On the power play or penalty kill, tasked with shutting down an opposing team's top line, for four seasons Neuls was Seattle's Swiss Army Knife.  They should have used that to etch his name on the Chynoweth Cup.

We think of Turner Ottenbreit as a member of that Seattle draft class and in a way he was.  He too was drafted in the spring of 2012, albeit by the Saskatoon Blades.  He was the fourth to last player chosen, some 200-plus picks after the T-birds selected Barzal with the first overall pick.  Yet it is hard to imagine the T-birds winning as they did the last four seasons without number four patrolling the blue line.  His acquisition early in the 2014-15 season didn't set off any alarm bells. It was no blockbuster deal. Seattle had too many 20 year olds, Saskatoon had an open roster spot so the T-birds sent overage defenseman Adam Henry to the Blades and got the young Ottenbreit back in the deal.  333 games later, Otto leaves the organization an all-time fan favorite (any player who is despised by every other division rival is a fan favorite for life) but more importantly, he leaves a champion.

As my collegue Andy Eide over at mynorthwest.com pointed out to me, had that trade never been consummated, had Ottenbreit never left the Saskatoon organization, he would have not played one minute of playoff hockey in his WHL career. Saskatoon has missed out on the postseason for five straight years. Instead he comes to Seattle, plays in 49 playoff games, wins a division banner, two conference championships, a Chynoweth Cup, plays in the Memorial Cup and is captain his final season. Not bad for a 12th round bantam pick.  A textbook example to never give up on your dreams.

With the graduation of these three players and a few others who won't return next season, another layer is peeled away from that group that brought the franchise its greatest success.  We say goodbye to Donny, Strander and Otto the same way we said goodbye to Keegs, Barzy, Scotty, Gropper, Truzy and Bear last year and Smitty and Haufer, among others, the year before that.  They're gone but not forgotten.  No longer able to watch them up close day-to-day, we will follow their careers now from afar.  Once a T-bird, always a T-bird.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Lets Make like A Cheap Pair of Pants and Split

Two games into the first round of the playoffs and the series between Everett and Seattle is tied at one game apiece.  After a sub-standard performance in Game 1, Seattle bounces back in Game 2 for a 5-4 overtime win thanks to a beauty of a goal by Zack Andrusiak.

Games 3 and 4 now head to the accesso ShoWare Center. Seattle earned the road split to wrestle away home-ice advantage but that will only mean something if they protect home ice.  I'm not sure home-ice advantage means what it used to in postseason play.  Look around the rest of the WHL and through Saturday road teams, the lower seeds, won seven games opening weekend.  The T-Birds always get a boost from their rabid fans at the ShoWare Center.  Let's hope that is the difference this Tuesday and Friday. Come early, come often, be LOUD!

In Game 1 Friday, Seattle didn't seem as ready as Everett for the start of the series.  The Silvertips came out very aggressive.  The T-Birds struggled at times with puck management.  It led directly or indirectly to goals against.  Yet the turning point came early in the second period when Seattle, down just a goal, had a chance to tie things up on the power play.  Instead they turned the puck over.  It led to an Everett shorthanded goal and Seattle never recovered from that 2-0 deficit, eventually losing 4-1.

It was a slow start in Game 2 as well.  Everett had the first seven shots on goal and converted on an early chance.  Unlike Friday night though, Seattle took advantage of an early power play to tie the game and get the ice tilted back in their favor.  Austin Strand scored on the power play and soon after Sami Moilanen poked home a rebound giving Seattle their first lead.  After that it was back and forth until Andrusiak's overtime heroics.

Of note in this series, Seattle has scored six goals and they've come from five different players. Only Andrusiak, who had the T-Birds lone goal in Game 1, has scored twice.  By contrast Everett has scored eight goals and half of them have come off the stick of Garrett Pilon.  Patrick Bajkov has scored twice.  That's 3/4ths of their goals from their top line.  Seattle needs to keep up the balanced offenvise attack.

Everett gets the special teams nod in Game 1 since they scored the shorthanded goal.  Seattle earns the edge in Game 2 with a pair of power play goals, while limiting Everett to one on five chances.  So far in the series the T-birds have limited the Silvertips to just one power-play goal and that came with the 'Tips skating 5-on-3.

Shots on goal through two games heavily favor Everett 95-59.  Take that with a grain of salt.  Shots are typically inflated up in Everett.  I literally saw Liam Hughes cover up a loose puck on the side of the Seattle net and a SOG was added to the Everett tally. I will say that the 'Tips have had more puck possession, especially in Game 1 and that is what concerns Seattle more, not inflated shot totals. 

Everett does dump a lot pucks toward the net, which is what I would do as well and it is what Seattle should do against Carter Hart.  They did more of that in Game 2 then they did in Game 1.  No surprise that it led to a five goal outburst and a win.  This is the third time in the last three postseasons that the T-Birds have scored five goals in a playoff game against Hart. It is not easy to do but Seattle should have the confidence they can score on him.  In 11 playoff games versus Hart, the T-Birds have recorded 35 goals.  It takes a mindset that they have to consistently drive the net.  It may not be the first shot or the tenth shot that beats him but if you keep shooting, eventually you'll get pucks in. 

I think a lot of players think Hart can only be beaten with a perfect shot, so they sometimes are reluctant to shoot or teams overpass against Everett which leads to blocked shots, blocked passes and  turnovers.  The T-Birds need to use the KISS method, Keep It Simple Seattle.  Shoot, shoot and shoot some more.  Get traffic and get the greasy goals.

If the Thunderbirds are too pull off the upset, they'll need more of Game 2 and less of Game 1.  Limit the mistakes, the unforced turnovers and take fewer penalties.  I didn't think either goalie was at their sharpest in Game 2.  We'll see which one is on their game Tuesday in Game 3.  With that being said Hughes has faced more scoring chances and has come up with some key saves for Seattle.

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

Third Star: D Turner Ottenbreit.  Monster effort in Game 2 with three points (1g, 2a) while logging lots of ice time, especially after Seattle lost d-man Jake Lee for a good chunk of the game after he took a knee on knee hit.  Seattle played that entire third period with just five defenseman and Ottenbreit seemed to be the one taking up that ice time.

Second Star: G Liam Hughes.  He's been credited with 87 saves in two games, far and away more then any other goalie in the early postseason.  I don't think he's even played his best yet but Seattle would be in an 0-2 hole without him. He has that ability you want from your goalie to shake off a bad goal and come back with a key save.

First Star: LW Zack Andrusiak.  Andrusiak now has three playoff goals in his last five playoff games versus Everett and Hart, dating back to last spring.  Seattle's leading goal scorer in the regular season is also leading them in playoff goals.  His overtime winner Saturday put on display his offensive attributes; good skating, good puck handling, a nose for the net and a deft scoring touch.  You want your best goal scorer to have confidence he can score from anywhere on the ice.  Andrusiak is not lacking in that confidence.







Tuesday, March 20, 2018

And so it Begins

Playoffs, the second season, the postseason.  Whatever you call it, it's here.  The 72-game regular season completed and it is time for Seattle to begin the defense of their 2017 WHL Championship.

Unlike last season, and even the season before, the T-birds do not go into the playoffs as one of the favorites to win it all.  As the eighth seed, they are the decided underdogs, especially in Round 1 where they face the Western Conference's top seed, Everett.  I don't make predictions.  It would not shock me though if Seattle won the series against the 'Tips, but if they do it, it will be an upset.

As for the just completed regular season,  I think most who adjudicate such things would say Seattle exceeded expectations.  It is well documented that the T-birds lost over 300 points from their championship team.  In the cyclical world of Major Junior hockey, this was to be a "rebuilding" year. Yet they finished above .500 playing in what arguably could be the toughest division in the WHL.  It's a 72-game schedule.  Seattle played 22 of those games, almost one-third, against the top two teams in the conference, Everett (10) and Portland (12).

Going into the campaign many of us wondered where the offense would come from with Barzal, Bear, Gropp, Kolesar, True and Eansor gone.  Yet when the season ended the T-birds put 250 goals on the board.  that is just three fewer then they scored with that group I just mentioned, last season.  

They made the playoffs despite not having their presumptive number one goalie, Carl Stankowski, all season.  They went to goaltender-by-committee much of the season with different goalies suffering injuries at various times.  Things finally settled down with the emergence of Liam Hughes. Down the stretch with a playoff spot and playoff seeding on the line, Hughes won six games against some of the best offenses in the conference, often facing 40+ shots nightly.

They got back to the playoffs because players who had been role players in the past, third and fourth line muckers, stepped up and led the team.  Players like Donovan Neuls, Nolan Volcan, Austin Strand, Zack Andrusiak and Turner Ottenbreit, among others, not only took on bigger roles, but they embraced them and all had career seasons. Meanwhile, young rookies such as Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee and Sam Huo became major contributors right from the start.  Looking ahead, Seattle will have seven of their top ten scorers back next season and 11 of their top 15.

The coaches probably didn't enjoy watching the team give Tri-City eight power plays in that meaningless, last regular season game but I appreciated watching all the ice time the rookies and young players got against the Americans, who iced a fairly veteran lineup, in that 5-2 loss.  The T-birds rested over 270 points in that game and hit a couple of posts so it could have been a closer game at the end.  I was intrigued by the play of Cody Savey who headed back to Canada after the game to join his Junior B team for the playoffs.

On to the playoffs, or second season or postseason...whatever you call it!

My T-birds three stars for the regular season:

Third Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Finished tied atop the team's scoring leaderboard with 76 points with a career year featuring 22 goals and 54 assists.  In four seasons with the T-birds he played in 283 regular season games and finished with 180 points (57g, 123a) and +30.  Not bad for an 8th round bantam pick.

Second Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit.  Seattle's captain had to adjust his game at the start of the season after being suspended for a hit in last year's Championship Series and another early this season.  He did exactly that without neutering his physical game.  After starting his WHL career as a Saskatoon Blade's 12th round Bantam pick, he spends nearly four season with the T-birds, playing in 284 regular season games and scoring 108 points (24g, 84a) while finishing a remarkable +76.

First Star:  W Nolan Volcan.  With 76 points he tied Neuls for the scoring lead on the team.  His 32 goals were second to Zack Andrusiak's 36, but double his previous best of 16 from last season.  Unless he signs a pro deal this offseason, he should be back to lead the team as a 20 year old next year and most likely wearing the "C".  He is a pitbull on the ice, plays in all situations, hits like a pile driver and never gives anything but 100 percent and could be a 40 goal scorer next season.








Monday, March 5, 2018

Picking off Points

A 2-1-1-0 week may not, on its surface, sound like a big winning week but in reality Seattle earned five points and a huge three points against the two top teams in the Western Conference and greatly improved their chance of nailing down a playoff berth.

Playing twice against Portland and once versus Everett, with two of those games on the road, Seattle came within a whisker of earning points in all three games while not necessarily playing their best hockey, at least not for a full 60 minutes each night.  Those two teams are a combined 88-38-3-7 on the season and 15-3-0-2 in their last twenty games.

Seattle began the week with an impressive comeback overtime win Tuesday against Vancouver.  Down 4-1 in the second, Seattle roared back for a 5-4 victory.  It was a theme for Seattle this past weekend; never giving up and fighting back.  They did it again Friday in Portland.  After squandering a 3-1 lead and falling behind 4-3, the T-birds got a huge late goal to force overtime before eventually winning in a shootout.  Saturday in Everett they gave up the game's first goal but found an equalizer in the second period and held on to at least earn a point in an overtime loss.  Sunday the weary 'Birds again fell behind to Portland, this time 5-1, and fought back to within a goal late in the third.  Alas, they couldn't complete the comeback as the Winterhawks hit the empty net twice for the 7-4 victory.

Injuries are not an excuse, but a fact of life in sports, especially one as physical as hockey.  Seattle finally got  Reece Harsch and Sami Moilanen back in the lineup after absences of 19 and 14 games respectively, but are now dealing with the loss of Blake Bargar and Jaxan Kaluski.  Let's not forget the T-birds are playing much of the season without Tyler Carpendale.  Sure, he was in his rookie season, but he was starting to round into form when he was lost for the season.

These players on the shelf have done a couple of things. One, they've jumbled up the forward line combinations.  At the time of his injury Carpendale was beginning to find a chemistry with fellow rookie Dillon Hamaliuk.  Without Bargar, Seattle's special teams have taken a hit.  Kaluski was coming into his own and starting to feel comfortable on the ice with his new team when he was knocked out of the lineup.  Inject those three players into the lineup for any of the three games this past weekend and instead of three points, the T-birds may have earned four, five or six.

Secondly, and this is the silver lining to those absences, development of young players was hastened because of increased ice time.  Holden Katzalay, yet another 17 year old rookie, has really taken advantage of the situation and we've seen his game improve dramatically the past month.  He, Hamaliuk and 16 year old Sam Huo are being used in all situations.  It is making them better players now and in the future.  Even a player such as Graeme Bryks (yes, still yet another 17 year old rookie), who has only been with the team a short while, will benefit from the limited and unexpected ice he is getting.

No team goes through a season unscathed by the injury bug.  But Seattle hasn't played one game with a full, healthy roster.  As terrific as the deal Russ Farwell made to acquire Liam Hughes has been, how many more wins might Seattle have with Carl Stankowski between the pipes?  Even if it is just two or three more "W's", it could be a big difference in the standings in the tight Western Conference or U.S. Division.

So, while it's frustrating that the team hasn't won a game in regulation since January 19th, the fact they are in just about every game since then without some key players should give us hope.  11 times since that 7-2 win over Kelowna the T-birds have earned points in games by fighting for sixty minutes, earning points, whether it be one or two, by going the distance and them some.  All 11 of those OT/SO games the past two months have been against teams with winning records.  Four of them have been against conference leading Everett.  It also includes games against Portland and Swift Current.  Those three teams, the Silvertips, Winterhawks and Broncos, have three of the top four records in the WHL and the T-birds continuously find ways to get points from them because they never give up.  

That's a big reason why I admire what this team has done this season and the praise has to go to the players but don't overlook the work of the coaching staff, led by Matt O'Dette.  A 30-25-8-2 record may not jump out at you but all things considered, it's actually a quite remarkable feat.  Remember, Seattle graduated out well over 300 points off last season's roster.  Two of it's best players from a year ago, Mat Barzal and Ethan Bear, are now playing in the NHL.  Their leading goal scorer this season, Zack Andrusiask, had all of six goals on his resume prior to this year.  The core of the team is a veteran leadership of hard workers but in reality it's also a  group of 17 and 16 year old rookies.

Think about this,  Everett first year head coach Dennis Williams will probably be named the WHL Coach of the Year, at  the very least he'll get the Western Conference honor.  Without his #1, two time WHL goalie of the year Carter Hart the first two months of the regular season, the 'Tips were well below .500.  Meanwhile, O'Dette, without ever having his #1, Chynoweth Cup winning goalie Carl Stankowski, and using a goalie carousel of castoffs from other teams the entire season, has been above .500 most of the year and was never more then a few games under the break even point through the first couple of weeks.   That's making the most out of what you've got. That's coaching.

My T-birds Three Stars of the Week.

G Liam Hughes.  Hughes earned points for the team in all three games he started, going 2-0-1-0.  His best effort actually came in his only loss, the overtime setback in Everett in which he willed Seattle to a point with a 20 save effort in the third period as the T-birds were being outshot 20-1.  It took seven shots and a power play for the Silvertips to beat him on overtime.

C Noah Philp .  Philp scored a huge tying goal down in Portland after Seattle blew a 3-1 lead.  he then helped win it with a shootout goal.  His 47 points are more then double his previous best in the WHL with Kootenay two years ago.  In four games this week he registered seven points (2g, 5a) and was +3.  He's a plug and play player, fitting in comfortably on any line.  Hard to see him not back here next season as a 20 year old.

W Zack Andruskiak.  Andruskiak is a goal scorer who continues to work on his complete game.  Goal scorers can be streaky and fortunately for Seattle, Andrusiak is on a hot streak with seven goals in his last six games. This past week he record nine points (6g, 3a) as well as both an overtime and shootout winner.  He now leads the team with 30 goals, 24 more then he had in the WHL before the start of this season.







Monday, February 26, 2018

No LOL, T-birds Looking for "O", Finding "L's"

The Thunderbirds enter the final game of February this coming Tuesday riding a four-game losing streak.  All four setbacks have been in regulation, meaning they haven't earned a point in the standings.  As a result, their lead over Kamloops for the final Western Conference playoff spot is a tenuous six points.

There have been a lot of factors at play in this skid.  Injuries to Sami Moilanen and Blake Barger have jumbled up their forward lines.  For his part, Moilanen was averaging nearly a point a game (19g, 18a in 40 games) when he left a contest in Everett on January 26th with an upper body injury.  He hasn't returned to the lineup yet, missing 13+ games to this point.  Bargar and his 24 points (11g, 13a) has missed the past three games with no timetable yet for his return.  These are two wingers who play in all situations for Seattle.

A struggling offense is another reason for the team's recent lack of wins. With the exception of the four goals they scored in a 5-4 loss Friday in Kelowna, Seattle has struggled to crack the three goal mark in many recent games.  in four of their last five outings they have been held to two or less goals.  In four of their last nine games the T-birds have been held to a single goal.  Not surprisingly, all four of those games were losses.  This is a stark contrast to the months of December and January when Seattle was averaging over four goals per game. 

Part of this is puck possession, or lack there of.  Shots on goal are usually a good indicator of who has more of the puck possession and in 11 of their last 14 games, Seattle has been outshot. Even in the three games where they outshot their opponent, the T-birds are 0-3.  Some of Seattle's struggles from the early part of the season have returned late in the year, an inability to finish chances.  They're losing too many puck battles in front of the opposing goal as they look for rebounds and deflections.

Another issue?  Not closing the door.  Seattle hasn't won a game in regulation since a 7-2 win over Kelowna on January 19th. That's 16 games without a regulation win.  Since then the T-birds have played beyond regulation eight times, posting a 5-3 record in those games.  A number of those games, it was Seattle fighting back for a tie but on several occasions the T-birds couldn't hold leads, having to go beyond 60 minutes to earn the extra point.

This weekend Seattle found two different ways to lose games that should have earned them points.  Well, to be fair they found one way to lose, and one way to lose found them.  Friday in Kelowna Seattle battled from two goals down in the third to forge a 4-all tie, only to give up the late winner by allowing Kelowna to get behind their defense on an odd man rush.  Not very good situational hockey and it cost them at least a point and a chance at a win.  An 0-for-4 power play didn't help either, especially since they were surrendering two goals while on the penalty kill in a frustrating road loss in which Seattle had the early 2-0 lead, only to fall behind 4-2.

Saturday's frustration comes from playing a fairly smart game that was greatly infected by less then stellar officiating.  Wait, I mean affected by...no, no, I was right the first time, infected.  While Seattle's penalty kill was a perfect 4-for-4 against Everett, I thought a couple of the calls against Seattle were borderline, but, okay, will give it the benefit of the doubt and call those as correctly called penalties. But then let's be consistent with the calls. 

The non-call, on the obvious slashing in half of Donovan Neul's stick, was the seminal moment of the game.  It led directly to Everett's first goal.  Instead of Seattle being on the power play and up by a goal, the game is tied at 1-1. As soon as that sequence of events was over, slash-no call-Everett goal, you knew that goal would be the difference on the scoreboard and it was.   The excuse that the slash was at the bottom third of the stick is either a lie or wishful thinking.  The stick broke in the middle of the shaft.  That is the point of impact.  The evidence was lying on the ice for everyone to see.  If you missed the call, admit it.  So often the cover up is worse then the original crime.  Two things happened there.  The slash left Neuls without a stick to fight for the puck, essentially taking him out of the play, and it gave Everett possession of the puck in the Seattle zone.

You can argue Seattle still had enough time to win the game.  That they didn't do enough to over come that singular call.  That they missed a chance to tie on their only power play when they had the goalie beat but hit the post with the shot.   But I can argue that they did do just enough to get that game at least to overtime or a shootout.  They did enough to at least earn a point.  You can't have one team have to over come obstacles the other team doesn't have to deal with.  Seattle shouldn't have to argue the merits of a very easy-to-call slashing penalty.   As Abraham Lincoln would tell you, one play can alter the course of history.


T-Birds Three Stars for the Week:

G Liam Hughes:  Hughes may have lost both his decisions this week, a 4-2 setback Wednesday in Kennewick and the 2-1 loss Saturday to Everett, but he was the main reason Seattle was in both those games.  He faced a combined 84 shots in the two games, making 79 saves.  While his record may be .500, his .907 save percentage is among the best in the league

LW Dillon Hamaliuk.  The 17 year old  rookie from Edmonton had the first three point game of his young WHL career with a goal and two assists in the loss to Kelowna Friday.  In 61 games he has 35 points (14g, 21a) and leads the team in plus/minus at +10.   Just by comparison, Ryan Gropp, who was a first round bantam pick by Seattle in 2011, finished with 42 points (18g, 24a)  in 59 games and was -5 in his 17 year old season rookie season.  I'm not saying they are the same player , but I like the comparison because both are 6'3" left wingers who skate well.    

W Nolan Volcan.  In three games he registered four points (1g, 3a) and was +4.  He leads the team in both goals scored, with 26 and points with 62. The 26 goals are ten more then he had last season.  One of just two point-per-game players on the team, along with Donovan Neuls.  He's had the progression through his WHL career you expect, increasing his point totals each season.  Normally a left winger, he has been playing right wing the past week with the injuries to Moilanen and Bargar.