Monday, April 14, 2014

No Easy Come, Easy Go

The biggest decisions the Seattle Thunderbirds will make between now and opening night of he 2014-15 season next September is which three players will occupy the three 20 year old spots on their roster. There are plenty of current in house options and there is always the possibility the team trades to bring in more candidates.

For the purpose of this article, we are going to concentrate on the 1994 born players who were on the team's roster at the end of this past season, minus Russell Maxwell, who has indicated he will not be returning next year in order to fulfill his church mission obligation. We say "Ciao Russell, and good luck in Italy!"

First, in alphabetical order, will be the pro argument for each candidate; the reason why they should be retained. Then I'll follow that up with the argument, if any, for not retaining that player for next season.

The Arguments For:

Alexander Delnov, LW/C. The argument for retaining Delnov is one simply of statistics. He was the team's second leading scorer this past season accumulating 63 points in 71 games (29g, 34a). The 29 goals were second on the club and then he added four more in the playoffs, which tied him for the lead there. Ten of his regular season goals were on the power play and on a team that struggled to score with the man advantage, that too was second best on the club.

Adam Henry, D. Henry was acquired via trade early last season and almost immediately was wearing an "A" on his jersey as one of the team's alternate captains. That makes it apparent the coaching staff valued his leadership. Paired with 16 year old Ethan Bear all season, he helped develop Bear's game. He was second to Shea Theodore in points by a T-birds defenseman with 38 (7g,31a). He was a decent two way defenseman, solid in moving the puck up ice and he contributed on the power play (4gs).

Justin Hickman, C,LW. Hickman was the team captain and the unquestionable leader on the team. More importantly, statistically he also took a big step and that should only continue as a 20 year old. His 46 points were a career best and a good portion of his 22 goals and 24 assists came in the second half of the season, meaning he was trending upward. He also finished at +7, which was third best on the team. More importantly retaining Hickman also keeps Seattle's top line combination together (Hickman-Barzal-Gropp)for another year. Hickman is also one of the team's more physical players and depending on who is not returning next season that becomes another important part of his game.

Connor Honey,RW. Before the upper body injury that cost him 65 games this past season, Honey was on track to finish as a point a game player (2g, 4a in 7 games). He wore an "A" on his sweater indicating he was a team leader. The previous season he finished second on the team in scoring. When healthy he plays in all situations, 5-on-5, PP and PK. He posesses a deadly accurate shot and will battle for pucks. Not hard to envision him as a 30+ goal scorer. Without the injury, I would say his returning as a 20 year old would have been a no-brainer.

Taran Kozun, G. Kozun was acquired at the January trade deadline from Kamloops where he was sharing goaltending duties. The previous two seasons with the Blazers he was a back up. Kozun shined in his first chance to be the #1 guy in net, compiling a 14-9-0-1 record with four shutouts along with a 2.40 GAA and a save percentage of .928. While a playoff team without him, Seattle probably doesn't earn the 4th seed and home ice in Round 1 without Kozun in goal and probably don't make it out of the first round.

Roberts Lipsbergs, LW. As is the case with Alexander Delnov you only need to look at statistics to see why Lipsbergs could be retained. He led the team in goals this past season with 33. In fact, in two seasons with the T-birds the Latvian Lazer has twice led the team in goal scoring, having posted 30 in 2012-13. He followed up his 33 goal season this year by leading the team in scoring in the playoffs with eight points (2g, 6a). He was also a top point producer for the team in the 2013 postseason when he registered seven points (3g, 4a). It is not a stretch then to pencil him in for another 30+ goal season next year if he comes back, with the potential for a 40 goal season. Also, with the changes in the CHL Import Draft, what are the chances Seattle can secure a 30 goal scorer in Round Two this June? maybe Round One but Round Two? Seattle had to trade back up into the first round two years ago to obtain Lipsbergs and I don't believe that is allowed any longer.

Sam McKechnie, RW. McKechnie proved to be a solid two-way player and a very valuable penalty killer. Along with Scott Eansor and Jaimen Yaubowski, he also was one-third of Seattle's dynamic shutdown, checking line. He ended up with just seven goals this season but scoring was not his primary role. The previous season with Lethbridge he registered 26 goals while he potted 13 the year before that, his rookie season. So, he has the ability to put the puck in the back of the net and you have to believe as a 20 year old he could be a 20 goal scorer again. Like with Hickman, the retention of McKechnie could give the T-birds the opportunity to keep that shutdown line in tact. For a player who was tasked with shutting down the opponents top lines, he proved to be durable. he didn't miss a game once Seattle acquired him.

Branden Troock, RW. Despite missing a month of the season with injury, Troock still finished third on the team in scoring with 58 points and third on the team in goals scored with 24. From late November to early January, when he got injured, he was probably the best player on the ice most nights for Seattle and started to heat up again late in the year. He also finished second in playoff scoring with seven points and his four playoff goals were tied for the team lead. He can be dominating at times and take over a game with his size, skating and puck handling. In the playoffs, his line. which included Lipsbergs and Maxwell, did most of the team's damage at the offensive end. If you don't retain either of your two import players and their 62 goals, is it wise to dump your third leading goal scorer and three of your top five point producers? UPDATE: As of 4/16 Troock has signed with Dallas so his T-birds career is most likely done.

Evan Wardley, D. Wardley just completed his best season with Seattle. He won't produce a lot of offense but his role is of a defensive defenseman anyway. He still piled up penalty minutes with fighting majors and misconducts but he cut down on some of the unnecessary minor penalties he had been committing. He's a big physical presence on the ice and delivers punishing hits. He's unpredictable in that way too, which I think instills a bit of fear in opponents. With Mitch Elliot now out of the picture it would seem a natural transition for Wardley to move into Elliot's role as the team enforcer.

Jaimen Yakubowksi, LW. Yakubowski came over in the same trade early last season that brought them McKechnie. Together they teamed up with Eansor to form the Thunderbirds top checking line. That line was tasked with shutting down the opponents top line and most nights, they did it very well. Like McKechnie, Yakubowski plays a good 200-foot game but he also comes with more of an edge to his game and is willing to drop the gloves and stand up for his teammates. The most telling stat though? With Yakubowksi in the lineup Seattle was 4-0 in the postseason, without him they were 0-5 (he was hurt early in Game One of Round Two). While he only tallied nine goals with the T-birds, two seasons ago he piled up 32 goals and 50 points with Lethbridge. In his rookie campaign in 2011-12, he was a 16 goal scorer. As a 20 year old in the WHL I can see him hitting the 30 goal plateau once more. Again, if Seattle retains him they have a chance to keep that shutdown line together for another season.

Now I play Devil's Advocate. Not that I agree with these arguements, but here is the case against:

Delnov. The easiest argument against retaining Delnov is his status as an import player. As such, he would be a two-spotter. In other words he would essentially be taking up two valuable rosters spots, one of an import player and one of a 20 year old. The second argument against Delnov is his inconsistent play, specifically his backchecking and defensive zone coverage. He just wasn't as strong a player without the puck. Just check his career plus/minus with the T-birds; it is -40. Furthermore, Delnov will have the opportunity to play professionally over in his native Europe if he doesn't sign with the NHL's Florida Panthers who drafted him in the 4th round a few years back.

Henry. For Henry, it could be a numbers game. The T-birds are definitely returning four of their top six defensemen next season (Bear, Hauf, Smith and Theodore). With the possibility of the team carrying from one to three rookie defensemen next season, ice time will have to be found somewhere. Barring a trade of one of those four metioned above, Henry could be the odd man out. But the biggest argument against Henry returning to Seattle could be his trade value. If there's a team out there looking for an older, two-way, puck moving defenseman who can quarterback the power play and is a proven leader at the WHL level, Henry would be a very enticing option.

Hickman. Okay, there really is no argument for not bringing Hickman back. The only thing that would keep him from returning for a fifth season with the club would be a pro contract but there is a decent chance that could happen. He is currently playing with Bridgeport of the AHL on an ATO.

Honey. For Honey the injury situation is the biggest risk. He missed nearly the entire season with the upper body injury and never could get healthy enough to get back in the lineup. Even if given a clean bill of health to start next season are the T-birds, or any WHL team for that matter, willing to risk a 20 year old spot on his health and injury history? Injuries are part of the game and it could happen to any other player but if you retain Honey and trade away another capable 20 year old player as a result and then Honey gets hurt again, the team could be taking a step backwards. A tough decision on a player who plays the game the right way.

Kozun. I guess the argument against him is which Kozun would the T-birds be getting if they brought him back? The one who reeled off eight wins in his first nine T-birds starts or the one who went 6-9-0-1 after that? Will they get the goalie who surrendered just six goals in his first three playoff starts or the one who allowed 27 goals over his last six playoff games? The one who posted a 4-1 record to begin the postseason or the one who finished the playoffs with a 1-5 mark in his last six starts that saw his GAA balloon up to 3.55 and his save percentage fall to .894? Look, goalies get too much credit for wins and way too much blame for losses but are the T-birds willing to use a 20 year old spot on a goalie when they have so many forwards who could return and they have 17 year old Logan Flodell ready in the wings? Don't forget Danny Mumaugh, who will be just 18, put up a similar win-loss record (15-10-2-3) the first half of the season to Kozun's 14-9-0-1 mark the second half. I think this will be the biggest decision in the 20 year old roster battle.

Lipsbergs. Again, as with Delnov, conventional thinking is against Lipsbergs. If brought back for a third season he would occupy both an overage and an import spot. Also, while he led the team in goals scored, his production tailed off markedly the second half of the season and practically dried up in February, although nagging injuries might have been the culprit. Like with Delnov, Lipsbergs should also have plenty of opportunity to play pro hockey in his native Europe. The CHL Import Draft is in June. If the T-birds make two selections then both Lipsbergs and Delnov are as good as gone. If they make only one selection then the odds are one of them, most likely Lipsbergs, is coming back.

McKechnie. Like with Henry, this could be a numbers game with McKechnie...as in number of goals scored. While he was put in a checking role once he came to Seattle, the T-birds have other potential 20 year olds to choose from who potted more goals. Would you drop a 20 or 30 goal scorer to retain a player who tallied just seven? Also, can McKechnie finish more of his scoring chances? Twice in the playoffs he was stopped on a breakaway. In both instances, it could have turned the tide of the game in the T-birds favor. It's a weak argument against because I like McKechnie's game.

Troock. It was announced on 4/16 that Troock has signed with the NHL's Dallas Stars, the team that drafted him in the 5th round two years ago. This more then likely means he will not be back with Seattle for his 20 year old season.


Wardley. I should just refer you to the paragraph about Adam Henry above. It could be a numbers game for Wardley with younger defensemen needing ice time set to join the club next season. Also, with Jared Hauf and potentially Hickman and Yakubowksi returning, will the T-birds need Wardley as their enforcer? And while he cleaned up some of the unnecessary penalties from his early career he has a reputation in the league so is he one borderline hit away from a lengthy suspension.

Yakubowski. If you talk about the injuries with Troock and Honey, or the suspension history of Wardley, you have to do the same with Yakubowski don't you? And just because he scored 32 goals two seasons ago, it doesn't guarantee he doen't have another nine goal season in him like this past season. And, like Henry, he would probably have good trade value. Still a fairly weak argument against a player who seems the perfect fit on any team as an overage player.


So who should be kept. What is each player's trade value? Which player is more valuable to Seattle then to another WHL team? Which players would prefer not to return and who might be dealt before training camp even begins? Another interesting offseason for Thunderbird Nation!






Friday, April 11, 2014

NuhNuh-NuNuh Nineteen

A lot has been made, maybe too much, about the number of 19 year olds (or 1994 born) players the Thunderbirds had on their roster this past season. At the end of the regular season 11 '94 born players were on the team's roster. Of course, you have to put an asterisk next to that number because while on the roster, Connor Honey last played a game for the team back in early October and was left off the team's playoff roster because he was not healthy enough to play.

So, in reality there were ten 19 year olds and two of them didn't join the team until mid-January when Seattle acquired Russell Maxwell and Taran Kozun at the trade deadline. If you want to go back further, the team began the season with just seven 19 years olds as in-season trades also brought the T-birds Adam Henry, Sam McKechnie and Jaimen Yakubowski.

As I've said before, while these acquisitions did add some age to the team's roster it really didn't make them much older then any of the other contenders in the Western Conference. You have to remember that for most of the first half of the season Seattle carried just two 20 year olds, and after the trade deadline, just one. In both cases that's under the league maximum of three. So, the average age of their roster this season was probably pretty much in line with the other teams in the conference because Seattle was also carrying six rookies.

Had the Thunderbirds carried three 20 year olds and ten 19 year olds at season's end, then it might be an issue going into next season because then they'd be losing a maximum of 11 players, or half the roster. But that is not the case. So the issue isn't that they are losing half their roster, they're not. The issue is they have tough choices going forward because they can only retain three of those '94 born players and the reality is you can make a pretty solid argument for each player being with the club next season.

We know that Russell Maxwell, even with one year of eligibility left in the WHL, will not return. Maxwell has already made the decision to forego his final season in the WHL in order to go on his church mission. That makes the decision process a little easier because had he opted to come back for one more season, he would definitely be in the mix. The Magrath, Alberta native was one of Seattle's best playoff performers finishing with seven points (2g, 5a).

So that leaves just nine 19 year olds to choose from, or does it? Traditional thinking in the WHL is that you rarely use a 20 year old roster spot on an Import player because they essentially take two roster spots, an overage position and an Import position. Since you can only carry three 20 year olds and two import players, it doesn't make sense to fill up one of each of those positions with one player. It's not unheard of though. In fact the T-birds did it back in the 2002-03 season with defenseman Tomas Mojzis.

But, with so many other '94 players to choose from would Seattle bring back either Alexander Delnov or Roberts Lipsbergs? After all, they were the clubs top two goal scorers during the regular season, combining for 62. Delnov was the team's second leading point producer during the regular season as well with 63 points (29g, 34a)and Lipsbergs led the team in scoring in the postseason with eight points (2g, 6a) after posting a team high 33 goals in the regular season. While bringing back both would seem a million to one proposition would having one return for one more season be so irrational?

For the sake of argument let's say the T-birds go the traditional route, parting ways with both Delnov and Lipsbergs and restocking their import quota through the CHL Import Draft this June. That then leaves them with just seven '94 born players to choose from for those three 20 year old spots. This is a fairly typical situation then as most of the other top contenders from the Western Conference this season are in a similar situation.

One clarification. For the sake of this argument I'm not counting Connor Honey in this mix. He hasn't played a game since October 6th. It has been six months since he suffered his upper body injury and despite many, many efforts he's not been medically cleared to play. Between now and training camp that situation could change and if he's given a clean bill of health, he is most definitely in the mix. Is that a risk any team, including the T-birds are willing to take though? I haven't a clue.

Now there are seven, maybe eight 1994 born players who ended the season with the Thunderbirds who will look to grab one of those three 20 year old roster spots. They are, in alphabetical order: Adam Henry, Justin Hickman, Taran Kozun, Sam McKechnie, Branden Troock, Evan Wardley and Jaimen Yakubowski. That group could easily be thinned out before training camp rolls around. Troock is a draft pick of the Dallas Stars. They have a short window left to sign him. If that happens I would expect him to play at a pro level next season. Meanwhile Hickman is currently with Bridgeport of the AHL on an ATO (amateur tryout offer) but if they, or their parent club the New York Islanders, like what they see, he too could be signed and be playing professionally next season.

Because of what the T-birds have returning on the blue line next season (Bear, Hauf, Smith, Theodore and Wolf) and what they are expecting in regards to rookie d-men making the team next season (potentially as many as three), the odds are they would only retain one 20 year old defenseman, if any at all. So, when it comes to Henry and Wardley it is probably an either/or situation and not both. But it could also be neither.

If you part with Delnov and Lipsbergs then you will have to retain offense somewhere else and that bodes well for the likes of Hickman, McKechnie, Troock and Yakubowski, all of whom have been a 20+ goal scorer at some time in their WHL career.

Then their is Kozun who backstopped Seattle to fourth place in the conference and past Everett in the first round of the playoffs. Make no mistake Seattle wouldn't have gotten that far without him. The caveat is that Seattle has two younger goalies in the system they are high on.

Of course, there is always that curveball; on offseason trade that thins out that group or even adds to it. So, how does it play out? Who does the team keep for those coveted three 20 year old positions? In my next blog I'll making an argument for each player and why they should be brought back for the 2014-15 campaign.



Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Last Harrumph

They say a season is not successful unless it ends with a championship. In the case of the 2013-14 Thunderbirds campaign I'd have to vehemently disagree. Juxtaposed against the last four seasons of sub .500 records and in most cases, non-playoff hockey, I'd classify this year's results as an unmitigated success.

Seattle, in its third season of stewardship from head coach Steve Konowalchuk, took another step forward with their program. After sneaking into the playoffs last spring with just 24 wins, they improved that win total this season to 41, earned home ice advantage in the first round and, for the first time since 2008, won a playoff series and advanced to the second round.

Before the season this organization set out a list of goals and when all is said and done, they checked just about everyone of them off their list; winning record, top four finish in the conference with home ice advantage, plus a deeper playoff run then last year. When you've been playing losing hockey for four straight years, you don't all of a sudden leap the Grand Canyon to the top of the standings. Instead you take incremental steps forward. Each season with Konowalchuk behind the bench Seattle has improved. They went from a losing record and just missing the playoffs in his first season to a losing record and just making the playoffs in his second campaign (scaring the bejeezus out of Kelowna in the first round last year)and now in year three a winning record and a playoff series win. It's called progress and I expect that progress to continue in Year Four.

Getting swept by Kelowna certainly was a disappointing result but let's remember we're talking about a team that was number one in the WHL almost from day one and spent the majority of the year ranked number one in the CHL top ten poll too. Seattle had it's moments in the series, probably should have won Games 2 and/or 3, but were just too inconsistent against the Rockets and in the end, the better team won. There isn't a lot of "if only this worked or if only that happened" from this series like the seven game series last spring. Kelowna really left no doubt. They'll have their hands full against a Portland team I think is playing the best hockey of any team in the league right now, but the Rockets deserve their spot in the Western Conference Finals.

Let's also remember that the players from the first bantam draft since Konowalchuk was hired just completed their rookie season; players like Barzal, Bear and Kolesar. Others will join the team next season on a full time basis such as Flodell, Pederson and Neuls. There are still players from the "old regime", if you will, on the roster although over the past couple of years players that don't fit his system have been weeded out and others brought in. Still there is a bit of a transition phase going on that's not entirely complete. Players like Eansor, Yakubowski, McKechnie, Henry, Spencer and Maxwell weren't brought here this season just to fill a roster spot. They play a style that fits Konowalchuk's systems.

While the season was a success, it was by no means perfect. They still had lapses where not everyone was on the same page. They still allowed far too many goals against. In fact, despite their winning record they gave up more goals then they scored this season. Defensive zone coverage and puck management have to improve. And special teams play was far too inconsistent. They languished near the bottom of the league most of the season on the power play, then rose to as high as 7th overall before finishing 14th in a 22 team league. The talent on the team suggests they should have been better. The same can be said for the penalty kill although it was consistently ranked in the middle of the pack, finishing 13th. It too can improve.

It didn't help that they didn't have their second leading scorer from the previous season, Conner Honey, available most of the year. Honey was going to be a big part of this team, especially on special teams. When he got hurt in Lethbridge back on October 6th, he had accumulated six points (2g,4a) in just seven games. He was on pace to be a point a game player and his leadership and other intangibles were probably worth another 5 to 6 wins in the standings. He worked hard all season to try and get back in the lineup but never could. I don't know where he stands right now but you have to wonder if he can play again at this level. But even saying that, the T-birds probably still finish 4th in the conference and their path to the second round probably wouldn't have changed.

I fully expect the Thunderbirds to compete for a top four spot in the conference again next season. Anything less would be a disappointment. In fact at this moment, not knowing what offseason moves teams will make, I would expect the top four teams from this year to be the top four teams next year as well; Kelowna, Portland, Victoria and Seattle but not necessarily in the same order.

There is a bit of a misconception that, because they had ten 19 year olds on the roster, the T-birds were an old team. That is skewed because they carried only one 20 year old the second half of the season. They really aren't much different from the team that just beat them, Kelowna, which carried three 20 year olds and six 19 year olds or Victoria and Portland with their three 20s and six 19 year olds. The reality is, they are pretty much going to lose the same number of players as those other top clubs in the West.

The advantage Seattle has is they have a tremendous group of '94 born players from which to choose their three overage players for next season. The key is for Seattle to pick the right three overage players to keep and then get value in trade for those they cannot retain. Meanwhile, they ended the year with seven rookies on the roster, including four 16 year olds, and all were seeing significant ice time in the playoffs.

Over the next few weeks, leading up to the bantam draft, I'm going to write about the 20 year old situation in more depth, maybe opine on what direction I think the team will go. Maybe guess on what they'll try to do in the Import Draft and try to forecast what players are poised to rise next season.

Right now I'd like to take a paragraph or two to thank Mitch Elliot for five years of service to the Thunderbirds. I think if you follow this team and Mitch over the last five years you couldn't help but smile when he scored his playoff goal against Everett in Game 5 of Round 1. And it was no cheapie either. It was great to see him finish the postseason with three points (1g, 2a) and +1. Mitch was the ultimate team player. Whatever role he was asked to play he did it. He was genuinely appreciated by his teammates both on and off the ice.

Off the ice Mitch embraced the opportunity to be a part of the local community. Mitch is the first player in franchise history to play his entire five year T-bird career with the team based in Kent. He wasted little time getting involved in the mentoring program with the Kent School District and also led the team's Movember Campaign to raise awareness for men's health. But what I will remember most about Mitch is that in June of 2012, he drove down non-stop from his home in Prince George to be here for Bruce McDonald's memorial service. That's a 12 hour unscheduled car ride minimum, with no co-pilot. He didn't have to do it, but he wanted to. Let me tell you Mitch, Bruce's mom, Char, will never forget what you did for her and to honor her son. Thank you.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Was it Over When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?

The Thunderbirds earned their current predicament in their second round series with Kelowna. Seattle is down, two games to none, because they didn't play 60 minutes of hockey either night. Down, but not out. Seattle has had their moments in the series. the question is can they correct their mistakes and get back in it?

Game 2's results were probably the more frustrating. Seattle legitimately outshot the Rockets 39-30. I also don't think it would be exaggerating to say the T-birds had more quality scoring chances Saturday night then did the Rockets, but as they did in Game 1 Thursday, they didn't finish enough of those chances. A good portion of the credit for that goes to Kelowna goalie Jordon Cooke who cold-stone robbed the 'Birds time and again but Seattle still has to do a better job of finishing their chances. The T-birds had 18 shots on goal in the first period alone and probably half of them were quality scoring opportunities. Yet, at the end of the period all Seattle had to show for it was a 2-2 tie.

Still, the T-birds should have had the momentum coming out for the second period. After falling behind, 2-0, they scored twice in the latter half of the first period to tie the game and created a couple of late scoring chances as they were looking for their first lead in the series. They did generate an early second period scoring chance but after failing to convert, their response the rest of the period was not good. In fact they took another silly stick infraction penalty; an avoidable and unnecessary hooking minor. The Rockets lethal power play made them pay, scoring the go ahead goal. Or in this case, the go-ahead-and-dominate-the-rest-of-the-period goal. The T-birds never recovered from that power play goal, By the time they got back to playing better hockey in the third period they were down 5-2.

Seattle finished the regular season with 41 wins, were 16 games over .500 while remarkably finishing with a minus 11 in goal differential. Somehow they finished with a .611 winning percentage while surrendering more goals then they scored. Three other WHL teams managed winning records with a minus goal differential (Vancouver, Red Deer and Prince Albert) but those three teams barely finished above .500. Red Deer missed the playoff while Vancouver and Prince Albert squeaked into the postseason as 7th and 8th seeds in their respective conferences and were quickly dispatched in Round One with neither team winning a playoff game.

Meanwhile Seattle not only made the playoffs, but as the fourth seed out West, earned home ice advantage in Round One. They then won their opening series in five games and advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals. How does a team that gives up more goals then it scores do this? Well, I believe it is because the Thunderbirds have a very, very good collection of talented players. But, like Superman, they have their Kryptonite.

Seattle's reasons for that regular season minus goal differential are being highlighted in this second round series against Kelowna. The T-birds are not doing a good job of puck management inside their own blue line. Their turning the puck over far too often, failing to clear rebounds and not keeping the area in front of their own net, the house, free of unimpeded opposing players. It's been their Achilles Heel all season. Over the second half of the season and the first round of the playoffs, the excellent goaltending of Taran Kozun helped cover up for a lot of the T-birds defensive zone lapses, but through the first two games of this series, Kozun has been off his game and, when he needed his teammates to bail him out, they've failed to do so. If they are to get back in this series, they are going to have to do a better job of playing team defense when the puck is inside their defensive zone.

The first two games of this series have been very winnable games for Seattle, but only had they paid better attention to the small things that win you games. The Rockets aren't skating the Thunderbirds off the ice in this series but they are winning the battle when it comes to the small details that create big plays, things like tape-to-tape passes. In life they say don't sweat the small stuff, but in playoff hockey the small stuff makes a big difference.

So far, the postseason has been a bit of a coming out party for 17 year old rookie Scott Eansor. Okay, technically Eansor turned 18 in early January but this is still his 17 year old season. Anyway, with his goal in the first period of Game 2, Eansor now is tied atop the Seattle leaderboard with Branden Troock for the goal scoring lead in the playoffs. Both players have four through six games. That's one more then Eansor scored in 59 regular season games. Not to look too far ahead but this offensive outburst should give Eansor the confidence to come into next season and be a 20-goal scorer.

I feel for Eansor's linemate, Sam McKechnie. Twice in the series he's made a tremendous play to give himself a breakaway chance only to be denied each time by Cooke.

Speaking of looking ahead, Seattle played the second game with four 16 year olds in the lineup. The latest addition was Lane Pederson who made his postseason debut in the absence of the injured Jaimen Yakubowksi. Pederson did not look out of place. There was one error that indirectly led to the Rockets second goal but otherwise he was strong on the puck and played a physical game, showing a willingness to go into the corners and fight for pucks along the wall. In other words the Saskatoon native looked right at home playing under the bright lights of the postseason.

Seattle has signed their top six '97 born players from the 2012 Bantam Draft and you can expect at least five, if not more, to be key contributors next season. Mathew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear and Pederson are currently playing with the team. Goalie Logan Flodell has been practicing with the team during the playoffs and Donovan Neuls signed with the team in March and got in a couple of late season practices.

All four of those 16 year olds who skated Saturday are legitimately still just 16 too. Although that changes Tuesday when Kolesar celebrates his 17th birthday. Let's hope he's celebrating with a Two-for-Tuesday, Game 3 win.

When the T-birds bus departed Kelowna late Saturday night, it is very likely they left a future T-bird star behind. A big bantam tournament was underway just on the outskirts of Kelowna, in nearby Rutland, drawing tons of WHL scouts into the Okanagan. The teams participating are the top bantam teams from Western Canada and many of the players involved will hear their names called early next month at the WHL Bantam Draft.



Friday, April 4, 2014

Can Only Go Up From Here

A game if inches. Seattle was that close to tying the game at 3-3 midway through the second period when Sam McKechnie intercepted a pass at his own blue line and raced down ice on a breakaway. McKechnie didn't get the puck cleanly so it took a stride to get control as he bore down on Rockets goalie Jordan Cooke. With two Rockets players in pursuit McKechnie probably didn't feel he had the time or space to make a deke, so he picked a spot and shot and Cooke made the save.

That was as close as Seattle would get to making a closer game of it. Kelowna scored two late second period goals and another earlier in the third to pull away for the 6-2 win in Game 1 of this Western Conference Semifinal. Missed opportunities was a theme of the night for Seattle as twice in the first period they missed wide open nets after a couple of nice back door passes. You can't leave goals on the ice against good teams.

The Thunderbirds play a physical brand of hockey and that will lead to a few penalties along the way. It's part of the price they pay for laying the body. Giving up 3-4 power plays per game is acceptable, but not 6-7. It was the easily avoidable penalties Seattle committed, the slashing, high sticking and tripping, that made the difference and those penalties aren't the result of physical play. Seattle made it too easy for the officials to make those calls. Sometimes playing smarter is more important then playing harder. But whether you give the opponent four power plays or seven, if you're going to take penalties, you need to be good on the PK. In Game 1, the T-birds were not.

Goalie Taran Kozun fought the puck all night, or maybe it was the other way around. Either way it was uncharacteristic of Kozun's play since joining the T-birds back in January. I expect him to bounce back in Game 2. He usually is solid with his puck handling ability.

When half the team plays well and the other half doesn't, you get results like Seattle got in Game 1. If the T-birds are to get the split with a Game 2 win, they need everyone on the same page.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Staring into the Rockets Red Glare

Depending on who you spoke with, the Thunderbirds were either a slight favorite or slight underdog in their first round series against Everett. That won't be the case in round two. As they were a year ago when they met Kelowna in round one of the postseason, the T-birds are not just underdogs, they are decided underdogs against the Rockets once again.

It's simple, Kelowna is not just the higher seed in this match up, they are the top seed remaining in the entire WHL postseason, East or West. The Rockets spent the vast majority of the season atop the B.C. Division, atop the Western Conference, at the top of the WHL standings and atop the CHL Top Ten Poll which encompasses not one, not two, but three Major Junior leagues. Most pundits have had them penciled into the Western Conference Finals since November. The point disparity between the two clubs is not as great as it was last season when Kelowna finished 50 points higher in the standings then Seattle (108-58) but the Rockets still had 16 more wins then did the T-birds this season.

Seattle? Well, when the T-birds played their best hockey they showed they could skate with any team in the league, winning a combined eight games against Portland, Kelowna and Victoria, the other three teams remaining in the Western Conference playoffs. They are battle tested and won't be intimidated by the Rockets success. But they also showed they could be inconsistent and lose to teams that, on paper, they should not have lost to as evidenced by their 1-3 record against the Kamloops Blazers.

Seattle also went through a long stretch midseason where injuries decimated their roster. Who knows where they might have finished had they stayed healthy all season. Then, after clinching a playoff spot in mid-February they seemed to ease off the gas and faltered down the stretch going 4-8-0-1 in their last 13 games and almost giving away home ice advantage for round one. As a result the T-birds had three occasions this season in which they lost four or more consecutive games. This is what they need to avoid in the playoffs; letting their game fall off. Only three times this season did Kelowna even lose back-to-back games and in each case, one of the two losses was either in overtime or a shootout so they never went more then a game without earning a point.

What does it all mean? Well I think the fans and media read more into that then the players and coaches do. The regular season doesn't matter right now; the first round of the playoffs doesn't matter right now. Both teams are 0-0 and it is the first team to get to four wins that matters. I don't think there is one player on the T-birds roster, or for that matter the Rockets roster, who doesn't think their team can win this series. All the T-birds know is that if they bring their "A" game every night against the Rockets, they have just as much chance to advance out of this series as they did in their first round matchup with Everett.

All Kelowna knows is that if they play the way they played throughout the regular season and in their first round series win over Tri-City, they have an opportunity to get to the Western Conference Finals. It is that simple. The team that executes their game plan, finishes their opportunities and makes fewer mistakes, will come out on top.

A lot will be made about the T-birds looking to avenge their loss to the Rockets in the first round last spring. The rematch just one year later makes for great drama, blogger fodder and series hype, but more then half this Seattle roster wasn't even with the club a year ago or didn't play in that series. Hard to seek revenge when you have no connection to that series. Is Seattle relishing another chance at Kelowna? Of course they are but that's because the Rockets stand between them and a berth in the Western Conference Finals. A Seattle win in this series won't erase what happened a year ago so if the T-birds are more focused on revenge rather then on playing their game for sixty minutes every night they'll lose this series. Their focus has to be on their game, their way.

That doesn't preclude T-birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk from sending the same message to his players as he did a year ago. Enjoy it, have fun because, you just don't know when the ride will end as it did so abruptly in overtime of Game 7 a year ago.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Saturday Night Special

That's how you finish off a series. Like they said in "Remember the Titans", leave no doubt! After getting robbed by some excellent saves from Everett goaltender Austin Lotz the first half of the game, the determined T-birds broke free the last 30 minutes and won Game 5 going away, 5-0. In this battle of two teams who haven't enjoyed a lot of playoff success recently, Everett suffers its 7th straight first round playoff exit while Seattle advances past the first round for the first time since 2008.

It was as complete a 60 minutes of hockey as they've had in the playoffs to date. It was similar to Game 3's overtime win but on this occasion, Seattle stayed out of the penalty box and their 200 foot game really put the clamps on the Silvertips, rarely allowing them a scoring chance. It was the complete opposite of what happened in Game 4 up in Everett the previous night when it seemed the T-birds could do no right. This bounce back effort was a testament to their leadership, both behind the bench and on the ice.

I was asked after the game if T-birds goaltender Taran Kozun was the MVP of the series? He certainly was a key piece of the winning puzzle, but in a team sport, and at the most important time of the season, I hate singling out one individual player as the definitive reason a team won. Would the Thunderbirds have won the series had not Kozun played the way he did? Probably not. He was at his best in all but one game, brilliant with his glove and as always handled the puck behind the net with great ease. You might say he stole Game 1 for Seattle with his play in the second period that night alone. But where might the T-birds be today without the efforts of their shutdown line of Sam McKechnie-Scott Eansor and Jaimen Yakubowski? We saw what happened Friday night in Everett with Yakubowski out of the lineup.

Mathew Barzal didn't register a goal in the entire series but tell me his contributions weren't a big reason for Seattle moving on. Do the T-birds win Game 3 in overtime without him? How strong was he on the back check most of this series? Defenseman Jerret Smith never jumps off the stat page with gaudy offensive numbers but he once again was his steady, reliable self back on the blue line. I could go on but the biggest take from this series is how much hockey is a team sport and it takes 23 players to win, especially in the postseason. The MVP of this series for me was the T-birds focus, in all but one game, to play 60 minutes of hockey, stick to the game plan and make every shift count.

That's the funny thing about the playoffs. Most prognosticators had this series going the distance, if not at least six games, but Seattle put it away in five. The series was closer then that final margin but in the end, the Thunderbirds were the better team and deserved to move on. It makes you rethink that theory that you just can't flip a switch come playoff time. Maybe you can. After all, the Silvertips entered the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the WHL at 11-0-0-2 over their last 13 games. Meanwhile, Seattle was 4-8-0-1 over that same stretch with three of their eight losses at the hands of the 'Tips. Yet here we are after the first ever postseason series between these two U.S. Division and geographic rivals; the Silvertips season is over and the T-birds are off to Kelowna to face the Rockets in the second round.

And that quirky format of alternating venues for each game of the series that upset so many T-birds fans who thought they were giving away home ice advantage? In the end it had little impact, in fact it may have benefited the T-birds who won Game 2 in Everett 3-1, the only team to win a road game in the series. Seattle still got three of the first five games on home ice and won all three. A lot was made on how tough Everett is to come back on once they have a lead but Seattle was the only team in the series to come from behind and win a game and they did it twice, the most important of those the 4-3 overtime win at the ShoWare Center in Game 3.

As mentioned, up next up for Seattle are the WHL's regular season champs, the Kelowna Rockets. It is, of course, a rematch of last season's epic seven game first round playoff series that featured five overtime games, including Game 7. The two teams split the four game regular season series, both going 2-1-0-1. Will this be the fourth time in the last decade or so that these two teams meet in the postseason and take it to a decisive 7th game? I don't make predictions. It is really a silly exercise. I mean, no one had Seattle's 24 win team last year taking the Rockets 52 win 2012-13 team the distance, and overtime at that, to decide the winner last April. Let's just enjoy the ride!